Dubai mega-hotel eyes Ramadan, changing travel trends

Hotels are among the businesses that suffer during Ramadan, with a sharp drop in tourism and business travel leading to empty rooms, restaurants and bars

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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Despite a downward hospitality market so far this year, and the usual sharp slowdown during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, Bill Keffer, manager of Dubai's 1,608-room Marriott Marquis - the tallest hotel in the world - says he has a lot to be optimistic about.

Hotels are among the businesses that suffer during Ramadan, with a sharp drop in tourism and business travel leading to empty rooms, restaurants and bars.

To boost lagging Ramadan occupancy, the hotel has introduced offers including pay for two nights and get three, dining discounts and spa offers - part of a strategy Keffer says is to attract “staycationers” who prefer to spend their holiday in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“We’re still getting a fair amount of special corporate business, which normally dries up during Ramadan,” Keffer told Al Arabiya News.

The “staycation” market, where holidaymakers eschew foreign jaunts for a quick, easy stay closer to home, is a rising trend, Keffer added. “I’m seeing a lot of that this year. It’s a big trend in the market.”

Hotel industry reports this year from Dubai and the surrounding region note a slowdown in the hospitality sector, but Keffer remains enthusiastic: “We’ve really shifted a lot of business and really grown our business despite a downward market.”

Since opening in 2012, the hotel has held on to its title of being the tallest in the world. Keffer and multiple PR materials are eager to boast of this record.

The 355-meter-high monolith - which has two towers - casts a long shadow over the city's thoroughfare, the skyscraper-studded Sheikh Zayed Road, and beats the Burj al-Arab, the self-proclaimed seven-star hotel, by 34 meters.

At 52, Keffer is a veteran of the hotel industry, with experience in the United States, Japan, South Korea and the UK.

As hotel manager of the Marquis since early 2012, and its general manager since April last year, Keffer leads the U.S.-based firm’s largest overseas outlet at a time when the Marriott is pursuing an aggressive expansion into the Middle East and Africa, with plans to add 79 new hotels to its current stock of 164.

Due to Dubai’s prominence and location, its hotels serve as a feeder market for the wider area – industry-speak for a key area where hotel customers come from. The Marquis counts Saudi Arabia as “by far” its biggest feeder market.

However, with a newly announced Iranian nuclear deal, and the prospect of sanctions being lifted from the oil-rich country, Keffer - like in his field - has his eye on Iran as another potential feeder market.

A May report by hospitality consultants TRI noted that Iran’s capital Tehran had a critical lack of quality accommodation to house business travellers keen to tap in on the new “gold rush,” with only 96 operational hotels in the whole city.

“Definitely this could be a stepping stone and springboard into that market,” said Keffer.

UAE-based daily The National reported a fall in Russian tourist spending of more than 50 percent in the first quarter of this year.

With Russian travellers in sharp decline due to a weak ruble and low oil prices, has the Marquis suffered?

“Being a business hotel and not having a beach, we never really tapped in the high-end Russian leisure traveller like most of the beach hotels,” said Keffer.

“There are still Russians in the market. It’s just not the high-spending variety that I think a lot of those hotels have grown accustomed to and build their business plans around.”

Chinese tourists appear to be filling the gap. A report from the rival Intercontinental chain earlier this year predicted a 300-percent growth in Chinese tourists to the Middle East over the next decade from 2013, with much of that travel centered on the UAE.

Keffer, who reports an increase in Chinese guests, said although only 7 million of China’s 1.3-billion-strong population have a passport, “the good news is that Dubai is on the map now. It’s one of those places the Chinese want to come to.”

He added: “This hotel is a prize destination due to it being the tallest in the world.” The Chinese are “budget-conscious on the room and travel arrangements, but when they come they do like to spend money.”

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