London represents a home from home for many Middle Eastern guests in the summer months, a tradition which the capital's hoteliers have long been adept at nurturing by paying close attention to the cultural nuances that keep their treasured customers happy and keen to return year after year, as Gemma Sharkey discovers.
This year has been a tough one by anyone's standards and, for hotels in London, the summer season is often one of the hardest trading times of the year. But for some lucky operators, the annual influx of Middle Eastern families and visitors during August offers a much-needed lifeline.
Stuart Chappell, general manager of the Cumberland hotel in Marble Arch, explains: "London is the second home for people from the Middle East - particularly the Saudis. They have this link with us: their great-grandfathers would come here in the summer months, so now it's ingrained in their culture. They love it."
And, of course, the feeling is mutual. During these notoriously quiet months for conference and business guests, the Middle Eastern market - more so than ever this year - provides much-needed and looked-forward-to custom.
The market, says Chappell, represents 15% of the total occupancy across the two Guoman hotels throughout the year, generating an estimated annual revenue of £10m.
In the peak summer months alone, 500 rooms a night are occupied by Middle Eastern guests, which equates to about £75,000 a night, resulting in a whopping £3m total revenue in just a few short months.
And it's the same for the majority of the high-end hotels across the capital: the occupancy of Middle Eastern guests over the high summer season ranges from 31% at the Landmark hotel on Marylebone Road and 40% at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in Knightsbridge, to 60% at the Royal Garden hotel in Kensington. An average stay is between two and eight weeks, especially for families, and repeat bookings hover around the 60% mark, with some hotels seeing as high as 75% repeat bookings.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that cultivating this market is well worth going the extra mile for. Which is why London hotels habitually provide Arabic newspapers, increase the number of Arabic TV channels available, and prepare their forecourts for a deluge of Lamborghinis and Ferraris.
Anthony Stewart-Moore, general manager at the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane, says the staff at his hotel are finely attuned to the guests' demands because of the high level of repeat visitors. "Some of our guests have been coming back for 45 years. Some leave their luggage, their personal library and cars and say they'll be back in nine months' time. We really are like a second home to them."
This level of personalised service is also practised at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower, where general manager Derek Picot keeps a very detailed guest history of its Middle Eastern clients, including one particular guest who has his curtains closed at sunset each day for prayer. "But since that time moves a minute-and-a-half each day, we employ someone to stay late until sunset to turn the rooms down," Picot adds.
The hotels also employ Arabic-speaking members of staff in the key positions of front of house, concierge and room service order-taking duty and, at Grosvenor House, guests are given key contact cards listing all the Arabic-speaking members of staff who are "always available to help them".
The high-end hotels favoured by Middle Eastern guests also employ full-time Middle Eastern chefs, either for the entire year or for the summer duration, who are well versed in Islamic food laws and able to whip up Lebanese-style offerings from specialist menus translated into Arabic.
Non-Arabic-speaking staff also attend cultural briefings before the high season begins to learn how best to cater for the Middle Eastern guest. Francis Green, general manager at the Landmark hotel, says: "Our Middle Eastern director of sales has worked here for 20 years looking after the market and gives our staff a cultural briefing. He covers how to greet them, how to behave, what they like and don't like, courtesies, and little idiosyncrasies of the culture - such as the fact that they keep their watches set to Middle Eastern timing, so like to get up late and don't want a turn-down at the normal time, but later."
Tim Fryer, food and beverage manager at the Royal Garden hotel, says his team also has to shift its daily business pattern post-sunset and pre-sunrise.
The hotel also employs 20% more staff in the evenings and overnight to accommodate these guests' needs. Fryer said: "The Middle- Eastern guests tend to stay in bed until very late, so will have their breakfast at two in the afternoon, but, as they normally eat in their rooms, it doesn't affect the restaurant opening times, which are not changed."
Green adds that housekeeping staff also start later during the summer period to carry out the turn-downs; while at Grosvenor House the main meeting point for the Middle Eastern guests, the Park Room, also remains open later. Grosvenor House also employs staff to keep its garage open until 3am - it normally closes at 11pm - as many Middle Eastern guests have their cars flown over for the summer period.
Aside from the timing and food and beverage choices, some other differences that hoteliers face when catering for Middle Eastern customers is their abstinence from alcohol - usually a key revenue provider for the food and beverage division. But a number of hoteliers say they make up for the lost revenue in the increase in requests for room service - usually the highest in the year - and the sales of water and soft drinks.
The Royal Garden sees between a 100% and 300% increase in room service sales over the summer period and minibar increases of between 250% and 400%. "Although revenues for an average month tend to be relatively small, the percentage increases are quite significant," Fryer says.
