How to run a seven-star hotel

Behind the scenes at the Burj Al Arab. $720,000 worth of truffles anyone?


We go behind the scenes at the Burj Al Arab to learn the secrets of one of the city’s most exclusive, expensive and iconic landmarks.

Got Dhs5,000 to Dhs10,000 to drop on your next special occasion? Because that’s what a night in one of Dubai’s most recognisable landmarks will set you back – and that’s before the 20 percent taxes and fees. Famously dubbed the world’s only seven-star hotel (though not by the operators, it should be noted) the five-star Burj Al Arab sits on its own little island just off Umm Suqeim, and security is such that you’ll need a reservation just to get within 50 metres of the bridge.

It takes 1,600 members of staff to make sure guests – who frequently include diplomats, royalty, footballers, world-famous musicians and movie stars – never have to hear the Burj Al Arab’s ‘banned’ word: no. Even with so many employees, the pressure is on to manage between 50 and 80 arrivals every day, with guests checking in around the clock and often arriving in large groups. With 202 duplex suites in the hotel, plus rooms for VIP guests’ bodyguards, personal assistants, chefs and other members of their entourage, there’s a private check-in desk on every single floor, and as such, you’ll never see a snaking queue in this gold-leaf tinged lobby. When it comes to working magic on even the most obscure, seemingly impossible requests, Oscar Van der Veen, concierge manager extraordinaire, is an essential cog in one of the city’s best-oiled, machines.

A member of the revered Society of the Golden Keys, an international organisation whose members are the world’s top and most impressively networked concierges, this is a man who prides himself on his ability to make things happen. Rarely is he not able to pull exactly what his guests want out of the bag – even if it means tracking down, as he did recently, a highly elusive copy of Japanese Vogue for the teenage daughter of an important Russian guest, or a Batman costume for the three-year-old child of another. ‘Sometimes, they just like to challenge us,’ he confides, but it’s all part of the service, as is the ‘detective work’ that allows them to make every stay as personal as possible. From checking through bins to see which drinks guests prefer stocked in their minibars to scrutinising items avoided in the complimentary fruit basket, everything is logged on the hotel’s detailed guest database (along with guests’ favourites among 13 different types of duvets and pillows) to make sure every single like and dislike is noted and accommodated, whether the very next day or during a future stay.

According to Oscar, money is no object for the majority of those who stay at the hotel – time is far more important, and as he says ‘the real luxury’. This means helicopter transfers to and from the airport, or to the likes of Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, are the norm. And even on the Burj Al Arab’s helipad, it’s a red carpet experience. Some guests arrive by yacht from around the region, alighting at the nearby Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s marina. But for as many hours as Oscar spends securing tables in ‘fully booked’ restaurants, flying in Tom Ford tailors from Saudi Arabia and booking the full itinerary for luxury, week-long trips to Jordan, he and his team invest the same amount of time in less glamorous tasks, such as tracking down lost luggage. It seems no matter who you are and how much you’ve paid for your ticket, once you’ve parted with your cherished belongings, your fate rests in the hands of baggage handlers – and Oscar finds himself negotiating the safe passage of lost valuables from Barbados in particular with eye-rolling frequency.

Of course, anyone staying at the Burj Al Arab doesn’t just get to enjoy being looked after by Oscar and his concierge of conjurers. Every room has access to a Dhs29,950 gold-plated iPad. Every guest can use the hotel’s gym, which commands a Dhs37,500 annual membership (plus a Dhs10,000 joining fee). Dine looking out to sea at the hotel’s Bab Al Yam restaurant, closed to anyone except those staying in one of the suites. If you’ve got a spare Dhs60,000, drop it on a night in one of the two Royal Suites and you’ll be able to douse yourself in Hermes toiletries made specifically and exclusively for the iconic property. Heck, in each and every restaurant, they even iron the tablecloths for you. Twice.

While the idea of spending upwards of Dhs5,000 for one night in a hotel (cough, off-season), might be enough to make most people’s wallets shrivel up in their pockets, it’s hard to argue that those 600 staff aren’t doing their utmost to make it worth every last dirham.
Burj Al Arab, Umm Suqeim, (04 301 7777).

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Fast facts
• In 2013, 695,878 people visited the Burj Al Arab’s restaurants and bars.

• In the same year, 25,080 afternoon teas were served.

• There is more than one chef for every suite in the hotel.

• More than 25 different nationalities work in the food and beverage team alone.

• Last year, US$720,000 (Dhs2.65 million) worth of truffles were consumed, along with 108,000 oysters, 28,731 bottles of bubbly, 1,582 tins of caviar, 3.5sq km of golf leaf and a whopping 36 tonnes of Valhrona chocolate.

• It is estimated that if you combine every footstep taken by all of the Burj Al Arab’s waiting staff, you could walk to the Moon and back every year.

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