Imagination becomes reality in Dubai

Bill Walshe, CEO of Viceroy Hotel Group, which is half owned by Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala, says there is no competition between the two emirates
As an industry veteran Bill Walshe brings a considerable wealth of experience to the Viceroy Hotel Group.
By Michael Jabri-Pickett
Sun 07 May 2017 08:25 AM

There is no competition between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, says Bill Walshe, an Irishman who turned 50 on April 27 and knows a thing or two about the men who work in leadership positions in both emirates.

As the CEO of the Viceroy Hotel Group, a Los Angeles-based brand that is 50 percent owned by Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala, Walshe was back in Dubai, where he lived for six years, for the opening of the Viceroy Palm Jumeirah Dubai, the five-star, 477-room resort that boasts 222 apartments and six villas and is situated on the trunk of the Palm. In a stroke of synchronicity that seems to happen often in Dubai, construction on the Palm began the same year Walshe first landed in the UAE 16 years ago to work for Jumeirah Hotels.

Despite being on the road for about 200 days a year, Walshe sees this trip as a return to the familiar. He and his family lived in Dubai from 2001 to 2007. In fact, he is atypical when it comes to US-based CEOs who travel to Dubai because he sees it as a homecoming.

Walshe is one of the people who was instrumental in Tiger Woods swinging from the helipad on the Burj Al Arab in March 2004.

“It was an idea inspired by the environment of Dubai at the time,” he says, drinking a cup of boiling water with lemon in the Italian restaurant Quattro Passi, which is just off the lobby of the Viceroy Dubai Palm Jumeirah and looks out on what is believed to be the longest pool in the UAE.

“Where imagination becomes reality,” Walshe says. “That was the world that we all lived in,” he says when talking about Dubai in those halcyon days. “It came very simply from asking Tiger to do it and he said yes. And that sounds utterly ridiculous. I should tell a 15-minute story about how complicated it was and all the lobbying that I had to do.”

But he doesn’t. Instead he explains just how easy it was to achieve an iconic moment that is often repeated (Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis in February 2009, David Coulthard doing doughnuts in 2013) but can never be recreated for its originality.

“We came up with the idea in conversation as one does. But in any other part of the world, what would have happened next is we would have talked ourselves out of success.”

The Viceroy Palm Jumeirah Dubai.

Being anywhere but Dubai, Walshe says, reality not imagination would have ruled the day. After the idea to put Tiger Woods on the helipad had been suggested, someone would have said: ‘We won’t be able to get in touch with him, and if we do get in touch with him, his manager would tell him not to do it. And if his manager tells him to do it, he is going to want so much money that we can’t do it anyway.

“That is how the conversation should have gone; and, in 99 percent of the globe, would have gone. In our case, it was, ‘let’s ask him’.”

More than a decade after the fact, Walshe can barely contain his glee.

“I love the fact that now, what, 12 years later, 13 years later, I can still look at pictures on the internet and see people chatting below it, and they say ‘I know it was $10m [Tiger Woods was paid]’. I’m happy to leave the illusion out there for whatever people want it to be.”

But the PR stunt was not about the Burj Al Arab or even the Jumeirah Group.

“That was done to promote Dubai, and it was done at a time to promote Dubai as an international luxury brand. I think the whole musketeer approach of Dubai, the airline, the duty free, the DTCM, the hotel community. We never did anything for ourselves. We did it for Dubai.”

Today, just a few years before the city welcomes the world to Expo 2020, that same attitude continues to inspire.

Kabir Mulchandani is described as courageous, creative and driven.

“What we have created here with Kabir Mulchandani and the team at SKAI Holdings is also something we have done for Dubai.”

Mulchandani, the CEO of SKAI and the owner of the Viceroy Palm Jumeirah Dubai, is “courageous, creative and driven”, Walshe says.

It is this attitude that helps create the sense of pride that Walshe feels.

