Singaporeans striking out as lodging owners abroad

What do a luxury hotel in Chiang Mai, a guesthouse in Busan and a ski lodge in Hakuba have in common? Singaporean owners with no hospitality experience, but lots of gumption

Former civil servant Jasmine Tan, 37, never imagined she would be a luxury hotel owner one day.

"I thought my husband and I would be 'normal' salaried workers," she says.

In 2015, they successfully opened an all-suites luxury hotel, Akyra Manor Hotel, in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

"My husband and I have never been in the hospitality industry. When we opened, I thought to myself, 'We did it,'" she says.

Her husband, Mr John Lim, 39, is also a former civil servant turned entrepreneur. He is the founder and chief executive of Manor Group, a hospitality investment, development and management firm. Ms Tan is the group's executive director.

There are other Singaporeans like them, who overcome language and cultural barriers and invest their savings to strike out on their own as independent lodging owners abroad.

Tucked away in the Japanese Alps is a Singaporean- owned ski lodge in the village of Hakuba. It belongs to Ms Jane Killick, 29.

In the city of Busan in South Korea, Mr Glynsen Wong, 33, co-owns a boutique guesthouse with his Korean wife.

Travel industry experts say they have seen a business trend in Singaporeans developing and investing in hotel projects overseas.

Mr Mark Wong, vice-president for the Asia-Pacific region at Small Luxury Hotels Of The World, says the profit margin in running a luxury boutique hotel with less than 100 keys here is relatively slim - a result of escalating costs in real estate, construction and human resources.

Small Luxury Hotels Of The World is a third-party hotel-booking website and it represents 520 small hotels dotted across 80 countries.

In Mr Wong's opinion, this cost issue, coupled with a "saturated" hotel scene here, is leading entrepreneurial Singaporeans to venture into developing markets such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

"There are many more lucrative hotel development opportunities outside Singapore that provide better and quicker returns on investment," he says.

He has also noticed that many of these entrepreneurs eschew the common and strive to develop hotels that "embrace the independent hotel blueprint" by creating innovative accommodation designs and concepts.

For instance, Akyra Manor, a member of Small Luxury Hotels Of The World, has an exterior facade that pays tribute to Chiang Mai's old city wall. The crumbled brickwork survives in varying states throughout the city's old quarter.

Mr Lim says: "My design philosophy is that the property must be iconic. It cannot have the usual fixtures. You need to spoil the guests a little for them to remember your property."

Experts note that the popularity of these independent properties is bolstered by today's travellers, who are increasingly looking for new and unique experiences, and do not want to stay in cookie-cutter hotels.

Mr Wong says: "Travellers are looking at hotels more like travel destinations than just heads-on-beds options. They are looking for the authenticity that independent hotels are able to curate for them."

Both Mr Glynsen Wong and Ms Killick say guests enjoy their stays because their properties are unique and have personal touches.

For instance, photographs of Singapore, taken by Mr Wong, decorate the walls in his guesthouse, Morning Dew.

Ms Cindy Liew, 32, a digital designer in an IT firm, is a Singaporean who found out about the guesthouse in Busan through social media and stayed there last week.

She says she could see how the photographs showcase the owner's background and they reminded her of home.

The properties may differ in aesthetics, size and type, but what is constant is the entrepreneurial derring-do and go-getting attitude of the owners profiled here who, amazingly, do not have experience in hospitality.

Mr Wong says: "I'm glad to have chosen this path. I hope to look back on this some years down the road and tell my children, 'In life, that's what you have to do sometimes - give it a shot and do your best.'"



The facade of Chiang Mai’s Akyra Manor Hotel, owned by Mr John Lim (above), pays tribute to the Thai city’s
old wall. He co-owns The Edison in Penang. PHOTOS: BEER SINGNOI, THE EDISON GEORGE TOWN, PENANG

Hotel owner zealous about good service
 

Mr John Lim, 39, owns Akyra Manor Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He co-owns two properties - in George Town, Penang, and Kyoto, Japan

He is a self-declared "very chiong" (Hokkien slang for going all out) person, a description that covers anything from his daily schedule to his list of accomplishments.

In 2011, Mr Lim founded Manor Group, a hospitality investment, development and management firm.

Less than six years later, the Singaporean owns a luxury hotel in Thailand and co-owns two properties in Japan and Malaysia.

"There is always something that John wants to do," says Mr Lim's wife, Jasmine Tan, 37, who works with him as the executive director of Manor Group. The couple, based in Singapore, have three daughters aged 12, 10 and six.

Mr Lim sleeps between four and five hours a day, and travels several times a month for work. He aims to launch more properties abroad and expansion plans for his current properties are well under way.

Despite a busy life, he is committed to being warm, personable and service-oriented.

