10th anniversary special: Raffles Dubai

Raffles Dubai managing director Ayman Gharib reveals why the property is still patronised by loyal guests


November 2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of Raffles Dubai. Since its opening, the property has had more than one million guests stay within its 252 rooms and suites. And despite it being around for a decade, the property shows no sign of slowing down.

As I enter the lobby in early October, the spacious and high-ceilinged reception area is a quiet buzz of activity. There are a number of guests discreetly going about their business, and it’s easy to see that the property still commands a high number of GCC guests. Raffles Dubai has also successfully maintained its position in the top two hotels in Dubai out of 556 on TripAdvisor — at the time of going to print, it’s the first.

Along with celebrating 10 years as an operational hotel, Raffles Dubai is also home to a number of colleagues who have been with the property since opening. The managing director, Ayman Gharib, began his Raffles journey two years later — he joined in 2009 as EAM F&B, was promoted to the role of hotel manager, then ascended to the title of general manager in January 2014, and was promoted as MD very recently.

Gharib tells Hotelier it was a milestone in his career to join the Raffles Dubai, which he labels an “iconic building” and says that while he joined during the height of the recession, the team around him kept both him and the property afloat.

“We had a family spirit, we had a lot of challenges ahead of us, but we were all determined to succeed and indeed, we did,” says Gharib, reflectively. He is also full of praise of a hotelier named Peter French, who joined the hotel as general manager in 2010 before moving into the role of regional vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Raffles, and then becoming the president of Raffles Hotels & Resorts in 2013. In 2016, French joined MKM Commercial Holdings LLC, the owner of Raffles Dubai.

Gharib continues reminiscing: “Peter French took this property from one success to another. Financially as well, the owners were pretty happy with us, Raffles International was very proud of what we achieved, and through this process we were all growing.”

The managing director asserts that the focus on people development at the hotel is above all, citing himself as an example — having moved through the ranks to where he is today. He continues: “A lot of colleagues in this hotel grew from within, like me. Our previous director of rooms was first our front office manager. She’s now director of operations (Krystel Irani). Waleed Osman, our director of engineering has been with us for six or seven years. Jessica Markham, the director of talent & culture, was the assistant at first and has also been here many years. We have a lot of trust and belief in the people in this property, and we all grew — and as we grew, we achieved results, and people were always enthusiastic on delivering more and proving that we can do more.”

Having seen the hotel develop and progress through the years, and having worked with a number of managers, I ask Gharib how his management philosophy has changed over the years. He notes: “Two factors: one is the people I worked with influenced me with their different characters and different leadership styles. But Dubai as a city has a huge influence on leadership style, it’s ever-changing. There’s huge growth in the hotel field so if you don’t keep on reinventing and re-assessing the processes that you have, you’ll be forgotten.”

Relevance is a key word, because in a place where the ‘next big thing’ attracts guests — even for the short-term — it’s important for everyone in hospitality to keep on their toes and ahead of the competition. Gharib agrees, and adds: “The most important thing is to keep listening to your guests. We’re in the business of taking care of our guests, making sure they’re happy.”

It looks as though guests are happy with the hotel and its people; with an average repeat guest ratio of 40%, Gharib believes it’s probably one of the highest repeat guest percentage in a luxury hotel in the region. This is grown over the last few years; in a previous interview with Hotelier in 2015, Gharib estimated this at 38%, and he says it will still grow.

He’s reluctant to talk exact numbers about the hotel’s performance, but says: “There are industry benchmarks, we cannot look at absolute figures. If we look at our positioning in STR, we are still number one in our comp-set here to date. We’re still market leaders when it comes to rates in our comp-set, we still have our fair share of occupancy as well. Also I cannot complain — there has been a little bit of a slowdown in the market but that has been global. If you ask me, Dubai is still the best performing city in the region — if you look at how many hotel rooms we have, to deliver what they have delivered is amazing.”

He repeats a statement from two years ago about hoping the hotel becomes a grande dame of Dubai, but even grande dames need to look the part. In a market that is increasingly talking about and undergoing refurbishments, how is this hotel staying relevant? For six years, Gharib points out, the hotel has been undergoing soft refurbs — they cannot, as he says wryly, change marble walls or flooring or solid wood.

A few years ago, the property upgraded all the in-room technologies, then recently worked on soft furnishings in the rooms. The hotel-wide rooms upgrade included not just new carpets, but also replacing all the mattresses and balcony furniture, and reupholstering the furniture in the suites. While the hotel has gone through soft refurbs, the engineering team has also played their role, introducing sustainable changes year-on-year, to result in savings for the property while staying environmentally friendly. 

Changes in F&B have also taken place, where the hotel took what was Solo Bistronomia Bar & Grill — earlier managed by a third party — in-house, and relaunched the concept as the Solo Italian Restaurant & Bar. Gharib teases at more F&B change, and says: “We are in the planning phase because whatever we do has to be relevant to the market. So we need to identify the sweet spot because we don’t want to open a restaurant for hotel residents, we want to open the restaurant for Dubai residents so if the hotel guests want to try it, then that’s great. Change will happen.”

Other changes are also incoming: the development of the Wafi area. AccorHotels’ Sofitel has signed its largest property in the Middle East with development partner MKM Commercial Holdings LLC: the Sofitel Dubai Wafi, which is expected to open in early 2019. Its construction progress can be seen from some parts of the Raffles, and since it has the same owners and are effectively sister properties as part of the AccorHotels network, it will offer some facilities on a cluster level. Gharib is excited and asserts that it will complement his hotel. “The upcoming Sofitel is going to be the biggest in the Middle East. The level of luxury that it has is going to be great, and it’s going to be a great addition to support Raffles. With MICE we can do different things, we will have a bigger inventory and we can be very creative on attracting new markets. The new hotel will have an elaborate offering in F&B, so Raffles guests will benefit from that and vice versa. I see it as a positive and it’s going to strengthen the entire Wafi area.”

He’s confident about the destination, and the opportunities the company has offered him. While interviewing multiple colleagues who have been with Raffles Dubai for a decade [see box out on pg 48], many of them mention the family atmosphere and positive management culture as reasons for staying with the hotel. Gharib echoes this, and says the leaders he reports to — including Sami Nasser, the COO of luxury brands, AccorHotels Middle East, Africa and Indian Ocean — are a huge influence on his career. He comments: “Sami is one of the leaders who lets you do your job. After we agree on the vision, he gives you freedom, and that shows trust.

“Second, I have probably one of the best owners I’ve ever known or will know — they are interested in luxury and making sure that every guest who comes in leaves in a positive manner. They believe that money comes through by delivering a luxury experience and not by cutting costs. That’s a great relief to any general manager.”

Gharib concludes, stating confidently: “So I have a great regional leader, I have great owners, and I’m surrounded by great team members — I have all the formulas to succeed. Why would I leave?”

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