Singapore hotels go abroad

Singapore hotel groups are gaining ground worldwide with their chic boutique offerings

With or without a recognisable brand name, Singaporean boutique hotel groups are gaining ground overseas.

Award-winning Como Hotels & Resorts and restaurateur and hotelier Loh Lik Peng's Unlisted Collection group of restaurants and hotels both opened their first Australian properties this year - Como The Treasury in Perth in October and Mr Loh's The Old Clare in Sydney in September.

The Scarlet Singapore boutique hotel in Chinatown opened its second branch in San Francisco last year, and klapsons, The Boutique Hotel off Tanjong Pagar Road, launched serviced apartments in Bangkok last month.

Singaporean-owned hospitality group Cenizaro Hotels & Resorts will open its fifth hotel, in the Maldives, late next year. It will also open its first hotel in the region in Bintan next year.

Como Hotels & Resorts - which is the hospitality arm of The Como Group owned by Singaporean businesswoman Christina Ong - is the most internationally known brand of the bunch, with 13 hotels and resorts in destinations such as Bali, Turks & Caicos and Miami. Its first Como hotel, The Halkin in London, opened in September 1991.

Como properties are known for their understated luxurious style and holistic approach to wellness. The latest is Como The Treasury, housed in a converted 140-year-old state treasury building. The 48- room hotel targets business and leisure travellers.

Besides being in the business centre of the Western Australian capital, it is close to the popular wine regions of Swan Valley, a 20-minute drive, and Margaret River, a three- hour drive. Room rates start from A$595 (S$606) a night.

Like Como, Cenizaro has built its business on the reputation of its brand. The Residence by Cenizaro was one of the few luxury hotel brands in Africa when it opened its first hotel in Tunis in 1996.

The group, which is owned by Singapore-listed Bonvests Holdings investment holding company, now has four properties in Tunisia, Mauritius, Maldives and Zanzibar, with plans for another two hotels in Tunisia, set to open within the next few years. The five-star properties are a mix of villa, golf and beach resorts. Room rates start from €250 (S$385) a night.

The tourism and hospitality industry is still one of Africa's greatest but most under-invested assets, says the company's executive director Gary Xie, which is why it entered and expanded within that market over the years.

Cenizaro now has its sights set on Asia, where there are expanding economies and a newly affluent middle class. It will open The Residence Bintan, a 127-key resort which will feature a combination of beachfront villas and two-storey individual pavilions in Tanjung Pinang, in the island's south-west.

Mr Xie calls Bintan "the new Bali", thanks to the latest phase of development taking place in the north of the island, where a new international airport and two integrated resorts - Lagoi Bay and Treasure Bay Bintan - are being built. He says The Residence Bintan will complement the influx of new projects.

Instead of building on a recognisable brand name, Unlisted Collection's Mr Loh takes the opposite approach by building design-centric hotels with enough character to stand on their own.

None of his multi-award-winning hotels share the same name, for example. In Singapore, there are Hotel 1929, Wanderlust and New Majestic. In Shanghai, there is The Waterhouse at South Bund. In London, his two properties are called Town Hall Hotel and 196 Bishopsgate.

What they have in common is that all of them are housed in converted heritage buildings in vibrant neighbourhoods and have a local aesthetic. His latest, the 62- room The Old Clare, is a modern- industrial style update of two iconic heritage-listed buildings in Sydney, The Clare Hotel pub and the Carlton & United Breweries Administration Building.

The hotel opened in September in the Chippendale, one of the city's up-and-coming hipster arts districts with more than a dozen bars, restaurants, art galleries and studios nearby. Room rates start from A$279 a night.

Turning heritage buildings into hotels is also something Mr Fong Kah Seng, chief executive of home- grown hospitality consulting group Grace International, subscribes to. His firm was responsible for the branding and development of The Scarlet Singapore boutique hotel in Erskine Road in Chinatown.

He says that when a brand does not have a strong name or recogni- sable presence in a new destination, it helps to start in a heritage building. That is why last year, in San Francisco, the group chose to open its second hotel in an old building occupied by the former Huntington luxury hotel, which was built in 1924.

Grace International acquired the building in 2011 and renovated it for an eight-figure sum.

The result is The Scarlet Huntington, a showcase of Peranakan- inspired furniture in scarlet, gold, bright green and black. These are set against the hotel's original dark wood and old-world leather interiors. The opulent and at times over-the-top decor echoes that of The Scarlet Singapore, which was awarded Singapore's Leading Boutique Hotel at the World Travel Awards 2014.

The offbeat style seems to be working. The hotel, located in the exclusive Nob Hill neighbourhood, was recently named top San Francisco hotel in the 2015 Readers' Choice Awards of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Its occupancy is above 85 per cent. Room rates start from US$300 (S$422).

Mr Fong says the brand's success is due to the increasing number of travellers who prefer to be "surprised" and want to feel like they are "part of a distinctive experience rather than a typical cookie-cutter stay".

Naturally, those who have ventured overseas say there are challenges to building a successful hotel abroad.

Mr Loh says it is not an issue of branding, but rather one of learning the local laws and rules of business and establishing networks.

"When you enter a new destination, you are building everything - from management to staff, construction contractors, suppliers, even bank relationships - from scratch. It takes far more time than you think it will," he says.

He says he must trust the instincts of the local team of architects and designers he hires for each project. "They understand the local architecture, the culture, the context. I don't pass judgment on what they find relevant to them. We like to design for locals and work within the context of the neighbourhood. We do not want to build something that sticks out like a sore thumb."

Mr Fong agrees that it is important to "have empathy for local sentiments", particularly if the hotel is in a heritage and conserved building.

Despite the high stakes in the hospitality industry, one home- grown boutique hotel group, klapsons, has chosen to diversify. In 2013, when the group's owner, real estate management firm and developer Jit Sun Investments, acquired majority shares in Raimon Land Company, a real estate developer in Thailand, it was a good opportunity to expand the klapsons brand.

But with competition from room- sharing platforms such as Airbnb and a saturated hotel market in Bangkok, klapsons decided to open klapsons The River Residences to offer short-term serviced apartments and apartments for long- term rent. It is located in the five-star hotel belt by the Chao Phraya River. Rates start from 2,933 baht (S$114) a night for a minimum of a 30-night stay.

One month in, the occupancy for The River Residences Bangkok is at 50 per cent. Mr Alex Loh, its managing director, says expanding a boutique hotel's footprint overseas remains a challenge.

He says that boutique hotels distinguish themselves through "individuality, styled accommodation and thoughtful personalised service", which are to some extent "intangibles".

"With these hard-to-define intangibles," he says, "it is certainly not an easy task to find a scalable business model that maintains the right mix of localisation and standardisation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore hotels go abroad'. Print Edition | Subscribe