Nathalie Cockayne’s passion for the industry started when she was a child running around The Peninsula in Hong Kong. After graduating with a Bachelor of Business degree in Hotel Management from the Australian International Hotel School in Canberra, she started her career as a Guest Services Executive at the iconic Burj Al Arab. She has worked her way up from there to some wonderful hotels such as The Setai South Beach Miami, The Savoy London, Island Shangri-La Hong Kong, and Mandarin Oriental Doha.
She has over 20 years of experience in hospitality and intensive experience in the Middle East including being the Director of Operations at The H Hotel, followed by being the Hotel Manager at the St Regis Saadiyat, and returned again in July 2019 as General Manager of the gorgeous polo resort Meliã Desert Palm Dubai.
What's the biggest challenge about running a hotel?
Running a luxury hotel, specifically in a competitive market like the UAE, comes with several challenges. As the GM of a legacy property tying up with Meliã Hotels International, it has been important for me to retain the rich heritage of the resort, while still offering something new and instilling it all with the Meliã brand values. We host ‘Desert Palm’ loyals as well as new travelers, so we want to ensure that the ‘old’ don’t feel alienated because of the ‘new’ offering. We still want to retain the essence of the original property.
In my day-to-day work, I deal with a multinational staff as well as guests from all over the world, hence I need to constantly think on my feet. Dealing with unsatisfied guests, complaints, using my network to arrange for special requests, or simply working out strategies to put our best foot forward; the work is on-going to ensure we deliver quality customer service.
What do you think will be the next big thing for the hotel industry?
Contactless is the buzzword today. We have all been caught off-guard with the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one had a playbook on how to prepare or carry on. We were blessed to be able to stay operational throughout the period due to our standalone pool villas attracting long stay guests who wished to isolate in natural, tranquil surroundings. We had to pivot away from the norm, adapting to the new regulations daily yet still continue to offer the best services to every guest. Our priority was always to ensure the safety of our guests and team, while still keeping the doors open. Moving forward, technology and minimising contact with guests will definitely be key factors to be incorporated. The biggest challenge then of course will be to strike the right balance between personalised yet safe service.
How do you keep your team motivated?
Transparency and communication; your staff need to trust and believe in you. In the last few months, we have consistently seen that transparency about the situation and communicating our vision and approach as a brand, helps in keeping the staff motivated and encourages them to think differently about the way they support the property.
Apart from our usual briefings, we also bring the team together from time-to-time (digitally and face to face) to brainstorm about new concepts as well as discuss the best methods of executing these ideas. It’s a great way to keep them motivated, and more important ensure that they’re heard or feel they’re contributing to our overall success. I also have an open-door policy and I’m willing to hear my team members’ concerns or suggestions at any time.
There are so many hotels to choose from in Dubai, so how do you stay competitive?
Indeed, residents and travelers are spoilt for choice in Dubai when it comes to deciding where to stay. However, there are only a handful of polo resorts, and we’re the original. We are located on a lush 160-acre Estate, surrounded by 4 Polo Fields and plenty of beautiful spaces that can be set up to host events and weddings.
Despite the resort being located in a city, once you enter the premises, you can feel the tranquil ambience and even hear the birds chirping in the grounds. We have 22 private pool villas that offer a secluded retreat. My favourite unique selling point that a guest said to me during this period is that we offer the best way to ‘Escape Dubai without Leaving’.
Apart from catering to travelers, we also cater to Desert Palm residents who reside in the villas on the estate full time, and we’re always introducing enticing promotions such as a wine tasting class, cheese and grape night, gents night, etc. to engage them.
What's your advice for someone looking to become a hotelier?
Pursue hospitality only if you have passion for it. Being in this industry comes with long working hours, being a multi-tasker and most importantly being a people person. You’ll also need to work on your diplomacy, as you’re not always going to get along with everyone. Irrespective of whether you are dealing with a personal issue, or work stress, your guests and team will be your priority and you should be able to talk to them with a smile no matter how you are feeling that day.
As a hotelier you also need to be flexible, gone are the days of the stiff hotelier with a corporate handbook. Certainly, we need to respect our corporate guidelines, but every property is different owing to its geographic location, cultural make up, and demographic of the guests. A hotelier needs to be versatile to run a successful operation in that particular market.