Wild Geese: Building a world class brand in Dubai

Galway’s Gerald Lawless has seen the world in his career in hotels

Gerald Lawless, chief executive Jumeirah Group, Dubai

Gerald Lawless, chief executive Jumeirah Group, Dubai

 

Growing up on a dairy farm in the west of Ireland, destination spas and five star hotels were the last thing on Gerald Lawless’s mind. But that was a long time ago he says. The Galway man has since become president and chief executive of one of the world’s most luxurious hotel chains – the Jumeirah Group.

Last year, he was named the Middle East’s most powerful hotelier, having grown the Jumeirah portfolio from 10 hotels in January 2011 to 21 properties as of September 2012, with new openings in Frankfurt, Rome and Istanbul.

And while he may not run as many hotels as other international giants on the top hotelier list – such as Hilton, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton – he has developed Jumeriah into one of the world’s most luxurious brands, putting Dubai firmly on the map of top destinations.

However, he is quick not to take all the credit for Dubai becoming a tourism hotspot.

“The Dubai brand is exported globally through Jumeirah and Emirates. Dubai airport is now the second busiest in the world after Heathrow.”

Lawless first fell in love with Dubai in 1978 when Forte Hotels sent him there.

“I really wanted to work somewhere foreign and kept pestering Forte human resources in London to send me somewhere. In 1978, they finally agreed to send me to Dubai. I didn’t even know where the place was at that stage.”

He had joined the famous Forte hotel chain on an internship straight out of Shannon College of Hotel Management, working in its business in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Britain and Ireland for 23 years.

He got his first management position in 1982 at the chain’s last hotel in South Africa.

“I was 29 and I had always promised myself I’d be a general manager by the time I was 30. This was the only way to do so. There was a fair amount of crime there but a lot less than today.

“One day, some people came into the hotel wanting to see some rooms. I asked if they wanted to book a conference and they said no, they wanted to buy the hotel. I said it’s not for sale! They took out a letter from Forte showing it was.”

In 1987, he moved back to Ireland to take over the running of Dublin’s landmark Shelbourne Hotel.

“There had been a very acrimonious strike and the hotel had been closed for six months. When I took over, everyone said I had my work cut out for me.”

Travel bug
But the travel bug quickly returned and, after three years in Dublin, he asked could he return to the Middle East.

When the Forte group broke up in 1996 following a takeover battle won by Granada, Lawless made the decision to move on. He met Dubai’s ruling Maktoum family who hired him to set up a luxury hotel business, which includes the “world’s most luxurious hotel”, Dubai’s Burj Al Arab.

“His Highness Sheikh Mohammad started Jumeirah at a time when tourism was non-existent in Dubai. He had confidence in the country.

“I enjoyed 23 years with Forte, moving many times but always with the security of moving with the company. The sheikh allowed me to achieve my dream, though. I got to develop Jumeirah into a global luxury brand. Not many people get to do that.”

With Jumeirah’s Dubai presence firmly established by 2005, the company began putting together a strategy to develop the luxury brand abroad. Lawless believes a successful hotel brand, like an airline, should be represented in a number of key letterhead cities such as London, Frankfurt and Shanghai, and began opening hotels in those cities.

The hotel chain is currently expanding into Kuwait, Azerbaijan and China.

He says the expansion of other hotel chains into Dubai had worried them but has not affected them.

“Dubai went into recession in 2008 like the rest of the world, but it has had an amazing recovery over the last few months, with construction starting up again last September.

“We were worried the opening of more and more hotels around us would affect our occupancy rates, but they are still very high.”

He believes people in the hotel industry need to be willing to work hard and develop a strong work ethic.

“I was brought up on a dairy farm in the west of Ireland so I’ve always had a good work ethic.”

He says there are lots of opportunities for Irish people in the Middle East if they are willing to work hard: “Paul Kenny came to work for us. We gave him a job when he finished college. We like to boast about him as he started with Jumeirah before going on to set up [daily deals group] Cobone.”

Lawless has a lot of achievements under his belt – he developed Jumeirah into a luxury brand putting Dubai on the tourist map, the Burj al Arab became the symbol of Dubai and he was named the Middle East’s top hotelier – but the highlight for him so far: “For a quiet life, I’d better say it was getting married!”

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