“The spirit of pride that exists amongst UAE nationals is for the UAE. I have never heard anyone describe themselves as a Dubai national or an Abu Dhabi national. It is UAE national, and that is what the spirit is. There is brotherhood between the leaders of the emirates that is extremely evident and very frequently publicised. They lead by example.

“Yes, there might be a hotel company here and a hotel company in Abu Dhabi, and an airline here and an airline in Abu Dhabi, but if the UAE is winning I think that is the ultimate goal. I have never felt any divided loyalties or conflict about doing it for Dubai or doing it for Abu Dhabi.

“From Mubadala’s ownership of the Viceroy Hotel Group, this is a very prestigious opening. There is an additional layer of pride that it is in the UAE and that we are here in Dubai. The hotel we are opening after this one is in Chicago [scheduled to open in September in the city’s Gold Coast neighbourhood where the Cedar Hotel was located] and it is many, many miles away and they will be proud of that. I will get the same degree of support from my boardroom to open Chicago successfully.

“I had never even contemplated it [Abu Dhabi versus Dubai] as an issue.”

It is Walshe’s first-hand experience with the region that helps him appreciate how important it is that he be a hands-on CEO.

“I think normal practice for somebody in my position around the opening of a hotel is to arrive a day before or the day of, do a ribbon cutting with oversized scissors and then probably stick around for 24 hours and take the next flight out. To me, that’s the Remington Steele version of being a CEO. It’s like you’re an actor who has been hired to show up and look good for the camera for a very brief period of time. I’m here for a month. I have moved from Los Angeles to Dubai to be here for that owner, for Kabir. We stand shoulder to shoulder in our ambition, in our excitement and our desire for this business.” (Remington Steele was a US television show that ran from 1982-87 and starred Walshe’s compatriot Pierce Brosnan, who played a thief who may or may not have been brilliant at playing a private detective.)

Tiger Woods teeing off at the Burj Al Arab helipad in March 2004.

It is this project in this city that holds a special place for Walshe.

“I loved every minute of every day that I lived in Dubai. Extremely proud of what we achieved with Jumeirah. Is there an extra little sensation coming back and doing this? You better believe it. I’ve come home and I’ve come home to unveil something which stands for what Dubai taught me: zero tolerance for mediocrity. If you’re going to do it, do it well. If you want to make a difference, make it different.”

It is that spirit that inspired him in Dubai that he carries with him to America.

“I live in a town [Los Angeles] where everybody has a story to tell and just trying to participate in a dinner party conversation can be a challenge,” he says. “So when I drop the D word [Dubai] … it’s a badge of honour.”

Viceroy Palm Jumeirah Dubai carries some of that American spirit as well. From the three Tesla cars (two are gullwing SUVs) to the world’s largest free-standing glass cube (15m x 15m) inspired by the Apple store in New York to the vista looking down the longest pool in the UAE (60 metres) à la Miami. “And it’s not like we are trying not to be Dubai. But we are celebrating Dubai, because Dubai is a collision of international, commercial and cultural references.”

“Will people walk in here and say ‘what’s been created, what’s been launched is just like everything else I’ve ever seen in Dubai before’? I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but there won’t be one person who says that. What we have done is added to the compelling promise that Dubai offers by creating a highly individual and a unique part of one of the most dynamic destinations in the world.”

The way he sees it, if his colleagues are proud to work for Viceroy then staff turnover and absenteeism decreases and productivity increases. Attitudes are also more positive, he says.

Walshe’s idea of a marketing stunt at the Burj Al Arab was imitated in February 2009.

“If my guests are proud, what happens? They come back, and it’s a lot more cost effective to retain a guest than to recruit a guess who has never been with you before. And in these days of the immediacy of communication and social media, a proud guest immediately becomes an advocate. Suddenly, I have 10,000 new salespeople around the world because the Viceroy guest who has stayed in one of our hotels is proud of the way we treated them as individuals. They will tell the story for me.”

It is a story that continues to unfold for Walshe, the Viceroy and Dubai.

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