According to Picot, this penchant for room service stems from the Middle Eastern crowd's preference to eat from a buffet. "Where we pick from a menu, they eat with their eyes," he explains.
"They also like to demonstrate their generosity by putting on a lavish spread without a bill at the end. In their suites they eat in comfort the way they couldn't in a restaurant. Our staff are also trained to serve all the food at the same time, which again shows the lavishness of the host's hospitality." In some cases, in-room dining also allows the more traditional Middle Easteners to eat in separate rooms for men and women.
The fact that Middle Eastern guests do stay for extended periods may be great for business, but occasionally leads to guests feeling a little too "at home". Chappell recalls a time his housekeeper had been forced to confiscate a washing machine from a Saudi Arabian family who were staying for three months. "They had tried to plumb it into the bathroom and it had started leaking. It was quite funny, really."
Chappell says that, in the high season, he also confiscates around six cookers a week because the guests like to cook in their rooms, but this sets the smoke alarms off. This is also the case with the burning of incense, which is also discouraged. Fryer says: "We advise our guests about burning incense in their rooms, as there have been occasions when our extremely sensitive smoke detector picks it up and we've had to evacuate the whole hotel. We've learnt from those times."
The observation of Arabic traditions that keep men and women separate also affects the amount of time the guests spend in the room. Chappell says that, sometimes, the men and women sleep in shifts, so the men will go out in the evening and stay out all night, which is when the women sleep. "So the women then end up sitting in the lobby all day waiting for the men to get up to be able to go to the rooms. The rooms end up seeing twice the occupancy!"
As well as being culturally sensitive, hotels are also well prepared to assist guests with their religious needs. The Cumberland transforms its conference rooms into prayer rooms; Grosvenor House puts a Koran in each of the bedrooms; the Jumeirah Carlton Tower has prayer mats on order; and most of the hotels put an arrow sticker that points to Mecca in the bedrooms to enable Muslim guests to comply with the need to face in that direction during their daily prayers.
So, while it is evident that the Middle Eastern summer boom has a past and present, does it still have a future? Figures for the first quarter of the year released by VisitBritain show 45,000 visitors from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), up 9.8% on last year, with spending also rising to £53m, up 8.2%. Not only are these figures encouraging, but they also buck the general trend that has seen visits to the UK in the first quarter of 2009 fall by 13.9% to 6.2 million visits and a decrease in spending of 0.4%, which represents £3.1b.
Visits from the UAE during January-May 2009 were also up 19% compared with the same period in 2008. The scope, then, for hoteliers to profit from the burgeoning Middle Eastern scene seems huge. It's no surprise to hear that the Cumberland hotel is now recruiting staff to research the emerging Middle Eastern markets.
Chappell says: "We have always had sales agents in the existing key markets of Kuwait, Saudi and Qatar, but we've also just employed someone to scope out the potential for the emerging markets of Iran, Jordan and Lebanon. Iran has great potential, and it's changing all the time."
With figures like those described above, if hoteliers haven't already jumped aboard the Middle Eastern gravy train, perhaps it's about time they did.
TRADITIONAL COUNTRIES OF THE MIDDLE EAST
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
- Palestine (Gaza Strip and West Bank)
EXAMPLES OF MIDDLE EASTERN DISHES
Hummus Chickpea purée with sesame paste and lemon juice - usually served with pitta bread
Tabouleh Parsley, tomatoes, onions, crushed wheat, mint, lemon juice and olive oil
Warak enab Vine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs
Iranian caviar Priced between £110 and £175 for 30g
Kalaj cheese Baked Lebanese bread filled with halloumi cheese
Shish taouk Charcoal-roasted skewers of marinated chicken served with Arabic rice
Arabic mixed grill Includes lamb and chicken kebabs, kofta (mixed ground meat with spices and onions) and quail
Whole baby lamb served with rice and a selection of Lebanese mezza
Mohalabiyah Milk pudding flavoured with rose water
Baklawa Filo dough pastries filled with honey and nuts
ARABIC INFLUENCES ON OUR LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
English has absorbed Arabic influences through contact with the Moorish invaders of Spain, but also through soldiers returning home from the Crusades, and trading links with the Arab world. Many words used in astrology, mathematics, geometry and chemistry have their roots in Arabic, because the Arab world was at the forefront of these disciplines.
Common Arabic words in use in the English language
â- Magazine from "makhaazin", meaning storehouses, hence the modern use of the word to mean storehouses of information on a particular subject.
â- Mattress from "matrah" - place where something is thrown, mat, cushion.
â- Sugar from "sukkar".