Derryn French, executive assistant manager, food and beverage and marketing – Mina Seyahi Complex reveals to Crystal Chesters how she maintains the success of Dubai institutions such as Barasti Beach Bar and Bubbalicious in the face of ever-growing competition
The Westin Dubai and Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina was literally built around its oldest F&B venue, Barasti Beach Bar, which started off as a beach shack and blossomed into a Dubai institution, having celebrated its 20th birthday last October. The bar’s sister venues have followed in its footsteps, with the larger-than-life Bubbalicious brunch at Blue Orange reeling in 950 covers a week, and Bussola, an Italian favourite among Dubai residents, booked up every weekend. The complex also prides itself in having pioneered the Dubai ladies’ night phenomenon, the first ever having taken place in Oeno wine bar. And the hotel is still a front-runner in the space with China Grill’s Ladies’ Night marking yet another success story for the team.
Having first joined the complex in 2007 as PR manager to open The Westin Mina Seyahi, South African national Derryn French now occupies a central role in the management of all its F&B outlets. Already director of marketing and communications, she took on the additional responsibility of overseeing the F&B portfolio in October last year following the departure of Sadettin Kaya, the previous executive assistant manager – food and beverage. In her promoted position, French is utilising her experience across the three key pillars of hospitality – rooms, sales and marketing and F&B.
Having started out as executive chef for Orient Express Hotels in South Africa, French admits that F&B has always been her real passion. “I’ve been on the executive team for about four years and from a marketing and PR perspective I’ve always been very involved in F&B, but also because that’s where my passion has been – I’ve got a lot of F&B experience. In this complex F&B gives you creativity. You always have to drive it forward and there are always new things in such a competitive market, so you have to look at new ideas.”
The outlets include Bussola; Hunters Room & Grill; Thai restaurant, Spice Emporium; and the latest opening, pan-Asian restaurant, China Grill. This is in addition to the very well established Barasti Beach Bar, Bubbalicious brunch at Blue Orange, and Bussola, among others. The main challenge French is tasked with is maintaining the popularity of these venues as competition floods the market, and Dubai diners become more sophisticated than ever before. One thing on her side is her strong F&B and marketing teams, which she describes as “very stable”. That said, the key to the future, according to French, is “innovation and change”.
“The only way you maintain anything is through looking at what you can do differently, looking at your competitors, your pricing strategies, and what people want.”
And while French often hears she is “lucky” that Barasti “just does really well”, she is adamant that this is down to a lot of hard work by the team. “Yes, we’re lucky – we have a great asset – but we spend a huge amount of time working on [Barasti] to make sure it does well, and there are a lot of people involved in making sure it stays there. We have to look after our clients, ask what they want, walk around, network – you’ve got to tweak things all the time.”
Testament to this was the recent addition of a late-night gourmet burger truck Buns & Cows on-site, which serves quirky burgers such as ‘The Skinny Cow’ until 4am on weekends. The truck will also offer deliveries to the yachts on the Marina. Barasti also underwent a recent refurbishment, which saw the addition of a middle deck and the removal of the pool, allowing the team to cover the venue with a tent during the summer last year. French says of the refurbishment: “It was obviously positive – it’s allowed us to have more capacity. Previously the pool was unusable. It has helped in terms of service… it has been positive from an experience point of view and in terms of revenue.”
Being able to cover the venue during the summer really boosted the venue’s capacity and helped the team curb the challenge of seasonality, which impacts many of the complex’ facilities every year. “It’s a completely different environment in summer and winter here. With Bubbalicious you go from 1000 covers a week to 600 because when you’re indoors you don’t have the capacity. Weather plays a hugely important role,” she says.
Despite summer being a low point in terms of covers, the downtime allows the team to review and refresh the various offers in the complex, including Bubbalicious, which is updated every year. In 2016, the team has plans in place to enhance the presentation of the brunch, with details under wraps for the time being. Bussola was also updated last year and reopened in September with a new bar, lounge and terrace and French is hopeful that these refreshments will “potentially attract a new crowd”. Even China Grill, which has only been open for 16 months, has already been upgraded with a terrace serving shisha. The restaurant has been a huge success since its launch, with its popular ladies’ night helping to build its standing in the market.
“China Grill is doing wonderfully well,” French says. “Ladies’ Night has helped us to position it – a lot of people didn’t know what it was beforehand. We’re getting a huge amount of repeat business in there, which has really helped us. A lot of ladies now dine so they get the taste of what it’s like and they’ll come back for another night to have the restaurant experience, so we’ve seen an increase in the restaurant covers.”
China Grill is one of the few remaining venues in Dubai that offers unlimited beverages on Ladies’ Night, along with a 50% discount off food for ladies dining together, and a 25% discount for mixed groups, which French describes as “unbeatable value”. Asked whether the venue loses out as a result of this generous offer, she says: “You have a higher cost for the night, but no, not with the numbers we’re doing at the moment.”
One thing that keeps guests coming back for more, according to French, is offering a fixed price, and this will be particularly important in 2016’s uncertain economic climate. “Generally the packaged options work best, but you’ve got to price them right,” she says, referring to Bussola’s new Society evening, which takes place every Wednesday from 7 – 10pm, offering free-flowing Prosecco and Italian wines along with a selection of Italian food for AED 275. “People want to feel they are getting value for money – they want to feel they are absolutely getting more than what they spend in terms of value.”
The variety of venues in the complex is a big advantage for the team, and adding to the already colourful selection, this summer will see the opening of a new Turkish-inspired Mediterranean fish restaurant with around 100 covers, which will be located outside between the two hotels. “The venue is going to be very casual, laid back with a beachside ambience, everything grilled, open flames, and an amazing volume of seafood. It will add a lot of value to the complex because we don’t have a seafood restaurant at the moment.”
French says that training will be another big focus over the coming year. Despite the fact that many of the staff have been working in the complex for several years, French admits that people develop bad habits, and some back-to-basics skills must be revisited. “We’re spending a huge amount of time retraining people even though they have been with us for a long time. I think it’s one of the negatives of a busy operation – you don’t take time to retrain on all the basics of service because you assume everyone is doing it.”
In addition to this, French and her team will simply be looking at how to do things better in small steps, for example by updating opening hours and wine lists, revising beverage costs or renegotiating contracts.
“We need to see what we can do in terms of saving money and increasing the quality of certain suppliers – it’s all those little things that you won’t necessarily see, but that will take us into the future.”