Back in 1986, when the UAE was only a decade-and-a-half old and the World Trade Centre was the tallest building in Dubai, hotel accommodation options in the UAE were limited. Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi were where most of the hotels were located and ideas about setting up hospitality establishments elsewhere in the country were ambitious, if not fanciful. It is within this context that BM Hotels and Resorts was established, acquiring its first property that it called BM Beach Hotel in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. “My father came to the UAE in the 1970s, with US$200 in his pocket. He worked as an accountant at the Al Bustan Hotel near the airport in Dubai. He eventually came across a hotel in Ras Al Khaimah which was up for sale, and it became the first hotel that he acquired in 1986,” says Fadl Saadeddine, chief financial officer at BM Hotels and Resorts.

An image of the BM Beach Hotel taken in 1986. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)
An image of the BM Beach Hotel taken in 1986. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)

As Fadl explains, the property was the first beach hotel in Ras Al Khaimah, and was initially slated to be bought by an Indian family. But when that family backed out of the deal due to personal circumstances, his father instead ended up purchasing it.

A present-day view of the BM Beach Hotel. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)
A present-day view of the BM Beach Hotel. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)

The tourism industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the UAE wasn’t as developed and organised as it is now, so getting people to the hotel was a challenge that the group had to contend with early on. “We were among the first to get into the charter business. Charter business operators package rooms and flights, and those companies usually work with the government and tourism entities to get certain benefits on landing fees and airport fees, etc. We were the first in Ras Al Khaimah to facilitate interactions with Russian charter operators to bring tourists from Russia directly to the emirate. That’s how we initially started growing.”

After a decade, BM Hotels and Resorts acquired its second property a few kilometres away in 1996 and it was called BM Beach Resort. By 2016, it established its third property – Longbeach Campground – at a site adjacent to its first hotel, and with it pioneered the glamping concept for the emirate.

While the business grew gradually over the years, it was when the second generation of the family entered it that the necessary changes were introduced to steer the company firmly in the direction of a modern hospitality firm by way of it consolidating and streamlining its operations.

“We reached a point in the mid-2000s where we were operating around 1,500-1,600 keys. When my brother and I came on board six-seven years ago, we downsized to around 350 keys. We restructured things internally in terms of our organisational culture and systems. After that, we started the Longbeach Campground which in the beginning was just a few tents on the beach, a cinema screen and some F&B service. Once we had a proof of concept and knew that it worked, we decided to invest more to develop it.”

An aerial view of the BM Beach Resort. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)
An aerial view of the BM Beach Resort. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)

Part of the overall restructuring of operations also meant getting in new management which included Ashraf Saleh, cluster hotel manager of BM Hotels and Resorts, who joined the company two years ago and oversees all three properties. Before Ashraf could get going on renovating the hotels, he instead decided to focus on a transformation programme for the around 400 employees – 95 per cent of whom stay on-site. “The first investment that I went to ask money for from the owners was to renovate the employees’ accommodation. I said to the owners, ‘Forget about the hotel for now. Let’s look after our people first, and then everything else will follow.’ We renovated the accommodation and set up a full training department with monthly surveys, proper uniforms and so on just to keep the employee morale high.”

Also high on Ashraf’s priority was rolling out sustainability initiatives across the property. Built several decades ago, the Beach Hotel and Beach Resort properties weren’t equipped with the measures required to be sustainable. “You’d think that sustainability will cost an organisation a significant investment that cannot be recovered, but funnily enough we recovered that investment in just four months alone in savings. When you save 85,000-90,000 kilowatts a month, it’s not only a lot of saving, but it’s also a lot less fossil fuel being consumed. When it comes to water, we have a sewage treatment plant where we recycle all our water for irrigation. We also changed the chemicals used in our laundry and switched from diesel to gas. We now use 35-40 per cent less water than before in the laundry. We repurpose the heat from the boilers too.”

BM Hotels’ growth over the last nearly four decades hasn’t been without its share of speedbumps. In general, Ras Al Khaimah didn’t have a central organised tourism authority to coordinate the growth in the emirate’s hospitality sector until around 2011, and more specifically for BM Hotels, unlike established global hotel chains, it did not have a ready reckoner for standard operating procedures all of which had to be drawn up from scratch. “Internally, as a business, we faced challenges in 2001 when 9/11 happened. Tourism came to a halt at that time. Then, the 2008 recession happened which wasn’t as bad as what followed more recently – the Covid pandemic. We shut down for two months during the start of the pandemic, but we made it a point not to lay off any staff members. Going through that phase allowed us to restructure things for the better, all of which is now paying off. We took that time to improve our infrastructure, which was otherwise difficult to do since we normally operate at high occupancy rates,” says Fadl.

