|Gerald Lawless, executive chairman of Jumeirah Group says the hotel company’s partnership with Rory McIlroy has been invaluable in terms of exposure for the luxury brand.|
Bounding up the 18th fairway at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, MD, a boyish grin affixed on his way to a record-breaking performance and win in the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy was not only securing his status as golf’s heir apparent to Tiger Woods, but also forging distinction for hotel operator Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts.
Backtrack to 2007. Eighteen years of age at the time, McIlroy was considered an adroit golfer, but he was nowhere near the status he enjoys now. Jumeirah Group, like any great handicapper, placed a smart bet: It just so happened that McIlroy’s family lived in the same town of Jumeirah’s CFO Alaister Murray—Holywood, in Northern Ireland.
The provincial ties convinced Jumeirah to sign McIlroy as its global brand ambassador, a position that not only tapped him as the brand’s spokesperson but also ensured that during every golf tournament McIlroy played in, the Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts logo would be prominently displayed on any bare real estate on McIlroy’s clothing—from his shirt to his hat.
So, as he strode up the fairway, NBC’s cameras following, he was making a name both for himself and Jumeirah. “It’s been absolutely amazing,” says Jumeirah Group Executive Chairman and fellow Irishman Gerald Lawless, who joined Jumeirah in 1997, after a 23-year career with Forte Hotels that culminated in him setting up and expanding Forte’s Middle East operations. “He is just taking the golfing world by storm, and I don’t think we could ask for a better combination.” (Jumeirah tells Luxury Travel Advisor that if you were to put a monetary value on the exposure that McIlroy has created for the Jumeirah brand based on this year’s first two U.S. golf majors—The Masters and U.S. Open—it would be in excess of $10 million.)
As a Dubai-based hotel brand (the majority of its portfolio positioned in the Middle East), Jumeirah has worked hard to get its luxury name out to the U.S. market. “Some in the U.S. don’t know that Jumeirah is a hotel brand,” Lawless says. The group currently has only one hotel in the U.S.—the Jumeirah Essex House in New York. “I hope, in the future, that will change.”
It is, notwithstanding McIlroy’s influence, Jumeirah’s “Stay Different” brand promise that is leaving an indelible mark on its growing population of guests. “It means that we understand that we are dealing first of all with people, and we understand that each person is an individual and different,” Lawless says. “We are saying this to our guests and to our employees because we want you to stay that way—stay different. We like our guests to celebrate their own uniqueness.
“We also believe very importantly in the need for each of our hotels, and the luxury end of the business, to have its own personality, and it needs to be unique. We are very pleased that our hotels each have a different style and a different feel, but our goals that go through all of the hotels begin with the Jumeirah luxury service.”
The “Stay Different” promise will be tested even further as the year moves forward. This year alone, Jumeirah has opened hotels in Shanghai, Frankfurt and the Maldives—all outside its Middle Eastern comfort zone. (The group also has five additional China hotels and resorts in its pipeline.) In the next nine months, it will open hotels in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Azerbaijan, Mallorca and another in the Maldives. In total, Jumeirah will just about double its footprint in a year’s time. By 2012, the plan is to grow the portfolio by 60 hotels and resorts.
“We’ve been promising new hotels for a long time now, and finally they are beginning to come,” Lawless says. “We have been ready for this for quite some time now. We have a well-structured organization in place to be able to cope with international expansion, but most importantly, through our hotels in New York, London and Dubai, we have a huge international base. And this has been the base of people that have been asking us, ‘When are you going to open more Jumeirah hotels? We want to come and stay with you in other places.’ This is something that we have been looking forward to so much. We have said we want to be recognized as one of the top luxury hotel operators worldwide, and to do that, we have to have more of a global spread.”
|The Jumeirah Essex House in New York is a crown jewel for the luxury brand, which would like to expand further in to the U.S. market.|
Jumeirah’s sole U.S. hotel, Jumeirah Essex House, overlooks Central Park and shares the same street as other luxury heavy hitters, including The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park and The Plaza. Lawless says that expansion in the U.S. would be welcomed, but it takes two to tango. “We have taken the management company model, so we are dependent on investors developing the kind of hotels that suit the Jumeirah brand,” Lawless says. Beyond New York, he points to six U.S. cities he’d like to see the Jumeirah flag planted in: Boston, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Jumeirah has also turned its attention to resorts in the Caribbean, having signed agreements in Anguilla and St. Thomas, where its properties will open soon.
