Centrepiece Waldorf Astoria puts RAK on the tourist map

Andre Herrenschmidt is in charge of a team of 600 people from 50 countries, and he tries to remember every one of them by name.

The general manager of Ras Al Khaimah’s signature hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, is a keen proponent of team play and ensuring his staff are motivated to provide the best service possible to guests.

“You cannot expect the team members to deliver the experience guests want if they are not motivated, so we have to make staff feel empowered and passionate and then they will deliver,” says the 56-year-old, who was brought up in Paris. “I have an open-door policy, so staff can drop by my office at any time and I interact with staff when eating in the team restaurant.”

The logistics of operating a vast luxury resort hotel with 346 rooms, guests from all over the world, 12 food and beverage outlets and numerous leisure facilities 24/7 is mind-boggling. But Mr Herrenschmidt believes communication is a key part of making it work.

“Our operations meeting every morning involves about 15 people covering every department,” he says. “Here we review all the guest comments from the day before.

“I meet about 50 guests every day. I think the guests appreciate the direct contact.

“We have a lot of delegation here, and empowerment. The key with staff is to empower them and give them the autonomy of decision-making so they can help create memories for guests, which is something I try to ensure happens.”

Walking into the striking lobby of the Waldorf, it is instantly memorable. Its centrepiece is a 6-metre high Dh1.5 million champagne-gold clock tower that displays each day’s prayer times at its foot.

“It is based on the ancient astrolabe, which was used to determine the exact prayer times in the Islamic faith, and is modelled on a compass,” says Inge Moore, the principal and creative director of The Gallery HBA, which was chosen to design the hotel’s interior.

Delving deeper into the hotel, which opened in August 2013, it is evident that the design pays homage to the Emirates’ past – with pearl fishing and subtle Arabic themes throughout.

Peacock Alley is a lounge with a spectacular fountain at its heart and, at its entrance, is a Dh2m diamond-encrusted peacock statue donated by Sheikha Hana, the wife of the Ruler of RAK, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, who owns the hotel and has Waldorf Astoria manage it.

Mr Herrenschmidt says Sheikh Saud wanted to make a statement with the hotel, putting RAK firmly on the tourist map.

“One of the ways to create a new destination is to create an iconic hotel,” Mr Herrenschmidt says. “Dubai did it 15 years ago with the Burj Al Arab and Abu Dhabi created the iconic Emirates Palace hotel. I think this is Ras Al Khaimah putting itself on the map.

“The public areas are huge. Our average room size is 75 square metres – the benchmark in luxury is 55, so already our rooms are 40 per cent bigger.”

Through the Waldorf and an expanding portfolio of hotels, RAK is making inroads into the tourist industry. And at a time when room rates and hotel occupancy levels are declining in Dubai, in part owing to new hotels opening and flooding the market, RAK is still flourishing.

Haitham Mattar, the chief executive of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, says that there has been no knock-on effect from Dubai. “Ras Al Khaimah has witnessed a 9.7 per cent growth in RevPar [revenue per available room] in 2015 to date compared to 2014 – showcasing that the emirate is performing well in its own right,” he says.

The average room rate in RAK is Dh630, compared with a UAE average of Dh533.88 and a minimum of Dh1,050 a night at the Waldorf.

With winter now upon us, marking the beginning of the high season, Mr Mattar is confident hotels will continue to perform well.

“We are in an extremely strong position to end the year and to start 2016 on a successful note,” he says. “We have just achieved our strongest Q3 figures to date and sentiment in the destination is positive towards further growth.

“We expect to reach 750,000 visitors by the end of the year, and this will represent 7 per cent growth.”

Not even falling oil prices are affecting trade, Mr Mattar adds. “Ras Al Khaimah boasts an increasingly diversified portfolio of tourist source markets, and thus the impacts felt in certain markets by wavering commodities prices have been offset by strong performances elsewhere.”

He forecasts continued growth over the coming years, with a target of reaching 1 million visitors a year by the end of 2018.

“We aim to create a 27,000- strong tourism industry workforce in RAK to increase the sector’s revenues to Dh2.7 billion per annum,” he says.

Part of this expansion will involve the development of more mid-range hotels in the emirate, and the opening of more cultural and adventure activity facilities.

“There has been a shift in interest towards mid-range products, with people wanting to experience authentic, untouched destinations through culture and adventure,” Mr Mattar says. “[We will be] activating cultural and historical sites, developing retail, entertainment and dining outlets, enhancing natural assets such as our mountains, deserts and beaches.”

RAK plans to add 3,600 hotel rooms by 2019 through hospitality brands such as Accor, Marriott, Crowne Plaza and City Max Hotels. Plans for development on Al Marjan Island are also being finalised, with 20 hotels expected to be built on the man-made island.

Tharun Alukkal, a tour consultant for Dubai’s Sun and Sky Tourism and Travel, agrees that more mid-range hotels are needed in RAK and that business is not being badly affected by falling oil prices.

“Most of our bookings for RAK are for one-day overnight trips from people in Dubai, so the oil price doesn’t affect this sort of trade too much,” he says.

“Mostly with RAK, families are just looking for a short break to one of the resort hotels.

“Tourism is certainly down right now, with traffic from Europe not the same as last year, but we are into winter now so things will pick up.”

Despite competition increasing both in Dubai and locally, Mr Herrenschmidt hopes that the hotel can challenge its finest competitors in the country.

“We have established ourselves as the leading hotel in the Northern Emirates and, over the next two years, our goal is to reinforce this position, and aim is to be one of the top three hotels in the UAE,” he says.

“We want RAK to be an alternative to Dubai. This is a very competitive hotel environment in the UAE and we need to train more, develop further and bring the hotel to higher levels than before.”

smccombe@thenational.ae

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