Projects are successful when they are developed by a team

Before any hotel project can be built, it has to be designed. CW speaks to Ronald O. Van Pelt, senior vice president, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG), about the issues that arise when designing hotels, and why it is so important for everybody involved to work together as a team.

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By  Colin Foreman Published  January 15, 2005

Projects are successful when they are developed by a team|~|55 VAV Body.jpg|~||~|Is this your first visit to Dubai?

No, I first came to Dubai in 1992, so I have been visiting the city for twelve years now. The first project I worked on here was what is now the Ritz Carlton, but back then was the Abjar Hotel and Beach Club, for one of the local families. At the time, they were creating one of the first truly five star products in Dubai, as hotels like the Burj Al Arab and the Meridien Mina Seyahi were still under construction. It was still early days for tourism in Dubai so there were no real high quality products.

Around that time we were trying to create hotels that really had a resort feel, because that is what the guest wants. When designing these hotels, you have to remember that a hotel experience starts the second that the guest enters the drive. Even a good business hotel should have a good entry experience, but unfortunately for many hotels in Dubai the experience is not very positive.

The construction work at Jumeirah Beach Residences and Dubai Marina seriously impacts on the entry experience of the hotels in the area. Could this problem have been alleviated when the hotels were designed?

Not really. When you see construction at a scale and magnitude of what is currently going on in that area there isn’t really anything you can do about it. When the existing hotels in that area were built in the mid 1990s, Dubai Marina as a concept didn’t even exist so it would have been fairly hard to predict.

I suppose the issue that should come up is long range masterplanning and forecasting for infrastructure and development phasing, because if the unexpected happens then it can have a serious impact on the hotel’s future customers.

The best answer is long term, large-scale planning and fully understanding that developments are phased, both in terms of implementation and construction. Dubai has a habit of developing in a piecemeal fashion with empty sites and construction in between because the planning has not been done.

Back in 1992, would it have been better if a long term strategy was in place for the Marina area then?
We met with people from Dubai Municipality and they had no idea. In those days, there was Dubal and Dewa in the area, and other than that most people thought it was the end of the world where no one in their right mind would build a hotel, let alone live.

Dubai has changed so quickly and so often that it is almost impossible to predict or keep up; no-one has a crystal ball that can see that far into the future.

You have to be very business-minded in this industry. I think there will be some shaking up in hospitality and certain projects will ultimately be successful, liked by customers and make money for the owners and operators, whereas others will look nice but be empty and fail as a business.

What is your overall impression of hotel design in Dubai? The Burj Dubai, for example, normally evokes a strong reaction.

For the Burj Dubai, you really have to look at what the brief was, and that hotel is not just a hotel. It had a much larger role to play by making a bold statement and putting Dubai on the map, but it does violate a lot of the rules of hospitality. I like the Emirates Towers Hotel for example. It’s an iconic building, but it breaks a lot of the rules.

Going back to the Burj Al Arab, that was created as an entirely different product and is sold and marketed as such. The question is whether there is a market for that product, and Dubai has proven there is, but an operator can’t have too many hotels like that in one marketplace and have a successful business.

What are your thoughts on Atlantis, and other themed hotels?
Themed hotels create a whole different product but you have to remember they are aimed at a different segment of the market. I stayed at the Royal Mirage a few years ago, but I was there to do business and it was very inconvenient. The room didn’t have the things you need as a businessman. There wasn’t a table large enough to roll out a set of drawings onto, for example.

When you build a resort hotel like that you are really creating an opportunity for people to escape and unwind. If you provide the right mix of amenities then these hotels can be very successful. These hotels are clearly different to a business hotel next to a trade centre, but if they have good meeting facilities that allow the operator to combine spa packages or spousal packages, then they can attract business travellers.

Can you have a business hotel in a resort environment then?
I think you can. But it has to be done very carefully because creating an artificial resort on a downtown site doesn’t normally work. There are a few of the older hotels that have been here for a long time like the Metropolitan that has tried to be both a resort and business hotel, and I am not sure it has been done all that well.

You have to recognise that when you are in a business environment, it is an urban environment and a business hotel should reflect that, but at the same time there are things that can be done to make it a relaxed atmosphere. A good example is the Shangri-La hotel where the their pool is on top of the parking structure behind the hotel, so it’s quieter and more removed from Sheikh Zayed Road.

Amenities like this don’t take up a great amount of land, but they have been designed mindfully to allow the customers to relax.

I believe this is important because people ultimately like relaxing environments. If you have been caught up inside conferences and meetings all day, then you want somewhere to relax in the evening.

Is masterplanning growing as a discipline as mass developments become more popular?

WATG has designed masterplans for 30 years now, so it’s not a new discipline. What has happened with the hospitality business is that it has moved from one-off hotels to multiple use developments that incoporate a variety of different components, and to make these developments work you need a masterplan. The discipline has become much more sophisticated with the large projects that are now under development, and now involves elements of urban design as well.

