ERIKA FAY NICOLE

Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental GM Michael Koth: “Luxury became tangible thanks to people and culture”

We present an exclusive interview with GM Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, Michael Koth, sharing his experiences in luxury hospitality.
Michael Koth and Erika Fay Nicole

In my interview with Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental General Manager Michael Koth, we discussed various key topics regarding the transition from Emirates Palace to Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental. One central point of our conversation was how the significant history and culture of Emirates Palace were preserved while infusing the unique essence of the Mandarin Oriental brand. 

Furthermore, we discussed specific changes that were made to enhance the guest experience and align it with the Mandarin Oriental brand. The main focus was on ensuring impeccable and personalized service that reflects Mandarin Oriental’s distinctive approach to luxury hospitality. 

During my visit at the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, I had the incredible opportunity to experience the charm and magnificence of this iconic structure located in the heart of Abu Dhabi. From the moment I stepped through the threshold, I could immediately sense the atmosphere of exclusivity and sophistication that permeates the entire property. The meticulous attention to detail and the passion of the staff in making their guests’ stay an unforgettable experience are evident from the very beginning.

Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental represents the perfect fusion of Emirates Palace’s grand history and the timeless elegance of the Mandarin Oriental brand. It is a unique experience in the luxury hospitality landscape, where every guest is treated to personalized service and unparalleled comfort.

Unique Aspects of Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental

Emirates Palace
Emirates Palace

Erika Fay Nicole: So we are at the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental in Abu Dhabi. Can you share some unique aspects of the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, that set it apart from other luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi?

GM Michael Koth: There we go. That’s a very difficult question. Difficult, because luxury is luxury. It just gets interpreted in so many different ways. The Emirates Palace, by default, is probably one of the largest hotels in the world, probably one of the most expensive hotels in the world. But that is quite stereotypical. We are special because we are on a journey to go from an icon that has already been amazing, with the previous operator, and the transformation to be something that is even more meaningful than it was before. So our effort is on how to make luxury tangible in a hotel that is already so luxurious? And the answer boils down to people and culture. And I think that is essentially what makes luxury an experience. Money can buy a bed, money can buy a design, but money cannot buy the right people with the right attitude and behavior. 

Erika Fay Nicole: I really believe that this is true after my stay here, because I was very surprised by the way in which people don’t take for granted what they are doing here. And they really try to make you happy and they listen to you. And this is what I felt here during these three days. 

GM Michael Koth: I’m glad you say that. That makes my day. I can go to bed today and say, we are achieving our mission. But it’s true. Luxury is often something intangible. And you mentioned the word “feel”, but it takes on the other side of a person that equally is interested and has the same feeling and wants to share and evoke these moments and that is a very precious thing. I struggle with this across the world. There are amazing businesses that do it well, and you have others who claim to do it well, but still are on the way to get there. So thank you.

Michael Koth and Erika Fay Nicole
Michael Koth and Erika Fay Nicole

Creating Consistency at Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental

Erika: Managing a prestigious hotel requires attention to detail. What challenges do you face in maintaining the high standards of the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental?

GM Michael Koth: Standards for me, for us, are about consistency, because whatever you do and whatever you declare is a standard and a standardized way of working, of engaging, in my opinion, has got four components, and they’re ending up with one resource. And this is people. So first of all, you need to make sure, if I give the example of food, the choice of the most suitable product, the skill of the person that transforms a raw ingredient with their technical skill into the third stage, which is the transformed delight that you then wish to eat. And the fourth element is to make sure the expectation of the guest is met by what you’ve created. So these, I think, are the biggest challenges in the luxury industry, the expectation of the market that you set yourself to a large degree, by brand, by who you want to be and how you want to be seen. But then to make sure every day you can deliver to meet this expectation. Nothing is as bad as inconsistency. 

Erika: The word is consistency. Yes, in life in general. As a GM, what role do you play in fostering a positive work environment for the hotel staff? And how does this contribute to overall guest satisfaction? 

