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President of Atlantis

columns Updated: Apr 25, 2009 01:35 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The Atlantis Resort in Dubai may well have been one of the world’s most hyped hotels in 2008. Its grand opening bash attended by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro, Kylie Minogue and our own Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan cost $ 20 million and generated headlines all over the world. Its portfolio of fancy restaurants run by Michelin starred chefs (Nobu, Michel Rostang, Giorgio Locatelli etc.) has attracted global attention and its water park has proved to be one of the Middle East’s newest attractions.

Alan Leibman is President of Atlantis and the man who implemented South African billionaire Sol Kerzner’s vision for this spectacularly lavish resort.

He is in India to speak at a South Asian travel agents conference but, as somebody who loves this country, is eager to eat the street food, see the sights and meet interesting people. He also hopes to attract Indians to Atlantis emphasising that despite the resort’s ultra-luxe reputation it can be surprisingly affordable.

Leibman is a natural hotelier. He was born in South Africa but his family moved to Houston, Texas when he was twelve. His parents ran one of the Houston’s best gourmet food stores and so he grew up in the world of food and wines. His ambition was to cook, so, when he was in his early teens, he signed up with one of his parents’ friends who ran a restaurant and worked in the kitchen.

That love of food led him first to cooking school, and then, to a degree in hotel management. He was enough of a high-flier to be offered jobs by both The Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons chains. He chose Ritz-Carlton and at 25 became the youngest General Manager in the history of the company when he was asked to run the Ritz-Carlton in Sydney, Australia.

After a rapid rise through Ritz-Carlton, he was head-hunted to join Sol Kerzner who was then seeking to expand out of South Africa where he ran the largest hotel company (and the Sun City complex). Leibman worked with Kerzner (whose son Butch became a close friend) on hotels operations before being asked to go to the Bahamas to work on the first Atlantis.

The second Atlantis in Dubai was intended as a much more upmarket project than the first and Leibman says he loved the thrill and the challenge of building it. Determined to get some of the world’s best chefs to open restaurants in the complex, he made many trips to persuade reluctant chefs to ply their trade in faraway Dubai. Santi Santamaria, the Spanish Michelin three-star chef speaks no English and had never worked outside of Spain before but finally agreed to open a restaurant in Atlantis. Giorgio Locatelli who runs the trendy Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli in London refused at first to open in a 1500 room hotel till Leibman won him over.

Despite the global recession and the dip in Dubai’s fortunes, Atlantis is on target and had record April revenues. Leibman attributes some of this to the unique nature of the property. It is three things in one: a luxury resort, a water park and a collection of fine restaurants and night clubs. Anybody who goes on holiday can rest assured that he or she will never be bored because there’s so much to do.

Though most upmarket Dubai hotels survive on European custom and some actively discourage Indians, Atlantis has been India-focused from the beginning. At last year’s star-studded launch, Leibman gave Shah Rukh Khan the Bridge Suite, the property’s top accommodation, denying it to the many American celebrities in attendance, a recognition he says of Khan’s stature and the global power of Indian popular culture.

In many ways, Atlantis is a perfect destination for Indians. Dubai is only a couple of hours away from Bombay and Atlantis offers competitive packages (some with airfare on Emirates included) that easily match those available to similar properties in the Far East. Plus, there’s Dubai fabled shopping and, at Atlantis at least, the availability of Indian food around the clock.

So far Atlantis has attracted only well-heeled Indians. The Bridge Suite, for example, has been taken thrice by a rich Indian family and Bollywood stars and tycoons are frequent visitors. But Leibman reckons that it is time to broaden that base — Atlantis is more reasonably priced that people think, he says.

Plus, he adds, it is a property run with passion and dedication. Because Sol Kerzner runs it like an entrepreneur and not like some corporate boardroom-type, there’s an obsessive attention to detail and complete flexibility. “I’ve learnt from Sol,” says Leibman. “I’ve learnt from his passion, from his willingness to go for the best and to think with his heart not according to some focus group.”

So, could Leibman give up the 70mm world of Atlantis and go back to running a small hotel or a Ritz-Carlton given his spectacular record?

“I don’t think so,” he replies. “I like the scale. I like the excitement. I like the adrenalin-rush. And I like the uniqueness of Atlantis.”