Hotels & hospitality

At your service

With demand growing globally for serviced apartments, hotel brands across the Middle East are scrabbling to invest in a fast-evolving market. Marc Descrozaille, regional director UAE, Egypt, Jordan at Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, Samer Khanfar, general manager for Jumeirah Living World Trade Centre Residences in Dubai, and Hala Choufany, regional managing director of HVS Dubai, discuss the growing significance of this sector and its scope for further expansion in the region.

The serviced apartment sector is on the rise. A hybrid between two more established concepts – residential apartments and hotels – extended-stay options of this kind are becoming increasingly popular. And with future expansion estimated at $10-$15bn, it is clear they are more than just a halfway house.

The idea itself is not new, having first arisen in the 1980s in the United States. In effect, serviced apartments appeal to travelers who want something more long-term than a standard hotel room and less binding than rental accommodation. Typically, they’ll wish to cater for themselves, and won’t necessarily require all the amenities associated with a hotel. Equally, they don’t want to sign a lease or commit to a minimum length of stay.

While this model has long appealed to a certain subset of business traveller, the market has grown dramatically over the last ten years, particularly when it comes to internationally branded residences. As investors and travellers alike become better acquainted with the benefits, more major brands are entering the sector and catering to a burgeoning clientele.

This shift is occurring worldwide. Although supply varies significantly from region to region, today’s hypermobile workforce is stirring demand from Sydney to Singapore. According to a recent report by The Apartment Service, 94% of operators across all regions have registered a growing interest in serviced apartments.

“Demand always paves the way for growth and it’s important to sustain that growth and keep it going,” says Samer Khanfar, general manager of the Jumeirah Living World Trade Centre Residences in Dubai. “Guests seek high standards and efficiency, and with the right product and services our branded serviced apartments are the perfect option. They are far more economical and offer the best of both worlds; a hotel and a home environment.”

Apartment story 

Dubai is particularly interesting as a microcosm of broader trends. Given its substantial expatriate community, and growing popularity as a holiday destination, demand for long-stay accommodation is booming. Since the end of the global financial crisis, the number of tourists visiting the emirate has grown year on year.

While initially, hospitality in this region was concentrated on high-end, luxury hotels, the government recently instigated a push towards more mid-range accommodation. Serviced apartments – which frequently fall into this bracket – now account for 28% of the room stock in Dubai, with 24,924 rooms as of August 2014 and 6,052 more in the pipeline.

“Developments in the region have been relatively aggressive over the last couple of years,” says Hala Choufany, regional managing director of HVS Dubai. “That is no different to what Europe saw 50 years ago. Naturally any market when it goes through the development phase starts off with hotels, specifically five star, then four star, then starts contemplating serviced apartments and budget.

The serviced apartments here are well-placed to capitalise on both corporate and leisure travel. Dubai is well known as a business hub, with a quarter of all Fortune 500 companies maintaining a presence here. A sizeable number of employees have flown in from elsewhere, and may require corporate housing as an interim measure while they seek out something more permanent.

“People brought in for certain jobs and certain missions tend initially to stay in serviced apartments,” says Choufany. “In places like Saudi Arabia, there’s a waitlist of a year for permanent housing, so the serviced apartment is a very good alternative. In Dubai, those who are here in the shorter term may not necessarily want to sign a one-year contract. There is a very strong corporate demand for serviced apartments because of the expatriate nature of these cities.”

On the leisure travel side, the vast majority of interest comes from families. Travelling from other parts of the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, these families are typically large by European standards and require more space than you’d find in a hotel. Serviced apartments – measuring some 60-70 square metres as opposed to 35 or 40 – are more likely to fit the bill.

“If they are here on a five day stay, it’s homelike and convenient, and probably more efficient from a budget control point of view,” says Marc Descrozaille, regional director UAE, Egypt, Jordan at Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group. “To get the equivalent space within a normal hotel you would typically go for two rooms or a suite, which would be more expensive than the serviced apartment option.”

Just as pertinently, serviced apartments are devoid of potential to offend. Many hotels in Dubai target themselves at a broad clientele, which means alcohol will be permitted on site and restaurants cater to an international palate. By contrast, the apartments here are typically dry and always include kitchenette facilities. This has its advantages, though it can prove tricky for large hotel companies with an established business model.

“The lack of alcohol is an issue for some clients and a benefit for others,” says Descrozaille. “A typical Kuwaiti family or Saudi family would see a lot of value in going somewhere with no alcohol. But from a brand purity point of view in a Radisson Blu you need to have alcohol, so it’s a challenge.”

Standard deviation

Currently, the serviced apartments in Dubai are split relatively evenly between unbranded, locally branded or internationally branded offerings (38%, 32% and 30% respectively). However, international brands are starting to realise how lucrative the sector may prove to be. Over the coming years, we will see a raft of new developments not just in Dubai but across the Middle East.

Carlson Rezidor, for instance, has six new serviced apartment offerings in the pipeline. Operating under the upscale Radisson Blu, and the midscale Park Inn by Radisson brands, it is due to open three in Dubai and three in Saudi Arabia, alongside another property further afield in Mozambique.

Meanwhile, Marriott has a dedicated extended stay brand, Residence Inn, with properties in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and most recently Kuwait. Starwood is looking to expand its Element brand to the region, and Intercontinental Hotel Group already has a number of operational suites. Purely residential operators such as Ascott and Fraser are also placing a renewed focus on the Middle East.

“A lot of the users of the local business are using them because they have no choice,” says Choufany. “But once there are more internationally branded chains hotels opening up, this business is going to move towards and stay with international hotels.”

At present, because the market is new, it is suffering from a lack of standardisation. As Descroizalle explains, the next step for Carlson Rezidor will be to create a more cohesive brand identity.

“I was recently asked to head a new small committee that’s going to look into more design offerings for serviced apartments,” he says. “One of the critical points here is to make sure we are not just opening and developing hotels with bigger units – serviced apartments need to be something different. So what do we want to have in the kitchenette, do we have enough space in the lobby area? Many of these questions at the moment are answered on an ad hoc basis, and we need to have a more strategic approach.”

Frill ride

From an investment standpoint, serviced apartments present certain opportunities not offered by hotels. Firstly, they have more stable occupancy levels, which minimises the risk inherent in a seasonal model. Secondly, they are generally cheaper to operate – and without the need for on-site restaurants and facilities, the capital investment is lower. Finally, if the venture doesn’t work out, the building can be easily sold on as a residential asset.

If there are difficulties, these are apt to lie in the clients’ expectations: there is still some confusion about what serviced apartments actually entail. Still, for a client seeking all the frills, they won’t necessarily be disappointed. Certain serviced apartments are annexed to hotels, and larger properties like Jumeirah’s Living World Trade Centre Residences typically provide their own dining areas, pool and gym.

“There’s a lot of potential in the Middle East,” says Choufany. “With the exception of Dubai, this sector is not well established and there’s a lot of demand for serviced apartment accommodation.”

“We feel the market is still strong, and has the capacity to absorb more serviced apartments,” agrees Khanfar. “For many guests, a high standard of serviced apartments has become their best option, providing them with effortless living, comfort and personal space.”

As this sector continues to evolve, it is apt to claw back ground from both hotels and rental accommodation. With demand surging across the Middle East, we can be sure that supply is set to snowball.

 

This article appears in the Autumn 2014 edition of Hotel Management Middle East

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