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8 May, 2006

Shaza Hotels Plans Alcohol-Free Accommodation

DUBAI: Kempinski Hotels & Resorts is to provide the management know-how for a new brand of Middle Eastern hotels over the next few years, with a small difference – they will all be alcohol-free.

Kempinski executives say they are looking forward to the challenge of developing Shaza Hotels, a “unique lifestyle brand” that is well-suited to the cultural requirements of millions of well-heeled travellers, especially families, in the Gulf region as well as the global ongoing health and wellness fad.

The move will give Kempinski a chance to diversify from a single-brand group into a unique niche-market, as well as comply with the Islamic financing requirements of the many private equity investors seeking to put their money into what is known as Sharia-compliant (Islamic financing) projects.

Although well-entrenched in the glitzy travel & tourism industry, alcohol causes more death and carnage than terrorism; witness the casualties over the Thai long weekends.

Kempinski executives say they expect the move away from alcohol to parallel the global shift away from smoking.

Christopher Hartley, Chief Executive Officer of Shaza Hotels and former Senior VP Marketing of Kempinski said: “I don’t think that one would ever imagine a day when a pub in Dublin would be smoke-free, or in London for that matter. The need to light up in a hotel lobby is gone. People have gotten used to it. The same thing could well happen for a beer in a minibar.”

Kempinski, which claims to be the world’s oldest luxury hotel brand, was selected by Paris-based Guidance Financial Group as the partner to develop more than 20 city-centre hotels. Starting with gateway Arab cities such as Dubai, Cairo or Beirut in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the group sees potential to expand across the Islamic world, including Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Guidance Financial has launched an investment vehicle that will back the 500 million dollar development of Shaza and has already received pledges for most of the fund, said Guidance chairman Dr. Mohamad Hammour.

“Shaza Hotels (the name means ‘fragrance’ in Arabic) is already receiving much interest from the region’s financial and investor community, as well as from developers who have expressed a desire to have their hotel projects managed by the group.”

The shift is line with the pressure from the Islamic financing investors who, facing suspicion and discrimination in the West, are diverting both their funds as well as their travelling plans. They also want to ensure that their money goes into Islamic financed projects.

“The concept, timing and positioning of Shaza Hotels are ideally suited to global emerging travel patterns,” said Mr Hartley.

Eighteen months of research had proved that “it was an opportunity to good to be missed,” he said, noting that while other Middle East hotel brands like Jumeirah and Rotana did cater to the intra-MENA market, they were still largely based on a western concept.

However, the Islamic and Arab angle is being downplayed in the marketing pitch. The promotional literature says that “Shaza Hotels will be positioned as a new brand that expresses, in a contemporary, design-led environment, the aesthetic, art of living and values of the Middle East and North Africa.

“Each property will contain unique concepts, such as ‘hammam’-influenced spas and bathrooms and restaurants inspired by an array of regional cuisines.”

Asked if the group was prepared for the ridicule from critics in the West, Mr Hartley responded, “Anyone who criticises and ridicules it has no understanding of the region’s culture. I don’t think anyone with any sense can say anything negative about such a unique concept.”

First adopted by a number of smaller properties in Dubai, the concept was taken to a higher level by the Taj Palace Dubai which claims to be the first five-star hotel to have adopted it.

Taj Palace Business Relations Manager Govind Pratap called it “an asset”. Clearly listed on the hotel’s fact sheet and website, it has helped win business from the well-off families of Saudi Arabia and even Muslims of Indian-origin living in South Africa, he said.

For Kempinski, it continues a tradition of breaking new ground in the Middle East.

It also manages the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, said to be one of the world’s most expensive hotels. It was one of the first to announce a project on the Palm Island, at a time when the concept of creating that kind of an offshore project was ludicrous. It also manages the Dubai property located in the same complex as the world’s first ski slope built in the desert.

The response from other hotels has been mixed. A senior executive of Rezidor SAS said, “We looked at it and decided that it was not for us.” However, an executive of Jumeirah Hotels called it the “ultimate private label that would succeed because many people take their history, culture and religion extremely seriously, and rightly so.”

There is a lighter side, too.

Bill Walshe, Corporate Director Sales & Marketing of the Jumeirah Group, who once worked for Kempinski, said that as a former business travel colleague of Mr Hartley for 200 days a year, “I find the idea of Chris Hartley becoming the CEO of a dry brand absolutely hilarious.”

A hotel consultant who helped with the branding research acknowledged that while many Muslim males may choose to stay at a Shaza hotel with their families, they may also want to nip out for a drink. “For them, we may just open a bar next to the hotel – under a separate company, of course.”

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