It may be difficult to imagine now, but when The Peninsula hotel opened in Hong Kong, in 1928, it was laughed off as a white elephant in which nobody would stay. So recalls the late Lawrence Kadoorie, son of the hotel’s founder, Elly Kadoorie, in archive footage belonging to the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels company. Despite The Pen having been designed as “the finest hotel east of Suez”, as far as the well-heeled international passengers disembarking from ships in the harbour were concerned, “the Kowloon side certainly did not have much prestige”, adds Lawrence Kadoorie . The Peninsula, of course, proved those naysayers wrong, and its name has gone on to become one of the most recognised hotel brands in the world. As have others that were born in Hong Kong, or now call the city home. The first overseas Peninsula outpost opened in the Philippines in 1976, and there are now 10 hotels bearing the name in Asia, Europe and the United States. Next year will see Peninsulas open in London, England, and Istanbul, Turkey. Another Hong Kong hotel to have spawned a successful international chain is The Mandarin, which opened on the Central waterfront in 1963. Eleven years later, as part of a wider expansion, the owners bought The Oriental hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, and the Mandarin Oriental brand was born. “It was love at first sight, a veritable coup de foudre ,” the late Giorgio Berlingieri, then owner of The Oriental, wrote in his memoirs. “They were expanding the Mandarin into the leading international hotel chain in Southeast Asia, and The Oriental matched their requirements for Thailand. Here was the partner we had been searching for.” How Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel came to be Expansion spread from Asia in 1987, with the opening of a Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, in the US, which was followed by a London hotel in the mid-1990s. The MO now has 36 properties across Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. Hotels in Dallas, in the US; Tel Aviv, Israel; Lake Luzern, Switzerland; and Costa Navarino, Greece, are in the pipeline, as are a boutique property in Mayfair, London, and a private island resort in the Maldives. Proving that Hong Kong’s can-do spirit is thriving in the 21st century is Ovolo . Having opened its first property in 2010, in Central, the boutique brand now boasts six hotels in Australia to go with its four in Hong Kong. Ovolo has “ongoing growth in Australia and New Zealand plus more projects being considered across Asia”, says founder and CEO Girish Jhunjhnuwala. “We also have eyes set on growth across Europe.” As well as those that were conceived in the city, several hospitality brands have found success after having moved here. Now headquartered in Hong Kong, Shangri-La opened its first hotel in Singapore 50 years ago. “Our Hong Kong story began in 1981, when our Kowloon Shangri-La hotel [opened],” says Shangri-La group chief executive Lim Beng Chee. “We have always believed in the potential of Hong Kong. Since then, we have witnessed [the] tremendous growth of Hong Kong and opened three more hotels in this city. “In five decades we have grown our portfolio to over 100 properties in 77 destinations globally, but Asia remains our home and our inspiration.” Upcoming Shangri-La openings include those in Kyoto, Japan; Melbourne, Australia; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Nanning and Shenzhen, in China; and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Founded in the US, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts was bought by Hong Kong’s New World Hospitality in 2011 . Since then, the Rosewood Hotel Group, as it was rebranded, has expanded swiftly. In 2014, it opened the first Rosewood property in Asia – the Rosewood Beijing – followed by one in Hong Kong. “When we acquired Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, people were aware of the brand in North America but not globally,” says Radha Arora, president and co-chief development officer. “There were 19 hotels in eight countries at the time. Today, we have 29 hotels, resorts and residences in 17 countries, with 24 new properties under development.” So what is it that makes Hong Kong fertile ground for the growth of hospitality brands? “Hong Kong is strategically located in the centre of Asia and acts as a financial and trading hub operating as a bridge between China and the rest of the world,” says Brett Butcher, CEO of the Langham Hospitality Group, another high-profile brand now associated with the city. “This makes [it a] great city from which to build a world-class organisation.” Hong Kong’s Great Eagle Holdings acquired London hotel the Langham in 1996. “At the time, this was the only Langham in the world, but with its heritage as Europe’s first grand hotel a vision was born to build this into the globally recognised luxury hospitality brand,” says Butcher. There are now Langham hotels across China and Asia-Pacific, Europe, the US and the Middle East. The Langham Jakarta, the brand’s first property in Southeast Asia, opened last year and a Gold Coast, Australia hotel is due to open this year. Hotels in Venice, Italy; Tokyo, Japan; and San Francisco are in the pipeline. “And as a Chinese company headquartered in Hong Kong it would be natural to secure more deals in first- and important second-tier cities in China,” says Butcher. He suggests another advantage of the Langham group’s hometown: “Hong Kong has one of the best talent pools in Asia, full of motivated, hard-working, smart and well-educated people that are cognisant of both global and China trends. We can’t ask for more.” Also under the Great Eagle umbrella is Eaton Workshop, another young Hong Kong hotel brand with international reach. The group was rebranded in 2017, the name Eaton Hotels being changed to reflect its new concept: part hotel, part creative space, with an ethical mission. Apart from the Eaton HK (formerly the Eaton Hotel), on Nathan Road, Jordan, there’s so far just one other Eaton – that in Washington DC, in the US – but further openings are on the way. “We are in the planning stages for Seattle [in the US] and Toronto [Canada], and have plans to expand worldwide,” says Eaton Workshop founder and president Katherine Lo Bo-lun . “One of my goals is to open properties in cities where communities will particularly benefit from having Eaton’s offerings that foster social and environmental impact, and the arts.” Lo sees Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan population as being a vital ingredient for a successful home-grown hotel chain. “A big inspiration for Eaton HK was the local and international perspectives and communities I engaged with growing up. “This city has held so much cultural and business significance as one of the world’s most exciting gateway hubs. Not only is Hong Kong an attractive place to raise capital, it was the perfect launching pad to source diverse talent. “There is simply no place like Hong Kong.” Why do hotels smell so good and who creates that ‘signature scent’? Ovolo describes itself as a “proud Hong Kong brand” and both The Peninsula and Shangri-La chains emphasise the “taking of Hong Kong and Asia to the world”. And it’s a strong sell given the high standards of hospitality in the city. “We hope to bring forth the best of Asian culture wherever we go,” says Lim. “It is not necessarily about designing a space that feels Asian but sharing cultural traditions with our guests. “There is no better compliment than a guest saying that they have had the best Chinese meal at Shangri-La Paris, or telling us that out of all the gourmet meals they have had in London, they most enjoyed the fried rice at Shangri-La The Shard.” Less than a century after the Kadoorie family opened their “white elephant” in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong hotels are among the finest to the west of Suez, as well as to the east.