With all the activity percolating for Jumeirah, the operator decided to put its VENU Hotels lifestyle brand on hold—a move counter to what many hotel operators are doing today (think Marriott’s EDITION). Lawless says they even took a cue from Four Seasons, which has never steered into non-luxury waters. “We came to the conclusion that because of the financial environment and the risks out there, the best thing to do would be to stick to luxury—that is what we’re good at, and this is what we want to do in the future,” Lawless says. “Maybe someday in the future, we can reopen thinking about a second brand.”
|The Burj Al Arab in Dubai is known world-wide for its stellar architecture, but Lawless insists it’s the service that sets it above other luxury hotels.|
Of course, Dubai still remains Jumeirah’s home field with five hotels and one, Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, opening later this year. Of all its luxury hotels, the Burj Al Arab (popularized in everything from TV commercials to album covers) is Jumeirah’s feather in the cap, just maybe the most opulent and luxurious hotel in the world. According to Lawless, it undoubtedly is, but it’s the service, not just the amenities, that make it so. This is true for each Jumeirah hotel and it’s a testament to the employees, or colleagues, as Lawless refers to them, who are the backbone of the group’s luxury service.
“I call it the golden treatment,” Lawless says. “We put a lot of extra care toward our colleagues. We treat them differently; we treat them very respectfully and that carries over to the standard of luxury service they provide our guests. They have an amazing sense of pride in Jumeirah.”
In order to carry through on its luxury promise, Jumeirah and Lawless fashioned three brand hallmarks—behavioral instruction given to each employee. One: Hold a smile and greet the guest before the guest greets you. Two: Never say no as a first response to a guest request. Three: Treat each other with respect.
As Jumeirah continues to expand, Lawless sees the travel advisor playing an integral role in the brand’s success. “A lot of hotel operators are trying to make it easy for travelers to book online, but when it comes down to it, the part of the whole traveling experience is the planning, getting advice, and going to a travel advisor to get it is something that will never die,” Lawless says. “The travel advisor understands what his or her client really wants. I don’t see them going away anytime soon.”
During the rough economic times that Jumeirah and all other hotel operators faced, Lawless says it was imperative to better understand Jumeirah’s customer base and ensure they remained repeat guests. “Why?” he says. “Because the most difficult thing is to find new customers. If you lose existing customers, then you are really in trouble and this is one of the first things we looked at. What are we doing for the people that are loyal to us?”
Lawless says building up Jumeirah’s Sirius loyal program has been key. He praises it for its flexibility and partners. “We allow guests to earn points on total hotel spend, not just accommodations,” Lawless says. Jumeirah has also partnered with such luxury purveyors as Bloomingdale’s and Harvey Nichols.
While luxury tastes rarely shift with regard to such gratifications as over-the-top amenities, top-notch service, unparalleled design and so forth, what has changed, and something Lawless has taken note of, is how guests go about basking in the lap of luxury. “They are certainly looking for a different experience,” Lawless says. “Luxury travel, very much now, is about enrichment.”
Lawless adds that he is seeing this play out very much so in Dubai. “Guests come here and they want to learn about Islamic culture,” Lawless says, noting Jumeirah shareholder and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed’s Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, a nonprofit organization established to increase awareness and understanding of the various cultures that live in Dubai. Jumeirah hotels in Dubai take guests to mosques where they join the worshippers.
Jumeirah also works with the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Center, which rescues and nurtures displaced turtles until they are ready to be reintroduced into the Arabian Gulf. Some of these turtles, Lawless says, actually stay at Jumeirah hotels, where they interact with guests, are named and given a title before being released back into the sea. “People want these types of opportunities that we provide,” Lawless says.
Rory McIlroy’s opportunity for a second golf major in 2011 essentially ended on the third hole at Atlanta Athletic Club during his opening round at the PGA Championship. An errant tee shot left his ball precariously positioned behind a raised root. Displaying nerve, though, maybe not good sense, McIlroy took a huge hack at the ball on his second shot, hitting the root on his follow through. The result was a strained tendon in his right wrist. Undaunted, though hobbled and bandaged, he carried on through the tournament, finishing a distant 64th.
Perseverance is a trait that often goes overlooked in an era of win-or-go-home. That alone makes McIlroy the perfect global ambassador for Jumeirah. “We really are the two new kids on the block,” Lawless says. That block is getting more crowded as Jumeirah continues to spread its luxury around.