Emirates palace 224 .
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
The seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi was built at a cost of $3 billion - the most expensive hotel ever built. It opened its doors in 2005, offering 302 rooms and 92 suites.
The Emirates Palace sits upon 222 acres of plush landscape with 114 domes rising almost 200 feet into the air. The Grand Atrium rises higher than the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and is topped with a 20-karat gold finial.
A total 86,114 square feet of 22-carat gold leaf adorns the hotel, in addition to more than 1 million square feet of marble, and it is decorated with 1,002 Swarovski crystal chandeliers. About 20,000 fresh roses are used in the hotel daily, and guests are served in 20 eateries from 128 kitchens and pantries.
I recently traveled to Abu Dhabi, where I was a guest of general manager Hans Olbertz at The Emirates Palace. The following is my conversation with him:
You are the general manager of one of the most prestigious resort hotels in the Middle East. What does it feel like?
It actually feels very good. I can be quite proud of running such a unique property. I would say it's even one of the best hotels in the world. You mentioned resorts. It has everything. It's a business hotel. It's a palace. It's a leisure hotel, a resort hotel and it's a congress hotel, so those are four incentives. At the same time, we have all sorts of exhibitions, and music exhibitions and performances, as well as art exhibitions here.
Bon Jovi was just here. I know you have all kinds of business clientele coming in and out. You have kings coming in. But let's get back to the beginnings of the hotel. Who owns it? And how quickly did it get built?
The Emirates Palace is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi. It's managed by Kempinski Hotels and Resorts. It took over three years to build, with a workforce of over 20,000 people. We have been open now for three years and have established ourselves as the icon, definitely of the UAE, and of the Middle East.
Twenty thousand people! You must mean around-the-clock work, or you wouldn't have finished.
We wouldn't have finished on time.
I marvel at the marble and the gold, or gold leaf around the hotel.
Gold. It is surely the most expensive hotel ever built. The figures go from $2.3 to $3 billion. And you can see it from all the products and the finish. There have been no shortcuts. And everything has come [together] to [create] perfection. Even the way we brought the sands and the stones and the marble and whatever you see; our operating equipment and only the finest pieces, and we worked with the best companies and materials from around the world.
People are coming from all over the world, different nationalities, different dialects, so how do you deal with that?
Just to give you a review of the last four months here. It started with the PGA tour golf tournament, the European PGA golf tournament, where all the players were staying here because Abu Dhabi has the open championship every year. Then President Bush, the president of the United States and Condoleezza Rice came here on a state visit, followed by the French president, Sarkozy. And meanwhile we had Mr. Mubarak, the president of Egypt, the president of Iceland; [dignitaries from] Kazakhstan, from Sudan, the King of Malaysia, the King of Swaziland. We recently had the King of Spain with his delegation. And business icons come here. Alan Greenspan came here; we had Bill Gates.
We've had huge success in music performances. We had Justin Timberlake on the beach performing live with 40, 000 people. We had Elton John - a great success. And, as you know just a week ago we had Bon Jovi, with over 17,500 people.
We opened the largest Picasso exhibition outside any museum, which will be featured here at the Emirates Palace for several months up until the middle of September. We just had the largest Islamic exhibition since the beginning of the year until April. Besides that, [we've had] many other shows in our auditorium; we had operas like Aida. We had philharmonic orchestras here. We have ballets here, plays. This place is a very, very vibrant place. It's not a palace of "Sleeping Beauty" - it's a very live beauty.
It sounds fabulous, but Hans, I want to go back to something; you talk about world leaders coming, do you have CIA on staff?
Of course, the security aspect is one of the very important things. Each delegation comes and the embassies have their own sort of security people and so-called "CIA," etc. Then, the Abu Dhabi government, naturally. I think we have a very good security system in order to cope with all the different delegations. The interesting part here is the Emirates Palace consists of 394 rooms. A part of the hotel, we call it "the palace."
There is a palace within a palace. It is completely isolated or can be isolated with special access and its own elevators. Even its own air conditioning.
What about its own entrance?
It has its own entrance. We have dedicated palace employees who just work in these areas. There is palace equipment, linen even - the palace room service. It's very, very dedicated. So any state visits we have, usually they have been accommodated. Everything from a security aspect is also quite fine-tuned. So we're pretty well ahead of the game.
As I entered the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the numbers of staff that were approaching me and my colleague. I was wondering about the ratio of employees to guests.
It's a very good question. Abu Dhabi in itself is growing tremendously. Over the last few years the boom here is just endless in terms of development but also in terms of tourism as well. It is becoming a real culture hub as well in the world. And the Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority is really driving it.