GM Michael Koth: The question already has these two complete interlinked elements. I truly believe that happy colleagues create happy guests. So actually, my job is relatively easy. If one was to build this connection, my role is to make sure our colleagues are focused, are trained well, are motivated, are engaged, and are able to display themselves within the context of the culture that we wish to be and the brand we wish to represent.  So that requires a lot of skill, adaptability, and all the stuff that makes a professional, professional. But once that recipe of success is found, it is scalable with regards to every individual. Each individual is different within their own framework and uses their framework to be individual. But I think this is the biggest opportunity that automatically, (if I may say automatically) leads to guest satisfaction. Because everything the team does, or each individual does, is to create that satisfied and delightful moment for a guest. And we started seeing it in our initial conversation, it’s that instantaneous reward that pays more than money. And it’s on that emotional level that when guests and colleagues can look into their eyes and have a conversation on eye level without being submissive in service, but they are there to serve. I think that makes a distinct difference. And that is a challenge as well as a great opportunity. I’m proud to say we have probably one of the highest motivated staff in the whole of the UAE, because we compare our results with others – we have probably one of the highest, if not the highest guest satisfaction in the UAE. And now my role is only to maintain it consistently. 

Admirable Leadership Approach

Erika: Of course I didn’t have the chance to meet all the people that work here,  but I did have the chance to spend some time with Luigi, the chef of Talea Restaurant, and, what surprised me a lot was the freedom he has to use his creativity. This made me realize how important it really is to create this kind of environment inside of a hotel. 

GM Michael Koth: It must be, and I’m glad you say that. If you have Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa, you would not take a brush and change the painting of a genius. So the same way as Luigi in Talea, he is there because he’s got the spirit, he’s got the talent, he’s got the personality. No, it’s not my role to mess with that. Let him do what he’s doing best and let other people do what they do best. 

Deluxe Palace Suite
Deluxe Palace Suite

Erika: This is the kind of leadership I like.

GM Michael Koth: Me too, because it gives me much less work. I trust others and they are trusted. 

The Transition from Emirates Palace to Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental

Erika: Good job. How did the transition from Emirates Palace to Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental unfold, and what were the key elements focused on during this transition? 

GM Michael Koth: How many hours have we got to talk about that? I will try to condense a period of, I would say, three years into a few sentences, which is not easy. The magic word is transition. So we should never forget that this hotel is an icon, and is already a legacy in its own right. When Mandarin Oriental had the opportunity to take over this enormous hotel landmark on the 1st of January, 2020, nobody knew that we were entering into Covid, which made us all change the way we worked. 

So we used the best of what Covid could propose to us. We started our renovation. Commercially, we were unsuccessful like every other hospitality industry in the world. But we used the downside of Covid to provide our people the necessary training and engagement with a renovated product and our fixated mind to rebranding of what we want to be. So the opportunities were how we were seen in the market before as the Emirates Palace. And there is a clear linkage to government because we are the home of governmental guests, but that in itself is not enough to justify people to come. It could actually be a reason not to come. So the thought process here which we deployed is within the brand framework of Mandarin Oriental, how do we take this hotel and take advantage of this hotel? 

When I arrived here the first time, it shouted out “resort”, it shouted out “beach”, it shouted out “parks”. It shouted out restaurant diversity, but nobody ever talked about the word “resort”. So we were bold enough to say, no, we are a palace by default, but we really want to be a resort. And everything we’ve done since then, we’ve leaned to becoming, I think what we are today, one of the best resorts in the world. And not only do I think that, but I know that we’ve been awarded many, many accolades of this type. And the latest has been, we’ve been nominated the best resort in the Middle East. 

But more importantly, that rebranding and that repositioning to a resort needed to be understood in the hearts and minds of our staff first. So from 600 colleagues in Covid, we had the opportunity to employ what I think is the most diverse and inclusive colleagues culture. We are the United Nations of the hospitality industry with 77 different nationalities working here. And we’ve increased our agenda mix by 10%. So we are aiming at what life is about 50/50. We are not there yet fully, but the opportunity to employ talented colleagues from all over the world, as diverse as our customers are, with the same vision in mind, with the pride to work for Mandarin Oriental was the pivotal ground to take this hotel into its transition. And believe me, we are not there yet. There’s still work to do, there are still elements to be added. 

