Breaking Travel News interview: David Thomson, chief operating officer, JA Resorts & Hotels

Breaking Travel News interview: David Thomson, chief operating officer, JA Resorts & Hotels

Phil Blizzard speaks here with David Thomson, chief operating officer, JA Resorts & Hotels about the development of their various properties and how ‘new Dubai’ and beyond is playing an important role in the growth of the group.

Breaking Travel News:  Let’s start by looking at the heritage of the group and the number of years it has been in existence.

David Thomson:  We used to be Jebel Ali International Hotels until October 2012 when we rebranded to JA Resorts and Hotels, and yes, we had 32 years here operating hotels in Dubai.

It has been a very successful 32 years for us here and I am delighted to say that now we have just begun our venture into the Indian Ocean.

BTN: Starting with your flagship property, the resort at Jebel Ali, at the time it opened it was a long adventure or journey from the centre of Dubai to that resort?

DT: Yes, that is right. When it was originally built, it was because our owning company, Dutco, had been very much involved in the establishment of the free zone.

The part and parcel of that development was to have a hotel near by and one which was going to service the airport, which was already planned all those years ago, to be out in Jebel Ali.

It started off as a 260 room hotel and since then we have added significantly to that - with the marina, the golf courses, stables and the Palm Tree Court.

The hotel has developed over the years and that will continue with more rooms being added to the property.

BTN: Alongside the flagship hotel you have the mountain retreat, about one hour from Dubai, The Hatta Fort Hotel which also has a well-established history.

DT: Hatta actually opened at the same time as the Jebel Ali Golf Resort.

Again, it started off at half its present size, just 25 rooms initially, and then we added another 25 rooms.

Over the years we have added villas and additional facilities to the resort.

At the moment we are reviewing a number of options for the future of Hatta, which will either take he spiral wellness route, or potentially adding more rooms going up to the high end level.

These are sort of options on the table and we will certainly be executing those in the next sort of eighteen months.


Jebel Ali was recognised as the World’s Leading Family Resort by World Travel Awards in 2013

BTN: Moving from those two properties to where we are, which is very much new Dubai. Is this the Marina area playing an important role in the structure of the development of the group?

DT: Oh, absolutely. We have two properties, the Oasis Beach Tower and JA Ocean View hotel here on the ‘walk’ which is a fabulous part of Dubai.

I mean the ‘walk’ itself was a wonderful and what they have now done with the beach is fantastic and along with the development of shops and the whole beachfront it really is very, very special and something that Dubai had not - was not able to offer. So it’s fantastic.

BTN: Moving from the development of the properties to the development or the trends, in terms of your guests, how has that changed over the years, which have gone by?

DT: Well, I think guests always look for the same thing.

Very high levels of service, you know, and a good quality of product, and value for money.

I think we have been able to offer that for the 32 years that we have been operating.

But I think expectations have changed, you know; now guests are expecting certainly more engagement with the people that they are staying with.

They’re looking for fantastic technology and with life being much faster than it used to be they expect us to keep pace with that.

BTN: And being connected all the time I suppose. Talking of the guests, what about the source markets, how has that evolved?

DT: To be honest with you, Dubai has been very, very steady really in terms of its key source markets, the UK, the CIS countries, German-speaking Europe.

What we have seen over the last few years is the return I should say of the Scandinavian market, and of course, China – everyone’s talking about China, India as well.

These are two markets that are growing, and the rest of Europe, and of course, you know, South America, is another area, which we are seeing more and more people coming from.


Enchanted Island Resort

BTN: How do you promote yourself to these new evolving markets and in the process you have won accolades like the World Travel Awards. How does that benefit you when you approach new markets?

DT: Well, there is no doubt that the World Travel Awards are a huge benefit to us.

I mean these are regarded as the ‘Oscars of the travel industry’ and in fairness to the people who are behind the World Travel Awards, they obviously put a lot of effort into marketing them as well.

So when people see that you have one of these awards it actually means something to them.

We are delighted to be the recipient of these over several of our properties and long may we continue to deliver the standard that allows us to receive these awards.

BTN: There is quite a buzz in Dubai at the moment with the recent announcement of Dubai winning the bid to host of the World Expo in 2020. How is that going to impact you, and the hospitality industry do you think?

DT: It is fantastic. To be honest, the way that Dubai has been going and its growth, I think what you are seeing now was going to happen whether Dubai won 2020 or not. Obviously, this is the icing on the cake without a doubt.

We are all gearing up for 2020, and obviously the arrival of the 20 million tourists.

When you look at it, that really just requires an eight percent growth year-on-year and that is something we have been experiencing over the last couple of years anyway.

So we as a company are obviously gearing up for that.

We’re looking at the existing inventory, and the land that we have, and where we are going to develop new hospitality offerings.


Jebel Ali Oasis Beach Tower is considered the World’s Leading Serviced Apartment Hotel by the World Travel Awards

BTN: David let’s start looking a the Seychelles. Can you tell us about the reason you selected this destination?

DT: Well, Seychelles has been a place that has interested and fascinated us in equal measure for many years.

