Updated at 15:30 on March 5 to include statement from Katara Hospitality.
While the sudden news that Doha’s Sheraton Hotel is closing for renovations caught many Qatar residents by surprise, it seems that the hundreds of employees working there were the most taken aback by the development.
Speaking to Doha News, several staff members said that, during a 15-minute meeting with senior managers on Monday, they were informed they would be out of a job by the weekend.
“We’re all shocked,” said one laundry service employee who, like the other employees who spoke to Doha News, declined to provide her name.
“Everybody is asking, ‘What happens to the staff?’ … We don’t know what we’re doing.”
In a statement published late Tuesday afternoon, Katara Hospitality – which owns the Sheraton and several other hotels in Qatar and abroad – said renovations would begin Wednesday, and run until December.
The statement said the hotel’s Dafna Hall would continue operating until April 4, and that pre-booked events would go on as scheduled. The information is a departure from the Saturday closure date given by front desk staff earlier this week.
Many of the hotel’s restaurants and bars, however, had already shut down by Tuesday.
According to Katara Hospitality, the work includes renovating guest rooms, public areas, recreation facilities as well as conference and meetings space and “enhancing” the hotel’s food and beverage offerings.
Citing an unnamed spokesperson, the statement continued:
“When the Sheraton Doha re-opens in December 2014, it will strengthen its position as Doha’s most iconic property, with the highest standards of luxurious and modern facilities.”
That indicates that the hotel will not be rebranded, as hinted by Katara Hospitality CEO Hamad Abdulla Al Mulla in March 2013.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sheraton general manager J. Thomas C van Opstal told Doha News that everything was still “fluid” and that the hotel was still working out what to do with staff, some of whom have already been asked not to report to work. He declined further comment, and Katara Hospitality has not responded to interview requests.
The employees who spoke to Doha News said they were confused about the details of their fate, but said it was clear they would soon be unemployed.
Most said managers had promised to issue them a no objection certificate to release them from the Sheraton’s sponsorship, if they found another job. If no other company hires them, they would have to leave Qatar.
Several said they were unsure how long they would be allowed to stay in their compound, but did not believe that an eviction was imminent.
There was also confusion over whether employees would receive severance pay. Some who had spoken to their managers since the all-staff meeting said they were told that employees who had less than five years’ experience would receive an additional month of pay. Those with more than five years’ experience would be paid for an additional two months.
All the employees said the possibility of transferring to another hotel owned by Katara Hospitality – which include the Ritz-Carlton, Mövenpick, Sharq Village and others – or those under the Starwood brand, such as the St. Regis or W Hotel, was never mentioned.
However, Katara emailed a statement to Doha News on Wednesday afternoon saying that “some” employees will be offered temporary secondments at Katara Hospitality and Starwood hotels in Doha.
A source at the Philippines embassy told Doha News that a team visited the hotel after it learned of the closure and received assurances that the dismissal of 260 Filipinos, along with several hundred other laid-off employees at the hotel, would be handled in accordance to Qatari law.
“They have good plans for them. There will not be any problems with their benefits,” he said.
The big question on the minds of many employees was why the shutdown was announced so suddenly. A complete renovation of the 32-year-old hotel has been in the pipeline since at least 2011, and the most recent plans were to perform the work in stages and to keep the facility partially open.
They said they were also confused why the hotel would lay off all of its staff – estimates ranged between 600 and 800 employees – only to go through the expense and hassle of recruiting a full complement in a few months.
“Why give all the employees their release if they are going to re-open in December?” asked one employee. “They could send them to a sister (hotel) or offer them an (unpaid) vacation.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the employees at several of the businesses contracted to work inside the Sheraton – which include a gift shop, travel agency, bank and salon – said they had not received any official notification of the pending closure from the Sheraton and only learned of it through the hotel’s employees.
They said they had questions about how long they’d be allowed to remain open and how they’d be able to pack up all their supplies and inventory in the next few days.
While most said they expected to be transferred to other branches, some said the overall mood at the hotel was somber.
“It is difficult to leave this place. We’ve been working here a long time,” said one salon employee who said he’s worked at the Sheraton for more than a decade.
“I feel very sad. I have tears in my eyes,” he said.