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Colin Nagy, head of strategy at FFNY, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality. You can read all of his writing here.
One of my last columns addressed the burgeoning hospitality scene in Oman. I spent the night in the Empty Quarter and the simple meal and hospitality shown to me by a guide was one of the most potent travel experiences I’ve had in recent memory. It led me to think about the challenges of creating hospitable environments in somewhat austere conditions, but at a different scale.
One of the world’s most remote properties is Qasr al Sarab, a resort seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but only two hours south of Abu Dhabi. It couldn’t be more different regarding surroundings. While Abu Dhabi and Dubai are rapidly developing global hubs funded by oil wealth, this property is set in the Rub’Al Khali, the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. The resort is entirely isolated, and after a long drive off of the main road, comprised of nothing but oil infrastructure and austere conditions, it appears as an oasis set amidst pink dunes and a piercing blue sky. But beneath the surface and isolation are stories of team building, infrastructure, farming and logistics that are interesting to anyone studying the creation of engaging, consistent experiences for the traveler.
The general manager, Axel Bethke, runs the property after a career spanning Chengdu, China, as well as Jordan, Germany, Austria and the United States.
I was particularly interested in how he trains, motivates and attempts to build a diverse hospitality culture in a remote, austere area. Bethke notes that this isolation an advantage. The team consists of 40 different nationalities, with a disproportionate amount coming from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines, Pakistan, and Nepal. The teams, ranging from the concierge to the guides, to housekeeping staff spend more time collectively together than hotels where people show up to a shift and leave the property at the end of the day.
Here, there’s staff accommodation — everyone lives on the property, in a small, functioning mini city attached to the resort. Bethke notes that “the immersion in the space creates team cohesion that guests can feel. Despite having people from around the world, living together in the desert creates something more deeply interwoven than a regular staff and guest relationship.”
In a world of disposable instagrammable experiences, the hotel is trying to create something more profound and more meaningful. You can ride deep into the desert in a 4×4, see falcons hunt, or learn how to cook with regional spices and techniques. Bethke notes that guests “have a real feeling of adventure, and of being the first of their friends to investigate this part of the world.”
It’s not just another Bangkok trip. He cites the fact that a lot of people have to get over preconceptions of the desert: no water, heat, endless dunes and the typical tropes of camels and Bedouins. But, one of the most powerful draws for returning guests is sensory: the noise and at night light pollution is very low making it the ideal place to leave stresses of urban living — in the middle east or elsewhere — behind.
The daily logistics of running such a remote operation is a challenge. You can’t just call to the store if you run out of an ingredient, and when you consider the scale of catering for guests, from the cream for morning coffee down to the details of meals, it requires a rigor that other more connected hotels don’t need to apply. First, Qasr al Sarab is 200km away from the next major city. So they have to plan carefully concerning supplies, special requests, or occasions.
The hotel operates a hydroponic farm, allowing for local fruits and vegetables for the restaurants and there’s a water plant to recycle water for irrigation, as well as solar panels to generate power from the 356 days of sun a year. Also, the hotel has on-site doctors catering to medical issues, with the ability to call a helicopter in the event of something more serious, which hasn’t yet happened in 8 years of operation. But the existing infrastructure for the adjacent oil field workers adds a layer of security.
Bethke notes that while a higher level of independence is needed, it also results in better relationships with their suppliers. And, overall, these constraints inspire creativity and lend themselves a better overall guest experience.
But for someone who has run hotels around the world, what is so special about living in an austere region? “The desert is fascinating,” says Bethke. “The colors of the dunes are changing almost every hour depending on the sun, clouds or even sometimes a bit of rain. …I used to work before in a China mega-city with 15 million inhabitants in a 470 room business hotel, so this is a departure to a mystical place full of surprises.”