"I like to please people. The spirit and willingness to serve has always been in me. I get very irritated by poor service," he says.

When he was 18, he wanted to go to a butler school overseas.

"I'm serious. I wanted to learn how to be a professional servant."

His parents said no, so he decided to leverage on his good grades in A-level chemistry and graduated with a biotechnology degree from London's Imperial College.


The facade of Chiang Mai’s Akyra Manor Hotel (above), owned by Mr John Lim, pays tribute to the Thai city’s old wall. He co-owns The Edison in Penang. PHOTOS: BEER SINGNOI, THE EDISON GEORGE TOWN, PENANG

He then worked in the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) for about four years and spent another four years in the civil service before deciding it was time to fulfil his entrepreneurial ambitions in hospitality.

His first venture saw him plough all $10 million of his savings - he had made money from small-scale property development and stock- market investments - into building a luxury hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

He had noticed an upswing in tourist numbers in the city, which was fast gentrifying.

Akyra Manor Hotel (www.theakyra.com/chiang-mai) opened its doors four years later, in October 2015. The 30-key, all-suites luxury hotel was designed around a courtyard-in-a-room concept and has "quirky, whimsical touches".

These include statement decor such as unicorns with candles in place of their horns and an elephant that looks like it is floating above the hotel's swimming pool.

The hotel sits in an area filled with cafes and eateries. Guests can also easily head to golf courses, markets, and nature trails from the hotel.

Mr Lim says the hotel is profitable and enjoys high occupancy rates of about 80 per cent.

It is ranked No. 3 on travel planning and booking site TripAdvisor, out of 374 hotels in Chiang Mai. Room rates start at 8,900 baht (S$357) a night.

In April last year, Manor Group bought the land next to the hotel and is planning an extension that is slated to open late next year.

Meanwhile, Mr Lim has forged partnerships with several individuals and is the co-owner of boutique hotel The Edison in George Town, Penang, and serviced accommodation Shimaya Stays in Kyoto, Japan.


The facade of Chiang Mai’s Akyra Manor Hotel, owned by Mr John Lim, pays tribute to the Thai city’s old wall. He co-owns The Edison (above) in Penang. PHOTO: THE EDISON GEORGE TOWN, PENANG

His vision is for his company to attain excellence in hospitality management and development, and to manage hotels for other owners in the next two to three years.

"I'm a very 'chiong' person. And I'm having fun," he says.


Korean guesthouse built from scratch


Morning Dew Guesthouse. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF GLYNSEN WONG

Mr Glynsen Wong, 33, co-owns a boutique guesthouse in Busan, South Korea, with his wife

He thinks of it as "a journey into the unknown" and still has fears that things may not work out.

In 2015, Mr Wong gave up his job as a junior college economics teacher in Singapore and left with his wife to start a boutique guesthouse in Busan, South Korea.

"It would have been easy to just continue with my job and with life in Singapore, but I would have lived the rest of my life not knowing what it would have been like to live in Busan and make a living another way," he says.

He first visited the city on a solo trip in December 2012. The initial plan to stay just three days became a week because he was "intrigued" by the second-largest city in South Korea.

"The old and new, nature and cityscapes all blended into one," he says.

A thought crossed his mind: This was where he could set up a guesthouse and stay for a while.

"But I wasn't about to just leave my life behind in Singapore on a whim," he says.

The thought was banished until 2013, when he met the woman who became his wife - Ms Park Yiseul, now 28. The South Korean was then working in Singapore in the hospitality industry.

As they dated, Mr Wong shared his idea of setting up a guesthouse in Busan.

"She completely supported my dream, so much so that it became her dream as well," says Mr Wong.

The couple married in 2015 and moved to Busan immediately after their wedding and honeymoon.

After about three months, they found and bought a piece of land in a location they were pleased with. They also found an architectural firm to build their guesthouse, while they continued living in rented premises.

It took about a year to construct the building, which boasts "seven large guestrooms, huge windows and panoramic views of Busan", says Mr Wong, who speaks basic Korean.

Morning Dew Guesthouse (morningdewguesthouse.com) is named after his wife - "yiseul" means "dew" in Korean.

Room rates start at 70,000 won (S$87) a room on weekdays and 80,000 won a room on weekends.

Travellers can easily get to various attractions around Busan, such as Nampo-dong shopping street and Taejeongdae Lighthouse, as the guesthouse is a five-minute walk to the main high-speed railway station and its connecting subway station.

The couple received their first guest - a Chinese student studying in South Korea - a month after their hotel opened in November last year.

"It was great to have our first customer, but it was a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, I thought, 'Yes! We finally have some income.' But we also know it will go towards paying the loans," says Mr Wong.

The couple sank in their savings - a six-figure sum - and took out a mortgage on their guesthouse.

