On 15 October 2021, the Burj Al Arab’s doors opened on a new Inside Burj Al Arab experience, an immersive, 90-minute tour at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, offering visitors a glimpse of the opulence inside, as well as a selection of the hotel’s intriguing stories.
Andy Nicholson, General Manager & Director of Experience at Inside Burj Al Arab, spoke to blooloop.
Nicholson began his career as an opera singer.
“That’s quite a long time ago, really,” he says. “In many ways, I see it almost as a natural transition. Being on stage is about communicating a message, telling a story, and, really, I’m doing the same thing now. It’s just that I now wear a suit and tie, rather than some gorgeous costume.
“I think it’s important that staff are always engaging with audiences. I’ve tried to introduce that element of performance wherever I’ve been working. It certainly helps get those stories over, and to bring a place to life.”
The iconic Burj al Arab
For almost 22 years, the Burj Al Arab, instantly recognisable with an iconic design modelled on a billowing sail, has been standing proudly, inaccessible to most, on its own private island just off the Jumeirah seafront in Dubai.
Now, for the first time, the tour opens its wonders up to view.
“Burj Al Arab has been on the landscape for over 20 years now. But you have to cross the bridge to get to the island and go into the hotel. You could only do that if you were staying in the hotel or were dining in one of the fabulous restaurants. There is a gate that you need to pass through to get onto the bridge. Every day you see scores of people standing at the gate because they want to get closer.”
The tour is aimed at a demographic balanced between local and international tourists. It has to maintain a balance, he explains, between several priorities:
“In many ways, this was just a natural extension of saying that we want people to be able to really enjoy this Dubai icon. At the same time, it’s got to function in a way that doesn’t detrimentally affect the hotel guests. That was my objective: to be able to find a way in for the people that we knew wanted to go in, to make sure that the serenity of the hotel experience was maintained, and also to make sure that it became a global ‘must do’.
“It wasn’t just another tour. It wasn’t just another project. We have ticked off all of those things so far, I’m happy to say.”
A window into a luxury world
Accordingly, to cross that bridge, participants enter through a ticketing lounge, which has been designed by Khuan Chew, the interior designer of Burj Al Arab.
“In my view, it is important that as soon as you step inside, you feel the luxurious Burj Al Arab environment, even though you’re not yet in the building, so that experience begins from the moment you step in. You then cross the bridge on a short buggy ride. The buggy drivers we’ve managed to bring board are an amazing team of people. They want to tell the story of Burj Al Arab.”
The buggies stop mid-drive to facilitate the perfect ‘selfie’ moment at a spot designed to capture the beauty of the building, before proceeding to their destination.
“When you finally arrive at the hotel, you are met with the traditional Burj Al Arab welcome,” Nicholson continues. “Your hands are washed with rosewater; there are cold towels, then dates and qahwa (coffee).”
Burj al Arab’s atrium is biggest in the world
The Burj Al Arab was commissioned by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, and designed by a British architect, Tom Wright, of multidisciplinary consultancy Atkins:
“He sketched it out on a napkin while he was sitting in a different hotel, just looking out. His inspiration was a sailing ship that was passing. It looked almost exactly as the building does now.”
The atrium, which is where guests are greeted, is the biggest in the world:
“You could almost fit the Eiffel Tower inside it,” he says. “There is just this extraordinary development of colour, which, actually, his Highness worked with Khuan Chew to develop.”
Inspiration from the Tree of Life
Khuan Chew drew on the Tree of Life to develop the different colours that go up through the structure:
“When you get to the 25th floor, which is actually the 50th floor of any other building because all the suites in Burj Al Arab are double-height, we have a great moment of theatre. You stand outside the doors, you knock on the doors and they open. A beautifully uniformed Burj Al Arab butler stands there, who says: ‘Welcome to the Royal Suite, the jewel in the crown of Burj Al Arab.’”
“He then begins a 15-minute tour around the Royal Suite, explaining everything you would expect from a building of such significance; something around the history, something around the design, something around who stayed there, something around the features. Whether you’ve seen pictures of the Royal Suite or not, nothing prepares you for the experience when those doors open. The colours are just extraordinary. No camera is going to do it justice.”
Exploring the Burj al Arab’s Royal Suite
The Royal Suite, among the most lavish hotel suites in the world, if not the most lavish, is spread across two floors, joined by a marble staircase with gold plating, and a private lift.
