Luxury hospitality market still strong across GCC say UAE architects
In a recent report released by STR Hotel Market Data & Benchmarking, it was recorded that the Middle East saw an increase in the construction of hotel rooms over the past year.
The region witnessed a 9.3 percent year-over-year increase in the number of rooms in the final phase of the development pipeline, said the report, with the Middle East seeing an additional 30,203 rooms in the final planning stage.
In the Middle East, the UAE leads with 56,701 rooms, representing 33.6 percent of the country’s existing supply, while Saudi Arabia is second with 42,571 rooms (42.9 percent) and Oman follows in third with 4,129 rooms under construction.
Additionally, data released by the Arabian Travel Market showed that the UAE will continue to lead the GCC’s luxury hospitality segment through to 2022, with 73 percent of existing luxury hotel stock and 61 percent of the region’s pipeline located within the country, despite the rising visitation of a more cash-constrained guest profile.
In light of a healthy hospitality market, Middle East Architect spoke to UAE-based architects, including Riccardo Robustini, founder and Dubai director of UNICA; Matthew Engele, principal and regional design leader at Woods Bagot; and Joe Tabet, principal of JT+Partners, about the sector’s current demands.
“In the last few years, the hospitality sector has faced a number of challenges, as well as several positive injections from the market,” said Robustini. “On one hand, low oil prices and weak economic growth have contributed to reduced spending on tourism in the Middle East, but on the other hand, governments, like the UAE’s, have responded by diversifying their economies and increasing the level of their infrastructure, and major events such as Expo 2020 have helped keep such markets afloat, gradually moving in the right direction.”
Robustini noted that while the UAE will continue to play a crucial role in the region’s growing hospitality market, its smaller emirates like Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah will increasingly take on more priority for development.
Engele agreed, further highlighting regional areas like Hatta and Al Ain. “Interestingly, in the UAE, significant hospitality opportunities have shifted away from the major cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” he said.
Tabet added that architects are also looking further afield, with markets like Egypt, Pakistan, India and countries across Africa currently providing strong opportunities. Hotel brands, he said, are continuing to invest and expand their operations.
Current demands for hospitality
The architects said that guest experience remains a top priority and the key to success for any hospitality project.
“Some of the demands of the current market are more focused on design efficiency, operational efficiency and providing attractive and robust business models,” said Tabet. “Accordingly, we are finding most of the operators are becoming more flexible with their area requirements and specifications without compromising their brand names, [product] quality and guest experience.”
Interestingly, in the UAE, significant hospitality opportunities have shifted away from the major cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi." - Matthew Engele
Engele and Robustini highlighted the impact of the changing profile of those travelling to the UAE on what the local hotel experience should feel like. While the luxury segment continues to have the greatest demand, the ‘millennial’ traveller is looking for context-oriented, hospitality experiences, they said, which impacts the design of hotel projects.
“Authenticity is the key to new hotels with guests seeking hospitality experiences that reflect the local region,” said Engele. “As the sharing of experiences to the online realm has become a very important consideration for guests and a strong marketing tool for hotel operators, designers today are also increasingly challenged to create ‘Instagrammable’ moments throughout new hospitality projects.”
“The hospitality market differs significantly in terms of geographic locations, cultures, economies and type of supply (three, four or five-star hotels and above),” added Robustini. “However, I think there is a common analysis about how our habits have changed in the last 10 to 15 years. The Middle East approach to hospitality was extremely conservative and very far from the experimentations that were done elsewhere in the world; however, the market is now moving in the correct direction.
“Hoteliers have finally understood that the new generation of travellers has a perception of luxury that is completely different from the perception of previous generations,” Robustini added. “Millennial travellers don’t want to feel like they are in a hotel – they prefer a personal, authentic and funky experience. The three and four-star market have to focus on more sophisticated designs that offer a new way of dealing with customers.”
According to Tabet, the millennial-oriented considerations that reflect change in the hotel industry include the incorporation of state-of-the-art technology, awareness of health and well-being, sensitivity to sustainability, and environmental and social issues.
I think there is a common analysis about how our habits have changed in the last 10 to 15 years. The Middle East approach to hospitality was extremely conservative and very far from the experimentations that were done elsewhere in the world; however, the market is now moving in the correct direction." - Riccardo Robustini
“Architects, interior designers and different design specialists play a big role in making or breaking a project,” said Tabet. “Budget is a main concern and architects and designers have to be creative and innovative to design a project with the ‘wow factor’ to budget.”
The Expo effect
“This is the million-dollar question,” said Tabet. “There is a demand for hospitality in response to the Expo 2020, but what will happen afterward?”
According the annual AHIC Hotel Investment Forecast, close to $30 billion worth of hotel construction contracts will be awarded in the Middle East and North Africa between now and 2023. According to Robustini, this surplus of rooms are likely to be absorbed into the market.
“The impact of the Expo will span two years,” Robustini said. “This makes it easier to absorb the deflection for operators. Also, a big portion of the new market is represented by three-star hotels. These are much more flexible and easier to convert in the future if required.”
Tabet added, “Visitors are expected to be in the millions during the Expo’s run. And the strategy is to attract a percentage of these visitors to stay, come back or open business in the UAE, which, if successful, will change everything. We must have faith in this ambitious government to have the foresight to manage such grand aspirations.”