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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.
After its reopening to global tourism on July 7, Dubai was one of the first locations in the world to open its borders to a wide range of nations. Rather than the hyper-contained “bubble approach” that some places like Australia and New Zealand took, many countries were welcome. Part of the reason? The country handled the chaos of Covid well.
Dubai was on a very strict lockdown: no one was leaving the country and, during the stricter times, residents had to have an approved police permit to leave their house. But during this time, the wheels of organized leadership sprung to life, residents generally obeyed the orders and as a result, the virus was managed. It the photographic negative from the chaos, disorder, and lack of leadership that I experienced in the United States.
As this column is focused on guest experience, hospitality, and attention to detail, as I write about my impressions, these are the focus. I am not delving into differing political systems, the politics of labor, but rather what a tourist or businessperson would experience landing in the country.
After being stateside since March, some business, plus curiosity, and a desire to reconnect with a favorite region of the world (even in the heat of August) got the better of me and I set out to take some meetings and understand what it looked like to travel internationally again. I had been following the news and announcements out of the Emirates and I was curious to see if the reality matched the PR. In short, it surpassed expectations of what a place could deliver for a global reopening in short notice. I tried to poke holes, but I didn’t find many.
Like Operating in a Vacuum
My trip began at JFK: walking through terminal four to my Emirates flight was an eerie experience: it was as if capitalism was frozen in amber. The normal bustle of that terminal: the Caviar House & Prunier, the Palm, and lots of various retail were all shuttered and dusty. Having arrived early, I asked a security officer where to find some food: he lazily motioned to the Golden Arches and said “that’s your only option.” It felt like the apocalypse. The joy, the people watching and gentle murmur of an international terminal was gone. It was like operating in a vacuum.
To get on the flight, I had to have a negative Covid-19 test in hand, issued within 96 hours of wheels up. I had a routine physical about 12 days before and given the latency of the testing results, by a stroke of luck, the Covid test landed a few days before my departure. Boarding the Emirates flight in New York, there weren’t sufficient efforts by the gate agents to corral social distancing; it was the same old scrum you’d see on an international flight when no one listens to instructions. I worried that this would portend a bit of chaos on the trip. Fortunately, it was the only hiccup once we left the tarmac and flew eastward from Kennedy.
Tactical Master stroke
I planned my trip like a military operation. Aside from the testing, check-up, and other precautions, I also bought travel insurance and what ended up being overkill: evacuation insurance from Global Rescue. I chose to fly Emirates instead of connecting because of the insurance program they launched. In what was a branding and tactical master stroke in one, the airline offered insurance to every single person that sets foot on an Emirates flight regardless of class, paid ticket, or mileage redemption.
It covered medical insurance up to 150,000 euros for Covid-related illnesses, as well as around 100 Euros a day if you needed to quarantine. There was also a funeral provision in which the media tended to blow out of proportion, but it rounded off a complete package that took some of the unease and fear out of getting back on a long-haul flight. Emirates saw the nagging worries in the new reality of the purchase funnel and headed it off at the pass, executing quickly while other carriers were touting PR-friendly tactics like PPE, face shields, and scarves.
The flight was strictly business: not in terms of the ratio of seat classes but its professionalism. The creature comforts of a typical Emirates flight, lingering in an onboard lounge, chatting with charming flight attendants, and generous F&B at every turn were not entirely there: shifted in favor of safety and operational efficiency.
Nearly everything I came in contact with was wrapped in plastic (which will be a growing problem as we continue in the pandemic); travelers were given a hygiene kit with protective gloves, face masks, sanitizer, and other items, and the flight attendants were wearing special clothing including goggles, face masks, gloves, etc.
Still, there was an air of professionalism; the staff had to memorize and execute countless new protocols and it was impressive: more sanitary surgery ward than a plane. While they did have a variety of food on the menu, I just slept the entire flight. On arrival, blankets and pillows were collected into sealed bags and stored away. Bathrooms were kept spotless. There was adequate social distancing between passengers (which I had pre-scanned out the seat map before departure).
It was a far cry from my one-off flights in the U.S. during the pandemic, where cost-cutting masqueraded as safety and I had to practically bribe an American flight attendant in first class for a sealed bottle of water let alone a meal. Everything was here, it was just presented differently for reasons of safety. And out of necessity, the team had to adhere to more standardized times for service: one-off meal requests from passengers were understandably harder to cater to given the limitations. Things were snapped to grid and systematized. Sure, a passenger paying $20,000 dollars to sit in the Emirates First Suites or a mileage hacker nerd might miss the lack of hyper-personalized service and all the bells and whistles, but to go from point a to point b safely, they are getting the job done.