A 1998 image of the lobby of BM Beach Resort. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)
A 1998 image of the lobby at BM Beach Resort. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)

Behind the scenes
Business Traveller recently visited the three properties in Ras Al Khaimah. We started with a tour of BM Beach Hotel, the group’s first acquisition, where the exteriors of the four-floor property have remained almost the same over the last nearly four decades. It features 120 keys across two room categories and one suite category. There’s a rustic charm to the hotel, with three restaurants at the ground level including Al Rahala which is the all-day diner. At one end of the lobby is Pebbles bar, formerly known as Red Lion. As Salwa Saadeddine, cluster marketing manager at BM Hotels and Resorts explains, this was one of Ras Al Khaimah’s most popular bars, and back in the day featured Atari gaming consoles too. Today, there’s a pool table and dart board stations which have replaced those gaming consoles. Slipping around the back of the property, we walk past the hotel’s pool, with a hedge lining one side of it. Salwa says that the hedge will soon be pulled down and the open piece of land next to it will be converted into a mini farm where guests at the hotel will be able to enjoy farm-to-table produce. Beyond the pool is a recreational area with a large garden and a tree-lined path that guides the way to the 300m stretch of private beachfront at the property.

A few metres away from BM Beach Hotel is Longbeach Campground which is an all-tent property. As we enter its premises, there is a large reception tent where guests are served refreshments as they check in to the hotel. Apart from the reception tent, there are separate tents for activities such as pottery and a kid’s play area. We make our way to the accommodation tents which are available in different configurations. The Dome Suite tents are perhaps the most popular and can accommodate up to six adults. It has an en suite bathroom and also a private open-air hot tub. The Safari Suite tent meanwhile can accommodate a similar number of people and differs from the dome tents in the shape which resembles a regular tent. Then, there are smaller tents too, but those do not have an en suite bathroom. The top-end accommodation on the property, meanwhile, is the Sunset Terrace Suite Tent of which there is only one unit. It is a by-invitation-only tent, and is a repurposed shipping container which has been made to resemble a tent’s accommodation and features an en suite bathroom, lounge area on the roof, and a large private sitting area in front of it. There are several dining areas around the property including a poolside bar and restaurant, as well as a large tent pitched just beyond the accommodation tents on the beach itself where the buffet meals, including breakfast, are served. The 300m stretch of private beach includes an overwater structure at one end where movies are screened every night. Just outside it is a large bonfire campsite too. None of the accommodation tents have ACs, staying true to a genuine camping experience. Given the severe summers in the region, Longbeach closes between June to September.

A 15-minute drive from these two hotels is the BM Beach Resort property which has 253 rooms, spread across several low-slung structures dotted around the property that are no more than two floors each. All rooms – which are positioned as either chalets or cabanas – have either a balcony or terrace. Three pools, a 500m beachfront and several dining options and bars lend this hotel – which was also the first dog-friendly property in Ras Al Khaimah – a full-fledged resort experience. From the beach you can get a good view of Marjan Island and the many hotels that have sprung up there – remember, Marjan Island didn’t exist when BM Hotels started operating this property back in 1996. The grounds of it are expansive and Ashraf explains that corporates, as well as individuals, regularly host large gatherings here as over 1,500 guests can easily be accommodated in the dedicated open-air events space by the beachfront, with enough space to separate them from the hotel’s residents who want to use the beach.

Longbeach Campground is an all-tent property. Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)
Longbeach Campground is an all-tent property. (Image: Supplied by BM Hotels and Resorts)

Raising the bar
As Salwa says, the next phase of growth for BM Hotels and Resorts will be transforming it into more of an experiential brand. The Longbeach concept was the first step in that direction. “People want to climb into their rooms. They want to go through a process of discovery and journey in their hotel. Like Longbeach Campground, you have hotel concepts all around the world such as tree house hotels, an igloo in the middle of a snowy island in Iceland, or a hotel in Bhutan where you need to hike to get to because it is inaccessible by cars. These do well because there is a market for such things and it goes back to the point of the market being saturated with regular hotels. How you differentiate yourself in terms of a concept is very important for the future of hospitality,” says Salwa.

Fadl adds that in the case of Longbeach, when it opened back in 2016, because of its experiential hospitality positioning, it would charge over US$1,000 for a tent per night which was more than what any five-star property was charging in Ras Al Khaimah. “With experiential hospitality, you need to create a concept that’s targeted to a specific group of people and build the right product at the right price,” says Fadl.

It is that experiential hospitality concept with which BM Hotels will expand to international destinations – starting with Saudi Arabia. “We’ve recently signed our first Saudi management deal. The boutique property is located 250km west of Riyadh in Soufa Village. The owner of the property initially wanted to build a farmhouse for his family. But when he realised the opportunity in building a hotel, given Saudi’s push towards growing its tourism, he instead chose to open a hotel. Construction on it is halfway through and it should open in the next 6-12 months.

“As we are focusing on experiential tourism, we’ve met the tourism board in Saudi Arabia a couple of times and are looking at different sites. We’re looking at something in the mountain region as well as by the beach, and in the desert too. By doing so, we will be able to interlink experiences for a person coming from Europe, for example, who will be able to stay at three unique properties over the course of their holiday.”

Alongside building up the experiential offerings of BM Hotels, Fadl is also focusing on digital innovation whereby he is working on programmes wherein guests can access their rooms using their smartphone instead of a key card and use their phones to order meals to their room too. “It’s just a matter of what your imagination can come up with,” he says about the scope of those digital advancements that can be implemented into the business.

After Saudi Arabia, Fadl says that BM Hotels could expand potentially into Africa and Asia in locations including Bali, China and Tanzania. As Fadl notes, “What I would like to leave for the next generation is a company that’s well built and fundamentally established with a very strong base that would then give them the opportunity to grow something out of that.”