It is crucial that developers understand the importance of the masterplanning process, because if their developments are to be successful, they have to be long-term stakeholders that provide the infrastructure backbone that makes a project a success.

If all the developer does is create plots and sell dirt then there won’t be any real control. A developer must invest in all the pieces that turn a development into a true community.

Elements like schools and parks have to be built to make somewhere a viable place to live. I have certainly seen this approach being adopted by Emmar, which recognises it needs to be a long term player that makes sure its developments are carried out properly.

Are there any different design issues you confront when working in the Middle East?

That’s a good question, but I would like to take a slightly different spin on it. One of the reasons that firms like WATG are successful in this market is that we bring all the experience and lessons we have learned in North America and other mature markets like Europe. A lot of development clients in the Middle East have travelled extensively around the world and they have seen for themselves what works and what doesn’t.

At the same time, I also think it is important to recognise that these models cannot simply be cut and pasted and built in the Middle East. You have to be very mindful of local patterns like the typical working week. People in the Middle East like to go shopping in the evenings with their families, which brings an entirely different set of customer demographics into play.

You also have to realise that the clients and culture are really diverse. I think that is one of the mistakes that a lot of people who work and travel make is that they tend to give the Middle East the broad brush treatment and regard it as one place. That simply isn’t true; the people from Saudi Arabia are quite different from the people from Oman who are different from the people from the UAE. All of these things influence the way that things are designed. Religion is also important; a hotel must be able to function during Ramadan for example.

If you are a good businessman, you have to do your homework before you come to a marketplace and that is true for anything, including design. Designers need to spend a lot of time looking at construction technology issues, how buildings are built in this market, and what works and what doesn’t. Things are done quite differently in the USA for example, where for reasons of materials, labour or workmanship a different approach may be taken.

Contractors regularly comment on the fact that there is so little time to complete a project. How does that affect design work?

Time is probably the number one problem that designers face when working in the region. The analogy I like to use is that is that, ‘You can send more ships across the ocean but they don’t get there any faster.’ In other words, you can throw lots of people and resources at a project, but it doesn’t mean it will get done any faster.

The way things are contracted has to change. Things go out to tender with very schematic designs, huge amounts of provisional sums and lots of risk and it’s left up to the design team and the project managers and contractors to work some magic to get the job done.

One of the big problems I have noticed on sites is that the contractors often do a lot of coordination with sub contractors because the drawings are not much more than schematic designs. This shouldn’t happen; the design has to be developed by the design team and it has to be co-ordinated, which takes time. If this isn’t done, then somebody has to fill in the blanks, and often it is the contractors who are forcing the situation. I have seen projects where specialist suppliers do a lot of design work so that the contractor can keep up with the construction.

Design is like a three-legged stool; it’s difficult to balance. The legs represent time, money and quality. If you saw off one of the legs, then the other two will suffer and the stool will fall over. In other words, you can’t finish a project more quickly unless you want to spend more money, or settle for less quality.

This is just my feeling, but what I often see is that projects that are pushed so hard don’t end up getting finished any faster.

Dubai Marina is a good example. Emaar took about three years to build those towers. The foundations went into the ground early on, but it then stood still for a while because the design was not anywhere near close to going out for tender. What did they save? They got going with a piling package really fast but then they stood empty for ten months. These are the realities of developing large sophisticated projects.

Another good example is the Mall of the Emirates. That project spent a huge amount of time in design, but now it is going really fast because it is being built using a good set of documents that are well co-ordinated because the design teams had the time to do it right.

Do you think the situation is improving and people are taking those lessons on board?

Some projects are still promised with very unrealistic time frames. The Palm Jumeirah is a good example. Why set such unrealistic deadlines and then disappoint everybody? Why not just say it will take two years longer and have a programme and strategy to implement it in a sensible way rather than make promises and then miss deadlines. Although Nakheel is strong as a developer, there is always a danger that they are going to ruin their reputation because they have over promised and under delivered. Other development companies have made these mistakes and paid the price.

On the other hand, I have worked with good clients here who seem to be pretty honest and understand what it takes to deliver a good project.

The problem at the moment is that the market is hot, so everyone wants to have products to sell, and people are selling things off plan. There has to be a reality check somewhere. Some won’t work, some won’t have the quality, and some just aren’t going to be delivered.

Another interesting question is how many good contractors are there that can build large complex projects? Dubai has become a boomtown.

Experienced technical staff are hard to come by and people who were just intermediate and junior staff before are now working in senior positions because the talent pool isn’t big enough. This problem is overcome by bringing in people from other parts of the world who bring a lot of experience to the table, but don’t have the experience of working here, which is crucial.

Can designers make the issues faced by the contractor any easier?

Yes. A lot of the large complex projects we do are either negotiated with the contractor or there is some involvement from a construction specialist who looks at the various construction issues that a project faces.

Good design firms know that it’s a team sport. When I see
projects go wrong it’s usually because someone has over promised. If you are honest and realistic with all those involved in the project, then it should be a success.||**||

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