Event Review: Bar & Nightlife conference

Caterer's forum debated the changing face of the UAE's nightlife
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Training is important in the nightlife industry, but so is personality, which cannot be taught.
Training is important in the nightlife industry, but so is personality, which cannot be taught.

Nearly 75 members of the bar and nightlife industry gathered to participate in the second annual Caterer Middle East Bar & Nightlife Forum, held on October 7, 2013, at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. It was themed around creating new customer experiences, and changing the face of the nightlife industry in the region, and comprised a series of panel discussions.

Throughout the day, a variety of industry issues were tackled by the bar, operations and outlet managers who discussed the opportunities for growth and debated key challenges facing the industry, with input from the panel’s peers in the audience trickling in.

SURVIVING THE EVOLUTION OF THE INDUSTRY

The first panel, titled ‘Surviving the evolution of the UAE nightlife scene’, delved into the competitive nature of the local market and what it takes for bar and nightclub operators to achieve longevity.

Moderated by Media One Hotel director of operations Luke James, the panel included The VIP Room general manager Nikolas Pazvadis, and Whitelabel operations manager Hayan Abou Assali.

It’s not all local concepts that are sprouting in the region, and this was tackled head-on. “International brands have come to Dubai and have made the market more competitive here,” said Assali. “A lot of changes have happened here, and it’s multi-cultural. People are looking for better service and quality.”

Pazvadis said: “The market is growing. We have seen an 8% increase in population in Dubai in the last 18 months. It’s not about fighting for a little market share; you just have to maintain consistency in what you offer.”

Assali asserted that venues in the Middle East “are surviving with consistency of service, quality and entertainment”. Pazvadis said the great thing about Dubai is that people appreciate a point of difference, including staff members, equipment used, international DJs and acts.

He added that there is a market for different concepts like warehouse parties hosted by Media One Hotel, and said there are concepts the UAE nightlife scene has not yet witnessed. James met with a chorus of agreement from the crowd at this point by saying he thought that there’s too much of the same in Dubai’s nightlife scene.

Door policies and reservation policies have often been subjects of contention, with many nightlife venues charging for entry and more. Pazvadis was against the practice and said: “I haven’t heard anyone charging for entry for a very long time. The last time I heard anyone charging for entry was in London. It’s horrific.”

Assali said while Cavalli Club has free entrance, its door policy is a useful way of controlling entry into the venue. James admitted his venues have been known to turn people away who are “over-dressed”. He said it’s amazing how “dressed up people get these days”. Pazvadis said it is because there is a perception of Dubai nightlife that you have to get dressed up and there has to be a spotlight on at all times.

An audience question raised the issue of whether people are coming to Dubai just for its nightlife — does nightlife tourism exist in this region? Pazvadis replied in the affirmative and said 60% of the VIP Rooms clientele are jet-setters, with the remaining living in the city. Assali said people do come to Cavalli Club because of its international brand status.

Guaranteeing ROI on conceptual design was another point of discussion. Pazvadis said there are two things needed for this: design that encourages staff efficiency and visually stimulating attention to detail.

Training was briefly touched upon where Assali said the turnover rate in the nightlife sector was very high, and more than anything seen in other parts of the hospitality industry.

WORKING NIGHTS

The next issue dealt on the day continued with the training and workforce topic. Titled ‘Building a High Performance Workforce’, moderated by Gates Hospitality CEO Naim Maadad, who was joined on stage by Hakkasan Dubai beverage manager Angus McGregor; The Act Dubai general manager Jean Marc Petrus; Sheraton Mall of the Emirates outlets manager Dinesh Tewari; and Conrad Dubai operations manager Richard Haddon.

The panel got its teeth into the idea of venues that seem to mushroom overnight — which ones will have more staying power than others and how do you get that X factor that makes an outlet successful? Haddon kicked off the debate by outlining the hotel’s strategy to spend more on more experienced staff, as most hotels “hire 10 people on low wages to do one person’s job”. The hotel has also flown in bartenders and, according to Haddon: “people you would never normally see working in a hotel in Dubai” from Europe. “It’s quite refreshing to see things have moved forward from the way things have been,” he added.

Petrus said it was important to look after the employees well — housing, transportation access, and time to explore the city. Training was quickly considered as well, and he said: “You can spend a lot of money on training, but you can’t replace personality.” This would be important to decide which position to place your employees in. In addition, there should always be the option for growth and training in different areas of the venue.

Haddon agreed, and admitted that there are people in the industry who go far because they take it so seriously, but from a customer-perspective, if they have the right personality then it’s easy to train them.

Maadad then declared that Dubai has become too used to having a ‘subservient’ service culture. Petrus raised a chuckle from the audience when he replied to this with: “Human beings are sheep.” He added that people like to be engaged and told, with the future of service moving from a ‘master-servant’ dynamic, to become more personal on first name basis.