They are glad for the positive reviews on their guesthouse so far. Guests have left comments appreciating the architectural and interior design of the modern property, its spaciousness and the city views they get.

The experience has been humbling, says Mr Wong.

"From an ex-teacher, I've become part architect, part interior designer, part construction worker, part network installer, part electrician and now full-time head janitor."

In Singapore, he had neither helped much with household chores nor cleaned his family's toilets, but he does these things for the guesthouse now.

The couple welcomed their first child - a baby girl - earlier this year, which means housekeeping has become a more challenging task.

"Two people cleaning a room takes less than half the time that one person needs. With a baby around, only one of us can be cleaning the rooms at any time," says Mr Wong.

They do not have any staff, but may hire cleaning help if things get busier at the guesthouse.

It is not all work and no play, though.

Mr Wong says being his own boss has allowed him time to pursue his interests.

He goes to the local rock-climbing gym several times a week and the avid photographer is also contemplating converting parts of the building into a studio to showcase his photographic works.

To him, the most valuable thing about running his own business is the freedom to "participate fully" in the growth and development of his daughter.

With fatherly pride, he says: "My little girl will begin her life's journey from this house into the world."


Feeling warm and fuzzy in a ski lodge in Japan


Ms Jane Killick fell in love with this property in Hakuba and turned it into a ski lodge with six rooms. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JANE KILLICK

Ms Jane Killick, 29, owns a ski lodge in Hakuba, Japan

She could scarcely speak Japanese and knew no one when she decided to buy a property in the village of Hakuba in Japan.

All that convinced Ms Killick to go ahead was the belief that she could leave Singapore and live there.

"I love everything about nature. When I am in Hakuba, I love the beautiful nature and 'localness' of the place. I feel so calm," she says.

Hakuba is a village in the Japanese Alps, just outside Nagano city. The popular Japanese ski destination is a four-hour journey by rail and bus from Haneda Airport.

Ms Killick, a Singaporean of British-Chinese parentage, was travelling solo when she first visited Hakuba in August 2014.

She spent 10 days there and found a property agent who showed her a cosy house that was for sale.

She knew that was the place for her when she experienced the warmth of her neighbours and felt "safe and comfortable" in the property, which has a little garden.

Despite having no hospitality experience - she had worked in marketing - she envisioned converting the place into a ski lodge.

After the purchase, her first challenge was paperwork. "I don't own a house or a car in Singapore, so all this was new to me. I felt as though I finally had independence, like I was growing up," she says.

After she set building plans in motion, she took up an intensive basic Japanese-language course in Singapore.

She moved to Hakuba in August 2015 and her steep learning curve continued. She worked part-time at a hotel in Hakuba and stayed in its staff accommodation while waiting for her room in the lodge to be ready. With many tasks to complete, she rushed around and was "too busy to eat" at times.

She moved into the lodge in October last year and renovations concluded the following month, about 1 1/2 years after they began.

She recalls being "so emotional" the day she put up her lodge sign, which was designed by a friend. The lodge received its first guests - from Japan, China and Spain - in December.

Designed to be "your home away from home", Ms Killick had the lodge done up in earthy tones to help guests feel at home and relaxed after a day on the slopes.

Each of the six rooms has a light Japanese touch, with origami art handmade by a friend in Singapore.

A typical day sees her preparing breakfast for the guests and chatting with them about where they want to ski or snowboard.

The lodge is across from a shuttle bus stop, which takes skiers to most of the ski slopes.

Ms Killick works alone to complete a list of to-dos, including housekeeping, checking on bookings, clearing snow and bringing in firewood. Sometimes, she gets to snowboard for about an hour.

Her boyfriend helped out during her opening season and she is looking to hire staff for next winter.

The response to her lodge, which is open only between December and March, has been very good, she says, despite it being new and having no reviews.

Listed on her website, www.uchimaruhakuba.com and one other booking website, the lodge was fully booked for most of the recently concluded ski season.

Room rates start at 7,500 yen (S$94) a person a night.

Ms Killick will be maintaining the lodge from now until the next season and may take on part-time jobs.

Most of Hakuba goes into rest mode after the ski season. Then in summer, Japanese tourists return for water rafting, hiking and mountain biking.

Ms Killick is encouraged to be getting reservations from last season's guests as well as a stream of new bookings for the upcoming season.

"It makes me so happy to have return guests," she says.

She has spent a low six-figure sum on her lodge to date - comprising personal savings and financial help from her family, who have been supportive of her decision.

"I couldn't be more thankful for my family members. They are happy that I am doing what I enjoy," she says.

"Some days, I do wonder if I have made the right choice, but hearing from guests that they loved their stay here warms my heart and gives me the confidence to keep going."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'Singaporeans striking out as lodging owners abroad'. Print Edition | Subscribe