With the Mediterranean a few feet away, and a table groaning with plates of grilled prawns, it’s hard to picture Oceana beach club as a scene of any duress. Life here among the bronzed and beautiful is good. But in 2006, as owner Nicolas Sawan says, the first Israeli bombs to hit the Dammour area were just a few hundred meters away.
“They hit the bridge where we had the Oceana sign,” he says.
Beyond the human carnage and destruction wrought by the July war, Lebanon’s tourist heavy economy also took a blow. The initial overall economic cost was estimated at $2.8 billion and the year, which had begun with a record flow of tourists, saw an 85 percent drop from the previous August, according to Tourism Ministry statistics. The owners of Lebanon’s beach clubs, who had been preparing for a bumper season, were hit particularly hard. Sawan, for example, claims he invested $200,000 on an advertising and marketing campaign that year.
Although the conflict lasted almost exactly the length of Lebanon’s high tourist season — from mid-July to mid-August — Oceana reopened after the bombs stopped falling, just to prove a point: Lebanon doesn’t give up that easily. But the experience left Sawan and other beach club owners with a little less spring in their step, even as this year the Tourism Ministry is once again recording significant year-on-year increases of visitors, up 53 percent in the first quarter.
Ziad Abdo, Oceana’s general manager, said the club would not be investing nearly as much — perhaps half the original amount — in its marketing campaign as they had in 2006. While Oceana still runs radio advertisements, they are playing it a bit cooler, hoping instead to bring in new clients through other means.
A pool of one’s own
For example, they have carved out creative new transport strategies, including an exclusive deal with the Intercontinental Phoenicia Hotel, which will provide a free shuttle service to and from Oceana for its guests. They’re also planning to offer arrival via sea; visitors can leave from the Marina at Dbayeh and take a boat directly to Oceana. Thanks to these innovations, they’re expecting a 30 percent increase from last year’s 62,000 entries.
Gilbert Khoury, owner of Bamboo Bay beach club in Jiyeh, also had to make some hard choices in the wake of the war.
“Because of the 2006 war we had a huge amount of losses, around half a million dollars,” he says. Once bitten, he is now twice shy: after the war, and against the background of continuing conflict and instability that has plagued Lebanon, he abandoned plans to develop a resort and hotel complex on an adjacent property.
“Because of the problems from 2005 to 2008, we decided not to develop a hotel-resort complex as we’d initially planned. It was too risky to invest this much money,” says Khoury.
Instead, he reinvested almost $500,000 in an upgrade and expansion of Bamboo Bay, in order to reposition the club as “one of the most Class A and A plus” projects on Lebanon’s coast, as he puts it. To that end, he’s enlarged the total area of the club from 12,000 to
19,000 square meters, adding 14 private “terraces,” or bungalows, along the beach, and six terraces with private dip pools. Each terrace has its own changing area, shower and restroom. There’s also a “mega-terrace,” which has a larger dip pool, solarium and private bar, as well as a butler service.
“It’s like a micro-beach resort that you can rent privately for the day,” Khoury says.
On top of this substantial investment in infrastructure, Khoury has made what he considers an even more important investment, in human resources.
“Last year, we had a big crisis in hiring qualified staff, because a lot of people left to work abroad. This year, it’s the opposite. Because of the work crisis in the Middle East, we’ve been able to hire a lot of qualified staff from the Gulf,” Khoury says.
“People are willing to come back to Lebanon and work, and that’s what we’re most excited about. It’s not only a restructuring of the physical aspect, but also a deep managerial restructuring. Our staff is very motivated, very qualified, and it’s going to make a big difference in the quality of service this year,” he adds.
Despite increasing the size of the club by more than 50 percent, Khoury plans to limit the number of clients he lets in to 800, maintaining a high area-to-client ratio that will set Bamboo Bay apart. In a tiny, nosy country like Lebanon, what greater luxury is there than a little extra room to breathe?
At Lazy B, they’ve also placed a premium on space, capping admission at 500 visitors and, as Karima Hawa, wife of owner Georges Boustani, points out, leaving around a third of their land untouched and unused.
“We left it just the way it was,” she says.
Daisy Boustani, Georges’ mother and the club’s designer, has re-done the bar and replaced the furniture for this year. But she’s not expecting anything out of the ordinary.
“We’re just working for the people who are used to coming here,” she says.