The days of restaurants keeping the same faded carpet for years on end to save a few pennies are long gone. Professionals from some of the region’s top outlets tell Lucy Taylor how an interior design overhaul can help drive business
In the eyes of many F&B operators running a business in the Middle East today, revamping their venue’s interior design simply equates to spending money — not something which is high on the list of priorities right now, given the current economic circumstances.
But it’s time to change that opinion and start thinking more along the ‘spend money to make money’ track.
The industry is increasingly coming to accept that consumers are still spending money on dining out: they just want more bang for their buck. As a result, outlets need to deliver the atmosphere, the décor, the service and the food — they need to create a whole F&B experience and those that cannot deliver will lose out on custom; it’s as simple as that.
So although, on the surface, giving your outlet’s interior an overhaul before the cloud of economic gloom has lifted may seem a rash move, it could in fact give your business the boost it needs to succeed.
Time for a change
Emirates Golf Club’s venerable French fine-dining restaurant Le Classique emerged from a seven-month refurbishment in December 2008.
“Le Classique has been in existence for 20 years and in a city with one of the most dynamic food and beverage industries, it is important to ensure outlets are modernised to keep pace with competitors,” explains Emirates Golf Club general manager Chris May.
“This reassures your clientele that you are aware of changing trends, concepts and market standards and can adjust accordingly.
“The previous décor really reflected the era in which the restaurant was launched,” continues May. “Our own assessment as well as the feedback from our restaurant patrons and club members reinforced the fact that an update was due.”
At Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel and Towers, the Creekside restaurant also underwent a considerable refurbishment, between July 2008 and January 2009. Deputy general manager Antony Wade admits this was because the interior was “outdated and needed a new look to suit the market and be more competitive”.
“In addition, the exhaust system needed boosting and the buffets were set based on a temporary arrangement, which we have now been able to replace with chilled units, induction units and a fixed buffet-counter concept,” he adds.
Other outlets taking the plunge recently were Kempinski Hotel Ajman, which refitted its Lobby Lounge and Café on First outlets last summer, and the Al Bustan Palace InterContinental Muscat in Oman, which spent 22 months closed undergoing a massive refurbishment across almost the entire property.
The hotel’s general manager and IHG’s director of operations for Oman, Tony Zamora, expands: “We have six restaurants: the all-day dinning restaurant Al Khiran; the modern-French VUE by Shannon Bennett; Chinese restaurant China Mood; seafood outlet The Beach Pavilion; Al Maha, a restaurant and bar; and Omani restaurant Seblat Al Bustan.
“Out of these six, four were completely renovated — Al Khiran, VUE by Shannon Bennett, The Beach Pavilion and Al Maha.
“Each restaurant was designed to complement the cuisine served; diners have to be comfortable with the setting, otherwise they will not enjoy the food as much,” he asserts.
According to Zamora, the principal aim of the renovation was to bring new concepts into the hotel and the city — “such as introducing the signature Shannon Bennett restaurant, which is unique to the property and the first of its kind in Oman,” he points out.
Meanwhile, the philosophy behind the renovations at Kempinski was “to adapt to the local culture in terms of service and to also reflect it in the hardware”, says director of sales and marketing Marissa Garcia Olm.
“For these two outlets, it only felt natural to use the renovation to add an Arabic flavour to them.”
The starting point for any F&B interior revamp is to select a design company and formulate a plan for the new outlet, creating a balance between accommodating the desired ambience and the necessary practicalities.
Emirates Golf Club’s May explains that the new design for Le Classique employed “warm, neutral earth tones tied into a contemporary design”, to ensure that the refurbishment didn’t simply follow a trend and had a lasting, timeless style.
“Traditional, natural fibres such as wood, leather and plush wool carpets add to this cosy, almost lounge room type setting. However this is contrasted by metallic fleur-de-lis type decals on the windows and a mod-styled backlit glass bar,” May explains.
The Creekside Restaurant at Sheraton now sports a contemporary Asian theme, with a strong focus on Japanese influences.
“What is also more visible now are the live cooking stations, which are a big draw,” adds Wade.
At Al Bustan Palace, Zamora says the new VUE by Shannon Bennett outlet has made an intimate and exclusive addition to the Oman dining scene.
“The décor is just as exciting and intriguing as the cuisine itself,” he comments. “The colourful paintings, Murano glass vases, original chandeliers and hand-painted glass panels that line the centre of the restaurant are extremely unique.”
Meanwhile, the traditional theme devised for Kempinski’s outlets has resulted in “an extraordinarily welcoming and cosy ambience,” according to Garcia Olm.
But having a clear idea of what your freshly designed outlet will look like — and how successful it will consequently be — does not mean there aren’t challenges to be faced along the way.
“In any renovation, particular with an older building, some compromises need to be made,” warns Emirates Golf Club’s May. “But for us, the biggest challenge of all was the actual closure itself, leaving the club with only two dining outlets to service all of our members and loyal patrons for six months.”
Sheraton’s Wade agrees that a restaurant being out-of-action for a prolonged period is a major issue — and notes that delays, although expected, can be extremely frustrating.
