The outer limits
A large part of the Middle East’s appeal comes from beautiful natural settings and sunny weather, which outdoor outlets have been quick to capitalise on. But with F&B competition steadily heating up, will the sun continue to shine on al fresco operators?
The Middle East has enjoyed great success as a holiday destination, primarily because of three key attributes: sun, sand and sea.
When you factor in the stunning natural scenery as well as some extremely impressive man-made attractions, it is clear that outdoors is the place to be — a point that F&B outlets across the region have been quick to pick up on.
The result has seen al fresco F&B offerings blossom in line with the hospitality industry boom around the Middle East, with operators eager to reap the rewards of an outdoor element.
At Le Méridien Dubai, 18 restaurants and bars form an outdoor restaurant ‘village’, with the outlets offering outdoor seating and live entertainment to create a pleasant community feel.
Hilton Al Ain has just recently launched its first outdoor offering, Makani, located by the property’s ‘Pool Garden’ area, offering Arabic and Lebanese specialties freshly prepared at the table using a unique table grill concept — which of course would prove difficult for an indoor outlet.
And the exotic Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts consistently tries to maximise the external elements at its properties, according to assistant vice president F&B, Sriram Kailasam.
“As far as possible, our F&B outlets are designed to provide a sense of place; even for some of our indoor outlets, we incorporate the use of glass walls to provide a seamless sense of place,” he notes.
At the year-old Cove Rotana Resort in Ras Al Khaimah, it was decided during the design stages that each and every outlet should have a sizeable outdoor area.
“The al fresco seating areas are really one of the main features,” says director of F&B Armin Weller. “This is not your stereotypical set-up for the Middle East.
“Other hotels may have to create a sense of the outdoors inside, while we have the real thing. And this is one of the reasons why this property has taken off the way it has, and why people respond in the way they do; the outdoors is an integral part of the concept.”
Obviously the al fresco element plays a key role in attracting a guest to a venue; as Méridien Village Terrace head chef Gregorio Reodique comments, the ambiance of a place is “a major factor in making the evening memorable for a diner”.
But that does not mean this attractive-sounding dining set-up does not come with a whole host of challenges — primarily weather-related.
Hilton Al Ain operations manager Mikael Petersson comments: “Naturally an outdoor venue has unique requirements, but as long as you have systems and processes in place, these are manageable.
“Makani will operate as an F&B outlet throughout the year but we will adapt to the change in seasons with outdoor heaters and blankets for winter and cooling fans for the summer months,” he explains.
Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts has precise operation procedures in place, depending on the location and seasonality, reveals Kailasam.
“These include moving guests to alternative restaurants, removal of tableware, coordination of food to new tables and re-setting the restaurant in case the rain stops,” he elaborates.
According to Cove Rotana’s Weller, the key is to be flexible. “Of course the guests have to be understanding of the issues too,” he notes.
In addition to general ambient appeal, the great outdoors has the more concrete advantage of space. This means an al fresco outlet can host events and entertainment that might not be possible indoors, as Méridien Village’s Reodique notes.
“We have various events hosted at Méridien Village Terrace; for example on the occasion of the UAE’s 38th National Day we had live ice carving, with our artists creating statues of a falcon and Arabic coffee pot,” he says.
Hilton Al Ain’s Petersson agrees adding value to the al fresco experience is a good way of “fostering customer loyalty”.
“At Makani, we have enhanced the dining experience by adding quintessential Arabic elements like traditional shisha and an in-house oud player,” he says.
Located on the coast of Ras Al Khaimah, Cove Rotana is also playing to its strengths.
“We have made the most of the natural space in many ways,” explains Weller. “We offer barbeques and events on the beach — options that appeal to our clientele, who really enjoy being outdoors.”
It seems that, despite the growing numbers of outdoor offerings, guests just can’t get enough of the Middle East’s al fresco dining options.
The important thing for newcomers to remember is to play to the strengths of the space itself, and make the most of what is naturally available.
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“Besides the durable outdoor seating, our band is very much enjoyed by the guests! But overall it’s the whole setting and ambiance that brings them back time and time again.”
Gregorio Reodique, head chef, Méridien Village Terrace
“Less is definitely more in the case of outdoor outlets. The best and most memorable aspect of an outdoor outlet should be the view and natural ambience; and the decor should showcase it as much as possible. It should be an extension of the outside and should not be boxed in with too much ‘stuff’. Lighting, fans and heaters are requisites, but the space should be laid out primarily so that it relaxes the guests.”
Mikael Petersson, operations manager, Hilton Al Ain
“The lighting and soft furnishings, as these come together to create the right ambience and comfort for the guest’s overall comfort. And of course, the right location; along with ensuring everything comes together to complete the experience, such as matching cuisine.”
Sriram Kailasam, assistant vice president F&B, Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts