He is a veritable Lawrence of Arabia of the Middle East’s burgeoning home grown hospitality industry and the brains behind one of the fastest growing hospitality empires in the world; yet Gerald Lawless, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Jumeirah Group, takes his success in his stride. eniGma’s Editor in Chief, Yasmine Shihata discovers how this charming yet down-to-earth Irish gentleman has led the Jumeirah Group forward and helped create the distinctively innovative and international brand that Jumeirah is today.
As the man responsible for the creation and construction of the luxury Middle Eastern hotel group Jumeirah, Gerald Lawless undoubtedly had a hand in transforming Dubai into the cosmopolitan behemoth it is today. However, in person, this Irish dynamo is anything but grand, and is instead relaxed and friendly. Graduating from the Shannon College of Hotel Management in Ireland and obtaining a PhD in Business Administration from Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island, Lawless kicked off his career in the 70s by joining the famous Trust House Forte hotel chain. He then spent 23 years managing its properties in the UK, South Africa, Ireland, and the Caribbean before establishing Forte’s Dubai office in 1991 where he oversaw the company’s stake in the region grow from three to twenty hotels in just six years. That’s when he realised: “In Dubai, if you can dream it, you can do it” And, boy, did he dream….
In 1997, Lawless joined Jumeirah as Managing Director, with a remit to develop a hospitality portfolio that would deliver a completely different experience. Owned by the Dubai royal family’s vehicle Dubai Holding, he set on a path to create and expand the Jumeirah brand into a group of stunning hotels throughout Dubai, the Middle East and around the world. In his new role, he would oversee some of the group’s most renowned projects, including Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the Wild Wadi Water Park. Yet it was the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s iconic seven-star sail-shaped hotel that really put Jumeirah Group – and to a certain extent Dubai itself – on the map.
As Lawless recalls, “there certainly was no template for Burj Al Arab. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and the Ruler of Dubai who also owns Jumeirah, started the whole concept for the Burj. Initially the designer said “we will have this hotel on the beach and it will be facing the sea,” and Sheikh Mohammed said “no I want this hotel rising out of the sea, so build me an island and then build this hotel on it.” And so the Burj was born.
I was then asked by one of His Highness’s people “how will you actually market Burj Al Arab?” and I said “to be honest I am not really sure.” Yet we soon realised the best way to market Burj Al Arab, was to ensure we developed the public relations side. Working hard to guarantee that the entire world’s media was interested in what was happening in Dubai, we managed to gain a lot of publicity through clever marketing tactics. You often see airlines promoting hotels for first and business class passengers with offers like: “If you fly first class, you can stay at the hotel for free.” We reversed this and said: “stay for three days at Burj Al Arab and we will fly you anywhere in the world first class on Emirates airlines.” It was a great coup because people then began to realise that there was some true value in staying at the Burj Al Arab.
That project, however, was merely the tip of the iceberg. Now, with the landmark Burj Al Arab under his belt, Lawless set out to expand the company even further. With Jumeirah’s Dubai presence well-cemented, in 2003 Lawless began crafting a strategy to develop the luxury brand abroad. Lawless started by taking on the management of two five star hotels in London in 2001. Then the group joined Dubai Holding in 2004, which Lawless calls “a defining moment.”
“When we decided we wanted to become a leading luxury hotel brand we understood that you have to have a global presence. And to establish our priorities in relation to [this] global presence, we identified roughly 30 key locations in main cities and key resorts. We recognised there was a lot of new development coming out of Asia and we felt China was very important,” Lawless recalls.
Now, thanks largely to Lawless’ vision, the Jumeirah group has eight Dubai-based hotels and resorts. Jumeirah also has over 20 hotels worldwide, from Europe to the Far East; such as Jumeirah Dhevanafushi and Jumeirah Vittaveli in Maldives, Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel in Shanghai, Jumeirah Frankfurt in Germany, Jumeirah Grand Hotel Via Veneto in Rome, Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah in Istanbul, and the Jumeirah Carlton Tower and Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel in London.
Jumeirah now offers a total of 5,006 rooms, suites and residences operating in nine countries and it is of little surprise that the brand has globally became synonymous with excellence and luxury, thanks largely to a strategic and aggressive expansion plan. “The evolution of the group became particularly interesting over a period of five years, from 2004 to 2009. We went from looking for potential investors to a point where we had investors contacting us. It was nice to see how things changed,” he says.
Even with such impressive growth, Lawless still envisions more for the Group. As he explains, “for the worldwide growth of Jumeirah, we understood that we needed to establish our credentials as an international luxury brand. Now that we have achieved this, we can look at further areas for growth, beginning with our own region, notably Saudi Arabia. We also have five hotels under development in China and we’re very excited about possibilities throughout East Asia and the Americas, especially since Emirates now has at least seven routes–some twice daily and some with the airbus A380s–to the USA on a nonstop basis. Emirates is also flying to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo, so we will be looking at their expansion and the opportunities that lie ahead in their new destinations.”
Lawless was appointed to executive chairman of Jumeirah in 2007, and continues to lead the group’s ambitious growth and distinctive vision, which is perfectly summed up in the brand’s slogan “Jumeirah – STAY DIFFERENT”. “When we talk about Jumeirah, we say “Stay Different.” People ask what it means, and what I say is: ‘you as a customer are different; you are unique and we want to recognise that individuality.’ We want you to stay with a hotel company whose properties are genuinely unique, every hotel having its own personality, character and architectural design. This is what defines Jumeirah. Each of our hotels has its own strong sense of place among its local community and this is an integral part of the hotel business. We tell all our general managers that they must innovate and make sure to bring forward the character and personality of our hotels, while also connecting with the local community as much as possible.” And as Jumeirah launches glamorous new properties everywhere from Mallorca and Rome to Frankfurt and Istanbul, and Shanghai to the Maldives, it’s no surprise that Lawless cannot name a personal favourite. “Every hotel is different and special in its own way,” he insists.
Of course, even amid a string of successes, Lawless and the Jumeirah Group have endured difficult times, particularly in 2008, when the global financial crisis saw Dubai’s real estate market decline after a six-year boom… Even so, the Jumeirah Group survived and actually came out stronger after the crisis. As Lawless explains, ”Dubai Holding owns Jumeirah and they reacted in a very mature, significant and effective way to the crises. We work vertically with Dubai Holding and we are their hospitality arm, we cut our cost according to our pockets. Of course, we have our obligations towards our parent company but at the same time they recognise that to keep Jumeirah viable, we need to continue to achieve our strategy without taking unnecessary risks.
Jumeirah also weathered the Arab Spring better than most, and has even benefited, as tourists who previously visited Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, now flock to Dubai as the safer “Arab destination.” As Lawless notes “Dubai has been a safe haven for a long time, especially when there is conflict or instability in the region, From that perspective, the UAE is normally perceived as a safe place. We look at the current situation and see that a lot of GCC travellers who would normally go to places like Egypt, Lebanon or Syria are now coming to Dubai.”
Lawless also stresses that “it is important the new governments realise the benefits of travel and tourism to their economies. It represents 10 percent of global gross domestic product and 8 percent of global employment. All countries in the region will benefit if they focus on their tourism industry.”
Lawless also travels the world to promote the Jumeirah brand and vision and makes sure its growth strategy is always at the cutting edge in hospitality. As he explains, “I am quite involved with the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Economic Forum on the Travel and Tourism Agenda’s council and I have been invited to moderate sessions in Davos. [Initially] I said I could not do that but you have got to challenge yourself as well and do something out of your comfort zone. [With] these kinds of forums, if you project that you have the confidence to be able to achieve whatever you think is achievable, then you are good to go.”
As our interview winds to a close, Lawless summarises his incredible journey with some truly inspiring words about his beloved Dubai. “This attitude of yes we can succeed is everywhere in Dubai. It is almost like here we can dare to dream and dare to be something different.” And with the creation and implementation of the truly impressive Jumeirah Group, that is certainly what Lawless has done. A modern day ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ bringing back pride and excellence to the Middle East’s hospitality industry.