After 23 years on the market, JW Marriott Hotel Dubai is one of the most established caterers in the emirate, partnering with the likes of the Rugby Sevens, Dubai World Cup, and a host of world-class concerts. Today the team is focused on ramping up its portfolio and expanding into new UAE locations, all the while tackling some major operational challenges
As many hoteliers are painfully aware, Deira is no longer the bustling centre of activity it was a decade ago, and for properties such as the JW Marriott Hotel Dubai, driving F&B business has been increasingly challenging in recent years. However, the 23-year-old property has turned its fortunes around by ramping up its external catering portfolio, with the acquisition of prestigious events such as the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse, the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, and the Dubai Airshow, all of which it has been catering for the past four years. The team has also managed to establish itself as a key caterer for Dubai’s growing portfolio of world-class concerts, having provided the F&B for Katy Perry’s concert in 2012, Justin Bieber at the Sevens Stadium in May 2013, and Rudimental in Dubai Media City Amphitheatre in April this year, among others.
“The market is changing; it’s very difficult for us to drive people into the hotel because of the location, the traffic and the logistics,” comments Bhavesh Rawal, director of food and beverage, JW Marriott Hotel, Dubai. “So we thought, ‘why don’t we drive to the people?’”
According to Rawal, the hotel’s major advantage is the word of mouth generated from being so well established in the market. “We had a basic catering division here but we really ramped it up,” he explains. “I think the biggest advantage we have is experience in Dubai for so many years, so people know us and I think we capitalise on that reputation to win business for the hotel. Dubai runs on word of mouth.”
“We have to be very prepared to make sure that everyone gets what they’re supposed to get. The catering business is like that; predictions matter a lot and when it’s gone it’s gone and you never get it back, so it’s important to be on top of these things” – Bhavesh Rawal, director of food and beverage, JW Marriott Hotel Dubai
With executive chef Debrup Mitra at the helm of the kitchen, JW Marriott Hotel Dubai has a team of 85 chefs, 22 of whom specialise in events and banqueting, however when it comes to major external events, the team requires at least 200 staff on the day and calls on extra manpower from a variety of sources. In addition to pulling staff from outsourcing companies such as Retro, the team operates an internship programme in collaboration with various Institute of Hotel Management campuses throughout India to bring 30 interns to the hotel every six months, so that the entire year is covered.
“It’s great for them; they come over, they see something new and they are hungry and want to learn,” says Rawal, explaining that the internship programme was initiated by JW Marriott Hotel Dubai to allow the team to execute its catering strategy, however other Marriott hotels in the country have adopted it since. In addition, the team is able to draw on support from other properties in the group’s portfolio. “With the strength of Marriott we can pull out five chefs from each hotel, which gives us a big boost on the day of the event,” says Rawal.
Aside from staffing, the key challenge that differentiates JW Marriott’s internal catering to its external operations is logistics, and Rawal admits that with consumers demanding higher standards than ever before, meeting expectations can be a challenge, given the numerous variables associated. “People have become more demanding. I think the service and quality levels in Dubai have really risen and people expect the same quality inside the hotels to be delivered outside of the hotels.
“Logistics is the massive difference [between internal and external catering]. It’s easier doing an internal event, because we’ve got a set platform here, we’ve got everything in place, we know the property inside out. Once you go outside, you don’t know where the power is going to come from. What if the generator fails? What if it rains? What if there’s no access to the roads because of a storm? So a lot external factors can impact us.”
Nordic Shipping is the company used for deliveries, and the hotel also has six of its own chiller trucks, and again, can call on support from other Marriott hotels, giving the team a total pool of around 10 – 12 trucks at their disposal. However, inner-city restrictions for trucks at certain hours, the UAE’s frequent traffic jams, and the weather can pose challenges.
Executive chef Mitra comments: “If anything happens, like the truck turns up late, then the entire chain of events gets delayed, so we have to be sure that everything is on time. If we’re hiring refrigerated trucks externally, then we call them an hour in advance so that if there is a traffic jam, they are still on time.
The hotel also works with suppliers such as Chef Middle East, Barakat, Food Source and Classic Fine Foods, which can often deliver produce straight to the event venue. “We have a lot of suppliers who are HACCP approved and have been with us for four or five years, so they know the operation; they know what we’re looking for and they’re very quality-driven and focused,” comments Rawal.
Explaining how the team ensures that the highest hygiene standards are adhered to, Mitra comments: “You need to buy ingredients from reputed suppliers that have good quality standards. Everything has to be controlled in the chain of handling food and equipment, from when we receive it, to preparations, holding and transportation. We’re HACCP certified so we have all of these processes in place.”
