Exclusive: Gerald Lawless on Jumeirah Group’s ambitions

Jumeirah Group CEO Gerald Lawless opens up on everything from building a global brand and avoiding Disneyfication in hotels to disruptive technology, the Qatar World Cup and much more besides




Let’s start with a question a number of people have asked me in the past. The Middle East and North Africa region in general is a very volatile place with a number of conflicts currently raging in Dubai’s near neighbourhood. Given this how is it that Dubai specifically, and the United Arab Emirates in general, remains such a stable place; what is the recipe for success that prevents the problems faced by so many others in the region from arriving here?

“There are so many good things that come back to single-minded strong leadership. We have had that in the UAE and Dubai for as long as any of us can remember. There is a stable government with leaders that are fully dedicated to their people and to the development of the country.

“It’s an overused word nowadays but the ‘vision’ that has been enacted and implemented by the ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed really does push things forward. He says ‘this is what we should achieve, this is what we can achieve’ and everybody sets about doing it.

“I first came here in 1978 and even back then we saw that Dubai was a dynamic and progressive place. Particularly when you consider that they were building the mega Jebel Ali port at the time. Very few people understood why they were doing it. Look at it today, in the top five worldwide ports. It is thriving. The courage was there to do it.

“The federal-type basis of the UAE gives the individual emirates the autonomy to do what they need to for their own progress but, at the same time, they have the security of the bigger federation for their needs.”

You put much of the group’s success down to Sheikh Mohammed’s drive and determination. How often do you meet with the ruler and how much direction does he give you in terms of the way forward for the company?

“Yes, if His Highness decides he is coming for lunch I will greet him if I’m here in Dubai and he will always ask about how the business is but the reporting relationship is very much through Dubai Holding where each vertical has a board of directors.”

There are many important moments in Dubai’s history including the dredging of the creek and so on. But how important was the Burj Al Arab as a touchstone in putting Dubai on the map as a global city – would you deem it to be a key factor in the city’s rise?

“I remember working here in the 1990s for Forte Hotels and passing by the structures that were going up and thinking ‘my goodness, why would anybody want to do that’ so again it comes back to this strong leadership. Since then, the Burj Al Arab has become to me very much the symbol of Dubai.

“It is our Sydney Opera House, it is our Eiffel Tower and has been instrumental; the foundation of the current tourism boom that we are enjoying. Coupled with the development of Emirates Airline, it has been a key factor. We will always try to keep the Burj Al Arab as the symbol of Dubai.”

You have talked previously about how the group takes its ethos from Arabic hospitality and how you have tried to avoid clichés when creating hotels and customer experiences. It must be difficult to stay the right side of the line in terms of a Disneyfication effect though. How do you ensure the quality control is in place in relation to the architecture and design?

“It goes back to the genuine Arabic hospitality approach of our colleagues, as we call our employees. They have not been told to say ‘have a nice day’. They have been told ‘you use the appropriate greeting that is right for the actual occasion’.

“Now when you talk about a place like the Madinat Jumeirah, nobody ever thinks of it as Disney World. It is a very appropriate representation of the architecture of Dubai and the atmosphere that exists on the creek-side of the city.

“We asked our concept architects, at the time back in 2001, to go out and spend a day on the creek and take their inspiration from it. Disney is great for what it is and is always true to its own ethos. But we are not Disney and nor would we want to be.”

Moving on, in recent times, the pace of change has been so rapid that Dubai is almost unrecognisable from five years ago. What are the major changes we can expect to see in the next five years with Expo 2020 on the horizon?

“You are going to see a lot more hotels, that’s for sure. We have every brand under the sun here in Dubai and that will continue. I see the urban spread continuing to go south. I’m sure that not in five years but in 20 years you’ll have Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah as one conurbation.

“Obviously, the authorities will have to keep looking at the sustainability element in terms of water resources and desalination. And I hope we preserve the desert so that we can still enjoy it. Tourism is interesting because you have to preserve the product you are promoting. People know that we must keep the atmosphere of the creek and that the abras must continue so that people can pay just a dirham to go across the water.”

Indeed, a lot of tourist spots around the world simply fail to protect what makes them great places to visit in the first place.

“Yes and the soul of Dubai is the creek. At one stage, they applied for UNESCO world heritage status and that’s great to see. That is the way we must approach it. To have the dhows parking up along the creek and trading from a needle to an anchor is very much part of the ambience of Dubai. It is lovely to see that and things like the spice souk.

“My wife and I love to take visitors out on walking trips through that area. It’s a very rich and unique experience that has been preserved despite being in a vibrant city, which has grown so quickly.”

In terms of beautiful locations, Dubai and the UAE have an embarrassment of riches. But given your Irish roots, where is your favourite place to be in the world and why?

