Rebranding and repositioning a hotel as iconic as Emirates Palace was never going to be an easy task, and combining that with the levels of luxury expected from the Mandarin Oriental Group is a huge challenge, one that takes an expert in his field.
Enter Michael Koth, a hospitality veteran with over 35 years of experience and knowledge of the industry. Koth was hired in 2020 to oversee all aspects of the branding and now, as the destination officially reopens, we talk to him to find out some of the challenges and opportunities faced within this project.
Tell us about this rebranding and what can guests expect when they visit.
Initially, the rebrand to Mandarin Oriental was more on the side of processes and technicality because we needed to take the hotel physically from an old product to a new one. That was accomplished during the COVID pandemic. The second part, which was the more difficult part, is the repositioning of the hotel. Many people have stereotypical views and ideas about this hotel that do not necessarily engage with what we want to be. So the repositioning into a multi-dimensional property, a destination in itself, a resort, a cultural place, a dining destination, a beach destination, and a sport destination, allowed us to select colleagues from all over the world, of seventy-two nationalities, that live a diverse culture, that can understand what families, couples, people with something to celebrate expect, and also for our restaurants to simply serve the local community of Abu Dhabi. And that was the challenge that we had to work on. This in combination with the attention to detail of Mandarin Oriental, but then with the chosen colleagues and their spirit, is the journey which we are now on.
What is the strategy that you are using to attract firstly the local community within the UAE and with such a dynamic and special property, how are you going to communicate about it globally to attract international visitors?
I think we always need to be locally relevant and see our place within the destination draw of Abu Dhabi and then expand further outwards. Part of our repositioning is to attract the local community, whether it is guests coming for staycations on the weekend or visitors to our restaurants. This requires a lot of social reach, local communication, local media coverage, and local followers. The second local appeal is our gastronomy. We now have a two-star Michelin restaurant, we have playful elements to our restaurants, and the elevation of our beach offerings and services – I believe in that complexity we achieve a lot. Then for entertainment, we have the Auditorium, and we are again hosting the Abu Dhabi Music Festival. I think as a destination you need to be relevant and that is what we want to offer. We just introduced a new Saturday lunchtime brunch and more than sixty per cent of our guests at this brunch are coming from Dubai because they feel that this environment is unique. This gives us the next layer of expanding in the UAE and the region and then we have got to capture the world!
Asia is still quite closed off, but Europe is a very important market. We are looking at our distribution channels, our social approach, and working with selected tour operators. We do not wish to be in the brochures of every operator in Europe, we are more into bespoke concierge agencies and travel advisors, we are looking for a network of people with a certain level of disposable income, and that opens up doors that probably weren’t open a few years ago. And then of course we have the fans of Mandarin Oriental who produce our most valuable sales and will come to us as well and spread the word within their communities. We are really excited!
It’s always very challenging when you inherit something that already exists and tasked with giving it a facelift – what was your biggest challenge through this process?
There is actually only one challenge that is not solvable with money and that is around people. We needed to take 600 colleagues and develop a deep sense of trust and love and a sense of belonging and an understanding of what the future will bring in this new chapter. That took us two years, with a lot of sincerity, open conversations, events and mindset changes, and that is what we believe is the way the organisation can move forward. We were mindful of it, and we used the time during COVID as an opportunity. So, by hiring new colleagues on top of the ones that we already had, this new family came together during this period and now no one looks back in remorse, everyone only looks forward.
Tell us about the F&B offering at the hotel.
Because we are so large, we can mirror things on the east and west wings, so we have space for so many types of offerings. We have twelve restaurants across the hotel. This means that guests can explore every single restaurant in its own uniqueness. We have top-class Indian food, we have Hakkasan the great Chinese dining experience which now has a Michelin star, we have created our own Italian concept, and we have a new Middle Eastern restaurant opening soon which will differentiate us from others in the UAE. We have Episodes; the new café in the lobby. It features four stages including a breakfast offering, and tea offering, and we will soon have gelato – we have exclusive teas that are only sold at the palace – it’s about differentiating.
We just toured this unique Private Club – tell us about this area and how it came about.
This area is so new that you can still smell the paint on the wall! When we started to play with the design, the layout, and the elevations of this hotel, we realised that the clubs we already had were located in the wings on the fifth floor. We did the math and we thought that after a day on the beach, would our guests really want to walk through the lobby, up to the fifth floor, and then relax? The answer is no they wouldn’t. So we decided to bring the club to where the guests need it to be. We created this exclusive area with around 80 seats and we give privilege to only the guests who stay in the club rooms of which we have 44 rooms, all our top rooms with a sea view and our suites. Guests can choose when to experience this club and the accessibility means it’s convenient for them. We have various rooms that cater to their needs. Everything is on the guest’s terms and according to their timings. There is no menu, we have suggestions, and the rest is up to the chef and the guests to decide. There is also an outside area with another seating area, so our club guests could mingle or be as private as they like.
