In late 2015, Aiana Hotels & Resorts joint managing director and CEO Amruda Nair met with Hotelier Qatar to discuss her entrepreneurial ambition of ‘challenging the hospitality status quo’ in Qatar — a year later and her progress has exceeded all expectations. “We’re kicking off phase two now. We have got a little over 1,000 rooms under management at the moment, eight hotels across three jurisdictions, so it has been busy months since we last spoke,” Nair begins.
Among the many noteworthy developments, perhaps the most prominent is the recent shift in gears, from seeking greenfield projects in phase one, to rebranding existing properties in phase two of its strategy. “Originally I was keen on greenfield projects that were built for us and that could demonstrate what our brand stood for, but now that we have got enough properties under management that can showcase what our brand is all about; phase two is going to look at existing hotels that can be reflagged under Aiana.”
Nair suggests there are two main reasons for this change: “Number one because we have got enough inventory now and are looking at adding more fairly quickly, and two, we have covered the key locations we set out to do, so looking at mature markets like UAE there are is a lot of existing inventory that would fit our brand and they’re built to international standards, so the conversations are a lot easier.” Nair also adds that the land prices in destinations like Dubai make greenfield projects less appealing, suggesting it becomes more challenging in these times — so conversions make more sense from an investment perspective. “It [conversions] helps us come to market a lot faster, especially with owners looking for a change, or to refresh and brings new ideas.”
Phase two of the Aiana Hotels & Resorts story, which is set to last two years, looks at Middle East hospitality, specifically targeting United Arab Emirates and Oman. “We are talking about one million Indian travellers every year coming to Dubai, they are the key source market now, overtaking China, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Kingdom — so I think it is the right time for our brand to enter the market.” She adds: “The UAE has a huge outbound market within a four hour flight — 20 flights per day from any Indian city — this is a tremendous movement between locations.”
While Nair admits she would like to expand the company’s presence in Qatar at the same time, she notes that the company aims to target UAE and Oman quickly, so as not to lose the momentum already built in these locations. “We’d like to do a resort and a full-service hotel in Doha’s West Bay – same with KSA, we’d like to enhance our presence there too. We have a foot hold in these locations, but we’d like to also be in Dammam and Jaddah, so we still look at enhancing our presence in these markets.”
There are many different reasons behind the phase two expansion plans in Oman, as Nair highlights. “Our focus in terms of inventory has been fairly city- centric, so Oman will allow us to explore the leisure side — there are tremendous landscapes and unexplored territories in terms of creating destinations and experience-driven resorts.”
She continues: “Particularly looking at destination weddings, it takes a different set-up and Oman has unexplored areas and a lot more to been seen in terms of brand and product — lots of opportunity exists here, and with similar source markets to UAE.”
Commenting on the potential competition in Oman and the strategy for growth, Nair says: “What helps us differentiate from the competition in Oman, is that we are a home-grown brand with regional presence. Having presence in KSA was a game-changer for us as a new brand, particularly when creating awareness for a market that size.” On the particular strategy for growing in Oman, Nair says: “Synergies exist, and our ‘hub and spoke’ model of growth has worked for us in India: targeting one gateway city with a key international airport then looking at destinations within a three to four hour drive.” She suggests this same model will work in the Middle East too.
As the company enters phase two of its journey, with eyes on Saudi Arabia, Nair says: “Aiana has already signed eight hotels in the Kingdom and there are four with “boots on the ground”.
Aiana Makkah is a 614 inventory property, but what we’re looking to do differently, is bring in the Indian service elements and a multi cuisine restaurant catering to all our source markets. When it comes to décor we looked at streamlining to make it compatible. People tend to go in groups to KSA on pilgrimage, so we look at storage elements and lighting too, to make it relaxed for pilgrimage guests. Now that we have gone from signing more to project development so we are looking at the design phase.”
She adds: “Every property is unique to its location, whether its colour, texture, interior design. For example a guest waking up in a villa will immediately know which part of the world they are in because you have that immediate sense of place.”
“We always said a large part of Aiana would be technology 2.0. And so we are interested in developing customised on-site engagement tools. To enhance customer engagement — a huge part is the guest feedback mechanisms that technology can offer. We are trying to get feedback earlier on during the guest stay — rather than at check out, or after.
“We are able to get constant feedback via an app in smaller ways, and then tweak the service during the stay. The smartphone app is capable of knowing guests’ location and it will render a pop-up notification — it is not intrusive, it will only activate when you open the app, so if you ordered a drink it would ask you about the service you encountered.”
Nair ends by highlighting the biggest challenges phase two represents: “Delivering within timelines — that just the nature of the business, the time between building, obtaining regulations and approvals. We have very little control over these things — so keeping on schedule is a big challenge.”