‘We want to be the best’

GERALD LAWLESS, managing director of Jumeirah International, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about taking the company to new heights as Madinat Jumeirah, its latest landmark resort, opens its doors

THERE’S more happening in Jumeirah International, Dubai’s homegrown luxury hotel chain than most international brands can boast of. But the fact of the matter is that Gerald Lawless, managing director Jumeirah International, prefers to be somewhat reticent about it because, in the end, he wants to let the landmark properties and the exceptionally high standards of service that they have brought to the hospitality industry speak for themselves.
To a lot of people in the industry it is this very quality that makes Lawless, above all else, one of the most respected hoteliers in the Middle East. “You can do anything as long as you have the right people to do it,” he points out. “If you think you are doing it on your own, you are wrong. It’s always a team effort.”
As Jumeirah International opens its new landmark property, Madinat Jumeirah, Lawless spoke to TTN about the opening of the extraordinary resort, the company’s vision and the secret of its success.
Excerpts from an interview:

TTN: The whole product of Madinat Jumeirah, The Arabian Resort, is now open. Were there any hiccups along the way?
Gerald Lawless: Thanks to project developer Mirage Mille we are actually opening ahead of schedule in the first week of August. Fortunately, there have been no major hiccups along the way and it has come through from the original concept to what we see today very, very quickly. In fact, things have been particularly smooth right through from the opening of Mina A’ Salam last year and, I must add, a project like this would have taken twice as long to execute anywhere else in the world.
The contractors may have had their challenges from time to time but they have obviously coped up with them very well.
Having had an exclusive tour of the resort, I have come away truly impressed by the magnificence of the project. What kind of planning went into developing this 1,000-acre luxury resort?
A huge amount of planning has gone into the development of Madinat Jumeirah. To begin with, there was no blueprint for something like this. Ever since General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defence Minister, had given the idea and concept of how Madinat Jumeirah should be built to reflect the architecture and heritage of Gulf and the atmosphere of, what I call, the soul of Dubai, the Creek, replete with its dhows and abras, we had a very unique project in our hands.
Along the way, we have always been getting encouragement and leadership from him to help us stay on the right path and make sure that what was planned in the beginning was actually executed and delivered in the end. Moreover, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, president of the Department of Civil Aviation and chairman of the Emirates Group, has also been involved in the project all the way through.
As a team, we worked very well along with Sheikh Ahmed, Mirage Mille, resort general manager Serge Zaalof and his team, Creative Kingdom, a US-based thematic architectural design firm, and all the various contractors to see that the original concept was realised as promised.

Were there any major challenges along the way?
After we briefed the architects who were brought in by Mirage Mille we were amazed by their interpretation. What they came back and showed us six weeks later is almost identical to what we have now.
However, when we look at Madinat Jumeirah today, we can say it has exceeded our expectations in terms of the sheer beauty of its layout. I am particularly impressed with the way the waterway has turned out. What’s more, the abras are also almost identical to what you have on the Creek except that they are battery operated to make sure that they are not noisy.
Putting together anything like this is team effort. As far as Jumeirah International is concerned, we are the resort operator and what Zaalof and his team have put together is very much how the product will be in terms of guest perspective, highlighting the different types of service. That’s really our role rather than the construction of the project.

For those who have stayed at Mina A’ Salam, how different will the guest experience at Al Qasr, the other grand boutique hotel, be?
The more I look at Al Qasr, the more I am impressed with it. We have always described Mina A’ Salam as the gateway to Madinat Jumeirah and now we have the whole product of Madinat Jumeirah. After the overwhelming response to Mina A’ Salam over the first year, we are confident that Al Qasr will further add to the wow factor of the resort. In addition, you also have Dar Al Masyaf, the traditional two-storey summer houses, where guests can feel that they are staying in their own Dubai house.
However, even though Al Qasr is the ‘palace’ of the resort, there’s not much of a noticeable difference except except for the grandeur of the lobby, the decoration and the incredible chandeliers that will give you a huge sense of arrival. In terms of the quality service at both the properties, it will be of the highest possible standards. There are differences but there are also a lot of similarities between the two hotels.

Al Qasr means ‘The Palace’. What steps have you taken to ensure that the hotel lives up to its name?
What a guest will experience from the very beginning is the feel of the place, the atmosphere of the place. It will feel very comfortable, extremely luxurious and, in keeping with the hallmarks of Jumeirah International, it will have the friendliest staff a guest will find anywhere.
As the resort operator, we hope to continue to exceed expectations. I think, for anybody living in Dubai, this will be a must-see place.

Has the response to Mina A’ Salam matched your expectations? And what are your expectations with the opening Al Qasr?
We are almost becoming accustomed to this in Dubai where we always believe that we are going to succeed. We are confident that this project will be a success both with regard to high occupancy and in terms of a commercial investment.

Besides the two grand boutique hotels, the resort will also feature summer houses, conference  facilities, an amphitheatre, a dedicated entertainment centre and multi-purpose venue, Six Senses Spa and Souq Madinat. Do you see enough market demand in the future to make this project a success?
Yes, at the rate we are going, Dubai is on track to achieve its target of attracting 15 million visitors by 2010. The airport is continuing to expand, Emirates airline is continuing to expand and, I believe, the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing is doing a superb job of continuing to attract visitors to the UAE. And as long as this trend continues, I don’t think we will have any difficulty filling our hotels.
But, having said that, I feel we are on the crest of the wave and we have to continue to promote Dubai aggressively throughout the world.