“Of course, it’s where I spend most of my time – Dubai. I have no intention of leaving when I retire. It is my home, the family is here. Yes I’d like to spend a few months every year in Ireland, in Galway where I come from, but most of my adult life I’ve been in Dubai.”

And how would you describe your own management style – who is your greatest inspiration in terms of leadership?

“In terms of leadership within the industry, I love the way Richard Branson talks about the people who work for his company and the way he talks about his company. I suppose this goes back to my Irish heritage but I have a lot of emotion and passion for what I do, which is a good thing when you are in the people business.

“I believe that we as management have a huge responsibility to our employees. They are the backbone of the group all over the world. They buy into the ethos of treating each other with respect and integrity. People feel they are part of something special here.

“We are developing a brand that is already recognised worldwide but has huge potential to continue on its growth path. Within that, sometimes I frustrate my direct reports with being over consultative but I do believe that consensus at the top level is important. We have to be united as an executive committee.

“When you have these fantastic experts working for you, you have got to ensure that their superior knowledge about their particular function is used at all times. It is vital for a cohesive strategy and direction.”

Okay, and on the future of the company, you said recently that you wanted to double Jumeirah Group’s portfolio. Can you tell us a bit more about that ambition and how such volume is possible to achieve at the same time as retaining the personalised service that is expected from such high-end brands as yours?

“We have what is a scalable business because of the nature of our industry. Each time we open a hotel; it is a business in its own right. Yes, we have all the systems we have put in place like the training and orientation that we do that makes it the Jumeirah story.

“At the top end of the business, you’re right, you have to get this personalised philosophy across to all of the colleagues. That’s why we are not looking to have 1,000 hotels. We know that with our brand we have to be very picky about the hotel we take on.”

So what is the global strategy exactly, how far does the ambition stretch?

“From the beginning back in 2001, it has always been the plan to develop Jumeirah as a global luxury brand. We are now sitting here with 23 hotels and we have a pipeline under development that will take us to double that number.

“We have eight under development in China, we are in Bali, two coming in Muscat and one, possibly two, more coming in Abu Dhabi. Between Venu and Jumeirah we will look into at least 10 more properties in Dubai. We have two coming in Jordan. We have one under development in St Petersburg and two possibilities in India, including Mumbai.

“So I would say very confidently that by 2020 we should be looking at somewhere in the region of 45 or 46 hotels in operation. With other discussions like letters of agreement and management meetings we are having, we are touching on the 70 mark across the world. Our 10-year strategy says we will look to have approximately 75 Jumeirah hotels worldwide by say 2023.”

You have said you want Jumeirah to become one of the top global brands. Do you foresee a future when Jumeirah becomes more than a hotel brand – will you diversify the business and branch out into other sectors?

“No, we don’t have any plans to branch out into fashion goods and stuff like that. We’ll stick to what we know best, which is the hotel business. But we are branching out in the sense that we have the second brand Venu.”

Your new contemporary lifestyle brand Venu is, indeed, attracting some attention. What is the strategy with that product both here in Dubai and abroad?

“As you say, it is contemporary lifestyle. It’s useful; it’s modern, zany and go-ahead. It has to be. It will be based around a lot of interaction in lobby areas where you have the bar and restaurant, and a lot of food and beverage activity.

“We hope that we will set up Venu initially in Dubai on the Bluewaters Island, where the big Ferris wheel will be, unless we do a conversion somewhere else beforehand. There are a number of other projects on this front that we hope to announce in the near future.

“Venu is about the millennial mindset. That means born after 1980, which certainly excludes me but I still like to think of myself as a useful and modern 63-year-old. Although I’m not quite sure if I have a millennial mindset – especially, if the music is too loud.

“But it is an evolution within the hospitality business, which I think is very exciting. There is a great informality coming in. It’s a natural progression. The Jumeirah hallmarks will still apply within Venu in that we still emphasise the personal touch. We are there when you need us and we are not when you don’t.

“Sometimes you arrive at a hotel and you don’t want anyone to carry your bags. You want to go straight to your room. We will embrace technology and it’s only a matter of time before all of us are checking into hotels on our mobiles during the ride from the airport and are then able to go straight to our rooms.

“A neatly-designed Venu room might be 32 square metres. That would be acceptable as a minimum size. Whereas, with Jumeirah, we look for around 50 square metres for a room size. That differentiation helps position the brand.”

Changing topic completely, with the FIFA corruption investigations continuing to dominate the headlines, what are the ramifications for tourism in the Gulf if Qatar loses the 2022 World Cup?

“Insh Allah, I hope Qatar does not lose the World Cup and we will all be around to see it in 2022. That would be terrible if it happened because the event will be a great thing for the region. Also, we have World Expo coming to Dubai in 2020. But even before that, we are already targeting 20 million visitors to Dubai.

These big events are important for global publicity and international activity but they are not an end in themselves. They are just part of the journey. The expo, for example, will be over after six months and then we will continue on the upward trajectory thereafter and things will return to normal.”

