Open for business
The Siam in Bangkok, Pentahotels in Beijing and London's Town Hall Hotel are winning fans -and awards - as they cater to the design-savvy traveller seeking a unique holiday experience. Divia Harilela catches up with the three young Asian hoteliers behind the über-cool properties
Krissada Sukosol Clapp
Going from rock star and actor to hotelier is an odd change of course, but Krissada Sukosol Clapp has never lived a conventional life. As one of the heirs to Thailand's famed Sukosol Hotel dynasty, the 41-year-old entrepreneur studied anthropology at Boston University before embarking on a successful as lead vocalist of award-winning Thai rock band, Pru. He is also an accomplished actor (film credits include The Adventure of Iron Pussy, Bangkok Loco and 13 Beloved).
Clapp was one of four children, and his parents encouraged him to follow his heart. But after a decade in music, he decided to take up the family trade. That was six years ago.
"I took too long to join the family business. My mum always encouraged me to pursue my passions. I was into the arts and she was proud. For more than a decade that was my identity, but I felt guilty for not helping the family business," he says.
It was a visit to an untouched piece of land on the river banks of old Bangkok that ignited Clapp's interest in hotels. A lover of 1920s antiques and interior design, he saw the potential for a unique luxury hotel. "I wanted a hotel that would transport guests back in time. I was going to call the hotel The Siam," he says.
As one of the last in the family to join the hotel business, he faced a new set of challenges. "Building a hotel requires a proper flow of process and constant communication. These aren't my strengths, and I did my best to adapt. The responsibility was huge because building a hotel is more expensive than making an album or a movie," he jokes.
The Siam took three years to develop with construction beginning in 2009. Clapp's idea was to create an intimate hotel that felt like a private home with beautiful pieces of art and design that embodied the best of Thai culture. "I've grown up in hotels, but The Siam was something different from our other properties. You're building a world, hopefully like no other, where people can escape to. But the most important thing is you've got to capture that soul. That's not easy because it's the intangible you're after. No hotel wants to be a one-hit wonder.
"Being humble and down to earth are part of the Thai culture, and I hope The Siam and all Sukosol Hotels reflect such traits. We cater to people who enjoy art, to people looking for a getaway while remaining in the city."
The Siam (see breakout story) opened in June to much fanfare. Covering 1.2 hectares, it boasts 39 exclusive villas and a luxury Muay Thai gym with the design by the acclaimed Bill Bensley Design Studios.
Throughout the property are art works and photographs showcasing Siamese life and history with many pieces taken from the family's personal collections including Thai theatre tickets and playbills from the 1940s and 1930s and Thai boxing photographs.
"We believe in putting the art in business - that will always be in our DNA. There aren't too many business owners who'd build just 39 rooms on prime river-front land in the city. It almost doesn't make business sense, but it is the path we took," says Clapp.
The project has been a huge success, and Clapp says he plans to open another Siam hotel. He says his success comes down to the guidance of his family.
More retreat than urban hotel, the 39-room Siam has Bangkok's ultra-luxe leisure market covered for architecture, design, art, and wellness. Krissada Sukosol Clapp, an avid antiques collector, wanted to use his collection for the project and employed Bill Bensley - one of Architectural Digest's Top 100 architects and also an antique aficionado - to bring it all together. Bensley, who considers himself a "designer of environments" is responsible for the art deco-meets-Thai style of the hotel, designing the villas and interiors, the gardens and details such as uniforms, menus and even napkin rings. Bensley is known as the go-to guy for hoteliers who want their resort to stand out. The combination of Bensley's burlesque ideas with Clapp's passion for antiques ensures the US$32-million hotel takes the city's hospitality scene to a new level.
Located in the historical royal Dusit district amongst palaces and museums in wide leafy avenues, the riverside hotel features the first pool villas in the capital.
The 28 suites and 11 pool villas are themed, showcasing Thailand's popular culture and history and all are brimming with antiquities. The Chinese-themed villa has five-metre-high ceilings, a platform bed from the 1920s dressed with 300-thread-count linen and oversized down pillows. A 1930s clock marks the time.
Larger treasures, however, are the four century-old traditional Thai teakwood houses that grace the garden. Jim Thompson, the American who revived the Thai silk industry, salvaged the properties with his friend (and fellow Office of Strategic Services agent) Connie Mangskau.
A friend of the Clapps, who bought the houses after Mangskau's death, agreed to sell them to Clapp. One of the houses is a pool villa, while the other three form the Thai restaurant and cooking school, "Chon". thesiamhotel.com
Sonia Cheng hails from hotel royalty. She is the granddaughter of New World Group founder Cheng Yu-tung, who owns iconic hotel properties including the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong and the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles. But despite her pedigree, the 31-year-old wants to make her own mark in the business as the chief executive of New World Hospitality.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Cheng studied applied mathematics at Harvard University and embarked on a career in finance. It wasn't until 2008 that she made the leap and joined the family business.
"I've always liked hotels because I grew up surrounded by them and I love to travel. Initially I was looking into joining hotel companies outside of my family but didn't make the jump because I wasn't sure if it was something I wanted to do long term. A few years later my father told me how he wanted to build a hotel-management company within the family business and I liked the idea," she says.
High on her to-do list was building the right team to help execute a modern vision for the management division, while developing a strong culture for the company.
"My father and grandfather developed the New World hotel brand which was well known in the region in the 1980s. My vision was to set up an international management company, and under that establish brands which are globally recognised and that embody the future of the industry. I wanted to build a significant portfolio and a strong culture but also create a company that people want to work for."
