Four Singaporean hoteliers making their mark overseas
OWNER OF THE MELBOURNE HOTEL
In Singapore, Daniel Tan admired the iconic Raffles Hotel and always liked the idea of owning a piece of heritage. In mid-April this year, he made it come true – sort of – with the re-opening of The Melbourne Hotel, or the equivalent of the Raffles in Perth’s City Centre.
Built in 1897 – 10 years younger than the Raffles – with a distinctive facade thanks to iron balustrades curving around a spacious balcony, Mr Tan first laid eyes in it in 2007 and fell in love with it because of its similarity to Singapore’s iconic hotel. At the time, he was fresh from the sale of his first hotel, The Commodore – also in Perth – Travelogue Hotels for A$17 million (S$17.2 million). He had paid A$6 million for it in 2002, and had completely refurbished it for another A$4 million before selling it. “I wasn’t sure about running a hotel, and it was a good offer,” he says.
While he wasn’t managing the Commodore, it sparked his desire to both own and manage a hotel, so when The Melbourne was put on the market, he snapped it up for A$11 million. When he decided to redevelop the property it took six years – three years longer than expected – and cost A$40 million – double what he expected to pay.
Still, it’s par for the course for the 63-year-old founder and managing director of Oakesfield Pte Ltd, a Singapore-registered company. Not a newcomer to investing in Australian property, Mr Tan is a Katong boy who made his first fortune in Singapore in the T-shirt design and printing business, which he started in the backyard of his parents’ house. He still owns the business, but it is now run by the eldest of his three sons. Mr Tan also made a tidy sum from buying and reselling properties in Singapore. In 1995, he bought his first Perth property when the Australian property market was in the doldrums. He still owns one of them – in St Georges Terrace, which is leased to the Department of Justice.
With The Melbourne, he decided he would try his hand at being a hotelier rather than just an owner. He sent his second son, Wei Heng, to help out at the hotel and learn the ropes of hotel management. Wei’s wife Cindy Chen worked in sales and marketing. In turn, Mr Tan networked with many hoteliers to learn more about making the business profitable.
There were some costly lessons to learn in the process. “Although Australian developers are professional, unlike some in Singapore, they are very strict about charging for variations,” he says about The Melbourne’s refurbishment. In the end, “I gave the (Australian) architect carte blanche to follow his vision and not make any further changes.”
While he took on a passive role in the hotel’s design, he left his mark on F&B offerings. Mr Tan is behind three of the hotel’s five F&B outlets which have an Oriental concept, as he felt there was a shortage of good ones in the area. Grand Orient, a Cantonese restaurant, is helmed by chef Chan Kwok, formerly of Singapore’s Hua Ting, who was approached by Mr Tan to collaborate on the restaurant. Ramen Kaisuke Tonkotsu King, on the first floor of the hotel, is also a collaboration between Mr Tan and its Japanese owner Keisuke Takeda. It is so popular that there is a waiting list of an hour on average during peak hours.
Though he is based in Singapore, Mr Tan travels to Perth once a month for a week to check on the hotel and his management team – which includes Singaporeans and Malaysians.
While the hotel is not yet in the black, Mr Tan is upbeat about it turning cash-positive soon as even in the low winter season, the hotel is running on 60 per cent occupancy. When asked if he has plans to build a second hotel, Mr Tan replies that he is not too keen about absorbing the unpredictable costs and time that often comes with construction. “If an opportunity to buy a second-hand hotel and refurbish it comes up, I might buy it with a view to selling it.”
MAJORITY OWNER OF BAWAH RESERVE
Eco-luxury resort Bawah Reserve, set on six forested private islands in the Riau Archipelago, officially opened in January this year but has already been hailed by the likes of Financial Times, Vogue and Conde Nast Traveler as the new Maldives of the region.
This remote Eden, accessible only by ferry and seaplane from Batam, is the brainchild of Singapore permanent resident Tim Hartnoll – owner and executive chairman of shipping firm X-Press Feeders.
Mr Hartnoll, who is British but born and raised in Singapore, spent his youth in the 1960s and 1970s holidaying on the sands and in the seas of Mersing and Tioman and developing a love of scuba-diving and ocean sport. It is Mr Hartnoll (whose father founded Sea Consortium and X-press Feeders) who discovered the islands of Bawah Reserve in 2006.
He recalls how he was exploring the Anambas area with an American skipper when he became so smitten by the raw beauty of the islands that he extended his stay from one day to three. When he found out the islands were up for lease, he lost no time in drawing up a proposal and bringing in like-minded partners into the project.
