Wild Geese: ‘I arrived in Dubai and I thought I was going to melt’

Conor Lawler’s career in hotel management has taken in Belgrade, Baku and Dubai

Educated in Carlow Christian Brothers School, Conor Lawler went on to do a hotel management degree in Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin.

"In those days, opportunities for hotel managers were generally in London or the US, and many hotels visited the college to recruit graduates when they finished their degrees," Lawler says. "I went on to do a finance management training scheme with what was then Trusthouse Forte in the UK."

Lawler stayed with them for four years as director of finance in various locations in the UK – Reading, Slough, Oxford, Newbury, Swindon and Marlborough. “I ended up living in Lambourne with jockeys who were approximately 4ft 4in, and I stand at 6ft 6in. It was a nice part of the world.”

As Forte Hotel Group was winding down, he interviewed for and was offered a job in Dubai as operations analyst in Hyatt Regency Dubai and Galleria.


“At the time, I’d no clue where Dubai was and really didn’t know what an operations analyst did either! But I took the bull by the horns and arrived in Dubai in August 1993 for the first time into 48 degree heat. I thought I was going to melt.”

Once in the Hyatt group, other opportunities opened for him. He moved on to the Hyatt Regency Belgrade as director of finance in the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian War, between 1995 to 1998. "The separation of Yugoslavia was fascinating at the time and the job was particularly difficult with hyperinflation.

“The local currency was losing half its value within hours, which put hard currency at an absolute premium and meant huge transactions through the black market and in cash.”


With that experience behind him, he moved to Baku in Azerbaijan from 1998 to 2000.

When Lawler’s daughter turned two, the family decided the best thing in terms of education was to move back to Ireland. They bought and ran Kittys Restaurant and Bar in Arklow from 2000 to 2005 before working for five years with an online procurement company in Dublin. But the urge to travel kicked back in.

The Celtic Tiger had collapsed into recession and there were limited opportunities in hospitality or development. An opportunity came up once again in Dubai – at the Atlantis The Palm, Dubai. Seven years on, he is still there, now the senior vice-president of finance.

The Atlantis is set on 120 acres of ground on the crescent of The Palm in Dubai. It has 1,539 rooms, 24 restaurants and bars along with Waterpark Dolphin pools and aquarium.

“We have approximately 3,100 staff along with another 1,000 contractors. I look after general accounting, cashiers, procurement and logistics with a total staff of approximately 160.”

The future is busy for Lawler. “Based on the occupancy levels and profitability in Dubai, we are currently building a second hotel and apartment complex. The Royal Atlantis Resort & Residences will open late in 2019, offering an additional 795 hotel bedrooms and 231 apartments for sale as freehold property.”

Visionary targets

One of the biggest differences Lawler notices in the business culture of Dubai is the strong focus on vision and the ability to get things done quickly. Long-term visionary targets are set along with short-term goals and these targets are pushed for completion to make Dubai into what it is today.

His advice for anybody moving to Dubai is to be patient. There are opportunities, but it takes time to find them.

Social life is as broad as you want to make it. “There’s a huge Irish community with Dubai Irish Society, Dubai Irish Business Network, Dubai Irish Golf Society, Dubai Celts Gaelic Club and many Irish bars.”

Opportunities for new emigrants can sometimes be difficult to find and Lawler has found that dealing through job agencies generally take time. One of his main comparisons with Ireland is the sunshine. “Be ready for the heat and not really having definite seasons.”

Lawler sees his future in Dubai as business continues to grow and opportunities emerge in the hospitality and other industries.

“The focus is now beyond 2020 and the development of education and universities on the Expo 2020 site in Dubai South.” A vision for 2030 is already under way and the growth of incoming tourists from China and India continue to push demand in the hospitality industry.