CEO of Dubai-based hotel empire says luxury isn’t just about hedonism

Gerald Lawless, CEO of luxury hotel chain Jumeirah, on rescuing turtles, the wisdom of shampoo bottles and using laundry steam for energy

Luxury hotels are oases of opulence, even those in countries affected by climate change with scarce water resources. But, Gerald Lawless, CEO of luxury chain Jumeirah Hotels, a Dubai-based empire founded 16 years ago, explains that promoting sustainability is good housekeeping.

Jumeirah recently published its first CSR report. Where does sustainability rank among your priorities?

Sustainability is about more than just environmental factors. One of the great advantages we have in the hotel business, particularly in the luxury hotel business, is that each of our hotels is pretty much an individual property and business, as well as being part of the overall corporation.

One of the examples we have is here in Dubai, where we work closely with the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. They care for many hawksbill turtles, which are an endangered species. Distressed turtles are gathered from beaches all around the Arabian Gulf and brought to the Burj Al Arab. There the turtles are nursed back to health by our own veterinarians, marine biologists and curators. When they recover we take them over to the sea water canals that connect the different hotels that make up our Arabian resort, Madinat Jumeirah.

A growing number of boutique hotels use CO2-neutrality as a selling point. Is that something that Jumeirah could do as well?

We’re currently working on setting our initial targets so that we have a very clear measurement of our carbon footprint. We have many ongoing initiatives, particularly with regards to recycling aluminium, cooking oil, plastic and paper. We also have a system of recycling food waste within Madinat Jumeirah called the Bokashi system, whereby we create fertiliser for the gardens from both liquid and dry food waste.

All large hotel companies, and that includes Jumeirah, are very keen to do the right thing with regards to the environment because we appreciate the benefit. It’s good housekeeping anyway, and both our guests and employees are enthusiastic about it. For example, reusing towels and sheets in bedrooms. Originally we felt that asking guests to make the choice was not in line with luxury. It was the guests who took the initiative and told our employees, “please don’t change my sheets today.” .

Luxury hotels always provide nice bottles of shampoo and skin lotion. Can you do away with them or would the guests rebel?

I think the market is evolving in that regard and certainly you see now in public toilets and washrooms where you have to squeeze the refillable bottles. I think these are very acceptable in public areas, but at this stage, for a luxury hotel, I’d definitely like to keep our special bottles of shampoo.

Jumeirah also runs the Emirates Hospitality School. How does sustainability feature on your curriculum?

It’s embedded in the subjects, and also forms part of Jumeirah’s training courses. There are also innovations, for example in the area of energy-saving: using steam from laundries to heat water, which is efficient from both the energy and the water-conservation perspective. In fact, the whole conservation effort goes right back into the design of laundry facilities: minimising the use of chemicals, washing at lower temperatures, managing load sizes, recycling heat from other facilities

When you build new hotels, is sustainable design something that is an important factor. If it’s more expensive, would you opt for sustainable design?

We do it on a case-by-case basis. Our philosophy is that it is better to put the capital in at the design stage to have an energy efficient construction because it’s good for the environment and it’s certainly much more cost-effective for the subsequent operation of the hotel.

You’re in charge of a Dubai-based empire. Are sustainability initiatives a harder sell there than in Europe?

Sustainability has become a global consideration. Dubai has now issued a code of practice for minimum standards for all new buildings and their sustainability and insulation, which is very similar to the US-based Leed standard, so it’s an easy sell. Owners do get it and very often the countries in which we operate already have pretty stringent regulations and recommendations with regards to building codes to ensure that the hotels are built to the best possible sustainable standards.

You travel a lot. Do you offset your plane trips?

I don’t and this is something that really intrigues me as someone who is very involved in travel and tourism, particularly with the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Economic Forum. I think that the airline business is a bit like the hotel business – everybody stays in a hotel, everybody flies in an airline. But when you look at carbon emissions, the airline industry is down at 1.7%, which is a lot less than the construction industry and less than non-aviation transport.

I think everybody becomes very focused on what an airline might be putting into the environment and it’s my responsibility to ensure that I keep a high awareness for the needs for good environmental practices both in my personal and business life. But rather than focusing on personal efforts to conserve energy and keep carbon dioxide emissions to a minimum, I’d prefer to see the British government use some of the excessive amounts of tax they take through airport departure and airline passenger taxes in the UK to address broader environmental issues.

I believe travel and tourism on one hand and environmental protection and sustainability on the other can support each other, for example in the labour market, with almost 10% of the world’s labour force working in the sector. And with many entry level jobs available, there’s scope to bring new employment opportunities to rural communities in the locations where hotels establish themselves.

If you introduce very serious sustainability measures, are you afraid your customers would desert you?

I don’t think our commitment to sustainability diminishes our customers’ experience in any way. Instead, we’re delivering more choice. But we don’t have to take away the luxuries of life; we simply find ways of delivering them in a different way. It is important to remember that luxury isn’t just about hedonism; it’s also about recognising the sophistication of your customers, it’s about engaging the customer, so ultimately they feel a lot better about staying with us because they know we have a responsible attitude towards the environment.

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