Raki Phillips is no stranger to the art of envisioning phenomenal experiences for guests and bringing them to life. Here, the CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, tells Hotel & Catering News Middle East about what’s coming for the emirate, which has attracted 1,072,066 visitors from domestic and key international markets during 2018.
You’re a hotel industry veteran; please share your journey with us.
My journey started in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, which is one of the most attractive tourism destinations in the world. As I was studying hospitality management at the University of Central Florida, I took on several part-time jobs to gain work experience which included various roles in Front Office, Concierge, F&B as well as an airport shuttle driver for one of the local hotels. After a successful apprenticeship programme, I was onboarded for a key management role and ended up with a wonderful seven-year career with Universal Orlando.
After Universal Orlando, I made a move to the Middle East to gain international experience and joined Ritz-Carlton Hotels with my first stop in Doha as the director of sales. I later went on to join Fairmont in Dubai, where I spent more than eight years with my final role as the regional director and was responsible for overseeing development, sales, marketing, revenue management and stakeholder relationships.
Fuelled with a spirit of entrepreneurship, I played a key role in launching and expanding SugarMoo Desserts, Dubai’s first online dessert delivery bakery, and Earth Hotels, a sustainable, tech-forward and design-centric hotel concept, before landing my dream job at Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA).
As a seasoned hotelier, how do you view RAK as a hospitality landscape and what are you aiming to achieve in this new role?
The diversity of the land in Ras Al Khaimah is one of its main points of differentiation from anywhere else in the world. Blessed with 64km of pristine beaches, more than 7,000 years of untouched heritage and culture, and the highest mountains in the country, Ras Al Khaimah is a unique destination that appeals to all kinds of international and domestic travellers.
Guided by the Destination Strategy 2019-2021, we’ll focus on diversifying the Emirate’s tourism offering to attract a wider segment of tourists and higher yield of visitors seeking authentic experiences. Having said that, we recognise the importance of differentiated product development and are looking forward to launching many exciting products and projects which include Jebel Jais Adventure Park and the Luxury Camp project on Jebel Jais – both already in the pipeline.
We’re also looking to strengthen our MICE profile further on a global stage as we’re seeing a gradual rise in the number of corporate/business travellers in the Emirate. Moreover, we’ll continue to promote our destination in key source and emerging markets as we aim to secure 1.5 million visitors by 2021, and three million by 2025.
How has RAK performed in terms of hospitality in 2018 and what are your expectations for the next few years?
The Ras Al Khaimah hospitality market continues to go from strength to strength and offers great potential to investors due to the significant rise in the number of international and domestic visitors, and commendable growth in hotel performance across many metrics over the last few years.
According to a report commissioned by Marjan, and quoting data from JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle) Research and STR Global, the performance of Ras Al Khaimah among global benchmarked destinations in both occupancy and ADR has remained stable over the past three years. This stable market performance has shown that Ras Al Khaimah is developing into a destination rather than simply a cluster of resorts.
Ras Al Khaimah had the second highest revenue per available room in the region at AED 449.7 ($122.5), average occupancy of 70.2 percent in 2018 and the highest daily room rate at AED 640.75 ($174.5). The emirate performs significantly above the Middle Eastern average in terms of occupancy.
In light of current robust visitor demand, solid regional and international partnerships in place, and iconic asset and product launches over the last few years, we aim to secure the aforementioned numbers of visitors.
Why should a visitor stay at a hotel in Ras Al Khaimah, what are some of the most special aspects of the emirate?
With a 64-km coastline, unique desert landscape and the UAE’s highest mountain, it’s one of the region’s most diverse destinations for a holiday of sun, fun, adventure and relaxation. The beaches and hotels offer a wide variety of activities while the desert and mountains are ideal for safaris and nature trails. With authenticity and hospitality in mind, Ras Al Khaimah offers a diverse collection of accommodation to suit any taste.
In terms of culture, Ras Al Khaimah is home to all three Emirati tribal traditions – coastal, desert and mountain – living in beautifully preserved, authentic environments in a place where visitors come face to face with Arabia’s historic past, through archaeological sites, museums and a largely unchanged rural life.
Home to Jebel Jais, the country’s highest mountain peak at 1,934 metres above sea level, Ras Al Khaimah draws active adventurers from around the world. The launch of Jebel Jais Flight: The World’s Longest Zipline, one of our key milestones in 2018, has welcomed over 30,000 flyers so far. This put Ras Al Khaimah on the tourism map, breaking the world record and strengthening the Emirate’s credentials as the fastest growing adventure tourism destination in the region.
