Scaling new heights

Gerald Lawless, boss of luxury hotel group Jumeirah, tells Vision about how tourism is spearheading Dubai’s economic renaissance

Economics and the continued rise and rise of Emirates Airline are helping Dubai “bounce back” quickly from the recent downturn, according to Gerald Lawless, Executive Chairman of Jumeirah Group, the Dubai-based luxury international hospitality company.

The emirate is now “more attractive than ever”, he argues, and has come through turbulent times in such a focused way that the world’s media have already thawed their approach, and revised their attitude, towards Dubai.

Dubai is an extraordinary cultural melting pot. Lawless calls it ‘a unique model for the world’

Lawless, who has helped craft the culture of first-class hospitality in Dubai, says that three years ago the emirate had become too expensive.

That’s no longer the case: office rents are cheaper, and so too are hotel bedrooms. In fact “they’re too reasonable!” he quips. “From the consumer point of view, it’s all quite good news because Dubai has become affordable again.

“Dubai has always managed to come through difficult times,” says Lawless. In the past, it was construction and trade that led the recoveries, with tourism in a supporting role.

But this time it’s Emirates Airline that has “spearheaded the bounce back”. With new routes and an ever-increasing number of aircraft, Emirates’ expansion is driving added business into Dubai, with visitor numbers further fuelled by UAE national carrier Etihad.

“Even this year there has been double-digit growth in the throughput of passengers in Dubai. That’s an amazing opportunity for hoteliers,” he says, adding that Jumeirah will continue to work hand-in-hand with the airline at every opportunity.

“The trick now is to encourage the growing number of transit passengers to spend time in Dubai.”

Lawless says that the emirate is looking at ways to showcase the city to the already huge and increasing numbers of passengers in transit through Dubai. One idea being considered, he says, is for immigration to hold the passports of transit passengers while offering them a four or five-hour city tour.

That short introduction to the emirate could make a lot of difference to long-term visitor numbers. “I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t want to come back to Dubai,” he comments.

Lawless says that he’s “genuinely much more optimistic about our industry” than he would have been 18 months ago.

Jumeirah Group itself has proved more than robust during the downturn, with occupancy remaining high – especially in its beachfront hotels – although Lawless concedes rates have softened.

These high occupancy levels are no mean feat, bearing in mind the enormous number of world-class hotels in the emirate, and have given the group renewed confidence in its growth strategy. “You’ve got to put it down to the fact that it is one of the greatest places to visit,” he recently told a leading travel magazine.

Indeed in 2009, one of travel and tourism’s most challenging years of late, 7.6 million people visited Dubai, an increase of 1 per cent year-on-year – quite a claim for any destination.

Jumeirah Group, a member of Dubai Holding, currently operates two hotels in London – the Jumeirah Carlton Tower and Jumeirah Lowndes Hotels – and Jumeirah Essex House in New York, alongside the splendid portfolio in Dubai. This includes the iconic Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah The Meydan at the fabulous new racecourse which hosts the Dubai World Cup.

Now the group is signing a raft of management agreements, and teaming up with different developers to roll out the brand overseas. In this way, Lawless hopes Jumeirah will soon stand alongside the Mandarin Oriental, the Ritz Carlton and Shangri-la on the world hospitality stage. “This is our business model,” he says. “The investment here in Dubai is a powerful platform.”

The latest management deal signed is an agreement with Palm Hills Developments (PHD), one of Egypt’s premier developers, to manage Jumeirah Gamsha Bay Resort, a new five-star deluxe resort located in PHD’s Palm Gamsha resort on the Red Sea, Egypt.

Jumeirah has been appointed to manage the luxury 250-room hotel on Palm Gamsha, which is an integrated community of more than 20 man-made islands forming the shape of a seahorse, located 47km northwest of Hurghada airport. It is hoped that the combination of Jumeirah’s expertise in luxury hospitality and PHD’s development of a prime location will transform Gamsha Bay into a leading tourist destination.

Jumeirah Gamsha Bay Resort is Jumeirah Group’s first management agreement signed in Egypt, and this latest signing brings the total number of properties under development or in operation by Jumeirah globally to 48.

Earlier this year, the group reaffirmed its growth strategy of having 60 hotels signed up by 2012.

“We are cautiously optimistic that within the next 12 months we will open another seven hotels in different parts of the world,” Lawless recently told the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China. Among the openings expected next year is the Jumeirah Etihad Towers hotel in Abu Dhabi in July. “We also have a hotel coming up in Al Ain, in Kuwait, two hotels in the Maldives, and we might even have another one or two in Dubai,” Lawless told the Forum.

More imminent is the opening of Jumeirah Group’s first VENU hotel in Shanghai, a new five-star brand.

The VENU concept is a key element of the group’s overall growth strategy and will focus on Jumeirah signing further management contracts, particularly with local developers in the Middle East, Northern Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific.

The new Shanghai hotel is in the Pudong district, and is being launched in conjunction with a local Chinese property company. It’s a contemporary lifestyle product… “with local soul”. “We want it to really connect with the local community, it’s everything to do with what you feel,” explains Lawless.

In Shanghai this will translate into an impressive 400-room art-themed hotel, including 70 luxury suites, standing at the very heart of an arts and lifestyle hub, the Himalayas Centre.

Lawless hopes Dubai’s first VENU will open in the summer of 2011.

“In the next 12 months we will expect to open between three and four, then we’ll concentrate on the Middle East and Asia with the possibility of maybe one in Europe.”

Another feature that’s actively being rolled out by Jumeirah Group is its home-grown food and beverage offering, Noodle House, which Lawless describes as an “intriguing opportunity”.

The group’s restaurants division opened its first Noodle House in 2001. Now there are six in Dubai, and franchised outlets in Cyprus, Kuwait, Australia, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi. Negotiations are also taking place for the brand to open in London.

“There is no end to the potential,” Lawless says. “My dream is to take Noodle House to China! The western-type diet is now popular in China and as Noodle House is a good mix of oriental food, I think it is a brand that would be well received.”

Lawless speaks with enormous pride of how Noodle House is yet another example of Jumeirah Group rolling out the best of what’s on offer in Dubai to the wider world.

He also loves the way the local Emirati community comes together with expatriates, as well as tourists, in his Jumeirah hotels – something almost unique in the world of hospitality.

Dubai is an extraordinary cultural melting pot. Lawless calls it “a unique model for the world” for the way in which it brings so many races, creeds and communities together in peace and harmony.

Indeed, he believes that Dubai is now forcing itself back into world consciousness in every way: “People are finally starting to look at the upsides again.”