Turn of the seasons – Four Seasons enters Dubai

This article originally appeared in Hotel Management International magazine

It’s always been an industry anomaly that Four Seasons, one of the world’s premium luxury hotel brands, does not have a single property to its name in the UAE. But competition in the country’s upscale segment is fierce, and the Canadian operator is famously discerning when it comes to green-lighting new opportunities for development.

It’s not as though efforts haven’t been made previously, however, and the global financial crisis is largely to blame for the fact that the move wasn’t made sooner. In 2009, Four Seasons was forced to exit its flagship project in Dubai’s Festival City, a 400-room waterside hotel with residential apartments, but despite numerous rumoured offers and its rivals continuing to make further inroads into the market, the group spent three years exploring potential opportunities.

Patience proved a virtue, and when a chunk of real estate came under development in a neighbourhood often described as the Beverly Hills of Dubai, Four Seasons made sure it was in the box seat. Owned by Bright Start, and developed by H&H Investment and Development, Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach houses 237 rooms, with 49 suites, as well as ten restaurants and lounges, a spa, and views of the sea and the city skyline. It claims to be the closest of any of the emirate’s beach hotels to the airport – just 25 minutes away – and sits ten minutes from the city’s main shopping district and the Dubai International Financial Centre.

A design for life in the Middle East
The firm entrusted as lead architects was Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo (WATG), an award-winning California-based practice with decades of experience designing luxury hotels in the Gulf region. Working alongside WATG on the project was EDSA, which developed the landscaping, and BAMO, responsible for the hotel’s interior design, as well as regional partners such as local architecture firm DSA.

It was certainly a challenging project. With the reputation of an international brand to protect, as well as the limitations presented by the site’s exclusive location, the restrictions of the predominantly low-rise area and the fact that the site of the hotel lay next to an exclusive private club, finding the right people was imperative.

The two architects chosen to direct WATG’s work on the project were well placed to take on this challenge: vice-president Mark Yoshizaki has extensive experience operating in the region, having previously worked on the Atlantis Palm Hotel and the Emirates Hills Golf Resort in Dubai; and senior vice-president Mike Chun has a long-standing relationship with the Four Seasons hotel chain, having helped develop projects with it in Doha, Dublin and Moscow. Furthermore, WATG’s relationship with the operator dates back to the Four Seasons Newport Beach, which opened its doors in 1986.

“Mike and I decided to team up to get the best of both worlds, so to speak,” says Yoshizaki. “The hotel really had to blend into the region, because of its low-scale nature, and respect the privacy of its neighbours, yet it still needed strength and impact because of what it was: a five-star Four Seasons hotel. We wanted it to be unique, timeless and appropriate to the location.”

“We came up with a couple of designs,” adds Chun. “One was more contemporary, one more traditional. The client and Four Seasons had a lot of discussions. They stressed that it needed to be appropriate to the Middle East and to Dubai.”

For these reasons, the brief was markedly different to another WATG project close by, the Atlantis Hotel, with its grand, imposing architecture and central location on Dubai’s Palm Islands.

“The Atlantic hotel is obviously an international brand and, other than the Arabic arch, there’s not a whole lot of acknowledgement of Arab culture in it,” Chun says.

Moor to come
WATG faced the challenge of balancing the needs of local clients with the desire to attract an international clientele used to cutting-edge contemporary designs. Neither side took precedence, Chun argues – the success of a project depended on good communication skills and, often, the ability of WATG employees to work 11 or 12-hour time-zone differences into their schedules.

“But you are talking about a luxury international brand with guests from all over the world – very refined,” says Chun. “The customer has expectations that when they arrive, they’ll find a property representative of Dubai, while at the same time delivering that international luxury and feel they’re accustomed to getting at any Four Seasons around the world.”

The company is often forced to be assertive about its ideas, says Yoshizaki, pointing the more stubborn clients towards its successful track record.

“We’re always aware that we should please the clients but, at the same time, have a profitable project,” says Chun. “You can’t put one over the other. It’s a challenge. We work on it very carefully. Pleasing many different interests is something that is common in our world.

“We’ve been fortunate to have excellent clients who understand that we have to have an opinion and that it’s usually based on our extensive experience, so they know to listen to us if they want to have a successful project. With all the varying opinions, there are always some compromises along the way for everybody; that way, you get the most successful solution.”

WATG, and its local and international partners, looked at a diverse range of options for the hotel’s design, from the modernist to the more traditional, eventually deciding on Spanish Andalusian, which blends medieval Islamic ‘Moorish’ styles with architecture from the south coast of Spain. The style allowed a traditional aesthetic that could blend in with its surroundings while leaving options open for adaptation later on. There was even talk of a private suite for the emir of Dubai himself – a suite that is now part of the hotel.

“It allowed it to be simpler, in a sense, so that it pulled a more contemporary spin to an older style,” says Chun. “We picked a style that allowed it to be simplified and contemporised, but still have the same classical proportion – a blending of the traditional with the modern.

“Interiors pulled that contemporary spin to it a little step further, and you see little key features that came later on in the design process that really looked a bit more futuristic as far as the design goes.”

“So a blending of the old and the new is what we ended up with, but with a very sensitive approach to it, to keep that authenticity there as much as possible,” he adds.

Local input
Since the client specifically requested that the hotel’s design try to capture something of the city’s past, the architects drew some inspiration from one of Dubai’s oldest developments – the historic Al-Bastakiya neighbourhood, an area named after the Bastak country of southern Iran and one that is traditionally populated by the emirate’s Iranian diaspora.

“There were certain local materials, accents, grill work and tiles that were incorporated into the architecture and interiors – that really helped us in bringing in the region’s culture and making it part of the design,” emphasises Yoshizaki.

The hotel at Jumeirah Beach began accepting arrivals in mid-November, but Four Seasons won’t be the new kids on the block for long: Bulgari and Mandarin Oriental are also planning to open hotels in the neighbourhood in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Four Seasons itself is already rumoured to be in talks about a second property in the emirate, joining Ritz Carlton at the Dubai International Financial Centre, and WATG is staying in the region to work on another development with the operator – The Pearl Hotel in Doha, Qatar, a project Yoshizaki says will also harness local styles and blend traditional and modern.

Four Seasons may have been late among its peers in establishing a significant Middle Eastern footprint, but with an Abu Dhabi project set for completion next year and CEO Allen Smith committed to “accelerated growth”, it has now corrected an industry anomaly and appears to be quickly making up for lost time.

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