When you joined Jumeirah International in 1997, did you plan to take the company where it is today in such a short span of time?
No, not all. I came on to do the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Wild Wadi and Burj Al Arab and, fortunately, Sheikh Mohammed kept expanding the company. Somebody had the vision but I can’t take the credit for it.

What was your biggest challenge when taking up the new assignment?
The biggest challenge when starting something new like this is to establish the spirit of the company and that revolves around people. It’s all about people. It may sound clichéd but it’s worth mentioning here that if you think our business is not first and last about people I don’t think you understand the business.

What, would you say, are Jumeirah International’s greatest strengths?
Jumeirah International is reflective of Dubai. Since Dubai doesn’t look to be second best at anything so, we want to be the best at what we are doing. Like I always tell our colleagues, we get such beautiful buildings from our owner, it’s incumbent on us to rise to the challenge and make sure that we deliver to the expectations.
I keep telling them to serve people is honourable and it’s a great thing to do. Not surprising then that our guests never fail to mention how friendly and helpful our colleagues are. They are always interested in the guests and this is what brings people back. Also, I think, this is what Jumeirah International is all about.
But how do you inculcate that intrinsic quality when you take over overseas properties like The Carlton Tower and The Lowndes Hotel in London?
When you look at our London properties, you will see we have worked very hard on our colleagues there and I can say that they are the most positive people working within the UK hotel industry. In the beginning, when we took over the properties, it was very important for us to convince our colleagues there that we would bring the high standards that we told them about the Dubai properties there.
So, we did a deal with Emirates airline and promised all our colleagues in London who had completed more than one year of service that we would invite them to come on a five-day workshop to Dubai. And, in that programme, we give them a total orientation of our properties here and we get them to work in one of them for a day. In the end, my corporate team talks to them on our hallmarks.
We’ve had a positive response from our colleagues in London and the feedback from our guests in the UK suggests that they now reflect the values and hallmarks of Jumeirah International.
Thanks to Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah International is known around the world as the brand which has the world’s most luxurious hotel. But, equally, it also has a reputation to keep…
You are absolutely right. Thanks to the Burj Al Arab, we have a reputation to keep. That’s why we have always tried to exceed our guests’ expectation every time they stay with us. We have our surprises and delights – you have to stay with us to experience them.

How is the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa coming up?
Bab Al Shams Desert Resort is a very nice project which I think will be a delightful property in the desert area. We hope to be able to demonstrate how nice it is to also see this part of Dubai. The 110-room hotel will enhance the environment and we are working very closely on the ecological side to ensure that we do the right things and educate people as well about how to treat the flora and fauna in the desert. For Dubai residents wanting to drive down, there will be a road directly from the Emirates highway coming straight down to the resort.

How does Jumeirah International compare with other international luxury brands?
We have always said that Jumeirah International is very much about having landmark hotels that have their own individual identity i.e. we don’t want all our hotels to look the same like some international chains prefer. We think our difference is our strength.

What, according to you, has contributed to the company’s phenomenal success?
A combination of great products built by our owner. Without a great product it’s very hard to deliver the standards. So, it’s the product and the people who work there. And lastly, it’s thanks to our guests, who are our reason to be here anyway.

What parts of the world is Jumeirah International focusing on to expand?
We have no particular target area in terms of our global expansion. For now, it should suffice to say that there’s opportunity worldwide – both within Dubai and further afield.

Where do you plan to take Jumeirah International from here?
We are working on our longer-term strategy though we are not in a position to elaborate on it at this stage because, right now, we are so busy just keeping up with what our owner has given us to do.

Did your previous experience establishing the Middle East office for Forte Hotels in Dubai in 1991 and, subsequently, overseeing its development from three properties to over 20 when you left, help you shape Jumeirah International?
Well, my previous experience with Forte Hotels in the Middle East certainly made my life easier because I have always enjoyed working here. When I landed in Bahrain people used say that you’ve only just arrived here but you don’t seem like a stranger. I enjoy working with the diversity of nationalities in this part of the world. I think it’s a great opportunity for any human being to be working in the Gulf.

So you were looking forward to working in the Gulf?
To be honest, when I accepted the job with Forte and didn’t even know where Dubai was. I just said yes because I wanted to go overseas and landed here from Glasgow with my wife in August 1978 to join what was then known as the Dubai International hotel (now the Le Meridien at the airport). But it was great fun and, even at that time, we could see the vision the rulers of Dubai had to take this place forward.

Personally, are there any lessons you have learnt working in the Middle East?
This place has taught me how to develop patience. I think Middle Eastern people are very courteous in their interaction and how you deal with that is very important. For instance, if you want to say no in the West you can so say so bluntly but here even if you have to say no you have to be sensitive about how you go about it. That’s because people here are extremely polite. Being Irish, I have been able to relate to them very easily because we share a lot of culture values.

Given your busy lifestyle how do you relax?
In this business, you are so busy that it’s very hard to differentiate between what’s pleasure and what’s work because the two tend to intermingle very much especially when you are socialising with people.

And now, a difficult one. What is your favourite Jumeirah International property?
Like a good parent, I love all my children equally but I enjoy the individual identity of each of them and I think that’s the great thing about Jumeirah International properties – every one can be your favourite because they are all different. Again that’s the strength of the company.