When we look across the world, there is little to shout about in terms of economic growth. In China, it has slowed and in America too. Europe is still in dire straits, the oil price has been in free fall in the Middle East and Russia has witnessed a currency crisis. How has your business managed to remain insulated from the negative financial forces at work in the global economy?

“Okay, year-to-date in our Jumeirah hotels in Dubai we have had an 83.5 per cent occupancy rate. Last year was 82.7 per cent so we are slightly up. As one door closes, another opens. We saw dilution in the Russian market but a lot of demand coming from the United Kingdom, which has become our top market so far this year.

“However, the Russian market is still at number two. Strangely enough, I think that at the top end of the market, the Russian business has not been as badly affected. Figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council show that the total number of jobs provided by the industry is 207 million.

“That’s just under 9 per cent of the global labour force. And global GDP contribution from the industry is coming in at almost 10 per cent. Tourism is one of the pillars of the Dubai economy and it is between 20 and 30 per cent of the city’s GDP. People shouldn’t think that tourism is not a real industry.

“The entry-level jobs have always been there in the tourism industry but now employers are offering really great careers for people worldwide. It’s been an inspired move to use tourism as one of the pillars of the Dubai economy.”

Does that mean that you think this place is future-proofed against any global economic shock that might come down the line?

“We very quickly came through the worst shock since 1930 – between 2009 and 2012. But even during that period our tourism business held up. Yes, we had a drop in average room rates but they’ve started to come back and will continue to do so. It’s the hotels, the airlines and the support by the government for tourism that are the catalysts. It’s a cohesive strategy where everybody talks to each other. The public-private partnership works really well.”

We know that technology is disrupting and dominating every industry in this digital age. Do you see tech as an opportunity or a threat, and do you welcome the emerging tech players such as Airbnb as providing healthy competition to the more established hoteliers or is it an unwelcome challenge to the industry?

“I look on so-called disruptive technology as exciting. I really believe it’s full of opportunity. It’s only a threat if you allow it to be. It makes you raise your game.

“We say to the likes of Airbnb ‘welcome guys, it’s a free market and we are open to competition’. But you have got to have a level playing field. The building has to be built to the proper safety standards. Proper fire-detection systems have to be put in place. You have to pay municipality tax just like the hotels do.

“It just improves the whole destination offering for a place like Dubai. But hey, we have also got Jumeirah Living serviced apartments so maybe we will go into Airbnb.

“You’ve got to embrace technology. Today in London, for example, they won’t allow you to have a driverless metro but we have it here in Dubai and it works perfectly. It’s not the end of the world because you put a driverless train on your system. Like all technology and innovations over the centuries, everybody says ‘wow, this is going to wipe you out; none of us will have any work soon because everything will be done by robots’.

“Well, then if that’s the case, we will all have a great time because we can tell the robots to do the things we don’t like doing. But, actually, disruption is not going to cut jobs. Technology always manages to increase gross domestic product and economic activity. Look at how many millions of people have been taken out of the poverty trap over the last three decades. Let’s hope that change gathers pace and goes even faster.”

Yes, it’s the old mantra of ‘software eating the world’.

“Well, we need to embrace it and ensure we are agile enough to compete in the areas where there is disruptive technology. But it’s all about change and why not.”

Would you say that the design ‘wow factor’ is becoming more important for your group and the hotel industry in general – it does seem that every new hotel raises the expectations of consumers to another level?

“As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed says ‘In the race for excellence, there is no finish line’. That is so true. Watch out when we open Jumeirah Al Naseem. These rooms are absolutely way out there and people will love them. As you say, it raises the bar to another level and we will have to keep doing that; I see no end to this.

“If you look at a brand like Venu, there is a lot of authenticity coming through. A lot of the pretentiousness is going out of design. We are seeing a lot more personalisation. Design often goes retro but I think that what is encouraging about modern-day design in hotels is that it is designed around the person.

“It is not some intimidating place that you can’t get your head around. Of course you want the wow factor when you walk into a hotel lobby. Why wouldn’t an architect go for that? But the rest of the hotel usually has a human scale to it these days.”

Property prices are a perennial talking point in Dubai. I know you have the Jumeirah Living serviced apartments brand too. Many people still complain about over-inflated prices, spiralling rents and the threat of another housing market bubble in the city. Is this just loose talk among the chattering classes or a very real economic threat?

“Dubai has really been established as the regional commercial centre. We have 50,000 square metres of office space in the Emirates Towers and it’s full. More and more organisations and companies are using Dubai as a regional base.

“That’s driven first of all by the fact that Emirates Airline flies you to virtually anywhere non-stop. At the same time, we have fabulous hotels at all levels. As well as that you have world- class infrastructure. People are coming here and they are not leaving.

