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MENAFN - Khaleej Times - 05/05/2009

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(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) Senior executives at two of the world?s best-known luxury hotel brands ? Sofitel and Ritz-Carlton ? have signed separate deals to manage five-star properties in the UAE and Egypt, the executives said on Monday.

Sofitel, the top-drawer brand of France's Accor SA hotel group, has agreed to manage one new hotel in Abu Dhabi and another in Dubai, both of them now under construction. Sofitel executives signed the agreements on Sunday.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, part of US-based Marriott International, Incorporated, will operate a new property in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, under a contract it signed with its partner on Monday.

The deals come at a time when Middle East tourism and business travel are suffering from the global economic slowdown, and they attest to the confidence both luxury brands have in the region's long-term potential to attract tourists and corporate visitors.

Sofitel is currently absent from the UAE, and the projects it plans here are part of a regional push by Accor in the Gulf. Sofitel expects to open in Abu Dhabi by the end of 2010 and in Dubai in the following year.

"It's perfect timing for us because Dubai is in a little bit of a soft turn right now, but it will come back," said Robert Gaymer-Jones, Chief Operating Officer of Sofitel Worldwide. He estimated that Dubai's tourism industry, a key pillar of the local economy, would take roughly 18 months to recover from the downturn.

"Abu Dhabi is a little more conservative in that it doesn't have as many hotel rooms as we have here in Dubai," he said.

Sofitel has partnered with separate companies in each of the two emirates, though Gaymer-Jones declined to identify them or to provide additional details about the new hotels. He said the partners would make a joint announcement in coming days.

Sofitel plans this July to open its first hotel in Dubai — the Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach — followed by one in Saudi Arabia, another in Bahrain and a second property in Dubai to be called the Jumeirah Palm Hotel. With its new projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Sofitel plans to have a total of six properties in the Gulf.

This expansion unfolds as Accor is reorganising its fanciest hotels under three different brands: "Legend," for its most historic hotels; "Sofitel," the mother brand; and an edgier, design-focused brand called "So."

"We'd love to put a 'So' into Dubai," Gaymer-Jones added.

Ritz-Carlton plans this summer to begin work to almost double the size of its flagship Ritz-Carlton, Dubai, which opened 11 years ago and has 138 rooms. The hotel currently has an occupancy rate of 85 per cent, which Simon Cooper, the company's President and Chief Operating Officer, said was "pretty high" in view of the sick economy. At this time last year, the hotel was 95 per cent full, he said.

Ritz-Carlton plans by the end of this year to open a second hotel in Dubai — a 340-room facility at the Dubai International Financial Centre — in partnership with Union Properties.

In its latest expansion in the Middle East, Ritz-Carlton has signed on to operate the 160-room Ritz-Carlton Cairo, Palm Hills, now being built "in the middle of the golf course" of a high-end residential development in Cairo. This property, owned by Egypt's Palm Hills Developments, is to open in 2011, Cooper said.

In January, Ritz-Carlton took over Cairo's old Nile Hilton, which it plans to close in September and spend two years refurbishing. "There's not one square foot of the hotel that's not being retouched," Cooper said, describing its back offices as "hideous."

The former Hilton will re-open in late 2011 as the Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo. Ritz-Carlton will manage it for its owner, a privately-owned Egyptian firm called Misr Hotels. Cooper said that Ritz-Carlton, a brand long synonymous with high-living and opulence, must learn to play down its reputation somewhat at a time of global financial pain.

"As we shake out of this economic downturn, we have to make sure our brand is associated with great experiences and not economic excess."

By Bruce Stanley


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