In fact, I think it was about seven years ago that I first went down to the Seychelles to look at potential properties there.

And it was on one of these trips that I actually met the owners of the Enchanted Island Resort, the Sha’s, wonderful people, we got on extremely well together.

We were with them through the five years, and you know in some quite difficult times that they had to build the property.

But they persevered and the property that they have produced is absolutely stunning, and we’re delighted to be running it.

BTN: The name, Enchanted Island, sounds wonderful. So give us a quick snapshot of what the resort is like.

DT: Well, it is a tiny island in the middle of a marine park, which is surrounded by some of the larger, more well-known islands just off the coast of Mahe.

Its fifteen minutes by boat from Victoria, the capital, and the style of the resort is luxury villas. 

There are ten deluxe suites - well, villas, with their own footprint, each of a minimum of 150 square meters.

We have two two-bedroom units, which are stunning.

The views - I mean everything about is stunning to be honest.

Well, it is the Seychelles but actually, you know, being in the middle of it all looking out, it is just wonderful.

The villas have their own private pools, their own decks and gazebos.

The resort has a wonderful spa there and a great restaurant and with a Seychellois executive chef, a very, very well-known gentleman over there


Jebel Ali Hatta Fort Hotel

BTN: The cuisine there mixes the Creole cooking and other influences of course.

DT: Absolutely. And you know, it has already proved itself to be a fantastic hit with the very people we were looking for, very high end individuals who want some privacy, and want to be able to enjoy some anonymity, which is great.

BTN: So when did it actually open in your hands?

DT: We actually opened it at the beginning of January this year. I think December 30th to be precise but yeah.

BTN: Paradise there in the Republic of Seychelles and hopping across really to the Maldives. Again another destination, which is described as paradise so often. So what is the location of your resort?

DT: The resort is known as JA Manafaru, the island is Manufaru and it is in the northern most Atoll Hua, about an hour and ten-minute seaplane flight from Male.

It is again another beautiful island. We are certainly very blessed having these two properties.

Eighty-four units, and again, all of the villas have their own private pools.

They go from I think a footprint of about 85 square meters all the way through to three hundred and something. It is just a massive - two royal villas that we have, which are huge.

The resort also has everything you could want for families, for couples, you know, we’ve got a wonderful children’s’ facilities and club, and also great recreational facilities.

BTN: So that experience – as soon as you arrive at Male you get transferred to seaplane, you’re off on a very exciting journey, because that is the way to travel in the Maldives. You cannot do it any other way, can you really?

DT: No, without a doubt. We have actually come to an agreement with one of the carriers in the Maldives that we will run two flights a day, every day.

At the times best suited for the arrival of the international flights.

That was one of the issues the island had under former ownership, which we have dealt with. 

For anyone arriving in the middle of the night, we have arranged for suites for them very close by to the airport where they will receive the same sort of champagne lifestyle that they’re going to receive when they are on the resort.

BTN: I want to have a look and talk about the source markets of those two properties in the Indian Ocean. But picking up something you said there, regarding the Maldives being suited to families. Something you have offered in some of your properties is the all-inclusive aspect, which seems to be growing more and more in popularity. Are you likely to be introducing that in the Maldives?

DT: Most definitely this is the way we want to take the Maldives.

Obviously, there is a limited choice that people have once they are on an island.

There is not a lot of opportunity to go anywhere else for your dining and beverage experience.

So we think it is certainly right that we should be able to offer them that included in the price.

But obviously a dine around again, and unlimited in terms of what they can eat and what they can enjoy, you know, we are not going to put restrictions on people.

BTN: Those two destinations are very popular with travellers from Europe and just thinking about your base,  in Dubai, as being a place where perhaps you offer a two-centre holiday. People fly into Dubai from Europe; spend a few nights in Dubai before going on to the Indian Ocean or vice versa. Is that likely to happen do you think?

DT: Very likely to happen. I mean we have introduced into the Palm Tree Court an exclusive up-market part of that, called the Residence, which is very suited to being twinned with either Enchanted Island in the Seychelles or JA Manufaru in the Maldives.

So that is something that we are definitely going to be working on.

And also bringing people from Asia into these destinations, and then through to us here in Dubai. So working both ways.

BTN: So which will be your key source markets do you think?

DT: I think without a doubt, you know, it will be Europe as always and the CIS countries, also of course China is very, very important in the Maldives particularly, and increasingly so in the Seychelles.

BTN: So, David, fascinating overview of the two properties in Paradise. So moving ahead now from where we are in 2014, we mentioned Dubai Expos 2020 very important. But moving beyond Dubai, how do you see the long-term strategy of the Group evolving?

DT: Well, we are still very actively looking into the Indian Ocean which is where we see our main growth area. Obviously, Dubai will always be our main harp, and main home, and we will continue to develop here as well.

But the Indian Ocean offers great opportunities for us.

We believe our expertise lends itself very nicely to go into other Indian Ocean destinations.

Sri Lanka is somewhere we are looking at very carefully.

We are also looking at Thailand at the moment, a number of properties there as well as looking at additional properties in both Maldives and the Seychelles.