‘It helps to have Burj Al Arab in our portfolio’

BILL WALSHE, chief sales and marketing officer of Jumeirah, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about the future of the luxury hospitality group, its expansion plans and more
Walshe … ‘becoming a part of Dubai Holding has accelerated our growth’

These are exciting times for Jumeirah. Less than six months after it was rebranded, the luxury hospitality group has created a strong brand platform for expansion, strengthened its position as the world’s leading luxury hospitality group and won the title of Middle East’s Leading Hotel Brand at the World Travel Awards last month.

That was another reason for Bill Walshe, chief sales and marketing officer of Jumeirah, and his team to celebrate. But that’s not all. Three of Jumeirah’s hotels in Dubai – Burj Al Arab, Madinat Jumeirah, The Arabian Resort – Dubai and Jumeirah Emirates Towers – received a string of top accolades. As Jumeirah proudly announced exciting international development plans and promised many more exciting projects in the coming weeks and months, TTN spoke to Walshe about the future of the young and expanding luxury hospitality company. Excerpts from an interview:
TTN: As the key person behind the rebanding, are things going according to plan?
Bill Walshe: In terms of rebranding of the company, things are ahead of plan, which always pleases me. The rebranding of the company was a reflection of our commitment to become the world’s leading luxury hospitality operator. Since becoming part of Dubai Holding, Jumeirah is enjoying strong synergistic relationships with other member entities which will help to achieve the expansion strategy of the group. The intention was to create a brand that would enable us to enhance our profile around the world.  
So, it wasn’t just about coming up with a new logo – that was actually the very last part of the exercise. It was to have a new brand understanding and to rename the properties, which we hope to achieve by the end of the year. In fact, in Dubai, we’re now pretty much done and the Carlton Towers in London is being rebranded now as we speak. With the Lowndes Hotel, we are doing a renovation and then we will relaunch it as Jumeirah Lowndes after the renovation period.
Also, we are fully ready with the brand identity for Jumeirah Essex Towers that we will operate in New York in January, 2006. We are launching a global advertising campaign this month. The theme of the advertising campaign is very different so, when we rebranded, the company it was to create a new look, to create a new naming route and to give us the basis for global communication – and all three are ahead of schedule, so far so good.

Jumeirah had announced its intention to expand its portfolio to 40 hotels worldwide over the next five years. Are you on track with that?
We are doing very well. We have now two new projects in Dubai, we have announced projects in Jordan and in Doha and we will now manage a property New York. We will, probably, have another two announcements before the end of this year.
Jumeirah will also manage the luxury hotels and theme park within the Saraya Aqaba development that is expected to transform the beachfront town of Aqaba, Jordan, into a world-class waterfront resort city. In Dubai, we were recently selected to operate Aqua Dunya, a unique theme park resort located in the heart of Dubailand – a project that is set to become the world’s largest leisure, entertainment and tourism attraction.
Right now, I think, we have around 15 to 18 projects that are in various stages of negotiation. So, yes, we will definitely make it.

Considering Jumeirah, always set out to be lot more than just a hotel company, operating the Saraya Aqaba and Aqua Dunya projects do fit into the scheme of things…
Yes, when we rebranded a lot of people expected us to call ourselves Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts because that seems to be the trend these days, but we are so much more than just hotels and resorts. Wild Wadi was the second or the third element to our business when the company started. We also have the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management. So, it makes sense for us to get into a multi-component hospitality leisure business such as Aqua Dunya, where we’ll be running a theme park which will be wet and dry, we’ll be running a hotel, we’ll be running the residential serviced apartments, we’ll be running the retail. These are all core fields that we have and it’s actually what we look for.

So how did Saraya Aqaba come about?
We managed to get this project because the Jordanian investors were familiar with our products in Dubai. Moreover, there aren’t many companies who would have a proven record of running that complex resort in this part of the world. We have proven that we can do it.

Did it help accelerate the company’s growth, once Jumeirah came under the Dubai Holding umbrella?
Clearly, becoming a part of Dubai Holding has accelerated our growth. There are various entities within the Dubai Holding network going out on an acquisition trail, but our growth will not be based exclusively on opportunities presented to us through the Dubai Holding network. The next couple of announcements that we will make, for instance, will be opening businesses in Asia, which are with independent investors from that region and they has nothing to do with Dubai or Dubai Holding. They want to work with us because they have recognised Jumeirah for what it is ie a superior management brand.

Jumeirah’s has launched a private label code for all its hotels (JT) with much fanfare. In real terms, what does the company hope to achieve from it?
The GDS label code is really a sign of maturity in our company. We had a terrific relationship with both The Leading Hotels of the World and with Utell for GDS distribution up to now, but with the volume of GDS transactions that we have, it means it makes more financial sense for us to do it alone. We can also unify the portfolio under one brand.

Talking of new partnerships, having a high-profile property like Burj Al Arab in your portfolio must be a great introduction…
It’s been very positive. I think we are in a position where some of our hotels are so high-profile that they act as door-openers. It helps to have Burj Al Arab. After all, there are very few people who won’t talk to you when you have Burj Al Arab in your portfolio!
However, to answer your question, when we highlight Burj Al Arab, for example, we also tell our clients that it boasts 90 per cent occupancy with an average rate that is significantly over $1000. Well, that’s when people go, ‘Wait a minute, this thing is actually commercially successful?’ And we tell them, yes, it’s one of the most successful hotels in the world – financially and commercially.
I think that does it. People get very pleasantly surprised when they see just how structured and professionally organised we are on the inside. We are making the investment and establishing JT as our code, opening regional sales office all over the world and, this month, we are going to launch a $3 million advertising campaign to build a brand. When we talk to owners of hotels, they can see that we are prepared to invest in our own future, which will benefit the future of their properties and it’s not just about saying ‘Oh, my hotel is managed by the same guys who manage the Burj Al Arab!’

While on Burj Al Arab, does it become a bit of a challenge having to live up to the expectations of such a renowned property?
Well, if we have an owner who says I want you to take my hotel and make it like the Burj Al Arab, we’ll say to them there is only one Burj Al Arab, what we will do for you is to make everybody who will work in your building act in the same degree of passion and integrity as those in the Burj Al Arab and that’s where the similarity comes in.

How would you define luxury?
I personally think luxury is indefinable. The day you can define luxury, your product is no longer luxurious.   Luxury to me is seeing the face of the guest, the very first time they walk into Burj Al Arab. I have no idea what’s going on in his head but I know whatever it is, it is happening for the first time in his life. And that’s luxury for me, not for him, because I know I have a small part in giving that luxury to them and that makes me the happiest man I can be.