New opening: Al Manara Hotel Saraya Aqaba

Al Manara Hotel Saraya Aqaba, Luxury Collection hotel by Marriott International debuted in Jordan earlier this year

Exterior view of Al Manara Hotel Saraya Aqaba, a Luxury Collection Hotel.
Exterior view of Al Manara Hotel Saraya Aqaba, a Luxury Collection Hotel.

Perched on the tip of Jordan’s coastal town of Aqaba, Marriott International’s luxury brand, The Luxury Collection, made its debut in Jordan with the soft launch of Al Manara Hotel Saraya Aqaba in July 2018.

The project, which was developed by the arm of Abu Dhabi-based real estate company Eagle Hills Jordan, is the second collaboration with Marriott in the country with the first being the W Amman which also recently opened its doors in the capital city.

The hotel is part of the Saraya Aqaba project which will eventually house The Westin Saraya Aqaba due to open in 2020/2021 as well as two other hotels along with other recreational projects in the pipeline. To maintain the Marriott standards and align with The Luxury Collection offerings, the hotel worked with Dubai-based MMAC Design Associates to bring the Arabesque property to life with an interior design focus on the Jordanian culture.

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Located at a 90-minute driving distance from Petra, an hour from Wadi Rum, and overlooking the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba and a man-made lagoon, Al Manara houses 207 rooms and suites with water facing balconies. The property will also feature two villas that are under construction at the moment.

While the Saraya Aqaba project actually broke ground back in 2008, the estate jumped hand two separate hands before finally being bought by Eagle Hills. The hotel overall, according to general manager Gregory De Clerck, “has been very lucky” in terms of owner-operator relations.

“With the owning company — Eagle Hills — we’ve been extremely lucky in terms of attention to detail. The luxury quality of the finishes is perfectly in sync with what someone would expect from a Luxury Collection property. So together with the interior designer, owner and the operator, we managed to not only align but also being the authentic Jordanian experience within the hotel.”

When asked what the hotel offers to the guests in terms of luxury to those planning to visit the region, Clerck says it’s the true sense of Jordanian hospitality.

“No two Luxury Collection hotels are identical and that’s the motto behind the brand and it’s a collection of mansions and palaces. So what I inherited from the interior designer and the owners is a true sense of place. We agreed to work with NGOs to work with fabrics and incorporate embroideries from the region. We also focused on the blend of the usage of the Mother of Pearl, which is from Jordan mixed with contemporary interior design presentation,” Clerck explains.

Hiring talents

When it came to recruiting, Clerck says his motive was to hire local Jordanians and those from in and around Aqaba to represent the Jordanian culture and hospitality in the true sense to reflect the hotel’s agenda and offering.

“My key role was to incorporate corporate social responsibility because we are in region where there is not a lot of employability. We have Wadi Rum, the Petra and Aqaba and that commonly known as the ‘Golden Triangle’. And in this area, people need jobs. So during the pre-opening, I did a road show along with the leadership team to hire and recruit talent,” Clerck points out.

“I was mostly looking for the personality of the talent, not necessarily experience. This was because I wanted to bring on board people who reflected true Jordanian hospitality.

Have some knowledge about the history and the culture so that they share the passion they hold for their home country with the guests at the hotel. We went all over the country where we did these auditions and each candidate had the opportunity to give a three-minute presentations on what they could contribute to the guest experience,” Clerck adds.

Source market & segments

During the pre-opening phase and after the hotel’s soft opening, the main objective according to complex director of brand, marketing and communications Maria Tsiomou was to spread awareness about the hotel, its brand, and its offerings.

“Local advertisements and the radio seems to work well here in the region – that was one of the main vehicle of communication we used. Straight after the opening, we also ran a two-week campaign targeting the high-end clientele visiting Jordan through business class and first class tickets. Turkish Airlines at the time of the opening, besides Royal Jordanian airlines, was the only one flying directly to Aqaba — now we have more of course. That was a really good return on investment. This was all in addition to the Facebook and Instagram campaigns we ran. The ROI was 7.6 which was good one. International markets like the US, France and Italy responded really well,” Tsiomou reflects.

Now, low-cost direct flights from Europe like Ryanair and easyJet are funnelling in European tourists to Aqaba expanding the source market for the region.

While the brand usually targets the leisure market, Al Manara, in the post-opening phase surprising pulled in more corporate customers reveals Mostafa Nadim, complex director of sales for Al Manara Hotel Saraya Aqaba and The Westin Saraya Aqaba.

“In 2018, we were surprised that the majority of the business we received were from the corporate market not the leisure market. Because for most of 2018 we were short of charter flights to Aqaba, we had to compensate with government, military and corporate sector. We were able to establish a very strong relations with these sectors,” Nadim further reveals. Adding to that, Clerck confirms that the property is now a US Embassy certified destination. “Safety and security is a priority for the Americans and so we are tapping into what we call the ‘government sector’,” he explains.

In terms of MICE segment Al Manara Hotel Saraya Aqaba doesn’t offer the typical ballroom or convention centre. However, within the estate, there are four hotels and the project will soon have the largest convention centre in Jordan. The Westin, which is al Manara’s sister property, will have the largest ballroom in Aqaba. “With all the existing facilities within the project, there was no need to have additional MICE venues [at the hotel],” Clerck points out.

F&B focus

The hotel’s main all-day dining venue is Taybeh Al Manara which serves northern Mediterranean cuisine and specialities at live cooking stations as well as an a la carte service. Kubba Levantin is another F&B venue which is a casually Middle Eastern restaurant. Al Manara’s waterfront bar and seafood restaurant Amwaj, which is currently under construction, will feature seafood directly from the Red Sea and is cued to open to the public in Q1 2019 according to F&B manager Mohammad Al Qawas.

A Jordanian national, Qawas came on board during the pre-opening phase and worked with the executive chef through menu engineering from scratch, F&B offers, hiring and more. When it came to recruitment, like Clerck, Qawas says he focused on hiring local talent.

“As the focus of the hotel was to reflect the culture of the region, we worked hard to find young, motivated Jordanians and to train them for the job. So we wanted to ultimately hire ambassadors for Jordanian hospitality not just wait staff,” Qawas explains.

Challenges

Just like any new hotel trying to make mark for itself, Clerck readily admits that there were challenges along the way and hospitality market in Aqaba is not an easy one to manoeuvre.

“In a market where the overall occupancy is 49-50% year-over-year, there’s very little, not to say, no growth in the amount but there is growth in supply. We just opened and another hotel opened just last week. So moving forward, the goal will be flexibility and bespoke offers,” Clerck affirms.

“Key performance indicator is guest satisfaction and there we are leading the market. Through unique offers and bespoke services we do differentiate ourselves in the market. We managed to come out on a premium on the rate. And year-to-date since we opened, our market penetration is 166% which is driven by both rate and volume. So we have managed to take a fair share of the market,” Clerck explains.

As the hotel steps into 2019, Clerck says his team has worked hard to position themselves in a good place.

“Part of the business in Jordan is being well connected and I believe we have established good relations. The business for the first half of 2019 has already been signed this year. Now we are positive about what the last half of 2019 and early 2020 will bring us,” Clerck explains.

As for the long-term vision and the hotel’s place within Marriott’s expanding portfolio in Jordan, Clerck says he has set his aim high.

“I believe this property has the potential to be the flagship property for Jordan. That’s the vision I started with. The customers are seeking out more and more authenticity and I believe that’s what we will continue to deliver,” he concludes.

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