While all industries have suffered throughout the coronavirus outbreak, the travel industry has surely been one of the worst hit.
In the UAE incoming travel is still suspended for tourists which means many hotels are still left deserted with no guests to fill the rooms. As we move out of lockdown, the restrictions on the hotel are gradually starting to ease, allowing many properties to reopen their doors, but following strict guidelines on how to safely operate moving forward. As residents start to venture out over the summer, the process of returning to normality for Dubai’s tourism industry is going to be a gradual one.
One hotel group hoping to find a new normal is Dubai-based JA Resorts & Hotels. The Group has a 38-year legacy in the UAE and its resorts in Jebel Ali and Hatta Fort were the first resort properties of the kind in the Emirates. The Group has since expanded internationally to The Maldives and more recently into China.
Australian-born Anthony Ross was appointed as CEO of the Group in 2018. With 30 years experience in the hospitality industry Ross has faced many challenges throughout his career, but this is perhaps the most unexpected and unusual the industry and the world has seen. Here Ross talks us through how the UAE’s hotel industry will have to change moving forward and the steps the Group is taking to get back to business.
How have you been spending your time during this period?
I was initially working by myself in the office then the some of the other team members started to come back so we have some of the team here in the JA Resort & Hotels office. I have been communicating a lot with the hotels through digital meetings and we’ve been having a lot of team calls – I didn’t know there were so many types of video conferencing methods!
How have you kept staff motivated during the lockdown and how are you ensuring their safety as things go back to normal?
I must say they have been really supportive and they all realise that it’s a difficult time. We have kept all of them on board and we are making sure to provide all the protective equipment that they need. I won’t lie it has been difficult because usually in these kinds of situations we would be arranging movie nights and sporting activities to keep everyone motivated, but of course, with the social distancing policies, this hasn’t been possible.
One thing that has helped is that in the first quarter of this year we put in place a new e-learning platform called DONE. So we have been putting videos together of all of our training modules and the team members can access these through their own devices.
What is JA Resorts & Hotels doing currently to ensure the safety of guests?
We have put together three safety plans. One for food and beverage, one for the guestrooms and one for the guest journey. The guest room part is related to all the materials that we put inside the room, how we deal with guest amenities, how we sanitise the rooms in the changeover between guests etc. The guest journey part is how we sanitise surfaces when we pick up a guest at the airport, through the check-in desk, handling their luggage, how they get around the resort, all those kinds of things. As well as sanitising any bags that are coming into the properties upon arrival. Then with food and beverage, we’re primarily using protocols that have been put in place by Dubai Municipality.
How is the Group focusing on staycations?
We have a number of campaigns. We have a beautiful resort in Jebel Ali that has horse riding, golf, tennis, its own marina and more. But I think when people do start to get away they want to have access to all of this as well as having access to the pool and beach, especially at this time of the year, so hopefully in the coming weeks as the UAE is really on top of everything, we will soon be able to offer all of our activities to our guests and then we are going to push our staycations very heavily.
What do you say to guests who are still worried about going out?
What we have to do as a hotel group is promote all of the protocols that are in place through our website and social media platforms so that we can explain to people what measures we are taking and how we are taking hygiene and safety very seriously. I do think as well that there are two sides to it. Yes some people are a little apprehensive and that’s understandable, but I also think people are a little unsure about the economy and the future so they’re not willing to spend a lot of money. So we do want to offer, particularly for residents, some really interesting rates to attract them to come to our properties and get some fresh air, some sun and enjoy themselves. So there are two parts for us, the first is about ensuring that the protocols are published, and the second is offering really good rates. I do think it’s going to take a while though and people have to dive in and do it and there will be a period where people get used to things again and it will take time. Once we start to see that the cases aren’t going up again I think the confidence will gradually come. So the first thing for us is staycations from people in the UAE. But we are also really hopeful that flights will resume at some point.
What is your new normal?
I think immediately there are going to be different protocols to do with the way people interact with one another. And there will be changes in the way we run our business. Travel is going to be a little bit different. For myself, before this happened I had been spending a fair bit of time in China, but what I’ve learnt during this period is that you can get quite a lot done digitally without the need to necessarily travel as often. So maybe business travel won’t be as frequent as what it was.
What can you tell us about the business in China?
We have a hotel that’s about to start renovation in China. It’s a cool funky brand called Big Bed, focused on Chinese millennials. We have a Chinese partner and we are renovating this hotel together and it will be our first in China. Most hotels have reopened in China now and what I’m hearing is that the budget hotels have come back really strong but the luxury hotels are taking a bit longer. China is such an incredibly huge internal market. I used to work and live in Beijing and the internal tourism to Beijing from other areas of China is around 120 million people and foreign visitors were only, at the time, around six or seven million. So if you put that into context, China has this huge and really unique market which is quite exciting.
Do you think how things have resumed in China will be mirrored by the rest of the world?
I think China is unique. Although the provinces can be quite different linguistically and with the types of food they eat etc. it is essentially one country that has domestic travel of 1.3 billion people – I don’t think you can translate that easily to the rest of the world because there isn’t a comparison. Here in the Middle East, the first thing we would like to see come back is the domestic staycation business within the UAE.
Will you be branching out to other markets as well as China?
Our partner in China has acquired three or four hotels already that need to be rebranded and the goal is to have 20 or 30 hotels in the next five years. So we will have our hands full with that for a while! We have employed a team in China to manage that part of the business.
What about the Chinese travellers in the UAE do the resorts see a lot of them visiting?
We don’t in the UAE but we do at our resort in the Maldives. At the beginning of this year, we employed a Senior Chinese Executive to help develop our Chinese market here. If you look at the visitor arrivals in the UAE, China is one market that’s growing substantially and up until now, we have failed to capture any significant share so as part of our hotel business in China and the Maldives we are hoping to leverage off these to increase our market share of Chinese guests here in the UAE.
Of course, the travel industry has been badly hit how do you think it can recover and what is something positive that can come out of this crisis?
The general consensus among tourism leaders is that we don’t know. Everyone has a different view on what might happen and I wouldn’t like to speculate too much but in Q4, leading into 2021, hopefully, things will begin to return to normal. What I think we are using this time to do is to look at the ways we are conducting our business. Reviewing all of our processes and technology and closely looking at the experience we are providing for our customers. We are asking ourselves questions like; ‘what is it that our customers want?’ ‘What are we doing just because we’ve always done it?’ We’re looking closely at these kinds of things to create better value for our guests. We want to make a heavy investment in technology and update all of our software to become less manual.
Can you tell us about some of the charitable initiatives the company has put in place during this time?
We did put up a family from the UK who were stuck here and we are also supporting the community in Hatta through the Hatta Fort Hotel. We are offering medical staff at Hatta hospital rooms at the resort. We also had an initiative called “1,000 Thank Yous” which was a way to say thank you to the healthcare workers in Dubai for all they are doing to keep us safe. We asked healthcare workers to send in a copy of their medical ID and we are sending them back a voucher to stay at one of our hotels when the situation goes back to normal. We said initially we were going to give 1,000 rooms but we had 1,600 people request so we decided to accommodate them all as there is no way to choose between them. So that was a nice initiative we were able to do.
What is the motto that you’re living by during this time of crisis?
We’ve got to use this time wisely. 2020 is not a good year but we’ve got to see the positives and this time is precious as we look to re-establish our business and consider the way we are operating. When everything does kick off again we will all be so busy taking care of what we do, that we won’t have time to think. So use this time wisely and make time for thinking.
JA Resorts & Hotels are now open for business with special rates and offers for UAE residents. For more information visit www. jaresortshotels.com