Emaar brand faces uphill battle after The Address Downtown Dubai fire

The New Year’s Eve fire at The Address Downtown Dubai hotel has left its owner, Emaar Properties, with a task ahead to avoid any damage to its brand that might follow the negative publicity it generated worldwide.

Dubai itself, though receiving widespread praise locally for the manner in which the civil authorities dealt with the blaze, also has negative coverage to counter after the skyscraper blaze, even if some of it may have been unwarranted.

“This is an accident that happened and an investigation needs to play its role, but there has been a lot of speculative sensationalisation by the media,” said Gaurav Sinha, the founder and head of Insignia Worldwide, a brand consultant specialising in tourism.

“The first thing that needs to be done is to separate the incident from the brand and get out ahead of the story,” he says.

The investigation into the cause of the fire is under way but there have been no indications so far that the source of the fire was anything other than accidental.

Still, with scant information offered early on, the coverage in international media included unfounded speculation about terrorist involvement.

Thus, CNN during its live broadcast coverage of the fire ran a banner speculating on a potential terrorist angle, while a security expert was interviewed on that speculation.

It was a juxtaposition many other media followed, including Al Jazeera, which used the dramatic images of the hotel ablaze to illustrate a story under the headline “Terror alert and fires disrupt New Year’s celebrations”.

Another criticism widely levelled – not just by media but also individuals commenting on the Dubai Government’s own Twitter feed and other social media – was typified by a story in The New York Times:

“To the astonishment of many observers, including viewers around the world following live coverage of the fire, the government proceeded with a lavish fireworks display at midnight, even as the blaze continued.”

The Government tried to make it clear that it was the prudent course of action – CNN’s security expert praised the decision as necessary to avoid any panicked dispersal of the huge crowd gathered to see the fireworks display, which might have disrupted the efforts of the first responders dealing with the fire. But the message was lost amid images sent around the world of the fireworks next to the blazing tower.

Yesterday the Emaar chairman Mohamed Alabbar said the company’s immediate priority was ensuring the safety of the hotel’s guests and colleagues.

“We evacuated all of them safely in record time, in a most orderly fashion,” he said.

Another long-term issue for Dubai and its major property companies is the widespread coverage of the fact that the hotel fire was the third Dubai skyscraper fire in as many years, with a number of experts pointing to deficient materials that were banned in 2013 but still are present in many of the city’s buildings.

“We develop our projects to the highest standards of quality and as per international best practices,” said Mr Alabbar, adding that the hotel has set “world-class benchmarks in the hospitality industry”.

Emaar is “determined to restore the building to all its glory and even surpass the splendid architectural standards. Further timelines and plans will be shared as they are finalised,” Mr Alabbar confirmed.

Dubai has positioned itself as a safe, family-friendly destination and it is in the middle of plans to expand its tourism offering, with new theme parks including Legoland, Bollywood Parks and Motiongate.

It is important that tourist authorities as well as Emaar – one of Dubai’s major hospitality operators – are proactive in dealing with aftermath of the fire, Mr Sinha says.

“How effective you are at communicating post-crisis plays a significant role in its impact,” he says. “It’s about agility, clarity, transparency – it is the only thing you can do to counterbalance” the negative aspects of the story that already are widespread in the public perception.

Emaar faces a major test today when the Dubai stock exchange opens for trading for the first time since the fire. Its shares ended the year at Dh5.69, down 20 per cent since the start of the year and 45 per cent below their highs in autumn 2014, when the oil price slump began to weigh on many Dubai companies.

Mr Alabbar added: “We derive new learnings from such events, which reinforce our resilience to be a company that is committed to add to the prestige and reputation of Dubai and create long-term value to all our stakeholders.”

The weak share price has come despite rising profit. Emaar Properties reported that profit in the three months to the end of September rose to Dh843 million from Dh645m a year earlier. But investors were expecting more, and the share price weakness has been attributed by market analysts to the perception that tourism is slowing down and residential rents are under pressure.


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