Belgard Road in Dublin’s Tallaght might not be the most obvious setting for life-changing experiences, but to Niamh Keohan the unassuming byway led her to a successful career in the United Arab Emirates.
Before Keohan built a resumé of senior marketing roles culminating at Dubai’s most luxurious hotel, she was a new Trinity graduate at a pharmaceutical wholesaler.
“Back in 2001, everyone used to get a lot of emails and PR was done by slide shows back then,” she said. “When I got to the office that day there was a slide show of the Burj Al Arab, and looking at that in an office on the Belgard Road was like looking at another world,” she said.
“I remember thinking, ‘I want to go to Dubai’. Seven years later when we moved there, I still remembered that slide slow,” she said.
Born and raised in Tallaght, Keohan was bitten by the travel bug early. At 17 she worked in a hospice “all summer long” to save enough money for her first trip by plane and “never stopped after”.
So when her then boyfriend was offered a job in Abu Dhabi in 2008, she went with him. At the time, she had moved to a role with multinational giant Procter & Gamble in their Dublin office. Giving it all up to move to Abu Dhabi could have been disastrous given the timing.
“It was the global financial crisis and I had just left a stable job,” said Keohan of her initial unease about the jump. But moving to Abu Dhabi helped her jump from marketing consumer goods to hotels.
“Yas Island was a new exciting project for Abu Dhabi, and the general manager of the hotel who hired me was open-minded and looking for a young energetic team,” she said. “He wasn’t looking for that hotel experience; he was looking for someone who thinks a bit differently, he needed fresh eyes.”
With that memory in mind, Keohan advises letting a perceived lack of experience in one area limit a career. “Don’t box yourself into one industry, because your knowledge can be adapted.”
Despite the properties she was meant to be marketing not yet being built, Keohan found she relished the challenges that came with opening a new hotel.
“You have this deadline and you’re excited for his hotel opening. I was there for four years. We worked Saturdays and Sundays and, to this day, we speak regularly, those Yas Island colleagues”
After overseeing IHG’s two properties on Yas Island, the Crowne Plaza and the Staybridge Suites, it was time to move again, this time to Dubai, a larger, busier city roughly 90 minutes drive north up the Arabian Peninsula.
“We used to go to Dubai for weekends and it was like driving into Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, they had just built the Palm,” she said.
Keohan found herself as the director of marketing and communications at Anantara’s five-star property, before coming full circle in 2015 when she became the director of communications and PR at the Burj Al Arab.
“The Burj brought me right back to being in that office on the Belgard Road. I remember driving up thinking, ‘My goodness, I work here now’,” she said.
While Keohan relished her role in the Jumeirah Group doing inspections in the royal suite, working at one the world’s best-known luxury hotels meant long hours. Marketing five-star properties might look glamorous, Keohan says, but the reality involves hours of clomping up and down stairs in heels and always being “on”.
“Hotels never close, remember that; if something happens at night time and they need a reactive statement or something needs managing, you will be called,” she said. “It’s not easy going, but it’s a really enjoyable role.”
On the upside, along with the long hours came discounted employee rates at other hotels internationally, which Keohan and her husband took advantage of in their down time.
“It really helped us when we were younger and couldn’t afford it at that time in our lives; the lifestyle was amazing.”
For Keohan, the energy in Dubai pursuing bigger and better progress is “infectious; you get swept up in it”, but she warns that burnout can be very real for some.
“It’s a work hard, play hard place ... It’s a fast lifestyle, but very pleasurable if you’re on that journey. If that’s not what you want to do, it can be tiring.”
In 2020, following the loss of her mother, Keohan re-evaluated her priorities and career path before deciding to set up her own business facilitating transformational travel.
She is quick to separate “transformational travel” from a spa break or a yoga weekend. For her, it’s “any trip that can have a long-term positive impact when you go back”, such as a shift in mindset, a realisation a situation is working for her or the courage to pursue a long-held dream.
“You don’t have to be sitting cross-legged for two weeks in India” to have a meaningful experience, she says, which is why her company, We Love Transformational Travel, offers an array of options.
Keohan is currently in Ibiza setting up new trips while escaping the harsh Dubai summer with her husband, Trevor McFarlane.
“We have such an Irish story,” Keohan said, describing how the couple met when they were nine, due to the fact their best friends were cousins. They met again at 21 and “that was it, we’ve been together for 21 years”.