“It makes you feel proud that you run a property like this”

In his first exclusive interview after taking over as GM of Emirates Palace, NOEL MASSOUD talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about what it feels like to run the fairytale-like hotel
Massoud … ‘the greatest challenge for us is to live up to guest expectations’

As the newly-appointed general manager of Emirates Palace, Noel Massoud has a job most hoteliers only dream of.

But, to be honest, that is also Massoud’s biggest challenge: to ensure that the majestic Arabian castle lives up to its promise of ushering in a new dimension to the hospitality industry not just in the UAE but in the world at large.
Hardly surprising then that Massoud is working overtime to see that everything, down to the minutest detail, is just right for the forthcoming grand opening – Emirates Palace threw open its doors with a soft launch in March this year. Billed as the most expensive hotel ever built, the Kempinski-run property has already attracted worldwide media attention and hosted a number of royal guests, celebrities and world leaders. Now, all eyes are once again on the architectural marvel, as the 390 luxury room and suite property gets ready to open all its facilities. Massoud talks to TTN about what his job entails and more. Excerpts from an interview:

TTN: So, are you ready for the big launch?
Noel Massoud: Yes, I am.

When are we looking at the grand opening then?
We are working on it. There is no fixed date yet.

Will it be in time for the GCC summit?
We are preparing ourselves to be ready by then but, most probably, it will be after the summit.

When is the West Wing opening?
Basically the whole palace is open except, as in any new building, you have a few snags and so, instead of working here and there, we decided to tackle one wing at a time.

Has the response to the soft opening lived up to expectations?
I think guests that a have come here have been mostly overwhelmed by what they have seen and experienced.

What’s in store now?
We are working on many projects. As you know the palace is a palace, but it’s also a hotel that has been built. Emirates Palace is considered to be the landmark of Abu Dhabi; the landmark of UAE. And it should be one of the leading hotels in the world. So, we are working to show that and prove it on the ground.

Any challenges you have faced?
The opening of any new hotel is a challenge. And especially with this kind and size of hotel it has really been an out-of-this-world experience. But, to be honest, the challenges are the same for every hotel ie it has to deliver the services that it has promised and live up to the expectations of the guest. This has been the greatest challenge for us as well. If I promise you something, I have to deliver that. And I have to deliver it consistently.

What does it feel like to run a palace?
I have visited this palace before they opened and even when they opened. And, even when it was being constructed, I had the privilege of coming and seeing it take shape. In fact, my bedroom at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi [Massoud was GM of the hotel before joining Emirates Palace] used to face the palace. So I literally watched Emirates Palace rise from the sands.

Did you imagine that you would be managing the property one day?
No, I never thought of it. It never crossed my mind, since it’s another company and Kempinski was running it.

So, was it a dream come true for you when you were appointed GM of Emirates Palace?
Yes, absolutely.
What are your plans to give the palace a truly royal touch?
With my team, we have been reviewing what services we are offering and, naturally, we want to match the standards of other Kempinski luxury collection hotels. But, we are also trying to see what touches of local hospitality can be adapted in terms of service to make Emirates Palace different from other hotels.

Have you visited other palace / luxury properties around the world and how would you rate Emirates Palace in comparison?
I have stayed in some leading luxury hotels and I think we are as good if not better than some of them. However, I must add, there is always room for improvement.

Have you tried to blend Western service with local tradition?
Not really, because I don’t think there is a big difference between both of them. Okay, if we are talking hardware, the palace section is more Arabesque but, in terms of service, we have completely Western, international standard of service. However, we have made sure that the local flavour is evident throughout property.

How would you compare Emirates Palace with Burj Al Arab, the other symbol of luxury in the UAE?
Well, we do have some similarities but again, every hotel is different from the other, every palace is different from the other. So, basically, we won’t be competing in terms of the service. The competition in future will be when people have to decide if they want to come to this hotel or stay at that one.
To be honest, I think between us and Dubai, we will be complementing each other. Emirates Palace is an added value to the country. It’s up to people how they perceive us but, at the end of the day, we will both stand to benefit if we manage to attract more people to the UAE. They might try the Burj Al Arab today and the Emirates Palace tomorrow or it could be the way around. After all, our target audience is the same.

So, you are saying Emirates Palace will complement Burj Al Arab instead of competing with it…
I’m talking about complementing each other from the client’s point of view. Earlier they would visit Dubai, now they can come to Abu Dhabi if they want to wallow in luxury. We have certain services that none of the other luxury hotels have. Take the International Conference Centre, for instance. It houses the largest, most luxurious and technologically advanced meeting facilities in the UAE with the total meeting and conference space exceeding 7,000 sq m including a magnificent auditorium for 1,200 persons, the country’s largest ballroom, a high-tech media centre and over 40 additional meeting rooms

Now that you have the perfect venue, what are you doing to attract more MICE events to Abu Dhabi?
After the GCC summit we will definitely attract more MICE events to Abu Dhabi. In addition, we are attending all the exhibitions and trade fairs for the MICE market around the world. We have a strong presence at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Board stand as well as the Kempinski stand to double the exposure at such events. We are also working with a lot of MICE publications to promote Abu Dhabi in our key markets ie UK, Europe, Germany and Russia. Of course, the GCC market is also very important to us. We held the first-ever MICE Middle East Congress at the hotel recently and more and more people in the region are talking about our facilities.
Overall, it’s our top priority to develop this market and we have the full support of the tourism board and, not to forget, the leisure market, which is also very important for us. We are developing a lot of plans with the Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority to boost tourism in the emirate. For our part, the hotel has a 1.5-km private beach with beautiful pools and we are now finalising a first-class spa, two gyms and other recreational facilities. We also have a very nice marina, which is being developed.

Once you have the grand opening, what kind of occupancy are you looking at?
By next year, we should reach the late 40 per cent mark though we have seen 100 per cent occupancy already with the rooms that have opened.

When it will be fully operational, you may have to walk from one end of the property to the other. Are you ready for that?
Well, the palace and the hotel are very nicely built and we have three receptions, so people can check in either from the West Wing or the East Wing or in the palace. Same thing for room service; we have a separate room service for each wing. So, in all probability I won’t need to walk every day from east to west. As for the guests, you have special entrance, butlers and valet parking for all three areas separately. Again if he wants to go out, he can go in and out from one wing. Even separate pools have been designed for each wing, so the guests don’t have to move from one wing to another, unless they want to. However, we do provide transportation with golf carts and buggies if they want to go from one pool to the other.

What has the last two months been like for you – both personally and professionally?
It’s been a challenging experience. It makes you feel proud that you run a property like this. But having said that I must add that it isn’t just double work, it needs triple work, not just from my side, but from everybody in the palace.

What is your favourite spot in the palace?
The dome. It’s a beautiful dome, where many people come and just sit back and relax.

Apart from being very taxing, I’m sure it’s also an enjoyable experience for you?
In the hotel business, if you don’t like what you do and you don’t enjoy it, you have to resign. Because in the hospitality service, either you like it or you don’t. And the more you like it, the more you enjoy it and, in my view, the better your productivity.