How The Arts Club Dubai stayed true to its vision despite coronavirus

As The Arts Club Dubai opens its doors Chief Executive Ajaz Sheikh walks Arabian Business through completing a 65,000 sq ft private members club in the middle of a pandemic

The Arts Club Dubai will open its doors on December 26.

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

So wrote Charles Dickens, a member of the Arts Club which was founded in London in 1863 “by men of vision in order to provide a haven for those people who had professional or amateur relationships with the Arts, Literature or Sciences”.

Now 157 years later, on December 26, its first international outpost The Arts Club Dubai, opened its doors, aiming to be a vibrant hub for creative and entrepreneurial members, providing an environment where they can come together to entertain, exchange ideas, dine and participate in a rich cultural programme of events.

The much-anticipated project, in the sprawling ICD Brookfield Place at DIFC, spans 65,000 square feet and is set over four floors of a Foster & Partners designed building.

After an unforgettable 2020, Chief Executive Ajaz Sheikh sits down with Arabian Business to talk about the challenge of completing an ambitious vision in the midst of a pandemic.

Was there ever any temptation, or opportunity, to not go ahead with such an ambitious project when the pandemic hit?

Not for one moment. We have always had a long term view of Dubai, it has proved itself time and time again and will continue to do so.

However, it did force us to reevaluate our operations and business plans,(both worthwhile exercises I might add), encouraged by the Dubai outlook, we continued to look to a bigger and better future. Our construction, design and concept development did not stop for a second.

We buckled down, kept our operating costs under control and faced our challenges head on. Travel restrictions were particularly hard, not only for our existing and new personnel, but also for our suppliers. A lot of our coveted materials came from Europe and USA and getting them out and afloat during the lockdown was extremely difficult. Through all of this, we became a lot more efficient, something we will carry forward with us.

In other parts of the business, our membership and marketing teams did a great job keeping our new membership engaged as best they could and in turn got to know and understand them better. We believe our members are now more excited than ever for the Club to arrive and open and become part of their Dubai lives.

In a way, for as many problems this pandemic has given us, it has also created opportunities, especially in terms of the people we’ve managed to hire. We have been able to recruit some of the best in the business and the prospect of working in the UAE is as attractive to them as ever right now.

This isn’t your first opening, you’ve 30 years in the business connected to some of the most prestigious brands. How has this process, this development, been different? Is this the biggest challenge you’ve ever taken on?

Certainly from the time I signed up to the project to where we are now, the sheer size, scale and detail that has gone into the Club took us by surprise. We, myself and the Principals have never opened anything of this magnitude before. Sure, I’ve opened restaurants in hotels and standalone restaurants around the world, and both scenarios come with their own set of challenges, but the sheer size of this project and the granular work that we have put into the development of the concepts, with two brand new restaurants and numerous bars, lounges, terraces – has been extraordinary and a first! It has been tremendously rewarding to work with some of the best in the business, in particular our Principals leading the project.

The Club is 65,000 square feet with 6-metre ceilings and gigantic windows. Our first challenge, with the Principals and our designers, DimoreStudio, was to figure out how the Club was going to be used, what did it need, how should it make people feel, what’s the flow, where’s the energy coming from. The biggest challenge was actually making the huge volume of space work, how to make it feel like a Club, with intimate spaces. We settled (after a lot of changes) on 3 restaurants and 7 bars, not forgetting 8 lounges, 4 terraces, 3 dedicated meeting rooms, and every space is distinct to the other, but it all thankfully, flows beautifully.

Next challenge, hiring the right people to run and work in the Club. It’s not a hotel, it’s not a restaurant, and there’s a balance of service that needs to be achieved that is very unique to a private club. We’ve looked far and wide, and as I mentioned previously, the pandemic has in a way, offered us some exceptional talent, but we’ve also been able to recruit locally, which is extremely important when adapting what we do in London to the UAE market. We’re delivering a brand from London, but we’re reinterpreting it in the tangibles to work for the location.

As acknowledged, the pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, from changing business plans and timelines, to taking into account changing Government guidelines, what we can and can’t and will and won’t be able to do, come opening. The only thing we’ve really been able to control are our operating costs, but equally, we’ve had to understand how to minimize the burn, whilst still being able to work with suppliers, and recruit the right people, both at the right time.

This has by far been the most challenging and ambitious project of my life, and speaking on behalf of the Board, as this is something that we as a company have never done before, it is hugely rewarding, as custodians of The Arts Club, to be opening the first international Club here in Dubai.

Four floors with 65,000 sq ft, this investment was already a massive vote of confidence in Dubai and the UAE even before coronavirus hit. You’ve said “I believe in Dubai’, tell us why?

The inception of the project started as far back as 2014 and we signed the deal in 2016. We have always believed in the UAE as a global Hub and we have a long-term view of the Emirates. Just looking at how the UAE has managed the current global-crisis, further cements our decision to open here.

What are you most excited for members to experience when you open your doors? What are they most excited about as the anticipation builds? Is it the F&B or is it the cultural programme?

I’m excited about every single detail, coming together to create this big entity that is everything we’ve worked so hard for, to make the region’s first truly private social members’ club.

With a design firm from Milan overseeing ‘the look’ of the Arts Club Dubai, how do ensure ‘the feel’ of the experience is right? Is the décor the giftwrapping of present inside, and what is that gift?

The décor is not only the gift wrapping, but it is a gift itself. The sumptuous fabrics, antique pieces of furniture, bespoke and vintage lighting installations – there is as much art in the design as there is on the walls. We want our members to feel pride in their Club, as much as they would in their own homes. It is their Club after all.

Hospitality is nothing without hospitable people, tell us about the team you’ve assembled?

We’ve hand-picked some of the best in the business, from leading hotels in Europe and here in the region and highly acclaimed restaurants throughout Europe and Asia, to graduates fresh from some of the world’s leading hotel and culinary schools, and not forgetting experienced individuals from institutional private members’ clubs. There’s a mix of contemporary and classic styles of service, management and cooking, and a blend of understanding, each team member is equipped with unique and specialist skills that come together perfectly to make the Club work.

Everyone brings grit and determination to deliver excellence with energy and passion and I can’t wait to see how the team flourishes this year.

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