The Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC), being held on May 4-5 at Madinat Jumeirah, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Jumeirah Group president and CEO Gerald Lawless is one of a handful of hoteliers that spoke at the first conference back in 2004 and who will again address this year’s event. Here, he reflects on the changes in the hotel investment landscape and reveals yet more growth plans for Dubai-based Jumeirah.
You were one of the speakers at the first AHIC back in 2004; what do you remember from the event?
I think because Jonathan Worsley (chairman, Bench Events and founder of AHIC) and I had a lot of conversations before the first AHIC was held, to me it was very much a combination of efforts from all sides that brought us to have the first AHIC in Dubai 10 years ago and certainly we always had a great sense of pride that Madinat Jumeirah was the host venue and continues to be the host venue ever since. It was a just a sense of satisfaction that we had within Jumeirah that finally the AHIC took place and came about.
How do you think AHIC has helped facilitate and improve investment in the Middle East hospitality industry?
It concentrated investors' minds and was a chance to showcase what Dubai has to offer in terms of hospitality investment and indeed in the broader region to demonstrate the potential that exists for the travel and tourism industry through the investment in hotels and resorts and these lovely locations.
If you see what has been developed in Dubai over the last 10 years, as an organisation and event, a conference such as AHIC is vital for bringing together of the industry both in terms of the investors and the operators and this has been borne out by what has occurred in the mean time and I think AHIC has been a significant contributor to the development of the hotel industry definitely within the region and very specifically with the UAE — particularly when you see not only what’s happened in Dubai but what’s happened in the rest of the country in Abu Dhabi, for example, the way they’re now developing the tourism infrastructure of places like Saadiyat and Yas Island.
What’s been the most significant change over the past 10 years?
I think it’s a proliferation of various brands that now exist within Dubai in that we virtually have all the top known and best known international brands actually operating here in Dubai and it has also facilitated brands such as Jumeirah to be able to promote its product on an international platform and we can see how Jumeirah has now developed with 22 hotels worldwide in 11 different countries with a significant pipeline, particularly in places like china and throughout the Middle East. We just had the groundbreaking ceremony [on April 16] for a lovely resort with two hotels in Muscat.
So that’s really significant for us. Also you can see there have been other brands which have been start ups in the United Arab Emirates, such as Rotana and I see Coral Hotels really beginning to make their mark as well, so very much these kind of events such as AHIC bring together that important community of investors and operators.
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Do you think there is room for more brands in the hotel industry?
I think the success of brands here for example, such as The Address and their second brand Vida, both these brands really, like Jumeirah, having a powerful platform of top quality hotels and operations already within Dubai and Dubai being such a showcase city and very much a tourism and travel hub as so many people come here that as I say, the success of these brands has proven that there is a niche in that market and I think it’s also very appropriate that home grown Arabic brands should become very strong and powerful not only in this region but on a global basis. After all you have to say that GGC nationals are probably the best travellers in the world and certainly highly sought after travellrs for any destination worldwide.
What do you expect to be the main talking points at AHIC 2014?
I think one of the big trends will be to really get ready for what I think is a very exciting and positive period coming up and that is how to deliver the value for the investors here in Dubai for all the new hotels that are under planning stages right now and how we can come up as professionals within the industry to meet the challenge, achieving for example the kind of targets that have been set for us by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, for say tourism and travel. We have 20 million visitors by 2020, Dubai has been awarded the World Expo 2020 and we are going to have to build an awful lot of hotels between now and 2020, so it’s a beautiful challenge to have and it’s the kind of challenge we need but certainly we have to, as they say, hit the ground running to make sure we deliver on that and I think an awful lot of the talk around AHIC this year was focused on Dubai itself.
Jumeirah is developing another hotel in Dubai in the fourth phase of Madinat Jumeirah; how is that progressing?
Well that project is on schedule for opening in Q1 of 2016 and will have 435 bedrooms and is really a very, very appropriately designed hotel which will sort of join together the very modern structures of Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj al Arab and the more traditional design of Madinat Jumeriah, though I do accept that Madinat Jumeriah was opened after Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj al Arab but that’s just the way it happened and I think that’s going to be very significant.
Also we’re fortunate to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dubai Holding; Dubai Holding, through its verticals of Tecom and Dubai Property Group, has a lot of ambitions to develop hotels in Dubai and we know that we’ll be working very closely with the parent company to deliver on the expectation as far as that’s concerned.
So there will be yet more Jumeirah hotels in Dubai?
I would certainly expect so!
Are there any further expansion plans for Jumeirah you can share?
One of our big priorities in addition to development within the UAE and particularly Dubai and Abu Dhabi is also that we are in deep discussion with a number of parties — so nothing has been signed yet hence the reason that we haven’t announced anything — but we are in discussion with a number of parties in Saudi Arabia and we are very keen to broaden the footprint of Jumeirah within our home region.
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