He had no idea what he had gotten himself into at the time. Buying the islands was complicated thanks to different title ownerships behind the property. The actual construction was an exercise in perseverance as Mr Hartnoll had to double as both developer and builder. “We had no topographical maps,” he remembers. “Most of what the resort stands on, including the back of the house, stood on former impenetrable jungles. A system for clearing waste, including water, needed to be built. Skilled workmen had to be found, we needed to build accommodation and also feed them.”
Mr Hartnoll was also completely new to hospitality. Fortunately, he managed to form a team of like-minded experts including noted architect Sim Boon Yang, who envisioned building without heavy machinery and with minimal destruction to natural vegetation, using natural materials like teak, bamboo and driftwood.
They wanted to provide jobs for locals, but skilled workers from other parts of Indonesia had to be imported. Building started in 2012, and took close to six years, two years longer than scheduled. “Just getting the seaplane ready took 18 months,” recalls Mr Hartnoll of the red tape involved. But it was the only way to cut down travelling time that would otherwise take up to nine hours by boat.
Despite putting in 30 to 50 hours in his day job, Mr Hartnoll clocks up close to 40 hours a week in Bawah as well. He is there every month, spending three to five days checking on progress, and speaking to staff and guests.
To date, Mr Hartnoll – a majority shareholder of more than 70 per cent – and his partners have sunk in about US$30 million into Bawah Reserve, with plans to develop the area further. On the island of Alang, also within the Bawah Reserve, Mr Hartnoll is building a longhouse and three one-bedroom villas for his family. They will be let out to guests when they are not on the resort. Mr Hartnoll’s heart is also very much in the Bawah Anambas Foundation (BAF), which aims to equip locals with skills such as permaculture and sustainable fishing, and also help preserve the natural habitat and wildlife of the area.
“This is a passion project,” says Mr Hartnoll. “(Bawah Reserve) has given me a new purpose – something I need especially at a time when my three children have flown the nest.”
Mr Hartnoll brushes away thoughts of a second resort with a laugh. “I am 63 years old. Do the math of how long it took me to get this running, and you’ll know how unlikely it is.” He adds that the resort has yet to show a profit, although it is on track to turning cash-positive in 2019.
All the hard work becomes worth it just for that magical moment when he flies into Bawah and sees “the iridescent colours of the coral reefs as the seaplane glides over the water,” he adds. “I want to make Bawah one of the top 10 resorts in the world.” ~ Mavis Teo
Google News, Bing News, Yahoo News, 200+ publications
DIRECTOR AND CO-FOUNDER OF LLOYD’S INN
At 23, when most people her age were still figuring out what to do with their lives, Joan Chang’s father gave her a hotel. Or rather, he tasked her to take an ageing boutique property that was as old as her, and give it a new lease of life
Lloyd’s Inn, a 34-room hotel in Lloyd’s Road, was started in 1990. Ms Chang’s father, Herman, founder of property developer firm Macly Group, bought it over that same year.
Over the years, guests complained about its poor condition, and it lagged behind the other budget hotels that popped up. In 2013, the hotel finally underwent a massive transformation “to change Lloyd’s Inn to a modern brand relevant to customers today”, says Ms Chang, now 28. Out went the green-tiled facade, and the dingy rooms with dated floral duvet covers. In came a chic concrete building, all-white rooms with outdoor showers, and a pool surrounded with lush greenery. It is no longer the eyesore of the neighbourhood, but an oasis of tranquility in the heart of Orchard Road.
A new building was just the first step in revitalising the hotel. Ms Chang had to draw guests in. She handled the branding of the hotel on her own, getting its name out on social media, working with neighbourhood eateries to offer guests a local dining experience, and offering an e-concierge service where travellers can hashtag and ask for travel advice in Singapore. These moves paid off, as the hotel enjoys 90 per cent occupancy rate. Since its 2014 revamp, it has won several accolades, including TripAdvisor’s Top Bargain Hotel 2015, Best Minimalist Hotel 2016, in the Hotel & Spa Awards, and is regularly featured in international publications such as Monocle Travel Guide and Wallpaper* City Guides.
Ms Chang also won the inaugural Best Marketing Idea Award at the 2016 Singapore Tourism Awards. “Through experiential marketing, I showed that a hotel is more than a bed for one night, but an experience to be remembered,” she says.
Despite no hospitality experience, Ms Chang, a finance and marketing graduate, is very hands-on in running the hotel, singlehandedly planning and executing the marketing of the hotel for its first four years.
Besides running Lloyd’s Inn, she handles the branding and marketing of property developments under Macly Group. The firm has a portfolio of landed properties and apartments and is one of the pioneers of shoebox apartments. “I wasn’t expected to join the family business, but it gave me the chance to develop and display my marketing skills,” she says. She also worked at real estate agency Huttons for two years where she picked up real estate-based skill sets, and learnt how to see things from a regional perspective.