Providing alcohol – a crucial aspect of catering for sporting and music events – comes with its own set of challenges. The standard procedure in Dubai is that alcohol licenses, even for events of more than 5,000 attendees, will not be supplied until the day. “We don’t get a license in advance,” explains Mitra. “They give you it on the day of the event so there’s a lot of rushing and you have to have your back-up ready. The moment you have the license in hand, you can start mobilising alcohol to the venue.”
However, an even more serious challenge is anticipating the volume of guests at an event. Rawal explains: “We never know how many people are going to turn up. At a concert, for example, the base numbers are calculated on ticket sales, but it depends how many people buy tickets on the door. We have to be very prepared to make sure that everyone gets what they’re supposed to get. The catering business is like that; predictions matter a lot and when it’s gone it’s gone and you never get it back, so it’s important to be on top of these things.”
Delays are another major hurdle for the team, according to Mitra, who reveals that the Justin Bieber concert was the most challenging event he has experienced. “The venue was a little far from the hotel at the Sevens Stadium and it was very hot. We had to transport everything and it was an open area, so very challenging. The concert was supposed to start at 7.30pm but it ended up starting around 10.30pm so people were getting impatient. We begin our prep based on the timing of the concert and if it gets delayed, sometimes you can’t even hold the food for so long, so we have to start again with new things,” he comments.
To reduce wastage, the team tends to cook à la minute, basing their prep on ticket sales in addition to the volumes they see coming through the door. If there is grilled chicken or a fillet of beef on the menu, for example, the items are sealed in the kitchen and taken to the venue chilled. Three or four hours before the event begins, the team starts heating the food. With smaller items and finger foods that are baked or deep fried, all of the preparation is done at the venue itself. If turnout is less than expected, items left in the freezer can be returned to the hotel, and in some cases sent back to the supplier.
“Sometimes when we deal with the supplier, we agree to order a certain amount, but we pay based on the consumption. Suppliers are very willing to do this; they just want to partner with a big hotel and be part of it,” comments Mitra.
A more recent event that posed numerous challenges for the team was the WCA Worldwide Conference 2016 at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) in March, which required five days of catering including a four-course gala dinner for 2,600 people on one of the days. Unfortunately, it was raining and so in addition to the trucks being stuck in heavy traffic, all of the chairs got wet and JW Marriott had to foot the bill to arrange delivery of a new batch. “We have to deliver, so even if it’s an additional cost for us, we let it go because we have committed to it and we have to maintain our reputation,” says Rawal.
“Sometimes when we deal with the supplier, we agree to order a certain amount, but we pay based on the consumption. Suppliers are very willing to do this; they just want to partner with a big hotel and be part of it” – Debrup Mitra, executive chef, JW Marriott Hotel Dubai
And since all of the emirates have different licensing requirements for catering operations, the team was tasked with undertaking a lot of paperwork for Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) to show the kitchen plan, equipment, power requirements, water and electrical connections, transportation methods, food handling, uniforms and HACCP documents. According to Rawal, the gala dinner in Abu Dhabi was the largest the emirate had ever seen, and the team were very proud to have been chosen as the caterer. “We were very fortunate that we won the bid. Capital Hospitality, ADNEC’s catering division came to our hotel to talk with the key players, do the tastings and once they saw we had the potential, and that we’d done such events before, they were convinced.”
Rawal and Mitra are keen to expand the hotel’s catering division further into the other emirates, and currently have plans to increase their wedding operations to Al Ain and Sharjah. “Wedding catering is a great market,” says Rawal, revealing that the hotel already caters to around 225 weddings internally each year. “We might be doing some weddings in Al Ain; we’ve got a lot of requests from people who saw us at the event in Abu Dhabi.”
“We will also be doing a lot of catering in Sharjah too. We’re not that far from Sharjah and that is one of the advantages of our location,” adds Mitra.
For Rawal and Mitra, the weddings and concerts markets are more reliable than other types of events since these are less likely to be cancelled, even during periods of economic uncertainty. “At this point people are being a little conservative,” says Rawal. “They don’t know what’s going to happen; they don’t know if a recession is coming so they’re not spending that much money. But if an event is already planned then it has to happen and these are the types of events we’re targeting. We’ll get in touch with the concert organisers and find out what their plans are for future events. We’ll then follow up and show them we’re committed to being a partner with them.”
Since JW Marriott Hotel Dubai was established, the emirate has come a long way in terms of its catering offering, with many hotels competing in the space to diversify business. For this reason, it’s essential that the team stays at the top of their game, monitoring the competition and ensuring they retain the major clients on their books.
“There’s a lot of potential and a lot of competition so you need to make sure you stay ahead of them and find out what they’re doing. We sometimes do a market survey or we just go to different events and find out what the other caterers are doing. What food are they serving? What props are they using? What uniforms are people wearing? You just have to understand the market,” Rawal concludes.
Catering quantities: Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse
Sushi: 15,000 pieces
Assorted Finger Sandwiches: 12,000
Salmon steaks: 6,500
Rice: 300 kilos