Opening Saudi Arabia’s palaces to the world

25 January 2024

 

Mark DeCocinis is leading Boutique Group’s efforts to leverage Saudi Arabia’s history and heritage and position the kingdom for a new future as a global tourism destination. 

The CEO has two broad objectives. The first is to repurpose palaces in the kingdom into luxury hotels. The second, which runs concurrently, is to create Saudi Arabia’s first home-grown luxury hospitality brand.

“We have three palaces under construction now, at different phases,” says DeCocinis. 

“There is Tuwaiq, in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter [where Boutique Group’s headquarters are located], which has about 96 keys, and 56 of them are villas surrounding the main palace building. 

“We have the Red Palace (pictured above), which has about 71 keys, and Al-Hamra, which is a massive project,” he adds. 

“The land for Al-Hamra is almost 100,000 square metres, with a main palace building. It has 81 keys.”

The projects are at various stages of development. “The Red Palace is the most advanced. We hope to open all three of them in 2025. The Red Palace will probably be first, in the second quarter. Tuwaiq will open in the middle of the year, and Al-Hamra will probably open in late 2025.”

Renovation work

Boutique Group oversees the redevelopment of the palaces, working with consultants and contractors. “We have a project management team, and we also do the design and development work with the architects and the designers,” says DeCocinis. “We don’t do the actual construction, but we are in charge of the whole project.”

While he is unable to comment on the cost of the projects, DeCocinis, who has overseen projects worldwide before joining Boutique Group, confirms that renovating old buildings is more expensive than building something new. “In my experience, it is usually double [the cost],” he says. 

“This is not about our return on investment (ROI),” he adds. “Of course, we don’t want to lose money, but the vision and the direction of [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud] is to reflect Saudi culture, heritage and hospitality. That is the ROI for us. ”

Renovating palaces requires a delicate touch and a level of respect for their former owners. 

“These were residences of former kings and their families, and although they will now be used for guests, we really had to protect the integrity of the design and the architecture, and the culture and heritage of each one,” says DeCocinis. 

While technically complex, the construction work is only part of the story. “Boutique is about Saudi culture, history and hospitality. That is what makes the difference – we own the assets, and we will also manage them,” he says.

We are focusing on the very top 2 per cent of leisure and business travellers

Target market

Once the projects open, Boutique Group’s target market will be high-end tourists. “We are focusing on the very top 2 per cent of leisure and business travellers,” says DeCocinis.

This will be royal families and high-level government officials, financiers, wealthy entrepreneurs, sports stars and celebrities. “I would say over 60 per cent of them will be from Saudi Arabia, then there will be guests from the GCC, then Europe, and then the rest of the world. That is how we see it in percentage terms.” 

Targeting the top 2 per cent of travellers will require a service-focused approach to operations. 

“We will be there to serve our guests, but it will be unobtrusive and very personalised,” DeCocinis says, adding: “We won’t have service areas in public view because we want to treat our guests like royalty.”

Future plans

Boutique Group’s ambitions are not limited to the three projects already under development. “We have three other palaces that will be announced soon,” says DeCocinis. “We don’t have a goal of how many palaces we would like to own and operate. What we will do is carefully look at each location.”

The company also aims to expand internationally. “We could apply the same principles that we have developed here in Saudi Arabia in other markets,” says DeCocinis. 

“The properties might not be palaces, but they could be other historic buildings. We could restore them and manage them. 

“Many European countries have beautiful palaces, villas or buildings that can be converted. There are also places like Morocco,” he adds. “I think the opportunities are endless.”

While the ambition is to go global, the focus for now is on delivering in Saudi Arabia. 

“We have to do our part here – start small, grow and evolve. But in the future we want to take the face of Saudi Arabia to the world. We are just the ambassadors to do that,” DeCocinis concludes. 

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Colin Foreman
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