These skills came in handy, when in 2017, Ms Chang opened Cara Cara, a ‘hostetel’ in Bali, for flashpackers, offering compact rooms and beds with the privacy and amenities of a hotel room, and at a wallet-friendly price.
In November, she will open Lloyd’s Inn Bali. Located in Seminyak, the hotel will also have the signature Lloyd’s Inn feature – an outdoor shower. “Bali is the right branding for us. Lloyd’s Inn is about being close to amenities, in this case the beach, and yet is still exclusively tucked away among the greenery,” says Ms Chang.
Next up is Lloyd’s Inn Kuala Lumpur in 2019. Her father, with his years of experience, identifies locations, and she handles the branding and conceptualisation of the project. With two hotels overseas, Ms Chang says that having the right local business partner is crucial, when it comes to getting government approvals and understanding regulations.
Four years since taking over Lloyd’s Inn Singapore, Ms Chang is more aware about the challenges of hotel operations. For example, hotel maintenance is a significant cost and Ms Chang is working with her architects to see how that can be kept affordable for the new hotels.
Her current goals are to focus on expanding the Lloyd’s Inn brand regionally, and to learn the ropes of property development.
Ms Chang has set her sights beyond South-east Asia. “My dream is to open a Lloyd’s Inn, in the Maldives,” she adds.
CO-OWNER OF BISMA EIGHT
In 2008, Suraj Melwani’s family closed the second of two garment manufacturing factories that the Melwanis owned in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was the end of a chapter – the garment business having been started by Mr Melwani’s grandfather, who was part of the diaspora that left the province of Sindh (now in Pakistan) during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
“My father and his brothers realised that the textile and garment manufacturing business in Indonesia was no longer cost-competitive against other countries like China, and it was time to look at other businesses,” says Mr Melwani, a third-generation Indonesian citizen and Singapore permanent resident since 2006. With the closures came a new challenge: to reinvent itself and its core business. After much research and discussion, the idea to build a resort in Bali – where Mr Melwani had spent many childhood vacations – was born.
The new venture, Bisma Eight, opened in February 2015. It is a 38-suite luxury resort in Ubud, Bali, and occupies 3,500 square metres of land. Clean lines and a colour palette of granite and slate give the property a design-centric appeal and a sexy edge. In different rooms, pops of colour (cobalt, pumpkin and cinnamon) break up the monochromatic palette. In the main lobby, a statue of Hindu god Ganesha takes residence and guests are welcome to place offerings at its feet. The statue is not just a nod to the Melwanis’ religious beliefs, it’s also a symbol of respect to the mainly Hindu host island.
Mr Melwani oversaw the conceptualisation and execution of the design and brand story of Bisma Eight. The 36-year-old, who holds an associate’s degree in fashion design from Parsons The New School for Design in New York and a degree in business administration from Northeastern University in Boston, was behind most of the aesthetics and brand conceptualisation. Mr Melwani is also the founder of Sifr, a men’s clothing brand.
The gamble paid off – the hotel broke even within its first year and its current occupancy averages 80 per cent.
“Three years on, we feel it’s time to act on another 5,303 square metre piece of land we leased around the same time, ” Mr Melwani says of plans to build a second resort. Located just a 10-minute walk from Bisma Eight, the family-friendly property will be called Bisma Eight The Gardens.
“It will be for the Bisma Eight guest who has grown up, married and has kids, and now needs more space and greenery to chill and for his children to run around,” explains Mr Melwani, himself a father of a three-year-old.
He adds that the villas-only property will only have 12 keys. Currently under construction, it’s projected to be completed in 16 months and estimated to cost about S$5.95 million. In comparison, Bisma Eight cost S$7.74 million.
The architect behind the project is Indonesian Andra Matin who was responsible for Katamama in Seminyak; he has won many accolades for its design. The in-house restaurant will be run by Mandif Waroka, a celebrated Indonesian chef. A stay at Bisma Eight The Gardens will average around US$350 to US$450 per night, while it costs about US$200 to US$300 at Bisma Eight.
Mr Melwani feels very upbeat about the new resort, especially given the lessons learnt from Bisma Eight. “We can’t be too experimental and neglect what guests want,” he notes, recalling how Bisma Eight’s restaurant initially turned some guests off with too few Indonesian choices. “We may feel it’s interesting to create new dishes, but what people want at the end of the day when they go to Bali is to have classic Indonesian food.”
When asked if he’s concerned about an oversaturation and supply of hotels and resorts in Bali, Mr Melwani shrugs. “Bali is a gateway for us to the rest of Indonesia.” As for further plans, he says: “We are waiting for our roots to grow deeper and stronger and we are studying other places like Lombok, Flores and maybe even Sumba.”