Test Results in 9 Hours
On arrival into Dubai, there was mandated Covid testing on arrival for people arriving from selected cities with surging Covid cases. Since I had valid test results in hand, after a bit of ambiguity and conversation, I was able to go through without an arrival test. Those who did were tested quickly on the spot but needed a required mini-quarantine (and to wait an estimated 12-48 hours for results). Instead, I was free to enter Dubai. I hopped in an Uber and headed to my hotel. I did stay put, opting for a doctor to come to my hotel for a test (costing around $150 U.S.), and received the negative results around nine hours later.
I visited a few different hotels around the city and also spoke with friends and contacts, and was generally impressed with the end to end professionalism of everything. During the lockdown, many hotels remained open and others, like the Park Hyatt, remained partially open with their serviced residences: many Emiratis and locals rented rooms and villas and escaped to the protected air bubble of Dubai Creek where they had a little more space and could safely venture outside for a gulp of oxygen and a walk along the water. It was the staycation that extended a much-needed revenue lifeline to hotels. The Bvlgari, a luxury property that attracts a high-end clientele, had its villas in high demand with well-to-do Emiratis to have a bit more space and privacy. They were the “must-have” residence during the lockdown but plenty of others booked rooms and suites in the available hotels around town for a break from the monotony.
Unlike the state of the U.S. with next to no social protocols aside from asking people to wear masks and stay apart, there was a tightly enforced set of rules. In America, the hyperbole of top-down marketing and “we’re here for you” bluster never seemed to match up to the hospitality reality: unhygienic rooms, skeleton staff, and skipped housekeeping in my experience with stays over the pandemic, this experience was different.
Entering the Mandarin Oriental, the Bvlgari, the Park Hyatt, The Four Seasons, and other hotels, visitors walk through an initial thermal scan to look for temperature anomalies. Interactions like check-in and ordering are predictably contactless (down to restaurant menus) and other areas of the properties, like the pool, required a quick thermal scan from the temple. It wasn’t just the hotels: a masked Starbucks run required a quick check before I could order. It was the opposite of being intrusive or “stealing your freedom!” as you might hear on Fox News. It just felt responsible and safe.
A hospitality contact told me that the government is also giving rigorous spot tests of hotels, sometimes as often as two to three times a day to check that protocols are being followed. And this wasn’t just at the luxury end of the equation: there are clear, government-issued protocols for every tier of hotel across the city, from luxe to budget.
These protocols, safety, and adherence by the general population painted a picture of what a return to normalcy in the near-term might look like. On a Thursday night, I was reading a book with a cup of mint tea in the lobby of the Mandarin. Everyone was masked and everyone was temperature checked to come inside. But the bustle of a pre-weekend evening was in full effect. Elegant Emirati women gathered over coffee and sweets. Groups of Emirati men socialized in the cafe, to a background of Arabic music and the right level of visual stimulation and conversational din that just reminded of how a good hotel lobby can be an incredible place. After missing this essential element of travel for the past several months, I bathed in the ambiance.
Travel Moment That Was a Keeper
There was a hint of excitement in the air, the reason for which, as a visitor, I could only vaguely intuit. I later learned that the ruler of Dubai and his entourage stopped in earlier to socialize for a bit, sending Emiratis rushing to be in the same place. Friends told me that Dubai royals can play a huge role in the success of restaurants, their presence means it turns into a “see and be seen” spot for the local population and especially during a pandemic, this can have an accelerating effect on business. What also made the vibe special on the night is it was heavily Emirati: normally you’d see a mix of Brits, Russians, the odd American diplomat or French holiday goer; this was a night out for the locals and felt as if the world was slightly back to normal if only for a fleeting moment. It was a travel moment that I’ll keep with me.
On my departure, Dubai airport adhered to the protocol: the check-in area was distanced, the lounge was hyper sanitary (I observed a staff member clean the sink after every use). The airport did have a bit of pre-Covid bustle with an uptick in regional and long-haul travel, but the boarding lounge for the flight was not as crowded as it would normally be. Passengers were boarded in small groups and we set off. On the plane, I struck up a casual conversation with a flight attendant who told me that despite the strict protocols and edits to service, it was good to be back in the air. The service and execution were a mirror of the outbound flight.
Arrival in L.A. was a confirmation of just how far away the US is in terms of being best in class. I breezed through Global Entry, wasn’t asked about the health check form I was firmly told in Dubai would be checked on U.S. arrival, and was onward without any checks, validation, scans, or anything. I’ll get another test immediately after landing, but instead of the latency, I’ll likely have to wait for over a week.
The end-to-end experience made me realize that travel can restart and the industry can recover but it takes a combination of leadership, vision, operational acumen, and generally taking repeatable precautions to make it truly work. In addition to the tourism slogans, the videos and visuals, and the usual marketing and PR efforts: savvy operations and execution will be high up on the list of travelers. And the world can learn some lessons from how Emirates (both the country and its namesake airline) has handled reopening during a global pandemic to date.