Preserving Historical and Cultural Significance while Infusing Mandarin Oriental Essence

Erika: How was the challenge of preserving the historical and cultural significance of Emirates Palace managed while infusing the distinct Mandarin Oriental brand essence? 

GM Michael Koth: The challenge was on various levels. Number one, I think if I remember back three years ago, it was the right brief to the right chosen designers because you could easily put a coat of paint on something and make it look new. We don’t want it to look new. We wanted to be authentic. So we had to define the authenticity of the palace. And because of our pink marble and the granite everywhere, and the chandeliers, and the gold on the ceilings, this was not something that we wanted to give up. What we wanted to do is to add another layer of making it relevant today. Gold was seen 20 years in hospitality as luxurious. Today it’s maybe seen as opulent and maybe not anymore so relevant. An example of that is we created our cafe concept in the lobby called Episodes, because you have various episodes of experiences that you can try. But the most distinguished features are that we’ve taken these Japanese cherry blossom pink trees that are at guests’ eye level. So what we’ve given to the designer, as we said, we want to create a feminine environment because we want to appeal to our female customer base, but we don’t want them to look up. We want them to look into this space. And suddenly it transformed the entire, I would say, a bit sterile, opulent, large structure, and we became tangible and relevant. So, design brief or understanding your sense of place, briefing the designer, following through the execution of the design, and then making sure the service is absolutely in line withwhat you wanted to create. 

That was probably the biggest opportunity that we have had in the rebranding. You mentioned Luigi. He is a wonderful chef. The Emirates Palace has always had an Italian restaurant. We asked ourselves, Italian food is already the most liked food across the globe. It’s not difficult to be liked when you cook Italian, but here it’s about standing out. So we built Talea with Luigi’s help and his, I would say his “godfather”, Antonio Guida, who runs the Seta Restaurant in Milano. So we created this concept and we said we wanted to do Italian cuisine, not only in a nice design, but relevant to this hotel. And our theme was “come in famiglia”. We are a resort, we look at being honest and sincere, yet done in an incredible style. So Luigi created that concept. And again, everything is about that concept and the transformation and the market astoundingly, we never dreamt about it. 12 months after the restaurant opened, we got a Michelin Star in the guide. So what this is rewarding to Luigi and us as a team, is we create the thought, we give ourselves the freedom to do something, we use the sense of place, and we amplify it, and we make it very special. And I think this is where the opportunities and challenges come out of a transition. 

Episodes
Episodes

So the second word that came to my mind is coherence, in every aspect. 

I don’t need to tell the team what they need to do, and what I’m preaching, what I’m saying to you now is the evidence. You have an Italian restaurant of super class, and we are so happy about this Talea. So everything we do is around Italy. I spoke earlier about our diverse employment opportunities. Now, when it comes to specific dining, we do not want to be as diverse. So our Italian colleagues can come from any part of Italy, but they need to come from Italy. And same with the Lebanese restaurant, and same with our Indian restaurant. You see, our Hakkasan restaurant also brings a concept authentically to life. And when my Italian sommelier looks you in the eyes and discovers that you have a passion for wine, the conversation is completely different than it might be with a sommelier from Iceland. I’m not saying he’s not gifted, but it doesn’t build that same bond and that love.

Enhancing the Guest Experience and Aligning with the Mandarin Oriental Brand

Erika: It’s true. Can you share specific changes made to enhance the guest experience and align it with the Mandarin Oriental brands?

Yeah. Wow. That’s a big part. So I think globally, we all work within a framework of standard operating procedures. And we have a charming service and way of delighting our customers with humility. That is what Mandarin is about. So what we needed to do is understand how we translate this into some tangibles that the customers can take away as experiences? 

