Boutique and lifestyle hoteliers: rebels with a cause snapshot

Boutique Hotel News was Media Partner at October’s Hotel Investment Conference Asia Pacific 2016 hosted at the InterContinental Hong Kong.

‘Rebels with a cause’ was the special HICAP session featuring boutique and lifestyle hoteliers who are shaking up the industry with new approaches and attitudes in hotel products, services and experiences.
Moderated by David Keen, CEO, QUO, panellists included Brad Wilson, President, Atelier Ace and Girish Jhunjhnuwala, Chairman & CEO, Ovolo Hotels Group the conversation below is an edited transcript.

What’s your genius, what is it that gives Ace Hotels the spark?

Wilson: It’s our dog whistle, the pitch that we hear, Ace is based on emotions and it feels like somebody made it. Our genius lies with the people – not I, but  four creative directors, and we are all very collaborative. There’s an unspoken connection between our properties. We have an approach that sits between corporate and artisan. The route of what we do came from Seattle and myself and Alex Calderwood’s approach to the City – there was nowhere to stay that was interesting to us, so we created a hotel for ‘our friends’ and this has just been repeated.

Turning to Jhunjhnuwala, CEO of Ovolo he highlighted his hotel team’s focus on creating a sense of place, and was asked why he launched the brand.

Jhunjhnuwala: It started when I as in the watch industry and what I experienced travelling on business. Rooms were unfriendly, you know when there’s a weight sensor on a bottle of water that’s taking it way too far – you don’t buy an overnight stay to be charged for incidentals. It needs to be all-inclusive.

Is it diversity that creates the magic?

Wilson: We have an unconventional way, and offer services for today’s modern traveller – there’s no nickel and diming when you come through our doors. What we do is fun, we create passion which also attracts people to work with and for Ace Hotels – it’s the best recruitment tool for us.

Jhunjhnuwala agreed: we have a love of music (at our hotels) and when customers interact, and tell you you’re doing it right so Ovolo created its own radio station.

Are your people your greatest limitation to growth?

Wilson: We have great people to execute our vision, and there are limitations, we experience pullback from hotel people – they say “you can’t do that.” People are the best and worst part of the business. At entry level, we don’t look to recruit people with previous experience from the hotel world – our front door says ‘a friendly place.’ The next layer up is where we experience the challenge, both negative and positive, conflict tends to occur from staff with previous hotel experience which limits their input.

Jhunjhnuwala: We’ve restructured as we have grown, we have a start up culture, we take great decisions, and we’re less corporate and continue to grow – I think we’ve cracked it.

Wilson: In a 20 or 30 room hotel, it’s easy to make decisions yourself. We only have nine hotels and we aim to keep a flat staff structure, ensuring a closeness to the customer. We have in effect inverted a typical hotel structure

How do you maintain this thread through Ace, what’s critical?

Wilson: We need to keep the creative in front of all we do -we are a creative agency first, operating and marketing company next. We have a creative soul and strong point of view which allows us to grow. Every hotel is different, as we grow up we change – morphing into projects. We never try and do what we did yesterday – it’s not relevant what we did back then.

Are rebellious brands saturating the market, and are the big brands the rebellious brands of the future?

Wilson: True rebellious brands are inspirational and lots more, and are there going to be 100 Ace Hotels, yes – in 100 years! It’s the cross over brands that are capturing the fall off eg. Autograph Collection. This has come about due to information being so easily accessible now, and we’re in the true information age, allowing you to know a lot more now. The freer thinking brands are the oxygen, creating brands of the future.

Jhunjhnuwala: Big brands have to change with market needs, take for instance Airbnb and how it’s changing hospitality, big brands are still thinking about what we do.

Wilson: It’s a lot about risk. The bigger you are, it’s harder to take the risk. This is mitigated by knowing your customer – it’s this instinctional and emotional connection with who we’re targeting that allows us to grow by understanding our customers better. We also mitigate risk by really working hard, 16 hours doesn’t work – it really is 24 hour.

Jhunjhnuwala: any change has risk. Being small allows us to be flexible to make changes and understand our customers and interpret the data collected

Wilson: Our customers are the ‘Global nomad creative’ and probably our smallest demographic group (that Ace appeals to) is millennials. We aim to lead the trend but not create the hype. If and when we come to Asia, we will bring Asia into what we do. We will embrace local people and bring something unique – that’s us. We definitely see great heritage here and will take a global citizen approach.

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