Moussa El Hayek, general manager of the Al Bustan Centre and Residence talks to Jonna Simon about SARS, the war, and the fine art of self-service
Q. Hotels in the emirate have been facing one of the worst periods of operations since many of them opened with the Iraqi war and now followed by the SARS epidemic. How is Al Bustan coping with this situation?
A. We did very well like many other hotels and hotel apartment groups till the end of February this year and the beginning of March. We certainly have been affected by the war, but not to a very great extent, because our guest mix is totally different to hotels, who solely cater to the corporate market or the leisure segment. We were able to maintain our share of the local and GCC markets. Our Russian market, however, dropped about fifty per cent, but overall our business only dropped by 20-25 per cent.
Q. How do you see the future for Al Bustan? The Dubai Summer Surprises (DSS) usually attracts many GCC nationals. Will some of them choose to stay at Al Bustan?
A. We opened one year prior to the first DSS and we did very well from this initial DSS. We then became a DSS participant and were able to penetrate the GCC market, in fact we became the market leader in this specific segment of the market. DSS being enhanced year by year was to our benefit too, as it has given us an edge with many GCC nationals staying at Al Bustan. We offer many different activities during DSS at the Centre, which also encourages families to stay with us.
Q. In September this year, the World Bank IMF 2003 will have its meeting in Dubai - will Al Bustan be able to benefit from the visitors to Dubai for this event?
A. Definitely, although we are not a corporate hotel or part of a worldwide hotel chain. This conference encompasses all levels of participants looking for accommodation - from bank presidents to administrative or clerical officers and I am convinced we will capture our share of this event.
Q. The Dubai Air Show 2003 is scheduled to take place in late autumn this year. Are you expecting bookings in connection with this biennial event?
A. Yes, at the first Air Show we accommodated 100 rooms to participants as a result of overflow from other hotels and hotel apartment operators in Dubai. I am aware, that the Al Bustan Centre & Residence would not be the first choice of the corporate traveller, but we can offer a very decent accommodation and very good facilities for business travellers, so I am certain, we will receive our share from the Air Show.
Q. Last time I spoke to you, you were about to open four new outlets in the shopping centre. Have you added more shops? Any news on the department store?
A. The department store has been closed and replaced by 13 textile shops. Our research showed that we have to offer a tenant mix, which appeals to the clients of the Centre. The first phase of the change was 7-8 textile shops and the feedback from the customers was very encouraging. So, we closed the department store and added more shops instead as well as a bank. The cinema section of the Centre has also been closed and been replaced by very up-market retail stores. We always try to diversify and take notice of what the local community wants from the Centre and according to these demands we plan and execute.
Q. There seems to be a trend recently with new accommodation planned in Dubai to concentrate more on self-service suites, but you have been offering suites with kitchen facilities for some time - how is this business doing?
A. This business is very well perceived in the marketplace of the region. Recently European leisure travellers have also started to be attracted to this type of accommodation. They perceive, they are staying in a similar product to a hotel, yet paying less and actually getting more for their money. The rooms are larger and the facilities are often better. The market for this segment of travellers is growing steadily, but it will take some time for travellers to turn more fully towards this type of accommodation.
Q. You manage to attract business travellers as well as holiday visitors. What is new on the business travel front? Do businessmen have free Internet access?
A. Three weeks ago we launched the executive club floor with 52 units on one floor with a private lounge. The units have been upgraded to executive business level. The guests have free Internet access in their rooms and in the lounge, free complimentary breakfasts in the lounge and very personalised service is provided. Guests can also conduct private business meetings in the lounge.
Q. We are coming up to July and August. Will this be a good summer for Al Bustan? I know these months used to be peak occupancy times for you.
A. Our prime occupancy season takes place in July, August, up to mid-September. Since 11 September and the tragedies in the USA, many GCC nationals are targeting Dubai as their summer destination rather than somewhere in Europe or the USA. Perhaps Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan could become summer destinations for them, but currently Dubai is the prime destination of choice for many GCC families due to language, culture and traditions. Dubai is a great destination for both GCC nationals as well as for other nationalities.
Q. Do you still have aircrew staying at Al Bustan?
A. Yes, we have crew from Vietnam Airline as well as crew from an Iranian charter airline.
Q. You were planning to start a loyalty card programme with special benefits for frequent guests...did you do that?
A. Yes, we did and it is called Al Bustan Residence Privilege card. Guests tell us they like this card, as they can accumulate points, which can be redeemed for upgrades or free complimentary rights depending on their rate of spend.
Q. Al Bustan has a reputation for personal service and I know your staff comes from many different countries - how do you recruit and train them and ensure they maintain the standards?
A. Bulk recruitment and training do not happen at Al Bustan any longer, because we have now been open and operating for a number of years. Of course staff leave to return to their own countries or we find that their standard is not high enough, so they are replaced. The personnel department and heads of departments plan yearly training schedules, which are ongoing throughout the year. From time to time we also bring in specialists from training institutes for a week or more for particular training courses.
Q. The Dubai Investment Centre has moved close to the Al Bustan. Does this mean that this part of Dubai is starting to become an established business community? And does this benefit the hotel?
A. Five or six years ago, people were looking at us and saying, why has this large residence and centre been built here? A heavy investment for the owners, when no road network existed. But look at it today, the area around us is thriving with new businesses. We have confidence that this trend will continue and naturally that will benefit Al Bustan. Like any other part of Dubai, this area is a part of an overall master plan by the Dubai Government, which intends to ensure that not just a few areas of Dubai are being developed to the detriment of other parts of the city.
Q. What are your targets or ambitions for yourself and Al Bustan for the next twelve months?
A. The executive club floor is the latest addition to Al Bustan. We will review and analyse the success of the executive club and if it proves to be a winner, we will add another 52 units and thus have a complete floor for the executive club. We are also reviewing the food court in the Centre, as we want to establish a private dining Room with a banquet hall to accommodate medium-sized weddings and parties. And our most important aim is to make a good profit for our owners.
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