London hotels wooing big-spending Gulf guests with better understanding

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View of a VIP suite in Hilton Park Lane in London, UK. Photo – Parklanehilton.com

Visitors from the oil rich Gulf nations are arriving in the UK capital in great numbers, staying for up to a month in their preferred district of Mayfair and block-booking a bunch of top-tier suites and apartments, a Reuters report said on Thursday.

London hoteliers are tweaking their products, taking cultural sensitivities into consideration and working to understand a new generation of Middle-Eastern visitors in order to keep their numbers steady, the report added.

High-end Hilton Park Lane hotel has extended its opening hours of food and beverage outlets, and added a 24-hour room service with menus in Arabic language to entice its Arab clientele to spend more.

Middle-Eastern tourists make up one in four guests at Hilton Park Lane, a third of which are from the UAE. The property has seen visitor numbers from the top five Middle-Eastern markets grow by 21% year-on-year.

Halal meat is already being served across the board in many five star hotels.

The Middle-East is a 850,000-pound-a-year ($1.37bn) market for The Athenaeum. Its director of sales Stephen Fox thinks that smaller hotels like his are doing especially well from the Gulf because some guests want now to “let their hair down” when in London. Privacy and anonymity is therefore of paramount importance.

In an interview with Reuters, Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel general manager Ian Richardson said: “We have seen no significant shift in business in Jumeirah’s two London properties.”

In response to Reuters request to find out about the exact figures of Gulf guest arrivals, VisitBritain said there were 33% more Saudi visitors to the UK in 2011 compared with a year earlier, and 11% more from the UAE.

According to London and Partners, the capital’s marketing agency, Saudi Arabia and UAE visitors’ average spend was £1,770 ($2850) per person last year compared with £600 ($967) average for all markets, from the first to third quarters. This rose in the first quarter this year to £2,626 ($4232) for Saudis and £1,194 ($1925) for UAE.

The report noted that hotel booking patterns appear to be changing for the Middle-East market, as hotels can no longer expect full-price rack rates to be picked up by their oil-rich guests.

Ahmed El Barkouki, international sales director of The Savoy, where 10-12% of bookings hail from the Gulf, argues that though younger Middle-Eastern travellers still book higher room categories, especially the royal and presidential suites, their behaviour differs from their parents’ generation.

“They are very savvy in comparing prices and getting the best deals, so rate integrity and constantly engaging this generation is very important.”

Stephen Fox travels to the Middle-East once a year to meet clients. He said that price consciousness is growing among his rich Arab clientele. “Now they will sit with their iPads with their mates in their palace and compare the rates on Bookings.com with the rates given by the hotel,” he said.

All hoteliers interviewed by Reuters agreed that facilities, though important, come second to a sense of welcome.

At the Savoy, culture training is given to all new staff, so they can better interact with guests from emerging markets, and El Barkouki argues one of the Britain’s strongest assets is its tolerance and integration.

“This plays a huge part in making all the Middle East travellers always feel safe and comfortable travelling to the UK.”

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