“We experienced delays in deliveries of some hardware as well as encountering some technical issues with regards to ventilation and extraction,” he recalls.
Kempinski’s Garcia Olm agrees that redesign is an unwelcome disturbance for any business.
“The works caused some disruption to the normal traffic of guests through the property; ensuring the understanding from their side was crucial and challenging at the same time,” she says — but notes that the end results were worth the wait.
Another key point that operators must take into consideration is not only their own views and wishes regarding a brand new theme for their outlet, but also the wishes of their clientele.
Al Bustan’s Zamora claims that over the years, the hotel has “become an integral part of Muscat and Oman”.
“It has been a part of the tourism surge and, more importantly, it has been the guest house for many visiting heads of state and dignitaries over the years,” he explains.
“With this in mind we had to ensure that any changes to interior design took into account the views and demands of our loyal guests who continue to stay with us.”
Interior design impact
Refurbishing an outlet requires time, money, patience and understanding — from customers as well as outlet staff. The big question is, do the ends justify the means?
Emirates Golf Club’s May is keen to emphasise that the decision to revamp the classic Le Classique has “definitely had a positive impact on business”.
“The food quality has not changed, so we have retained our fiercely loyal clientele. However business levels have definitely increased and the feedback we receive is that the décor now matches the food quality,” he explains.
Kempinski’s Garcia Olm is equally enthusiastic, saying that guests at the refurbished outlets “feel so comfortable in the plush surroundings that the turnaround of tables actually takes longer”.
Al Bustan’s Zamora believes the hotel-wide refurbishment brought the outlet interiors in line with the standards expected from guests visiting the established property — but feels the inclusion of the new VUE outlet has really put Al Bustan on the region’s F&B map.
“The dining experience at VUE by Shannon Bennett is so unique, that people travel from different parts of the world just to try it out,” he asserts.
“But of course we also enhanced our whole range of F&B offerings, so now our customers have more choice.”
At Creekside, the new look has also been well received by the regular clientele — although Wade notes that “under the present economical climate, it is difficult to assess whether the business would have increased if the conditions had not changed from the first half of 2008”.
Right time for a refurb?
Despite the trials and tribulations of outlet redesign, the end results appear overwhelmingly positive: but when push comes to shove, would F&B operators with experience of refurbishing within the past couple of years recommend the same course of action to other businesses? Sheraton’s Wade says most definitely.
“This is best time to invest in the future; during times like these, fewer guests are impacted by the inconveniences of construction and this conveys a positive outlook to our guests,” he points out. “The current economic climate is exactly that, current — and thus it is advisable to reinvest in the business so that as the climate improves, you have a competitive edge and can capture more than a fair share of your market.”
However Emirates Golf Club’s May says he does not believe refurbishments should necessarily taking place simply to capitalise on economic situation; he sees such rejuvenation as a matter of course in this fast-paced market.
“The dynamic nature of Dubai’s F&B industry means that outlets cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Outlets need to keep their finger on the pulse and with new and innovative concepts opening weekly, it is so important to reinforce what makes your product special,” he emphasises.
Al Bustan’s Zamora agrees that outlets in the Middle East need to “continuously offer something new to their customers to maintain loyalty and attract new business”.
“Interior design is just as important as maintaining the quality of food and service; if first impressions count, then the overall ambiance must impress,” he insists.
But like Sheraton’s Wade, Zamora cites the current economic climate as a boon for the interior design industry.
“Most businesses are taking a closer look at growth strategies during the recession; it’s a time for reflection and for taking steps to improve their F&B offerings,” he says.
“For restaurants, refurbishments are a great way to make a statement and remain competitive. Customers are becoming more discerning during the financial downturn; they will only spend money if they feel they are getting real value.”
The lesson is clear: outlets that are losing their competitive edge should not be afraid to embrace a new interior concept.
But at the same time it’s important to remember that redesign is not just about grabbing hold of the latest, craziest trend and spending a fortune plastering it all over your outlet.
It’s about making a careful, considered decision regarding the future of your business; and done correctly, you will undoubtedly see your new interior paying dividends.
Meet the supplier
Five minutes with…
Schröno chief executive, Dr Franz-Hendrik Schröder
What products do you supply to the Middle East F&B industry?
Schröno has been creating and manufacturing individual upholstered furniture for more than 40 years. Each piece is an original, created with perfection and loving attention to detail. The brand has a reputation for quality that is recognised worldwide — 100% handmade in Germany.
Which new lines of yours should outlets ready to refurbish look out for?
Schröno has launched the ‘Individual’ programme, whereby the customer can choose exactly what they want from more than 10,000 combination options of the finest fabrics, best leather and shapes and dimensions.
Some of the most popular lines are our Vintage and Bernstein models: Vintage comes with the typical fresh Italian design using outstanding Etro fabrics, while Bernstein expresses luxury through the incorporation of precious Swarowski crystals. Another new series is Maharaja, covered with the finest natural leather from water buffalo. This lasting leather, combined with an OrthoAktiv interior — a visco-elastic, temperature-sensitive foam — makes it the leader in comfort and durability.
Where can buyers find your products in this region?
Italco International LLC
Tel: +971 4 285 3135