As the Middle Eastern hub of tourism, luxury hotels and hospitality, Dubai proved too much of a lure for Dubliner Colin Hutton, who has built a career in the desert city.
Ballsbridge-raised Hutton knew when he started studying business at Stirling University in Scotland that academia wasn't for him. "My parents were great entertainers and I wanted to be more like them. I never really had an interest in business college, I just wanted to create an inviting ambience and meet people."
After a second attempt at a business degree in Dublin Business School, he "ran away and joined the circus" by city-hopping across Europe, ending up in Puerto Banús, playground of the rich, famous and infamous, working in bars. "That's where I really fell in love with hospitality and earned my stripes."
On returning to Ireland in 2002, he decided to take a "grown-up job" at the Westin Hotel just when Dublin was on the cusp of the Celtic Tiger affluence and champagne was flowing.
“I took a bartending role and became head barman during my tenure. Working in a five-star hotel offered me a great opportunity to learn, not just the bar business, but also the hotel and hospitality business as a whole.”
With his knowledge of luxury drinks, he joined Diep le Shaker restaurant, just off Dublin’s Merrion Row, working as a beverage manager, and subsequently being honoured with Irish bartender of the year in 2007. As the business decided to focus on the take-out market and the recession came to town, Hutton decided to hedge his bets and move to the Middle East.
"In 2009, things were really slow in Ireland for the hospitality sector and I got a job with the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai right beside the famous Burj Al Arab.
“I saw it as a last chance to work and travel, not having been pinned down by a mortgage and with relative youth on my side.”
Two years' running a half-dozen top-end restaurants at the resort paved the way for a position with Diageo, working on their luxury spirits category.
"I managed marketing brand plans and strategies for Diageo, covering brands like Johnnie Walker, Ketel One, Tanqueray and Haig Club, of which David Beckham is a partner."
The role saw him focus on the five-star hospitality sector in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, in Oman. "I managed brand-sponsored events, new-product launches, PR, media and marketing campaigns, and I designed a host of consumer engagement platforms for the brands in the region."
Five years’ working with top brands in the area enabled him to see a gap in the market for management companies that needed a combined knowledge of the operational and consumer marketing side of the food and drinks industry.
With his experience and knowledge in mind, he decided to go it alone in 2016 and founded Umami Communications, the first PR and digital advertising agency in the Middle East focused on hospitality and food and beverage (F&B) brands.
“Umami Communications was created to service lifestyle F&B and hospitality brands as there were no agencies with specialised experience to work in this space here in the region. We work with amazing brands and have been lucky enough to represent clients like Zuma restaurants, the Rémy Cointreau group and Hilton Hotels here in the Middle East.”
Named after the Japanese flavour profile, Unami reflects the needs of the “cosmopolitan market”, he says.
"We have a great mix of local and international clients, offering a bespoke service from media management, PR, digital marketing strategies, content strategies, and we've grown our business to over 20 staff. We are expanding offices here in Dubai and we have a team of designers in our studio in Buenos Aires who execute our creative briefs. We will be opening an office in Riyadh in 2022. It's exciting to see it all happening."
Hutton says setting up the business wasn’t easy. “I felt like I was alone, which in a way I was. I didn’t have a benchmark, I didn’t have entrepreneurial contacts or knowledge of available grants, so it was daunting. Like anyone starting a business, there are so many variables, plus the fact that I was in a foreign country.
“You can read all the books and get all the information you want, but once you start doing it, everything is different,” he adds.
“For example, it took me six months to get a company bank account, so I was earning revenue, but had nowhere to put the money. Some banks would want €100,000 in your account before you get going, which I didn’t have – obviously.”
Hutton says he had a backer early on, which was hugely beneficial.
In relation to Covid-19, his company didn’t feel as sharp a sting as could have been expected. “We were very lucky here as things opened up again after six very strict weeks back in 2020. Indoor dining was possible, as obviously was outdoor.”
Even though the numbers were down, the demand for luxury hospitality in the area is immense, so survival was possible, he says.
In terms of making a life in the Middle East, Hutton says you can’t just “come on a whim”.
“You can’t get a visa unless you have a job set up, as I did. So there’s no point in coming over and hoping for the best. Once you do have a job, the pay scale is relative to the cost and you get to enjoy outdoor life at its best.
“For two months of the year, the heat is unbearable, but the rest of the time it’s fantastic. But don’t be fooled. People work hard here. Cars are cheap and gasoline is cheap and you don’t pay taxes on your earnings, but rents are expensive, as is going out.”
Dubai was the canary in the coalmine in its vision to open up and be big and bold. Now other Arab countries are following suit.
“It is very liberal and progressive here and you have many ways to enjoy yourself, which creates a great lifestyle. While the living is enjoyable, this is a very fast-paced city which can be stressful at times. It is very much the kind of place where you get out of it what you put into it.”