In the age of globalisation, national identity and notions of cultural heritage can be pointed subjects. In recent years, we have seen some push back in the West against what were long accepted as non-negotiable givens of freemarket capitalism and a rise in populist, protectionist rhetoric to levels not heard since the 1930s.

As a global citizenry, we have never been more homogenous, but that often seems to only highlight our differences. The very concept of multiculturalism as a societal ideal is even being openly debated by mainstream political parties. Travel and tourism have been vital in shaping a global sense of self and will have a role to play in influencing the manner in which these debates evolve over the coming years. Furthermore, if one is looking to identify just how much can be achieved through embracing the spirit of global travel, commerce and a multiethnic world view, there are few more pronounced 21st-century success stories than Dubai. A population of 2.7 million, over 90% of whom are foreign nationals, living side by side in what is now the fourth most visited city on Earth.

Fast-growing economies and their threat to Western hegemony has been a factor in the return of protectionism and the rise of Dubai as a hospitality powerhouse cannot have pleased Europe’s traditional tourism hotspots.

One therefore wonders how the continent’s hoteliers might react to the European Hospitality Awards’ decision to recognise former Jumeirah head honcho Gerald Lawless for ‘Lifetime Achievement in the Hotel Community’. After all, few individuals have done more to steal away holidaymakers who might otherwise have been sunning themselves on the beaches of Biarritz or Barcelona. International outlook The success stories of Lawless, Jumeirah and Dubai as a whole are virtually inseparable. Hired by Sheikh Mohammad in 1997 when the nascent group boasted a portfolio of just one operational hotel, over the course of the next 18 years, the Irish hotelier opened a further 23 properties in 12 destinations, left plenty more in the pipeline, established Jumeirah as a luxury powerhouse – an international ambassador for the emirate overseas and the last word in five-star hospitality at home – and created one of the region’s most instantly recognisable brands. Does he even still self-identify as a European hotelier, or, having done more than almost anybody else to help position Dubai as a key hospitality hub, is he now a fully fledged Emirati?

“Oh, I certainly wouldn’t say that,” chortles Lawless. “I spent the formative days of my career at Shannon [College of Hotel Management] and 23 years with Forte, which was what brought me to Dubai in the first place, so Europe played a huge role in my career.

"That said, it’s a real compliment when a local says to me, “You know, Gerald, you’re one of us.”

Hotel Management International last caught up with Lawless on St Patrick’s Day 2015. With Jumeirah’s Burj al Arab bathed in green light, the then CEO and president spoke enthusiastically about increasing the portfolio from 82,000 to 150,000 keys by 2020; launching a new lifestyle brand, Venu; and his intention to exceed 40 properties by the end of 2018.

However, just ten months later came the announcement that Lawless would be stepping down from the executive board at Jumeirah – though remaining as honorary president – to take up a role leading tourism and hospitality strategy at the operator’s government-owned parent company, Dubai Holding. Did he know at the time that the end was in sight?

“Conversations would have certainly been under way,” he allows. “Succession planning was something that had been on the agenda for many years and has long been an integral part of Dubai Holding’s corporate governance.

"In an industry that moves so quickly and a company undergoing rapid growth, you need to have an idea of exactly where you’re going and this seemed like the right time to make that change.”

I strongly believe that the brand is built upon our colleagues, particularly those that interact directly with guests. When people buy into a shared ethos it makes delivering success so much easier.

A question of timing

After 18 years leading the group, at a point where Jumeirah was about to embark upon the busiest period for new openings in its history, it still cannot have been an easy decision to make. One wonders if he was tempted to hang in there for a little longer.

“I always said I’d retire at 60 and found myself running a little bit behind,” says the 64-year-old. “It comes down not just to conversations with one’s employers but also your family.

"When you get to this sort of age, one's mind turns to what life is all about and what you hope to get done with the rest of it.

"Managing an international hotel group is very much a 24/7 business and doesn’t leave much time for anything else. I wanted to make some time.”

It may create new opportunities, but such a seismic decision is likely to prompt reflection, the focus of which can only be sharpened by a lifetime achievement award.

Lawless is characteristically self-effacing when it comes to listing his accomplishments, but certain memories clearly retain particular resonances.

“A lot of chief executives serve long tenures and, by virtue of the length of those tenures, achieve things for their companies over that time. It’s hardly a unique story,” he argues.

“People tell me how great it is we were able to develop the brand – and I use ‘we’ deliberately – but the fundamentals were given to us by Sheikh Mohammad. One only had to be reasonably competent to create something unique and special with the tools and properties he put at my disposal.”