The lower floor comprises a drawing room, dining room, and library. Upstairs are the bedrooms. The master bedroom features hand-stitched gold from one of the best fabric houses in Europe on the walls, a TV on the ceiling and a revolving bed. Meanwhile, the adjoining bathroom is faced with rare golden marble and boasts a marble bathtub and remote-controlled toilet.
Across the hall, another enormous bedroom, this one decorated in pink, features a mirrored ceiling, a seating area for 20, and a black-and-white bathroom with 24K gold tiles, taps, and fittings.
“One of the bathrooms has a shower which is totally made of 24 Carat gold, which is extraordinary,” says Nicholson. “We link that into the fact that some of the building contractors used to have to sign out a section of gold, then prove that they’d actually finished it before they could go and get the next one. There was definitely an element of control in that.”
Behind the scenes insights
One moment of the tour highlights the hotel’s technology:
“We stand in the TV room, and the butler points out that there’s a 55 inch TV, that the blinds are electronic, that the speakers are all in the ceiling, that the lights dim at the touch of a button. Nowadays in Dubai, of course, almost everyone has that in their home. But twenty years ago it was absolute cutting-edge technology. It’s interesting to look at that through a historical lens.”
The whole of the 25th floor is part of the Inside Burj Al Arab tour. The curated Experience Suite has digital interactives affording guests an insight into the building’s genesis:
“It is, more or less, the same footprint as the Royal Suite,” he explains. “We have worked with museum consultants Barker Langham. They helped us completely retell the story of how Burj Al Arab was built and some of the features involved.”
The first area is the ‘architect’s studio’.
“There are three parts to it. The first is concerned with the outside. You see some of the superstructure, showing digital imagery of specially constructed vehicles that put the pre-made iron girders into place, and some images of the structure being tested in a wind tunnel to make sure that all of the engineering calculations were correct.
“It’s extraordinary. The building is 50 storeys high on a small island just off the coast, so the design has to be perfect.”
The last section focuses on the work of the interior designer, Khuan Chew.
“She was involved in some of the redesigns of the new public areas for Inside Burj Al Arab. So, we have been able to get first-hand information from her about the carpets, which are hand-designed and stitched, and what it was like to design a 24-carat gold shower or to buy the last piece of yellow Sienna marble ever quarried so it can be built into a jacuzzi bath in the master bedroom.”
“We set up a studio to tell this story from her point of view. When she visited one of the early designs, she said to me, ‘Andy, it’s great, and I’m really excited about it, but it’s just not messy enough. If it’s meant to be my studio, it’s got to be much, much messier.’
“So we’ve been able to scatter a few bits and bobs and leave them around. When she was working latterly on the project, it was long hours, seven days a week. She had a Chinese jacket she used to put on, almost like a comforter. The last time she visited, she brought it back, so we’ve got it in the studio. It’s a lovely link.”
Opposite the architect’s studio, there is a digital dining experience:
“We worked with all the chefs in the hotel – Michelin stars aplenty. They would come up with a dish, and then we worked with the creatives. We explained that we didn’t want the experience to be like a cookery demonstration or a cookery show. So, they have created something quite artistic. You select from a menu, then the dish will ‘magically’ appear in front of you.
“The menu is an iPad, and while that’s happening, the iPad will tell you about some of the ingredients, where they are sourced, how long it takes to prepare, how long it takes to cook. It’s a bit of fun. We hope that it will inspire people to extend their tour and stay with us for afternoon tea, or for lunch.”
The signature 24-carat gold cappuccino is an add-on that people can choose to include with their ticket. Or they could choose to eat at one of the six restaurants in the hotel:
“One of the most famous restaurants in Burj Al Arab is Al Mahara. Here, you eat surrounded by an aquarium,” Nicholson says. “We tell the story of the aquarium on the 25th floor. One of the anecdotes is from the head engineer and Head of Aquarium Operations, Erich Zahrt, who said, ‘When I first came to Burj Al Arab, I was really excited. I didn’t realise I would have to learn how to dive.’
“Twice a week, he or one of his team has to dive into the aquarium to check the filters, and clean the glass.”
Helipad hosts events
Part of the tour is a room called Iconic Events:
“We look at some of the most incredible things that have taken place in the hotel.”