Our competitive edge and charm simply come from what we promise our travellers, which is an authentic and accessible Arabian experience. Everything we do is focused on how we complement the other emirates and add value to the UAE as a whole, particularly with our 45-minute proximity from Dubai International Airport.
What’s the profile of your most frequent guest/traveller?
We secured a 10 percent growth in visitors last year compared to 2017, mainly led by the UAE domestic market, which continues to generate 38 percent of overall visitors. Germany continues to be the leading international source market with 83,605 visitors, followed by Russia, with 83,531 visitors – up by a significant 17 percent on 2017. The third largest source market was the UK, with 63,054 visitors, up 11.5 percent, India was fourth with 62,325 visitors, up 22 percent, rounding out the top five was Kazakhstan with 27,168 visitors, a growth of 28 percent.
Our high-yield global tourist segments mainly include Active Adventurers, Cultural Explorers, and Wellness Seekers, that we continue to attract year on year, owing to a rich body of natural and cultural assets in Ras Al Khaimah. These visitor segments get to experience adventure through mountain activities, discover more than 7,000 years of historic sights and authentic Arabian culture, and relax with world-class luxury indulgence at plush hotels and resorts.
Boasting a powerful combination of the high-profile adventure attractions such as the world’s longest zip line, a diverse beach-desert-mountain offering and authentic cultural experiences, Ras Al Khaimah is one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in the region with the trappings of an all-round destination.
What’s the percentage of luxury hotels out of your total room inventory? What’s the ratio of leisure versus corporate travel?
Around 80 percent of our overall five-star hotel inventory is luxury. Ras Al Khaimah is largely a leisure destination, attracting active adventurers, cultural explorers, and luxury and wellness seekers from around the world. A segment of our domestic visitors are also day-trippers who come for hiking, off-road driving, camping and other outdoor activities, in addition to families, friends and couples visiting for short breaks and staycations in Ras Al Khaimah.
However, as one of the most diverse destinations in the region with its high-profile adventure attractions, pristine beaches, and undulating deserts, Ras Al Khaimah has also begun to attract interest from corporate travellers from around the region and beyond over the last few years.
Only a 45-minute drive from the Dubai International Airport, Ras Al Khaimah is a boutique MICE destination with a highly competitive inventory of facilities including five-star hotels and resorts, two 18-hole golf courses and the region’s first-of-its kind convention centre, Al Hamra International Exhibition & Conference Center. An impressive architectural milestone, it spans a total area of 4,500m2, complete with spellbinding sea and garden views.
You have very ambitious plans for future development with many new luxury hotels in the pipeline. Does this translate into a premium/luxury positioning of RAK?
Although Ras Al Khaimah is home to some of the world’s most luxurious hotel brands such as The Ritz Carlton and Waldorf Astoria, it also offers a wide range of options inclusive of boutique, midscale, premium and city hotels in order to meet the needs of a diverse travel base.
In terms of our overall five-star luxury plans, we remain committed to strengthening our supply of hotel keys as we believe it will contribute to increasing the popularity of the destination with both international and domestic tourists. There’s huge potential in the emirate for entities looking to build and develop resorts, niche accommodation options and new tourism products.
With over 6,700 keys currently available in Ras Al Khaimah, the emirate already features world-class hotels and resorts including properties such as Waldorf Astoria, Hilton, Rixos, Rotana, The Ritz-Carlton and many others. The destination is expected to offer more than 12,000 keys by 2022, with new hotel brands confirmed for the pipeline including Conrad, Intercontinental, Radisson, Movenpick and Marriott.
One of the latest trends we’ve seen in the UAE and other GCC countries is the concept of luxury camping, which appeals to a large segment of people who are interested in experiencing amazing picturesque views within a comfortable, luxurious setting. Ras Al Khaimah is launching its very own Luxury Camp in 2020, which will complement the array of adventure tourism attractions currently on offer in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.
With many projects in the pipeline, we hope to further enhance Ras Al Khaimah’s nature-adventure offering combined with our luxury positioning.
How do you work with the partner hotels and what’s special for hospitality companies willing to invest in setting up in RAK?
It’s an exciting time for hoteliers and hotel investors in Ras Al Khaimah, and with renowned international names joining the portfolio of accommodation options, it provides for greater recognition of the Emirate’s potential for investors. Working with independent assessors, we’ve outlined strong return on beach and mountain properties. Looking at beach resorts in particular, existing hotels have shown high profit conversion when compared to similar regional markets.
