Encounters Winter 2012
From the blue waters of the Maldives to the natural bounties of Mozambique, our regional travel magazine, Encounters, takes readers on rich journeys that are up-close and personal.
Home at last
Luxury accommodations offer a sense of convenience, privacy and comfort
Free-spirited travellers looking for a different kind of city stay are finding that serviced apartments offer a great alternative to the usual hotel options.
For families, individuals or groups of friends, it is a chance to create something of a home away from home, with all the sense of convenience, privacy and comfort that entails. And for business travellers, in town for more than a whistle-stop sales visit or the standard three-day conference, it provides a welcome contrast to work-centred routines, while giving easy access to leisure, restaurant and business facilities either on site or at a nearby partner hotel.
"For many guests, the major benefit of staying in a serviced apartment is the extra living space," says Caroline Leong, director of marketing for Oakwood Asia-Pacific. "Instead of feeling 'crammed' into a smallish hotel room, they have a dining room, living room and kitchen, which can be important for families who want to cook for their kids and not eat out all the time."
Noting that business travellers are still the company's core clientele, Leong stresses the need to keep developing other avenues. Leisure travellers and holiday makers are, therefore, seen as an important and growing market segment. With a new property in Guangzhou to add to city centre locations in Seoul, Jakarta, Manila and Mumbai, there are obvious attractions to being able to explore the length and breadth of Asia at one's own pace and rhythm.
"We are geared up to increase this type of leisure business and, with the exception of Hong Kong and Japan, almost all our properties will accept overnight stays," Leong says. "We have summer and winter promotional packages and some great value 'website exclusives' for travellers booking online or via a smart phone."
The key is striking a balance so that serviced apartments feel homely, yet have high-quality amenities and reliable services for use if needed. To this end, Oakwood now has purpose-built children's playrooms or playgrounds at many properties, babysitting services and children's menus, which can be ordered in. There are further options for private dining in the apartment, housekeeping and grocery deliveries, plus facilities such as an exclusive residents' lounge for socialising and a fitness centre to keep in trim.
"The aim is to make any stay as fuss-free as possible," Leong says. "And because we are less 'commercial' than hotels, which see all sorts of people coming and going, security is also very good."
If need does arise for guests to switch from vacation to business mode, that is never a problem. The apartments are fully furnished and fully equipped with everything from wide-screen TVs and home entertainment systems to Wi-fi coverage and nearby meeting rooms.
"We are not just a second choice for shorter-stay accommodation," Leong says. "Many travellers prefer us to hotels. They can suit themselves, but know that facilities and services are always available. This trend is evident all over Asia and is expected to continue."
Pilar Morais, CEO of Hong Kong-based CHI Residences, agrees. In her view, there is definite room for growth in the "shorter-stay" market - representing anything from a few days to a few weeks - something clear from the number of local and international players entering the sector in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region.
"This will make things more competitive in terms of rate packages and services provided by the apartment operators," Morais says. "We have a 'stay for three, pay for two nights' offer for holiday and business travellers, and a 'welcome home' special rate for returning guests."
Regular feedback shows that a few things contribute to that feeling of being somewhere like home, not in just another hotel room. Most often, guests mention the kitchenette, a baby- and child-friendly environment, having somewhere to do one's own laundry, and free Wi-fi as key factors. When away from home base - and possibly budget-conscious - comfort and convenience is often all about sorting yourself out, rather than waiting for room service to bring a snack or housekeeping to wash the children's T-shirts.
"People like the flexibility of making their own meals or doing the laundry quickly, and a familiar routine makes their stay more comfortable," Morais says. "Serviced apartments are usually in areas where dining, shopping and entertainment are easily accessible, so guests have no trouble seeing and experiencing what the city has to offer."
CHI is ready to pre-book tickets to family attractions, such as Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland. Each property has a DVD library with plenty of cartoons and movies for different age-groups. Staff are always available to offer transport tips, tourist advice and "what's on" information for visitors keen to make the most of their time. "We can also provide a pre-arrival service to stock kitchenettes with a few basics," Morais says. "We are still targeting longer-term stays, but we can also focus on the growing demand from travellers and families staying less than 28 days."
Leaning towards the upper end of the scale, Belinda Kuan, deputy general manager of Signature Homes, the luxury-residential leasing arm of Sun Hung Kai Properties, says demand for high-end units in prime locations shows no signs of slowing.
Kuan represents Four Seasons Place and The HarbourView Place in Hong Kong, which style themselves as "serviced suite hotels", aiming to offer something more than a regular serviced apartment. The essentials remain broadly the same: to create a home away from home; a marriage of comfort and convenience; and the promise of hassle-free living.
"Our properties not only attract business executives looking for a home where they can enjoy a full all-in-one package combining the benefits of a hotel and a residential apartment, but also expats on holiday getaways," Kuan says. "Public holidays help to boost the number of travellers choosing to stay in serviced apartment-style accommodation. In our case, they are looking for [something different], with a certain social status."
Whatever the planned length of stay, it springs from a reluctance to be fenced in by the limits of a standard hotel room, its space and attendant restrictions.
"Our guests want somewhere with a 'homey' touch, but they are also becoming more discerning about quality," Kuan says.
Responding to that, the two serviced suite hotels come with 24-hour multilingual concierge services, rooftop heated pool and jacuzzi, and fully-equipped kitchenettes. Units configured as three-bedroom suites are 1,420 sq ft and more, while there are also studios, one- and two-bedroom options, and presidential suites.
"We have attracted a diverse range of guests and now have a waiting list for Four Seasons Place," Kuan says. "Guests can choose flexible contract terms, from one to 12 months. We expect the demand for shorter-stay serviced suite hotels to continue."
The 66-storey Marina Bay Suites in Singapore is choosing not to go in that direction. Instead, the management team is focusing on sales for its mainly three and four-bedroom apartments, largely targeting high-net-worth-individuals in the region.