By Rushdi Siddiqui
TODAY, we have fashion hotels, underwater hotels, ice hotels, seven star hotels, etc., and, for the devout, syariah-compliant hotels! In the last 15 years, I’ve travelled to more 35 countries and stayed in over 100 hotels, and most of today’s syariah-Shariah compliant (SC) hotel’s neither provide a religious experience nor value for money.
The SC Hotels, much like Islamic finance, touches on the ‘Islamicity’ of the offering, but it does not satisfy customers who are looking for product, guest experience, services, location and value for money.
In discussing the concept with marketing colleagues in Islamic finance, very few were familiar with the existence as minimal publicity, and, to many, it came across as taking advantage of Muslim’s dollars and sentiments by dangling an untested product under the banner of religion.
Today, the ‘syariah ’ compliant aspect of the hotel is basically cosmetic and superficial; greeting customers with ‘Asalaam Alaikum,’ financial processing with Islamic banks, non-married couple cannot check into one room, different swimming and gym pool times, Quran and prayer rug in room and direction of Kibla on ceiling, toilet and feet of bed not facing Mecca, absence of bar and nightclub, alcohol-free mini-bar, and so on.
Is this the essence of ‘Islamic hospitality?’ It’s very much like today’s negative screen for syariah-compliant companies, i.e., remove the impermissible and it becomes compliant.
Many observant Muslim guests stay at the major ‘secular’ hotel chains, Sheraton, Hilton, Hyatt, Shangri-La, etc., and become repeat customers because of convenience, pleasant experience and value for money. Thus, Muslims can have their ‘syariah-compliant stay’ at most secular hotels by using their common sense in avoiding the impermissible.
However, an official at Al Jawhara Garden hotel, a leading SC hotel in Dubai, ‘… 80 per cent of our guests are non-Muslims who stayed with us once to test our services and found no difference in standards compared to other hotels.’
But, one then wonders why the major hotel chains do not offer SC hotel brand, much like conventional banks with Islamic windows/subsidiaries? Is it because of brand risk due to negative publicity associated with term ‘syariah-compliant?’
I suspect if SC hotels took off, much like Islamic banks, major chains would be offering another product line, much like conventional banks (HSBC) offering Islamic windows (HSBC Amanah).
Is the sale of alcohol a major contributor to bottom-line margins at ‘conventional’ hotels, hence, alcohol free hotels does not pass their business case test?
Thus, today most of the stand alone SC Hotels will continue to encounter challenges, and, now, a fresh approach is needed if the concept, much like Islamic finance, is to gain traction.
Muslims do want to ‘de-link’ from the impermissible, and connect with their values, principles, beliefs, culture, cuisine, etc., but without compromising on world-class standards they are familiar with.
A SC hotel’s location is just as important as its Islamic hospitality, hence, proximity to activities is an important determinant. Imagine the interest in SC hotels if they partnered with the Museum of Islamic Civilization (Sharjah, UAE), or the Quran Garden Exhibition (Doha, Qatar) to promote common interest of cultures by showcasing plants mentioned in the Quran, or the Islamic Arts Museum (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), or even the 1001 Invention, mobile exhibition on Muslim influence on science and technology, presently in California.
Even China understands the importance of tapping Muslim money for syariah-compliant offering. There is news out of Ningxia Province, China, about establishing a World Muslim City to attract Muslim tourists and trade, and having a SC hotel is an important part of the offering.
The proximity should also include partnering with certain type of mall that houses major Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) retailers and those that have large presence in OIC (to facilitate intra OIC trade), food courts (OIC cuisine), family friendly video arcades, etc.
Where do the Gulf Arabs spend much of their time, especially during summer months?
When they travel to, say, Malaysia, how many can be found at malls like KLCC or Pavillion?
They go to Sunway Pyramid coz they love Theme Parks, they go to Genting Highlands, another theme park. Now, Singapore has Universal Studios, just 45 minutes away by air.
To date, I have yet to come across a SC Hotel that caters to the premium business traveller, conventions and conferences as requirements are different than family hotels.