To accommodate this growth in visitors, the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority is providing potential investors with a range of innovative opportunities to develop stand-out properties across the emirate. We have considerable opportunities within several development projects, including Al Marjan Island, which has been earmarked for an additional 15 hotels by 2025.
We continuously work hard to support all our partner hotels, roping them in for our integrated seasonal campaigns, trade roadshows and industry events, in a continuous effort to drive their bookings throughout the year. We hosted the Arabian Hospitality Investment Conference (AHIC) in 2018 and earlier this year, which provides a platform for dialogue on the various catalysts impacting the hospitality investment industry.
In an effort to drive summer bookings every year, we collaborate with our partner hotels for our ‘Summer Campaign’, which provides guests with attractive offers on stays and attractions. A successful initiative, the Summer Campaign had resulted in a 15 percent increase in the room occupancy of summer 2018 versus summer 2017.
Do you offer special incentives to homegrown and local brands?
As part of our Destination Strategy 2019-2021, our three-year strategic tourism development programme, we’ll focus on nurturing small and medium home-grown enterprises to create further employment and business opportunities for Emiratis.
A special highlight is our support for Suwaidi Pearls, one of the leading national entrepreneurship projects in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. A local project owned by Abdulla Al Suwaidi, Suwaidi Pearls is the only pearl farm in the region that offers an insight into the UAE’s socio-economic tradition of pearling, which was once the lifeblood of the local community and the country’s main source of wealth.
What, in your opinion, is the most attractive touristic angle for RAK, and how can the hospitality and F&B industries support it?
From traditional cuisine to the finest restaurants, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Ras Al Khaimah. Whether you’re looking for an elegant dinner in a five-star hotel or a casual lunch along the Corniche, there’s something for every taste and preference.
As mentioned earlier, Ras Al Khaimah is a diverse tourism destination in the region, thanks to its unique nature-adventure offering, which allows it to compete with top worldwide destinations. With a great portfolio of tourism assets clubbed with robust hotel performance and strong incentives, Ras Al Khaimah offers the perfect investment climate to the hospitality industry.
While we continue to diversify and enhance visitors’ experiences through differentiated product development, it’s also crucial for us to broaden our hospitality offering to welcome high-yield visitors of all kinds, all year round.
We continue to support incredible home-grown concepts such as Al Fanar Restaurant, which offers traditional Emirati cuisine with authentic Arabian hospitality in a nostalgic ambience, further complementing our cultural tourism assets (forts, palaces, museums, mosques and tombs) and elevating the experiences of cultural explorers.
The imminent opening of the Jebel Jais Adventure Park will also see the launch of many home-grown F&B concepts that will add to visitors’ experiences.
What about the F&B sector in RAK; what developments do you foresee?
Ras Al Khaimah features an excellent culinary scene while playing home to globally known hotels and resorts, known for their rich gastronomic offering. As a cultural gem, Ras Al Khaimah is the ideal destination for a taste of authentic Arabian and Emirati cuisines.
Dominated by splendid natural landscapes, foodies also enjoy picturesque views at Puro Café and Terrace, located on Al Marjan Island, and at Puro Express (food truck) located at the Jebel Jais Viewing Deck Park. Our F&B sector complements our overall nature-adventure offering, ensuring visitors have a holistic experience during their stay in Ras Al Khaimah.
How do you see yourself in the next five years, will Expo 2020 bring in business to Ras Al Khaimah as well?
Expo 2020 is a key milestone in the history of the UAE and region, placing the country on the road to further global recognition. Expo 2020 will be a great opportunity to showcase Ras Al Khaimah on a global platform and for the world to experience the Emirate’s spellbinding natural beauty, rich culture and heritage, excellent hospitality and unrivalled experiences.
Expo 2020’s theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ complements our strategic three-year programme, the Destination Strategy 2019-2021, which focuses on diversifying our tourism offering, attracting foreign and local investment within the tourism sector and nurturing home-grown small and medium enterprises to create further employment and business opportunities for Emiratis while prioritising sustainable, nature-based adventure and authentic cultural experiences.
As we aim to attract 1.5 million visitors by 2021, and three million visitors by 2025, we’ll continue to create compelling offerings that combine the emirate’s key promises: pristine beaches, natural beauty, cultural heritage, excellence in hospitality and unrivalled experiences.