For people who are in Abu Dhabi, what access can Emirates Palace offer exclusively to prominent or VIP clients who are not necessarily staying at the hotel?
We have not yet launched our proposition in this area, but it is something we are currently exploring. It is still early to talk about it yet as it’s still under our curation, but it will likely include a facility like the private club, but for a different group of people. We are in a service industry and so everything must touch our guests somehow, we need to be attractive to people with our offering and we need to find a way to complement everything we do already, but we need to do it in a very tasteful and meaningful way.
What do you have coming up through Ramadan and for the summer season?
During Ramadan everything in our hotel is open and business as usual. However, for the first time since before COVID, we will have a new Ramadan tent on the beach. It will be in a new location, and it is a completely new design that’s amazingly laid out. It resembles the image of a light, bright Moroccan-influenced palace with lots of trees and greenery so you feel as though you are out in the open. It also has a terrace overlooking the skyline of Abu Dhabi. From the outside, it looks very big but inside it will be very intimate.
Then the summer is going to be all about sports, family activities and entertainment. We believe that last year with the craving that we have had to travel, everyone left the UAE for summer. But this year I don’t think it will be the case, we are expecting many more people to stay here in the UAE, and we believe if we combine family activation, theatrical performances for kids, themed staycations for local residents combined with sports, we will have many people wanting to visit throughout the summer.
What can we expect from the renovated spa once it’s completed?
When our spa opens this next month, it will be more beautiful than ever. It is themed around traditional Arabic styles. The hammam is world-class. We have an impressive arrival centre for our members featuring elaborate changing rooms, a sauna, steam bath and guests can come and spend the day using the facilities. We have nine treatment rooms. We recruited our therapists from all over the world. I can’t wait for this as it’s very authentic, we are not doing treatments from all around the world we want to be Middle Eastern in our offering, but we have the capability of inviting travelling practitioners to showcase treatments from other destinations. We also have this pavilion on the beach where guests can have a treatment next to the ocean in their own bliss.
Why did you decide to take this role and what do you still aim to achieve?
I joined at possibly the worst time in the industry during COVID in July 2020. I have spent around 20 years of my life in the Middle East, I have always had a fantastic experience and there’s hardly anything I haven’t seen! So, I was therefore so delighted when I was invited to join Mandarin Oriental and take on the endeavour of rebranding and repositioning Emirates Palace.
I think we are still only at the very beginning of the journey. We are blessed with this hotel and turning it into a resort is a dream. At the moment we are only really discussing the three verticals of MO: rooms, gastronomy and wellness. We want to grow in gastronomy, we want to provide new alternatives for guests to explore even further. We currently have two brand new concepts under construction. One will directly tie in with our auditorium and will be a family-orientated dining opportunity, and the second will be a more sophisticated Asian restaurant. I can’t say too much at the moment, but both will open by the end of this year. Then we have to look at where we take wellness next. All of this will be done with sustainability in mind.
On top of this, we will have a new kid’s facility “Kids Palace” This is under construction and will be a two-story 1,000 square-metre building for children of all ages. Everything will be personally curated to the children’s needs, and it will be focused on teaching kids new skills. This will also be combined with sports. If my kids were younger, I would be bringing them here!
How do you partner with Mandarin Oriental Dubai?
There is already a lot of exchange between guests at both hotels and a lot of our guests still fly through Dubai and stay in Mandarin Oriental Dubai as well. They combine the two and they stay at both hotels. We are also opening a property in Muscat and Doha and Riyadh so there are many opportunities for Mandarin Oriental clients to travel within the region and stay at our properties.
How important is this property on a Group level?
I think it is a hotel that has its own significance within the group. No Mandarin Oriental hotel has our footprint, we have amazing ownership, and we have an amazing country that has everything we could dream of, but more importantly, we are able to break rules with this hotel within the Mandarin Oriental Group. And I love this! When you can offer something very different and desirable this is a great opportunity. We wish to be different, we want to be a new destination for our global fans, to invite them to experience Abu Dhabi, a city that has so much to offer when it comes to its cultural experiences.
Describe this property in one word.
That’s very difficult – we are indescribable! We are very difficult to frame. Our tagline says “your palace, your story” because we believe there is one palace, but you can make it tell any story you wish. The possibilities are endless.