When I stayed at the Shangri-La in Dubai I had no doubts about what I would be looking at. The review was specifically so that I could have a look at an example of a Shangri-La hotel in advance of the Shard opening in London. The Rotana Centro Al Manhal Abu Dhabi, was, besides being quite a mouthful as a name, quite an unknown quantity, as well as an unknown quality. It fitted within my current concern about the poor standards of many hotels in the UK in comparison with what is being developed abroad. Here is a new group setting its standards for me to look at, and to see that this, a three star operation, is at a level that fully justifies my observations in my article about the challenges faced by UK hotel standards.
Many designers will say, as will many hoteliers, “so what, this is no threat to UK hotels”. This is not a belief I share. In the 1960’s we queued in UK hotels to share a bathroom, and seemingly saw nothing wrong with it. Right into the 1990’s my design practice made its bread and butter creating en-suite bathrooms in British hotels that had not previously had them. That’s right, that work continued into the mid 1990’s, as the UK hotel market sought to recover from the impact of British holidays makers preferring to go abroad rather than suffer poor hotel standards at home.
Now the accountants who control so much of UK hotel development and refurbishment are pushing hotels room sizes smaller, ignoring the standards that Brits experience abroad, and the experience foreign tourists have in their home markets. Once more UK hotels are falling slowly and inexorably behind their foreign counterparts, relying on the continued growth of UK tourism to fill rooms – London average occupancy rated in excess of 92% and regional rates over 70% almost guarantee the returns for investors, with little future vision required.
How long will the tourist market be sustained if UK is seen to be old fashioned and behind the times in the standard of its hotel accommodation? With 10% of the economy now relying on tourism, we need to look hard at what we are doing here, or see a hotel and tourism decline as marked as the decline of the seaside resorts of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with similar economic impact.
When a new 5 star can be created in London with rooms 27m2 whilst overseas counterparts go to 44m2, and the London hotels charges some of the highest global rates too, should we then expect the guests will surely eventually vote with their feet? If so then we all lose. There is nothing wrong with small rooms per se, as Citizen M and others have shown, but it depends on client profiling and for 4 and 5 star size does matter. However here it is the size of three star rooms that throws down the challenge, moulding expectations for travellers may be returning to the UK.
This three star shows how definitions are changing. For a start it has valet parking, which is apparently a legal requirement in Abu Dhabi hotels. Given that access to the car park is under the hotel via a car lift this provides an additional level of security for those arriving by car.
Rotana is a fasts growing operator with over 70 properties in 11 countries, although most properties are through the UAE. As Marriott are finding with their African portfolio of 108 Protea, hotels standard are good and the quality and size of provision, particularly at 3 star level challenges the conception of 3 star service and operation, paralleling the developments in the UK. Here in Abu Dhabi though the change is even more marked, with a large lobby, and high quality services.
Other facilities not usually found in European 3 star hotels include 24 food service through the hotel’s bistro, room service, a bar, a choice of dining options including a high quality restaurant operation, a roof top swimming pool, manned and with waiter service, meeting rooms and a small gym. Throughout this modern building finishes are of high quality, and the spaces, including the 229 32m2 bedrooms, are well designed, contemporary and beautifully detailed. Bedrooms include the usual mix of twins and doubles with zip-link beds used throughout to maximise flexibility. Some rooms interconnect, and there is a balance between shower only and bath rooms, giving choice to the incoming guest.
A good sized work desk is enhanced by the addition of some free WiFi, which is hi speed too. This is a focussed business hotel but it was evident that it was popular with tourists wanting to be based in central Abu Dhabi. Adjacent is the Al Wadha mall and behind is the national football stadium, so this friendly hotels also has an attraction for other than the business person.
A new build, as are most of Rotana’s hotels, the hotel is functionally well designed, elegant and stylish. Staff are very well trained, friendly and efficient. The groups is locally owned and financed and has had rapid expansion. Their intent is to continue to expand as a management group and they are launching a campaign to increase awareness amongst British travellers, as currently only 19% of their guests are from the UK.
From 2 properties in 1993 to over 85 by 2012 in 26 countries the group continues to expand the properties under management through its four brands. The stated intention is to achieve growth through Eastern Europe, the Mid-East and Africa. Offering design and concept planning the group sets a standard that unfortunately is well above many of their equivalents in the UK, where complacency and cost are deciding factors frequently overruling design and guest comfort as considerations.
All words and pictures © Patrick Goff. From a stay in March 2014