If I move away from the experience of a room – but maybe even staying here, we have a vegan room in which we are sitting. That is an experience our colleagues have created. We have conceptualized, and probably we are globally the first in the industry, but also, the experiences we create even go from beekeeping in the hotel, not only to be the home of 75 queens that have all their laborers around them, but we are making tools for children. 

We dress them up as beekeepers. We let them understand the world of beekeeping. We are using the honey, one and a half tons each year. We are using the honey to cook. We are using the honey to gift it to our guests. We are using the honey to sell it in our cake shop. And the kids, of course, please their parents with the experiences that they can share while on holiday. We even have our own organic garden, so as I said earlier, we don’t have a dependency on consistent service delivery. 

And one challenge is procurement. We said, when we open Talea, we want to make our own vegetables. Sure, we wanna grow our own vegetables. We wanna grow our own herbs. Now in the Middle East, we can only do that for half a year. 

Talea Restaurant
Talea Restaurant

In the year, the rest is a bit too hot. But at least during this half year, again, children can see how it’s done. They can help us harvest our fruits, our dates, and they get used in our restaurants. We can proudly say this is organic, homegrown. I think many chefs say it’s all homegrown and it’s organic, but we make it tangible because you can literally pick your vegetables from the garden. These are small things we do where I believe experiences are brought to life in a branded context to serve as a memory for families to take home. 

And I would love that when you go home and you on one grim, snowy, cold winter day, reflect about your travels, your memory will take you to the Emirates Palace Mandarin in Abu Dhabi, and you would have the desire to return. And that is our ultimate goal. To have guests once is great, but to make them come back is even better. 

Erika: So we are in a special room, the vegan room. Can you share insights into the design and amenities? What makes these rooms stand out for guests seeking a plant-based and sustainable lifestyle during their stay at Mandarin Oriental Emirates Palace?

GM Michael Koth: Thank you, Erika. That’s really a very relevant question because of what it touches on. We just had Cop 28 here in Dubai with all of the Heads of States discussing the future of sustainability and climate change. Now, our thought process came from very humble beginnings. When we created and crafted new menus for the hotel for our guests, we said, what about vegans? And of course, today, veganism and any other form of variation of dietary requirements is very common. 

So we said, why do we limit vegan and plant-based lifestyles only to eating? Primarily, we are a hotel with 390 rooms and suites. So we were developing that thought and said, if I’m a vegan who does not wish to come in contact with animal products, I wear special shoes, I do all of this. Why would I then walk over a very expensive lamb wool carpet? 

Why would I want to be in a room where there is carpet everywhere? The hotel says, “look at our wonderful carpet”, but all you want to do is not look at it. So we said, no, we believe there is an opportunity, so we gave to our designers the challenge of physically building a room that has not only vegan lifestyle in context, the parquet floor, all furniture is non-animal skin. This is all fake leather. This is all fabric that is tested and treated in a way that is completely in line with veganism. 

That was the easy part. The difficult part was to find linen. That’s a mix of products produced by one company in the world. It’s so soft. Our mini bar items are all vegan, everything is tested and tried. Our bathroom amenities too. So everything is in line. And do you know, one of the most surprising questions I had from a family who had one member of the family vegan and the other one not? She wanted to book this room and the question she asked me is, “Michael, can my husband have a burger when I’m eating dinner?” And I said, of course, you can have whatever you want in your room. 

We just provide the framework, but the choice of what you consume and what you want is totally up to you. And the last discovery we had along the way is this room automatically doubles up as a hypoallergenic room because we don’t use animal feathers. We have special filters in our air conditioning system so people that do not even live a vegan lifestyle or don’t want it, but maybe have respiratory system challenges  are welcome.  As we say, we’ve got the product, wonderful rooms, great views, and healthy lifestyle experiences.

Erika: Just one last question. One happy thought.

GM Michael Koth: That the sun in our colleague’s heart is always shining because we know it’s shining outside, but it needs to shine from within. And this is what we do every day. 

Erika: I thank you.

GM Michael Koth: Thank you so much, Erika. Thank you. Such an amazing interview.

Watch the entire video interview here:

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