GM Interview: Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah's David Wilson

When David Wilson was appointed general manager of the Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah, he set about improving employee engagement and raising the profile of the property in the eyes of the guests; he tells us how he did it

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This month marks two years since David Wilson took over as general manager of the Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah. I remember meeting Wilson soon after he joined, at Serafina for a meet-and-greet — the first sign that he was all about interacting with people and making the experience as personal as possible.

It’s something he talks about right off the bat. “From the first time I came into the Waldorf Astoria here, I felt that this was a really special property and had great potential. We have a beautiful hotel but as I always say, the thing that makes a hotel is people. Anyone can build a luxurious hotel if you have enough money. But the key was really to put the heart and soul into the hotel through our team members and really to make sure that we could create the vision for the hotel and drive that through,” he says.

This, Wilson says, is responsible for the property climbing up TripAdvisor ratings, and winning multiple global awards. When he joined two years ago, the hotel was ranked 47th on the TripAdvisor ratings for hotels in Dubai, and at the time of the interview, it was on the 12th spot. Team culture, he emphasises again, is an important element of this success.

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“It was really important that a lot of time was focused on building that culture and really emphasising that with our service values, with our vision and mission of the hotel, and being able to communicate that to all the team members and get their buy-in as well. Because a lot of the time we find you have really good people, but the secret is empowering them to do the best that they can,” says Wilson.

Hiring the right people was part of this process, and Wilson adds: “It’s often said that if you hire really good people they are already motivated — just don’t demotivate them. Give them the freedom, give them the scope to be able to deliver the service, and they’ll really get the feeling of reward from that. And that’s what we did.”

Wilson set about with improving team communication and delivering a sense of empowerment. Telling his team members that they are the most important people in the service delivery chain, Wilson is transparent about the hotel’s performance, its successes as well as challenges. “I’ve always done it and I’ve felt it’s useful. If you open up and talk to your team members, with full disclosure and really open, honest integrity, tell them what’s going on, they feel more part of the process,” Wilson says.

The results have been heartening,  Wilson reports, with the internal employee engagement survey showing a spike in engagement numbers.

Once this was done, the marketing underwent a change. The team refined its strategy when it came to selling rooms. The property made a “big push” for its 64 suites, and its private lounge. “We were able to relaunch that to the market and increase the awareness of those premium products, which helped us drive up our rates. We weren’t selling suites as effectively as we do now. Our suite occupancy is now high 60s, low 70s, which is very good occupancy for suites,” says Wilson, and reveals that there are many times when the hotel is sold out on its suites.

Following this aggressive suite strategy, the Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah increased rates over the last year, and is looking at increasing them again. “We’re taking an aggressive approach on rates, and I believe we are able to do it because we’re offering a really good product that we’re confident in, where we can get the rates.”

It’s encouraging that a property is looking at increased rates, especially in a sub-market as populated as The Palm Jumeirah. Wilson says he estimates there are probably more than 3,000 rooms coming over the next two years, including some recent openings. “I’m still confident – there are a lot of rooms opening up but Dubai just gets stronger as a destination. It’s continually evolving and offering more to the visitor. So part of me says, ‘yes, there’s a lot of rooms’, but on the other hand, with the continued supply, the demand could be created. A lot of people probably wondered when The Palm opened, how are they going to fill all those hotels… but here we are, with very promising, strong robust occupancies on The Palm.”

Wilson comments that 2016 was a good year for the property, which, he says, grew in all aspects including occupancy, rate, and profitability, all indexes. “Out of our competitive set, we increased the RevPAR the highest. So it was a promising year for us last year, and this year started off with a strong first quarter,” he adds.

Last year was all about refining product and service; this year, it’s about growth in food and beverage as well as rooms. “The market is still good but we don’t want to be over-optimistic. A lot of our work that we’re doing now is focusing on service delivery, continuing to work on evolving products, and bringing in new ideas in for the guests.”

He admits that it has been challenging because Dubai has a lot of luxury product offering. “There is a lot of competition and the key is about differentiating yourself in the approach that you take. And it’s just evolving the identity of the hotel. Especially on the Palm, we have the benefit of the room size. We are just 319 rooms, which is a really ideal size which allows us to create personalised service. If the hotel is too large it tends to become impersonal and no matter how hard you try, you really won’t get that personal engagement with the guest.”

Coming back full circle to personal engagement, Wilson notes: “The most important things have been driving the focus on the personal attention to our guests and using the Waldorf Astoria personal concierge, which is a great initiative. Rather than having guest services who deal with a guest once they arrive, our personal concierge connects with the guest prior to arrival and takes them all the way through the stay. A lot of what I’m really proud of is the amount of empowerment we’ve given to the team members to interact with the guest, and we have seen success through all of these things.

“We are now running at number 12 in Dubai [on TripAdvisor], we were 47 in August 2015. I’m really proud that it’s because of our team members. When you read the reviews, you see what really made a difference was our guests’ interaction with the team members. They mention their names, they talk about our team members who create a great experience for them.”

He adds: “The key was to develop that service delivery system that would allow them to do it — so that the team members are almost telling you what they’re going to do for the guest rather than you telling them what they should do for the guest. When that happens, it’s very powerful because it has its own energy in creating that passion.

“And one of the most important things we can do as leaders is lead with passion, and share that passion with the team members and get them engaged with what they’re doing.”

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