AHEAD MEA winners create "specific experience without feeling like an amusement park"

The best new hotels in the Middle East and Africa take ownership of their unique contexts, say the judges of this year's AHEAD Middle East and Africa Awards, in this video produced by Dezeen.

The AHEAD MEA awards, which had its ceremony earlier this month at Caesars Bluewater in Dubai, celebrated the best in hotel and resort design from across the two regions.

Omar Ghafour, founder of Dubai-based practice Light Space Design and AHEAD MEA judge, observed trends towards authenticity among the winning projects.

"This year's entries were designed in a way that gives the guest a very specific experience, but without making you feel like you were in an amusement park," he said in the video interview, which Dezeen shot on the judging day of the AHEAD MEA awards.

Gorgeous George in Cape Town South Africa won AHEAD MEA Award
Gorgeous George Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, was awarded Hotel of the Year

Gorgeous George Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, was named Hotel of the Year.

The project, a 32-suite boutique hotel that is housed within two Victorian heritage buildings, also won the Visual Identity, Suite, and Renovation, Restoration & Conversion categories.

Husain Roomi, co-founder of multidisciplinary creative studio H2R Design and member of the judging panel, praised the hotel's balance of historical and contemporary features.

Gorgeous George in Cape Town South Africa won AHEAD MEA Award
The hotel was praised for its balance of heritage and modern interiors

"[The designers] have done an incredible job of renovating and keeping the essence of the existing building, but still pushing the interiors into being something really fresh," he said.

Ghafour commended the designers on the hotel's ability to adapt its atmosphere according on the needs of the guests.

"It hits every point that it needs to hit. It feels homely when it needs to feel homely," he said. "It's just a great, great piece of design."

The Merchant Hotel Bahrain won an AHEAD MEA Award
The Merchant Hotel in Bahrain won Lobby & Public Spaces category

The Merchant House, a boutique hotel in Bahrain, was awarded by the judges in the Lobby & Public Spaces category.

AHEAD MEA judge and director of design at Hilton Worldwide Leila Abdul Rahim highlighted the hotel's refreshing use of art.

"One hotel that really struck all of us was The Merchant House because of its tremendous appreciation of art," said Abdul Rahim. "They have made it a point to bring in a tonne of art and books, which was very well curated."

Studio One Hotel
Best Hotel New Build went to movie-themed Studio One Hotel in Dubai

Studio One Hotel, which won the award for the Hotel New Build category, is located within an area of Dubai that is home to the city's film industry.

Roomi remarked upon the hotel's response to its location within the city.

"Studio One really responded to the context and the environment that the hotel is in," he said. "They introduced a lot of graphics and beautiful, clean contemporary finishes combined with some industrial raw elements."

Caesars Forum Dubai
Caesars Forum in Dubai won the Event Spaces category

Caesars Forum at Caesars Bluewaters in Dubai, which hosted the AHEAD MEA Awards ceremony, also took home an award.

The judges commended its flexibility, and awarded the hotel first prize in the Event Space category.

"When you go into that space, it's like a canvas that you can do whatever you want," explained Ghafour.

Shipwreck Lodge Namibia
The award for New Concept, and Lodges, Cabins & Tented Camps was awarded to Shipwreck Lodge in Skeleton Coast, Namibia.

First place in both the New Concept, and the Lodges, Cabins & Tented Camps categories was awarded to Shipwreck Lodge in Skeleton Coast, Namibia.

The project is a series of shipwreck-shaped chalets that are interspersed amongst the dunes of the Skeleton Coast national park, with views of the Atlantic Ocean.

The judges praised the way in which the cabins balanced theatrically with respect for the surrounding context.

Shipwreck Lodge Namibia
The chalets were commended for the connection with the surrounding desert

"Those cabins really make you feel like you're within a very open space in the middle of nowhere in a broken ship," said Roomi. "It could easily be a gimmick, but they managed to spin it in such a way where it feels authentic."

"The lodges have the opportunity to connect the interior and the exterior," added Abdul Rahim.

"By just opening up all the doors and windows, you're really getting 100 per cent of an experiential situation," she said. "You feel like you're connected to the vegetation, to the animals, to the water, whatever is around you."

Omaanda hotel in Namibia won an AHEAD MEA Award
Oomanda hotel in Windhoek East, Namibia, won the award for best Guesthouse

Another lodge hotel in Namibia that won an AHEAD MEA award was the Oomanda hotel in Windhoek East.

The judges noted that, in a similar manner to Shipwreck Lodge, the winner of the Guesthouse category also manages to avoid pastiche.

"You actually feel like you're in a tent, just because of the pitch roof with the wood slats and the ceiling," Abdul Rahim explained.

Omaanda hotel in Namibia won an AHEAD MEA Award
The hotel allowed guests to reconnect with nature, according to the judges

The judges commendation of hotels that connect with their physical surroundings is a response to the recent trend towards digitalised experiences.

"We live in a society today where everything is an Instagram mobile photo," said Ghafour. "We weren't looking for that one beautiful photograph. It's the space. It's how it really works."

This movie was produced by Dezeen for AHEAD. It was filmed at Caesars Bluewaters hotel in Dubai. Images are courtesy of AHEAD.