Before he is allowed to talk himself out of the award completely, it is put to the former chief executive that the Jumeirah group has long been famed to for its employee culture, something that could only have evolved over time and was, by all accounts, driven from the top.

“I’ve often said that a great secret of my success has been the people I had the good fortune to recruit from the beginning and throughout,” Lawless says. “Many have gone on to have great careers, inside and outside the company.

“I strongly believe that the brand is built upon our colleagues, particularly those that interact directly with guests. When people buy into a shared ethos, it makes delivering success so much easier.”

Having one of the most iconic buildings on the planet doesn’t hurt either. Like the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, the Burj Al Arab has gained membership to an elite architectural club: buildings globally recognisable by silhouette alone that serve as visual shorthand for an entire geography. Its opening in 1999 – it was infamously christened ‘the world’s first seven-star hotel’ in one early review – is where the former executive’s mind first turns when invited to pinpoint some specific career highlights.

“That was a significant milestone,” he says. “It was always the plan, to create a symbol of Dubai, but the way the brand evolved and developed around its flagship hotel was particularly satisfying. I think back to the Federer-Agassi match on the helipad and the global publicity it generated. It couldn’t have gone better.”

Lawless points to a further sporting partnership as another fond memory: the five-year sponsorship deal signed between Jumeirah and Rory McIlroy when the golfing megastar was still a virtually unknown 18-year-old. “That was incredible happenstance,” Lawless recalls fondly. “The CFO at the time knew the family – he even caddied for Rory when he came over to play the Dubai Desert Classic aged 17. His rise played such a big role in establishing Jumeirah on a global scale.”

Naval gazing is clearly not Lawless’s speed – “Too much self-reflection can be a dangerous thing,” he laughs – and all this talk of the past diminishes the significance of the challenges that lie ahead.

Alongside his predominantly consultative role at Dubai Holding, a major contributory factor in the decision to walk away from the boardroom was Lawless’s elevation to chairman elect of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), a responsibility he clearly relishes.

“It’s a great way to finish my career,” he explains, “working on behalf of an industry that I believe in so passionately and that has done so much for me. Dubai Holding has generously agreed that I will spend most of my time focused on that commitment.”

So much still to do

The role is perhaps best described as ‘global lobbyist for the international travel industry’ and Lawless feels that Dubai can serve as an exemplar for a number of the standards and attitudes he would like to see adopted worldwide. “It demonstrates how things could be done and how they should be done,” he believes. “We talk a lot about the facilitation of travel in a safe and secure way. For example, more logical approach to the issuing of visas; using technology to enhance security but also to facilitate people’s travel.

"Dubai has been at the forefront of this in terms of waivers and so on, and the world has seen it reap the benefits. There is a strong argument to make.”

Lawless believes that a number of governments still under appreciate the value of the sector, financially and societally, pointing to the UNWTO/WTTC Open Letter on Travel and Tourism, a document presented to heads of state worldwide inviting their endorsement that now has over 800 signatories, as one concerted effort to ensure more commitment from world leaders. Lawless is particularly complimentary about President Obama’s efforts on behalf of the industry while he was in office, but, despite the US electing its first hotelier to the White House, is clearly less sold on specific policies of his successor.

“I don’t believe you enhance safety and security by blocking certain countries and nationals,” argues the WTTC chairman. “In fact, I can’t see the rationale. What you need to do is approve individuals on a case-by-case basis.

“We have seen a rise in populism, but that’s not the right way forward and I’m confident that good sense will prevail. With the things we see being done in the name of religion, the social and cultural side of travel carries immense importance; meeting others, learning about and celebrating our similarities and differences.”

As an example, Lawless cites the Sheikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding, a non-profit that promotes awareness of Emirati culture, customs, traditions and religion among expatriates and foreign visitors. “Guests visit a mosque, meet with an imam and learn just how many similarities there are between Islam and Judeo-Christian monotheistic religions,” he explains.

“You can witness that cultural enrichment first-hand and it does so much to promote mutual understanding.”

It would be hard to think of a better ambassador for these values than Lawless, a man whose career has spanned multiple cultures and the development of a brand that delivers immense pride to the multiethnic inhabitants of his adopted home.

Surely, when the award ceremony rolls around in November, he’ll allow himself a moment of self-congratulation.

“Lifetime achievement awards do tend to say a certain thing about your age, but there’s not much one can do about that, I suppose” he counters.

“Of course," he concludes, "it’s lovely to be recognised, but there’s still a lot left I would like to do.”