Ritz-Carlton Talks Middle East Expansion, Change In Traveler Expectations.
By Melanie Nayer ~ Exclusive Column
Wednesday, 2nd March 2011
Exclusive: The Ritz-Carlton recently opened their second hotel of 2011 in Dubai to grand reception and ultimate luxury.

The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) will not only welcome the world's most savvy financial executives, but a variety of visitors eager to see the "city within a city". Aside from offering a 3,000-bottle wine wall, the financial district's tallest waterfall and the largest ballroom in the area, the hotel hosts 341 rooms and 124 executive residents making it a mecca for elegance and opulent travel.

As if this opening wasn't grand enough, there's more to come for this luxury hotel group, including the opening of The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong - the tallest hotel in the world - next month.

In the meantime, I caught up with Pascal Duchauffour, VP-Europe, Middle East and Africa, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Bulgari Hotels & Resorts and The Edition Hotels, to get some insight into the Dubai hotel industry, the change in traveler expectations, and what's to come in the Middle East and beyond for this portfolio of hotels.

Melanie Nayer: The hotel industry in Dubai has seen a massive transformation in the past 5 years. How have you seen the industry change? What do you expect for the future?

Pascal Duchauffour: Dubai is still seeing growth in both the tourist and corporate travel sectors, although in a much more moderate pace than before. We are very fortunate in that the infrastructure and support from the region's leaders have enabled Dubai to flourish, making the city a very attractive option to holiday and do business.

Five years ago, there was no light rail transport, no largest mall in the Middle East, no Palm Island, no tallest tower in the world, no Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport, and much less budget or mid-tier hotels. Now, Dubai has all of the above (including our new Ritz-Carlton in the financial district) and that has collectively helped to bring in a more diversified range of travelers.

Nayer: How has the traveler in Dubai changed over the years?

Mr. Duchauffour: Thanks to the efforts of the Dubai tourism authority and the increase in flights from many major air carriers, most notably Emirates Airlines with their new routes, Dubai is seeing an influx of travelers from emerging markets such as Russia, China, South America (Brazil and Argentina), and Spain. There are four airlines that fly non-stop between Beijing and Dubai (Emirates, Air China, China Southern and Hainan Air) and there are also non-stop flights from Dubai to far-reaching destinations such as Sao Paolo, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sydney. All this bodes well for Dubai and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

We have learned that some of these travelers are aspirational travelers; they know their brands, they understand luxury, and they are now more interested in unique, experiential holidays. They want to be more engaged in the local culture and be involved in activities that go beyond the traditional hotel or resort stay. We found that there is a higher level of sophistication, and higher expectations, because our guests travel more frequently and to new destinations. So there is an evolution--a constant revolution of new expectations that The Ritz-Carlton is always anticipating and meeting - we can't sit still for a moment.

One of our challenges is that The Ritz-Carlton is probably more known as a traditional luxury brand because it's the most mature luxury brand in the market. But that expression probably is tied to the perception that Ritz-Carlton offers "inaccessible" luxury, and that's a stereotype that we're trying to move away from. If The Ritz-Carlton as a brand is going to be relevant to our customers in the future, we must balance traditional luxury -- or what would have been thought luxurious 20 years ago -- with how luxury is executed today, which is quite different. Today, the role of style and design is far greater than it was 20 years ago.

If I cast my eye across the lobby of any Ritz-Carlton hotels in the early 80's or even the 90's, it's likely that most guests would have been mature, formally dressed, and male. Today's guests are much more diverse -- younger, more casually elegant, and less formal. There are also many more women guests, as well as more families.

To reach these newer generation of our guests, e-commerce and social media marketing are now an integral part of the overall brand strategy for the group for the coming years. We are now engaged with them on Twitter and soon, The Ritz-Carlton, DIFC will be the first hotel outside of North America in our company to have its own Facebook page.

Nayer: Now that Ritz-Carlton has two hotels in Dubai, what are your expansion plans?

Mr. Duchauffour: In the Middle East, we recently opened The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre in January that will complement our existing beachfront resort, and later this year, we hope to welcome guests to our new golf club in Palm Hills, Cairo (the first to be managed by The Ritz-Carlton.)

Nayer: What is the future for Ritz-Carlton, Bulgari and Edition hotels in Dubai and Middle East?

Mr. Duchauffour: Future sites under consideration and where I would like to see a Ritz-Carlton are Egypt, Kuwait City (Kuwait,) Riyadh and Jeddah (both in Saudi Arabia,) Muscat (Oman,) Abu Dhabi (UAE,) and Beirut (Lebanon.) We are also open to key locations in Morocco and Jordan.

Melanie Nayer is a hotel reviewer and expert on luxury travel around the world. She has covered all aspects of hotels including corporate restructures, re-branding initiatives, historical aspects and the best of the best in luxury hotels around the world.

Melanie writes a weekly exclusivecolumn for 4Hoteliers.com
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