Under her leadership, the group acquired Rosewood Hotels (which includes legendary properties such as the Carlyle in New York) last year, and more recently she launched the Pentahotels brand in Asia. Founded in Europe, this new-generation hotel concept is a design-led brand providing travellers with a contemporary environment, comfort and style within an affordable price bracket. To date the chain has properties in Shanghai and Beijing with the next slated to open next year in Kowloon.
"We are excited about Pentahotels - I see a strong future. There is no offering like that in Asia, in particular China. The next generation of travellers want very different things to five-star hotels, or traditional full-service hotels. We want to tap into the mindset of these younger travellers and create something that resonates with them. We appeal to people in art, fashion and the entertainment industry. It's all about the experience," she says.
Pentahotels appeals to the traveller looking for "less cookie-cutter hotels and services that surprise them". Quirky touches that appeal to road warriors and digital nomads include pool tables in the lounge, a combined lobby-reception-bar-café concept, free bicycles to go exploring, Sunday "rehab" brunch, free wifi and mobile chargers at the bar. Each hotel is also in an up-and-coming neighbourhood so that it becomes a destination in itself.
Launching such a cutting-edge concept hasn't come without its challenges, especially in China where customers are used to traditional full-service five-star hotels.
"It's an educational process in the beginning, and customers don't get it immediately. But as travellers become more exposed and travel abroad things are changing. The younger generation really like it and enjoy it. It's a versatile hotel - it's for people who can afford to stay at a five star but who like our design, yet it also serves travellers looking for value. I don't want to define its star rating because it's so unique and flexible," she says.
Cheng has an aggressive expansion plan which will see the group open 80 Pentahotels by 2020. All this, she says, wouldn't be possible without the support of her family. "My father is savvy. I seek his advice when there are problems, but he gives me a free hand to run the company."
The Pentahotels ethos is a shift from the usual necessities of hotels that require spa facilities, high-tech gadgets and big names in the restaurants. Instead, Pentahotels offers a “neighbourhood lifestyle hotel”. Sonia Cheng, New World Hospitality’s chief executive, operator of the hotel says: “Pentahotels aims to keep road warriors grounded while on-the-go with distinctive design, a mix of fun with functionality, comfort with creativity, and style with simplicity.” Neri & Hu architectural design practice is behind the contemporary rustic décor. It used hardwoods, earth tones, brick walls, leather
club chairs and wool rugs. At the heart of the 307-room hotel is a multi-purpose lounge, a hub of casual relaxation that encourages guests to gather and chill out. Secured by the central bar, other areas lead off the lounge: a games area, noodle bar, and meeting rooms. The accommodation is New York loft style, designed to be cosy yet sleek. pentahotels.com
Loh Lik Peng
Singapore is better known for its good food rather than its hotels - but that changed when Loh Lik Peng stepped onto the scene. The 40-year-old entrepreneur revitalised the hotel scene in 2003 when he opened his first property, Hotel 1929, in a former red-light district. Since then he has established the Unlisted Collection featuring six hotels in off-the-radar neighbourhoods in locations including Shanghai and London. Each property has won numerous accolades including a mention in Condé Nast Traveller's Hot List and Architectural Heritage Awards.
All of this is even more impressive when you realise that Loh is a lawyer who became a hotelier by chance. "I fell into the business by accident - real estate doesn't run in the family and my parents are doctors. I never thought I'd become a hotelier but law wasn't much fun so I decided to restore this cute conservation building in what was then Chinatown's red light area. It was Singapore's first design-led boutique hotel and it did well. I never looked back after that."
Hotel 1929 was one of the first hotels in the city to embrace Singapore's classic shop-house design. Inside, Loh added his personal touches including vintage chairs from the likes of Joseph Hoffman and Eames, creating a cool mix of classic and retro.
Since then Loh has opened several properties in Singapore including New Majestic (also in Chinatown) and Wanderlust in Little India. For the 29-room Wanderlust, he commissioned four award-winning Singapore agencies to design rooms under whimsical themes such as Pantone colours. In 2010 he made a splash in Shanghai with The Waterhouse boutique hotel. In a former 1930s Japanese army headquarters, it features a sleek industrial design.
"Our hotels are one offs but they are always heritage buildings or buildings with character. I choose my projects when I fall in love with the building. They are often in unconventional areas. What matters is not so much the location but the building."
Of all his projects, he says Town Hall Hotel in London's East End (see breakout story) was the most challenging.
Next is a property in Sydney although it's all very hush-hush. No doubt it will be worth waiting for.
The former council town hall of Bethnal Green in East London re-opened in 2010 with a change in career. Loh Lik Peng’s beautiful conversion of the Grade II-listed building incorporates contemporary restructuring
that retains many of the original grand Edwardian features. He chose London-based Rare Architecture, headed by Michel da Costa Gonçalves and Nathalie Rozencwaijg, to translate the civic building into five-star luxury accommodation. The refined art-deco entrance hall’s sweeping marble staircase and glass-domed ceiling sashay guests into the enthralling experience that The Town Hall so gracefully translates. The Town Hall Hotel & Apartments’ 98 rooms and apartments are individually furnished and include original features with clean, contemporary “spatial furniture”. Designsavvy guests can take a guided tour with a member of the hotel’s team.
Another British institution alive and well in the Town Hall is the “Tea Lady” – going from room to room, she proffers expertly mixed martinis from her trolley. There’s a private chef who will cook you dinner in the comfort of your room. Such details make Loh’s properties ideal for the modern traveller looking for an experience that is beyond luxury. townhallhotel.com