He could not have known then that he would spend a large part of his life in the Emirate he had never even heard of. Then again, the chief executive officer of the Jumeirah Hotel Group freely admits he did not really have a notion what he was going to do when he finished school back in 1971.
“My father was a dairy farmer,” says Lawless from his sunny garden in Dubai. “I knew I didn’t want to be a dairy farmer and a friend of the family got me into the Great Southern in Galway. At the same time I applied to Shannon. At that time you needed experience in a hotel before you got in.”
The Shannon that Lawless refers to is of course the Shannon College of Hotel Management. Since its inception in 1951 Shannon has come to be regarded as one of the top colleges of its kind in the world due mainly to its high-performing alumni, such as Lawless. He has fond memories of his time at the college and of one mentor in particular.
“Brendan O’Regan set it up originally but he brought in a man called Jorgen Blum from Switzerland,” he says. “Jorgen was a great man and what I always admired about him was he always instilled a great sense of self-belief and confidence in the students and he was always dedicated to having the highest quality institution. I think any of us from my generation owes him a great amount for any success we might have had.”
After graduating from Shannon, Lawless joined the Forte Hotel Group and worked in hotels the length and breadth of Britain. But, as he puts it himself, he “was always pestering head office” for a move overseas.
“So finally, I think in exacerbation more than anything,” he laughs. “They asked me, ‘Well, will you go to Dubai?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I will. Where is it?’”
Lawless arrived in the city in August 1978 and he chuckles now at the memory of the initial culture shock. But bar a gap of some years, including two as the general manager of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, he has lived there ever since. Lawless’s remit was to take care of the expansion of the Forte Group in the Emirates region and by 1996 it had 23 hotels.
That same year, however, Forte was bought in a hostile take-over by Granada and Lawless decided to leave. In 1997 he was approached by a representative of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who asked the Galway man would he be interested in overseeing a new project. The famous Burj Al Arab, which stands at over 1,000feet, was under construction when Lawless joined but since its opening in 1999 it has become a landmark of Dubai with its sail shape visible from nearly every surrounding point.
The group now has 10 hotels, most of which are based in Dubai. But this year sees the opening of nine new ventures in places as diverse as the Maldives, Abu Dhabi and Azerbaijan.
Lawless believes that the spectacular locations of the hotels have a lot to do with the success of the group, but for him there are other key components.
“You know we’ve brought in very simple things which we call our hallmarks,” he explains, enthusiastically getting down to the business side of the interview. “They’re just simple things like we will always smile and greet the guest before the guest greets us. Now that seems like a small thing but we’ve received so many compliments about it. The second hallmark then is we’ll never say no as a first response. Even if you think the only answer is no, and it probably is, you’ve got to think of a compromise or ask for help. The final one is that we treat each other with respect and integrity.
“And if you think that we have 110 different nationalities working here, I really advise the new colleagues at the orientation to get to understand the different cultures they’re working with. And most people soon realise that most prejudice is based on ignorance. Once they start interacting with each other, they get a more harmonious feel about the operation.”
According to Lawless, in Jumeirah the words ‘employee’, ‘boss’ or ‘manager’ are rarely used. Everyone is a ‘colleague’ from top to bottom and Lawless is very proud of the sense of shared responsibility among the staff — of which the Jumeirah Group will have 16,000 by the end of the year.
“I have such a respect and I would say, in fact, affection, for the colleagues and, in particular, the very junior colleagues, to see how dedicated they are,” says Lawless. “Many of them have come in here from Asia, places like the Philippines and Thailand and India, and many of them have left their family at home and will send money back on a regular basis. It reminds me of what Ireland was like up until the 1960s.”
Speaking of Ireland, Lawless returns home regularly and likes nothing more than rowing on Lough Corrib. A far cry from Dubai, no doubt. And so, can he see himself coming back?
“Oh I could certainly see myself spending winter here and summer in Ireland,” he says.
“But I have to say that Dubai has given so many of us such incredible opportunities career-wise and it’s a real dynamic, go-ahead place. It’s doing very well, even now.”
IT IS 60 years since entrepreneur Brendan O’Regan opened the Shannon College of Hotel Management.
O’Regan, who was also the brains behind the world’s first duty-free shops, saw Ireland’s tourism potential back then and was convinced that in order to increase and sustain the numbers of visitors to Ireland, standards had to be maintained to the highest level.
It was with this in mind that O’Regan based Shannon’s curriculum around the best practice of the Swiss model, drafting in the help of Jorgen Blum who turned Shannon into a world class college that today boasts a 100% employment rate for graduates.
Other than Gerald Lawless, other alumni include top hoteliers such as David Wilkinson, the retired general manager of the Dorchester in London, and Andrew Phelan of the luxurious Castlemartyr Hotel in Co Cork.
“It was very disciplined,” recalls Phelan, who graduated in 1987. “And I think it set standards for us all that I think we maintained as we went along.
“The grounding we got then certainly stood to us.”
Although he praises the theory he learned at Shannon, for Phelan it was the practical side of the four-year course that was its best aspect.
“They send you out on these placements,” says Phelan. “And when you were on them a lot was expected of you and there was always a very tight link in communication between the college and the placement. So that if you weren’t putting your shoulder to the wheel they weren’t long about letting you know.”
The college is now so well regarded that every year, from September to May, some of the world’s leading hotel groups such as the Hilton, Trump and Sheraton, send representatives to Shannon to pitch for the students. It would appear our young hoteliers are doing us proud.