Tewari said that when making hiring decisions, it’s important to decide whether each person is fit for the job or not, and whether he or she has the passion for the job. “As far as empowerment is concerned, I give my employees the freedom to make decisions,” he added.

Maadad asked the panellists what was the magic secret to keeping people for a long period of time. Petrus said it was about open lines of communication, where more approachable workplaces are a draw for people.

If staff members can be enticed away with 100 dirhams, then it speaks about the mentality of the employers, according to McGregor. He added that independent venues can get rid of the HR department system and deal with staff at a one-on-one basis. This has caused staff turnover at the restaurant to fall as staff enjoy the environment that they work in.

“The Dubai marketplace is opening up, and new operators are bring a new ethos. I think in some respects the market place in Dubai has been at a standstill for a while, so it’s nice for us to be moving forward,” McGregor added.

Haddon joined in and revealed that since pre-opening the Conrad Dubai has lost one person out of a staff of 150. However, he predicted that he will eventually lose staff to independent venues who typically spend more on staff than hotels.

Maadad went on to ask at this point when will hotels make the move to match independent pay scales, and realise that they don’t need 100 cheap staff but some that know their job well.

Haddon said each restaurant in the Conrad Dubai has its own budget to allow for hiring the right staff. “Some hoteliers don’t have the experience of working in an independent background and stepping outside the SOPs,” he added. “They are coming around to see that you don’t need 10 people to do one person’s job.”

ATTRACTING THE CROWD

The last session of the day, moderated by Caterer Middle East editor Devina Divecha, focused on creating customer experiences.

The industry experts lending their wisdom to the crowd included: Fine Dining Ltd (Ruth Chris’ Steak House) general manager Ghazi Azzabi; Solutions Leisure operations manager Sacha Daniel; and Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s bar manager – 360 Motorga Heathcliff. The panel was asked how important is it to offer quality services, products and entertainment in order to attract and retain clientele?

Azzabi got the party started by stating how Ruth’s Chris has increased sales at its bar by 40% by introducing a more casual offering and atmosphere. Daniel agreed and argued that Dubai is too top end and has to do more to introduce middle markets.

Heathcliff said: “There will always be something new and interesting, new concepts here reflect what is happening worldwide.” However, Azzabi said you need to be very careful not to dilute your brand or product while catering to customer demands. “The Chicago formula doesn’t work here. The hospitality business in general is about people, it’s about the people that make the event happen, it’s about the people that make the service happen, and it’s about the people that make the experience — that makes people come back.”

Experiences are not just what make outlets stand out — it’s concept and design. Heathcliff said brands need to identify themselves and really need to know what they want to do. “As Ghazi said, what works outside doesn’t work here. You need to adapt.” Azzabi added that everything a brand does needs to be customer-centric; if it wasn’t, it would not be successful in the market.

The panellists talked trends, with Daniel saying people loved having sushi on their nightlife menu, introduced at Karma Kafé. He said: “People expect to see something different. A lot of places now offer an interactive service with its food and drinks.”

Azzabi agreed and said interaction is one of the most important elements of the business. “It’s all about listening and being able to detect signals to be able to tell what the customer wants,” he added.

Moving onto drinks, Heathcliff described his venues cocktail menu as an ‘experience’, with using smoke and other showman-like tricks being very popular because “people like to see a little flame”. However, he also warned: “But if you want your bar tenders to create these drinks, then you have to pay them well.” He said lately this has been the trend with owners realising that if you want to keep someone, they have to be rewarded well.

Dress code and security was the next topic, with each panel member able to recount examples of when big spenders at their venues have come up against security for dress code violations.

“Once we had someone come in and spend AED 550,000 on dinner a few years ago,” said Azzabi about a night at Ruth’s Chris, “and he came back the next night wearing linen trousers and flip flops and the security guy didn’t let him in.” Azzabi said he had to intervene at this point. “So it just goes to show that door policy can be very critical, and as a manager you have to keep an eye on the door, and the inside as well, so anything doesn’t affect the rest of your clientele.”

Both Daniel and Heathcliff pointed out there is a distinction between the day and night crowd, and take decisions based on an individual basis as well.

Azzabi said the manager of every outlet needs to be vigilant and not completely leave entrance policies to those stationed at the door. He explained: “The last thing you want to do is make a wrong call. It’s all about trust. If a customer who is a regular, or even if he’s not, is expecting a certain experience, and is handled by a young member of the team who may not have the knowledge to do so, it reflects on us as to how we handle our customers. So it’s very important our managers are there to make the final decisions.”

With that, the Bar & Nightlife 2013 forum concluded, with feedback from delegates asserting it was a great venue to catch up with peers. Email devina.divecha@itp.com with your thoughts as to the hot topics for the 2014 edition.

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