“The property market has matured well since the financial crisis. You now have to pay transfer tax and many developers will not allow you to flip your property until you have paid the majority of it off. It’s not a runaway market like before but a very healthy growing market. I think the demand will continue on a sustainable basis.”

Some hotel groups seem to pin all their hopes on superstar chefs, who are household names, to tap into the food and beverage zeitgeist that now dominates the tourism sector. You seem to do things differently at Jumeirah. Is that a conscious strategy?

“It’s quite a phenomenon at the moment to see how many cafes and restaurants there are. Restaurants evolve but the one thing that never changes is people finding out about your establishment by word of mouth. Social media is word of mouth, right. We are working very closely on this.

“We give our hotel restaurants the autonomy to do things in their own way. Would we bring in a known chef? Absolutely. We are also open to the idea of letting out our restaurants. Why wouldn’t you want to create a separate identity for that particular outlet?”

So it is not a strategic plan to avoid the trend of putting flashing lights on a hotel restaurant by saying, for example, ‘Gordon Ramsay is now our chef in residence’?

“No because someone could come along and say ‘I have the rights for Gordon Ramsay, can I rent your restaurant?’. It’s just like we have Jamie’s Italian, which used to be our own Go West restaurant. We are open to it, very much so.”

Loyalty programmes are also becoming ever more important for hotels. How is the take-up with the Sirius loyalty programme and what plans do you have in place to expand this in the future?

“We have just relaunched the programme and we will continue to develop it, as it has to be relevant and easy to use. Sirius is really important. It has around 400,000 active members at the moment. I believe in rewarding the guest for loyalty.

“By September, it will be very simple to redeem your points on the food and beverage side. People will be able to decide to pay in points on the evening, almost like a currency. We are looking towards the abolition of blackout dates unless, of course, the hotel is full.”

I heard that you had visited Tehran with a view to doing business there. Do you think Iran could become an emerging tourism hot spot in the near future?

“Absolutely. It presents us with very interesting opportunities. We have indeed already had a couple of visits to Tehran, we have had some discussions and we are looking at what can be done. It could open up a massive opportunity for trading between Dubai and Iran. Tourism from Europe has already started there. Iran would be an opportunity for both Jumeirah brands – Venu and Stay Different.”

In terms of hotel standards, would you say the Middle East is now the global leader; how does it compare to other markets such as Asia, Europe, the Americas and so on?

“In the 1970s and 1980s, we always looked up to the Far East. Hong Kong and all these places were the epitome
of top-class service. They broke the mould then. But the Middle East has definitely taken over that top spot in terms of higher standards of service and innovative hotel keeping.

“And it is just competition that keeps us on our toes, as we talked about earlier. It’s also about the huge investment that is going into the industry, particularly in the United Arab Emirates.”

Given that Dubai now wants to create more budget hotels might we see three- star Jumeirah hotels growing from the desert sands sometime soon?

“I am very reluctant these days to talk about star ratings. It varies so much from city-to-city and our guests don’t need the security anymore of knowing whether you are three-star, four-star or five-star. They have the full information before they travel on social media,
on your own website, on TripAdvisor and so on. They know what you are by your pricing and what other guests are saying about you.

“We will have a lot of flexibility in the Venu brand. And you would never say never as far as a budget brand is concerned. But it is not in the current plan. The grading is becoming irrelevant these days. How you run the brand and the people working for it are what’s important.”

Who came up with the legendary company motto ‘Stay different’?

“That was Bill Walsh when he worked forus.Isaidtohimatthetimealotof people don’t know what the company stands for so why don’t we say ‘Stay Jumeirah’. He came back a few days later with ‘Stay different’. I told him it was grammatically incorrect but he said it was us saying to the customer ‘you are different, you are unique and we will treat you as such’.

“Each of our hotels is also architecturally different but the golden thread of the Jumeirah culture runs through them all. However, we offer autonomy because we believe that at the top end of the market, hotel general managers should be entrepreneurs in their own right.

“They need to innovate and they need to be doing things differently and then share the best practice with their colleagues. Our hotels across the world are very much part of their local communities and each has its own sense of place.”

I know you love skiing. What level are you at and where is your favourite mountain?

“Well, we have a small duplex apartment in a place called Les Ark 1950. It’s a lovely French village built in the early 2000s. We go there every year and that’s the bolt-hole for my wife and me.

“I only started skiing when I was 45 so I left it a bit late. Therefore, I’m not as good a skier as I think I am – which is a dangerous combination – but I will always do at least one black run on every trip.”

Finally, how else do you relax outside of work, what is your favourite way to spend a day off – if such a thing exists for you?

“I do love to play very poor golf when I get a day off. Between being a bad skier and a poor golfer, you think why do I bother. But in the hotel business, you actually spend most of your time working. One day, I’ll get to actually do something about my game.”