Grand designs

Rahim Abu Omar, Chief Executive of Metropolitan Hotels International, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about the Metropolitan Hotel as the grand old lady of Dubai turns 25, the fast-growing hotel chain and more.
The Metropolitan on Sheikh Zayed road, Dubai.

February nine is a red-letter day for Metropolitan Hotels International as the ‘grand old lady’ of the hotel chain gets dressed up in all its finery to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

In fact, to the countless stars, celebrities and world leaders who have graced Metropolitan Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road’s foyer - from Bruce Willis, Omar Sharif and Wesley Snipes to Imran Khan, FW De Klerk and Prince Faisal, the guest register reads like a veritable who’s who - it’s much more than a hotel: it’s one of the oldest landmarks of Dubai.
From a single main building with a couple of restaurants on the outskirts of the city the hotel has, over the last two decades, evolved into a sprawling ‘complex’ housing taverns, a cinema complex, office blocks and a host of fine dining outlets. Revamped restaurants, a grand foyer, sun-drenched atrium, technologically-advanced conference rooms and the addition of a number of luxury suites are some of the more recent changes that have helped the hotel keep pace with the new entrants on Sheikh Zayed Road.
“When I joined the Metropolitan Hotel, it was the only hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road with less than 200 employees and just four food and beverage (F&B) outlets,” says Rahim Abu Omar, Chief Executive of Metropolitan Hotels International, who started his hotel career as a sales executive in the same hotel in 1982. “Today, the Metropolitan Hotel is central to the city, has over 400 employees and boasts over 14 F&B outlets. Having worked in various capacities in the hotel (he was sales manager, director of sales and general manager) I have seen it grow over the years and feel proud as the hotel prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary.”
However, Abu Omar is quick to point out that, the evolution of the hotel is far from over. It will continue to upgrade, expand and grow. “Like Dubai itself, the Metropolitan Hotel will, in keeping pace with the times, continue to evolve,” he adds.
Before taking over as Chief Executive of Metropolitan Hotels International on September 2000, Abu Omar has, from time to time, left the flagship of the Metropolitan chain to oversee and give direction to the new kids on the block in Dubai - the Metropolitan Beach Club and the Metropolitan Palace Hotel - but, he admits, it is at the helm of the original flagship property that he has wielded the most influence and faced the biggest challenges in his hotel career. For instance, one of the earliest challenges was increasing the occupancy as most people felt it was a little out of town. “But, as Dubai has grown quickly, our location in between the city centre and Jebel Ali, the popular beaches, golf courses and other tourist attractions has actually worked to our advantage,” points out Abu Omar.
After early setbacks - what with tough competition and low occupancy levels - things started picking up for the hotel from 1985. And the hotel has never looked back ever since. “Today, the challenge stems from the evergrowing number of hotel rooms available in Dubai in general and on Sheikh Zayed Road in particular,” he says.
According to Abu Omar, the biggest strength of the hotel is its staff. “Upgrading guest facilities and services is one thing,” he says. “Making guests comfortable is another. After all, most often, it’s a ‘genuine’ smile from the staff that can make all the difference to a guest. And that’s why I feel that our staff is our USP.  We offer personalised service from staff members, some of who have been with us for 25 years. What’s more, at the Metropolitan Hotel, sales is not a department; it is a culture.  In other words, we believe that all the 400-plus employees are sales staff.”
Coming from a sales background, it is not difficult to see how Abu Omar has worked his magic with numbers not just with the Metropolitan Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road but has contributed in no small measure in establishing and promoting all the properties owned by the chain. Like he puts it: “I am totally involved in selling and promoting the hotels to a great extent and I make it a point attend all sales meetings when I am not travelling. Moreover, I attend most travel exhibitions too.”
For the record, the Metropolitan Hotels International, which took shape when the Al Habtoor Group opened the Metropolitan Hotel-Dubai in 1979, now owns and manages the Metropolitan Palace Hotel-Dubai on Al Maktoum Street, the Metropolitan Deira Hotel near the Clock Tower Roundabout and the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club at Jumeirah Beach. Besides these four hotels in Dubai, it also owns the prestigious 200-year old Monkey Island Hotel, a luxury country-house property in the UK and the luxurious Metropolitan Palace Hotel-Beirut.
“The Monkey Island Hotel is a unique property on an exclusive island,” says Abu Omar. “This property supports our name and brand internationally.  As for the Metropolitan Palace Hotel Beirut, it is part of a huge investment plan for the group in Lebanon, which exceeds $360 million.  In real terms, we are setting a new standard of excellence in Lebanon.”
Among its future expansion plans, the group has just announced another development at the Jumeirah Beach: the new Metropolitan Beach Resort Towers. An extension of the existing Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club, the project is a 342 units five-star hotel, consisting of two towers and three levels of underground parking, providing parking, several international and theme restaurants and a state-of-the-art banquet hall.
But that’s not all. The Metropolitan Hotels International, which also manages the Metropolitan Catering Services, a catering company inside the Jebel Ali Free Zone, is also investing in a new project in Beirut. The Metropolitan City Centre will feature 200 luxurious guestrooms including suites, presidential suites and penthouses, restaurants, a shopping mall and will be the tallest building in Lebanon with the biggest banquet and conference room. What’s more, the new Metropolitan City Centre will be linked by bridge to the existing Metropolitan Palace Hotel.
Certainly, there’s a lot happening as far The Metropolitan Hotels International is concerned even though Abu Omar is tightlipped about other projects in the pipeline. For his part, the Chief Executive is focused on taking the group to greater heights. Perhaps, the only time when he’s somewhat unsure, is when you ask him to name his favourite hotel within the group. After a long pause, he says, “You can’t ask a father who his favourite child is.  Each one of the Metropolitan Hotels is like my kid to me… I love them all.  Each one is unique in its own way; each one is special to me.”