The Emirates Palace, being the icon of the United Arab Emirates, also attracts at the same time, international customers, developers, tourism, people who are interested in art. And that in itself requires that you have a variety of nationalities. We have 49 different nationalities with multi-language capabilities. And we have a sort of a main force which totals 1,350 employees. But then we also have outsourced employees doing the beach, the gardening, the landscaping here.
It's horrendous here with this climate - it requires a large labor force and then the security [force] as well. So if you calculate everything together, we're talking approximately 1,800 employees, which gives you a ratio close to four employees per room.
This hotel is more of an institution. If you look at landmark places to go to, and people, particularly tourists, will look for places to see. You are on the 'to see' list, so many people will come through the hotel who are not staying here just to see its beauty. Have you ever done a study on what drives that and who comes?
Not really. Most of our guests usually stay in our hotel. However, we have a lot of visitors who would like to see it almost like a museum. The crown prince, Sheikh Muhammad Al Nahyan is very fond of showing the people in the world what Abu Dhabi has and what Abu Dhabi can do. I think he is very proud that we are absolutely in line with what he can show the world what Abu Dhabi has done. You can't beat the Emirates Palace from a landmark point of view, architecture-wise and in terms of the service we have here. So, of the people we have coming here usually you have tourists; you see investors coming here, wanting to show their colleagues and friends what the Emirates Palace looks like. Most of those guests who come here [to look], they drink coffee, they have a glass of water. We even have tours organized by tour operators that are planned as guided tours throughout the palace. So, while there still is privacy for houseguests who are being looked after, we're also opening the palace to the public.
Cuisine. You can't have a grand hotel without it. You twenty places to eat in the Emirates Palace. Tell us about them.
We have several exciting restaurants. We have also, over the years, been recognized by the industry with different awards. For a start we have Sayad, which is a Pacific Rim seafood restaurant. [Then we have] our very famous Italian restaurant Mezzaluna. It's been considered by far the best Italian restaurant in the United Arab Emirates. Another very enjoyable restaurant is Diwan Auberge, our Lebanese restaurant, and the Anar, our Iranian restaurant. Besides that we have two large outdoor pools, which are in the east and west wings and both of them enjoy the Cascades and Las Brisas, unique pool restaurants. And then Le Vendome Brasserie is our dining restaurant, one of the most fascinating international-style buffets of international cuisine. We have for the smokers - because here you still can smoke - a dedicated area in the Havana Club bar where you have Cuban music and can enjoy your drinks and a wonderful selection of cigars. And then we have our caviar bar, which is in the center of the hotel. And then our cafe, where you can enjoy the best of the lobby and at the same time enjoy local music in the background.
There are people looking to come who have never been. I know there are Americans talking about Dubai and Abu Dhabi as the next place they want to visit. Do you see an increase in American travel?
We do. You know, for the States, anything you talk about [regarding the] Middle East, it's still an education process. The Middle East is huge. And there are certain areas where maybe at certain periods of time it is not advisable to travel to. But I would say most of the Middle East is very safe for travel, and definitely the United Arab Emirates.
Otherwise you wouldn't have all the investors here; you wouldn't have the increase in tourism here if it wasn't a safe place.
And Dubai and Abu Dhabi are fantastic examples of what's happening with this country. So we have actually seen over the last two, three years, a positive increase in American business, not only investors but at the same time also in tourism. Not to as great an extent as maybe the people coming from Europe, for which there are several reasons.
One of the reasons, for sure, is the travel time. From Europe you can travel 5.5 hours to 6.5 hours from anywhere to be in the United Arab Emirates. Of course the States is a much longer flight.
And I think the European understanding is that it is actually a very safe place to move around in. And you can get anything here. At the same time it's an adventure as well. You can get desert, in which a lot of activities can be done, like an explorer. And you have the seaside, where you can do all sorts of water sports. And shopping is good here. It's value for money. You get luxury products here. You have wonderful hotels like this one.
And you know it's in general a very safe place.
Can you break down in percentage the tourism market? You brought up the Americans. Can you tell me a percentage in terms of the Europeans, locals?
I don't know in total the [percentage for the] United Arab Emirates, but I am speaking for the Palace. The majority of our tourism is the German-speaking world, which is mainly, Germany, Austria, Switzerland. The second biggest market is the United Kingdom, followed by France, Italy and Spain. The Asian market is now increasing as well from a tourism point of view. Especially we can see interest from China, Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia. Next I would say are the Americans, then to a smaller extent, the South Pacific. Naturally we are in the Middle East, the largest numbers of our customers are the Middle Eastern clients from all our neighboring countries.
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