Many of these events seem to have taken place on the cantilevered roof helipad, suspended 210 meters above the water, such as the tennis match between Roger Federer and Ande Agassi that took place on the helipad, the live-streamed charity concert, United at Home, by French DJ David Guetta, again from the helipad.
Then there was former Formula One driver David Coulthard, who had a Formula One racing car dropped onto the helipad, and then did donuts in it for 10 minutes:
“After the event, I mentioned the racing car to the contact at the Red Bull team. I said, ‘Listen, I’ve got a bit of a crazy idea.’
“They said, ‘We love crazy ideas at Red Bull.’ I said,’ Well, do you think there’s any way we could get the car here into the suite?’
Ten days later, a crate arrived from Austria. And two days later, two Formula One engineers from Red Bull arrived. They started at eight in the morning, took a few bits apart, carried some of it up the stairs, put bits of it into the lift. By midday, they were done.”
Live props and digital media
“And when the hotel was celebrating its fifteenth birthday, it gave itself a present of a fleet of four white, bespoke Rolls Royces.”
The Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II cars feature Burj Al Arab’s signature golden logo on the leather seats.
The tour’s depiction of these events is supported either with digital media or with live props. This includes the decks from David Guetta’s spectacular lockdown performance.
“We have a chauffeur’s cap from the Rolls Royces. Plus Rio Ferdinand, the footballer, did a ‘keepy-uppy’ stunt for YouTube. He was here just recently. And when we mentioned to him that we’d like to feature it, he signed a football for us. We’ve got the football up there.
“Burj Al Arab has, across its history, been able to do some incredible events. We are now able to show these to people.”
One of the final rooms of the tour features an AR experience, ‘transporting’ guests up onto the helipad:
“From there, you have a 360 view. You can choose to move into the future, looking at some of the new buildings that have come onto the skyline, and the Expo 2020 District. Equally, you can go back in time, you go back a decade, and half of the buildings disappear. Go back another 10 years, and what you see is pretty much a simple fishing town on the creek.”
It is not, he stresses, just a hotel tour:
“The tour of the Royal Suite is undoubtedly a high point. But really it is just piquing your interest for all of the stories that then follow.”
Exit through the gift shop
At the close of the tour, guests head downstairs and leave through the Burj Al Arab gift shop.
“It doesn’t sell the typical pieces you might see around Dubai; instead, everything has been uniquely nuanced into Burj Al Arab, along with some exclusive pieces. It is a concept store, rather than a typical souvenir shop. If the product is not unique to Burj Al Arab in some way, we won’t have it here. There is real care around the retail.”
Finally, there is the photo desk:
“There are various photos opportunities: in the atrium, in the Royal Suite, out on the bridge. There is also a green screen opportunity if you want to customise your photos. We let people take their own photos. But they like to purchase that tangible link and leave with photos in their hands.
“There is a small venue right on the Arabian Gulf as you exit. This serves teas and coffees in the morning and some light lunch, and mocktails or cocktails in the evening. And when visitors are ready, they’ll head on the buggy back across the bridge.
“And that’s Inside Burj Al Arab.”
Experience Burj al Arab first-hand
The one-of-a-kind immersive experience has been specially curated for up to 12 visitors. The butler-guided groups set off every 15 minutes from 9.30 am to 8.30 pm daily. Tickets start at AED 249 and there is the option to add a series of signature experiences. For instance, the hotel’s 24-carat Ultimate Gold Cappuccino or signature afternoon tea at Sahn Eddar in the atrium.
Guests can also enjoy a glass of bubbles served with spectacular ocean views at the new outdoor venue “UMA”. They can further enhance their tour by booking a meal at one of the hotel’s award-winning restaurants.
Ermanno Zanini, Regional Vice President and General Manager of Burj Al Arab Jumeirah says:
“We are delighted to announce the opening of Inside Burj Al Arab, especially with all eyes on Dubai as it stages the ’The World’s Greatest Show’ with Expo 2020. It is the perfect opportunity to give residents and visitors the chance to experience the wonders of this world-famous landmark first-hand.
“Providing a stunning window into the world of Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the tour will appeal to those intrigued by its story, not just of the building, but of its people, creativity, and ingenuity, as well as its Emirati hospitality, Arabian opulence and world-class service. We are proud to deliver this exceptional experience to the world.”