For example, there are major Muslim events, catering to everyday life to finance and trade, like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) events, where 30,000 Muslims congregate annually in Chicago, or the Kuala Lumpur based World Economic Islamic Forum (WIEF) holding major events, most recently in Kazakhstan, but taking places at leading hotels.
Would it not make sense to host such established events, and circulate Muslim money within the Muslim community?
The SC hotel needs to also offer appropriate business opportunities, hence, must establish a connection to the US$640 billion (RM1.89 trillion) halal industry. We are not only talking about how the food is prepared, but something holistic and meaningful.
Guests of hotel need to eat and drink, use cosmetics and toiletries, need sit on sofas/chairs and sleep on beds, have access to the gymnasium, health clinics and wellness spas, and so on.
The SC hotel presents an ideal opportunity for the halal food industry companies to test market their products with captive actual (Muslim) customers, from children to mothers to fathers. Furthermore, the guests become ambassadors and repeat customers of not only the hotel but the products utilised if a good experience was achieved.
Having an alliance with museums, gardens, inventions, and arts may not appeal to the youth as they have a thirst for ‘fun and entertainment’ that needs to be quenched.
A ‘Sunday school’ environment already exists in the homes, therefore, a more exciting type of “funtainment” would be more enticing.
Brand names like Atlantis, in Bahamas or Dubai, and other resort based hotel are successful not only because they offer a range family activities, but also because their brand name conjure images of exclusivity, much like Yas Island Hotel, Emirates Palace, and Burj Al Arab.
These brands are epitomes of luxury, extend ‘millionaire’ value and service consistency to top-dollar customers.
Obviously, water rides/activities are major attractions for children and adults, but does it require different timing for the sexes or two sets of rides? Is there a better or more efficient way without the inconvenience of waiting ‘one’s turn’ on hot days during vacations of limited time?
Beyond the ‘funtainment,’ one of the important themes is the rite of summer passage for children, ‘summer camp.’ In, offering sports to secular and spiritual education, Muslim children get to and appreciate others from different countries and cultures.
One of the favourite activities of Arabs is horseback riding, racing or endurance, hence, SC hotel offering riding trails becomes a unique selling proposition against secular counter-part hotels.
The ultimate religious experience for all Muslims is the Hajj. One the most often asked questions I have encountered over the years, from Muslims and non-Muslims, has been about physical demands of Umrah and Hajj.
The informed non-Muslims want to experience the ritual, even before they set foot in Mecca. Yet, these true believers have fasted during Ramadan, read the Quran, and engaged in interfaith dialogue.
For the Muslims, the physical endurance require ‘on the course’ physical training.
Thus, a SC hotel with a course that entails the physical demands of the rituals is training for the actual event, much like athletes training for Olympic events, would be an exciting and unique enticement for all guests.
The SC hotel rate should also set the benchmark for others hotels to follow.
For example, the SC hotel should offer: same currency exchange rate as local money changers, free internet access or pay for only usage time, free mini-bar of halal items (of one fill), if free breakfast is missed allow make-up for free lunch or dinner, checkouts should be beyond the customary 12 noon, free shuttle service to/from airport, baby-sitting for children, mini-mosque for congregational prayers, etc.
If SC hotels are serious about competing with secular leading hotels to get a fair shair of the Muslim dinars/dirham, then they need to make an investment commitment that connects to the rich past while providing a world-class, modern-day comfort.
There is indeed a huge potential and market to be tapped for SC hotels, as there is for Islamic finance and Halal industry, on condition that it moves away from superficity and embrace the concept of a holistic entertainment experience which lives up to expectations.
SC hotels must add “pray” to standard the “work, live, play”, otherwise, it’s just another small fish in a big pond!
It would be interesting to see how CrescentRating, a respected and recognised rating entity for halal travel, would rate such a SC Hotel, while Jakim observes the process.
The writer is Global Head, Islamic Finance & OIC Countries, Thomson Reuters