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Interview: Raffles Dubai’s GM Afif Salibi on hospitality’s recovery

Earlier this year, the veteran hotelier returned to the property he helped open more than a decade ago

Having studied hospitality at the César Ritz Colleges in Switzerland, Afif Salibi started his career in food and beverage at Le Richemond in Geneva, Switzerland. He went on to work in Athens, Greece, before moving to the rooms division at the Grand Hyatt Atlanta, USA. His first post in the UAE came next when he joined the Grand Hyatt Dubai as front office supervisor. A year later, Afif accepted the role of assistant food and beverage manager at Le Royal Beirut in Lebanon.

Afif returned to the UAE to join the pre-opening team at Raffles Dubai, before departing once more to pursue management roles within the Accor group in Cambodia, Canada and Morocco. Earlier this year he returned to Dubai and the property he helped launch, this time as general manager.

Bringing a pair of fresh eyes to the almost 15-year-old property, Afif shares his insights into the guest experience, the current state of the regional hospitality sector and his plans for Raffles Dubai.

Connecting Travel: What are the USPs of Raffles Dubai?
Afif Salibi:
Raffles Dubai is an iconic and wonderful address of timeless elegance with highly personalised service. The brand name is also synonymous with refinement, ultra-luxury and attention to detail. I would say our most unique selling point is our wonderful team, who bring life to the hotel each day and they make all the difference in our guest’s experience. We have a high number of repeat guests, close to 40%, which is a very high number, especially in a highly competitive market like Dubai.

We maintain strong loyalty through the personal and emotional relationships that our colleagues develop with our guests

Our relationships are built on understanding our guests’ individual needs, constantly communicating with our business partners and delivering a seamless and memorable experience.

Raffles Dubai exteriorRaffles Dubai

CT: Has it been challenging to maintain staff during the pandemic?
AS:
The main challenges are related to pandemic travel restrictions, especially impacting talent recruitment in key countries where we’vehistorically hired from. Either people can’t travel or we can’t sponsor a visa for them. The continuously uncertain business levels are making our decisions tough, too, in terms of whether we should hire short-term, long term, part-time or full-time. This will be challenging until there’s a bit more clarity. Last but not least is the severe competition of nearly 800 hotels operating in Dubai and everybody’s out there to get the best talent. Irrespective of the global situation, we will always put our people at the heart of what we do in order to maximise retention and attract the best talent. We’ve also reinforced our already existing motivational tools and training programmes to make sure that colleagues stay engaged.

CT: What are your strategies to increase occupancy and revenue?
AS:
We’re working on getting more of our fair share of the local market right now by implementing various offerings. We’ve launched a dedicated UAE residents’ staycation offer, with attractive rates and value ads for families. In addition, we’re working with markets that are able to travel to the city, and making sure that we position ourselves as a safe hotel, operating with a very high level of hygiene and precautionary standards, and well-trained colleagues.

We’re also revising some of our room categories and suite pricing strategies to make sure these are affordable and attractive to a wide variety of customers from key markets

We provide affordable luxury at Raffles Dubai and we still have some of the largest rooms in the city, and great facilities, making it a wonderful product for families, and business and leisure travellers, as well as for weddings. We’ve benefitted from the expansion of the adjacent Wafi mall with a brand new VOX cinema, the first of its kind, which includes a cinema for kids, a Magic Planet and VIP theatres with limited high-end seating experiences. Also, guests can now take advantage of the various food and beverage venues between Raffles Dubai and the Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk, giving them an array of different options to choose from during their stay.

The upcoming fall season brings a wonderful opportunity with Expo 2020 starting in October 2021, which is expected to attract millions of visitors from around the world. In addition, the progressive vaccination campaigns, which are proving to be very effective in Dubai, are going to be an additional leverage point to attract further business volumes.

Raffles Dubai Landmark SuiteRaffles Dubai Landmark Suite

CT: What are your key source markets right now?
AS: Now, it’s local, but historically it’s been the GCC countries, the UK, Germany and the USA, plus some niche markets from the Levant, East African countries and Japan.

CT: How do you cater to guests from the GCC?
AS:
We have a very high ratio of Arabic speaking colleagues, and a diversified Middle Eastern food and beverage offering. Our executive chef is Lebanese and has worked in some of the best hotels in the GCC, which brings a solid background that enables our chefs to offer GCC clients a wonderful food product that they appreciate. In addition, the facilities at Wafi Mall, our proximity to the airport, to Downtown and many city attractions, while being away from the hustle and bustle, makes us an ideal location for the GCC crowd.

Whether they’re here for business or for family travel, the superior space that we provide and the butler service is highly attractive for them. The Raffles suites are the most popular due to their size. Guests can book a 150sqm Diplomatic Suite, a 205sqm Landmark Suite, a 301sqm Presidential Suite, or the 441sqm Penthouse suite.

For for the ultimate indulgence, there’s the 650sqm Royal Suite

CT: What percentage of your guests are from the GCC?
AS:
Prior to Covid-19, it was around 60% and right now, with the pandemic, it’s around 80%.

CT: What steps should hoteliers take to drive hospitality’s recovery?
AS:
Health and safety are key, with uncompromising hygiene standards, and strict adherence to local legislation and the company’s anti-Covid-19 measures through its world-class All Safe programme. We need to create awareness that guests are coming into a safe place and that all hotel colleagues are fully vaccinated. There also has to be to flexibility in terms of travel plans and cancellation policies.

We’re supported by the fact that Dubai is a very safe place to travel, thanks to the government’s exceptional efforts to drive anti-Covid-19 measures across the board, with very stringent audits taking place all the time in hospitality establishments.

Raffles Dubai PoolRaffles Dubai pool

CT: How is the hospitality sector currently performing?
AS:
Dubai is lucky to be one of the fastest recovering destinations in the world in terms of hospitality and tourism performance. We’ve noticed occupancy levels are on the rise thanks to the previously mentioned hygiene levels and precautionary measures taken with one of the most progressive vaccination campaigns in the world. We have definitely seen a shift in consumer trends towards more of a leisure experience and typically beach resorts tend to be a lot busier, as travellers seek to escape from their confines over the past year. However, business hotels are starting to recover, slowly but surely, with permission for certain events to take place. Once international restrictions are loosened, I am very confident that Dubai will be booming once again.

CT: What makes a good hotelier?
AS:
 You learn from every experience and you make sure that you don’t repeat mistakes. You fine-tune your skills as you go along, and learn from all aspects of the daily operations. I’ve also been lucky to be surrounded by mentors and highly talented colleagues along the way who have helped me learn, and while working in wonderful properties I’ve been able to grow my knowledge at each hotel and city I’ve worked in.

CT: Do you have any developments in the pipeline?
AS:
We will be focusing on sustainability and environmental initiatives; we have already achieved the global Green Key Certification and are currently looking into various progressive sustainability solutions throughout our front of house and heart of house operations.

For more information, visit www.raffles.com/dubai

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