Cover Girish Jhunjhnuwala is changing the way travellers think about quarantine (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

How does a man go from watchmaking to running one of Hong Kong’s most successful hotel chains in just a decade? That’s a question for Girish Jhunjhnuwala, founder and CEO of the Ovolo Hotel Group

Quarantine is a feared experience for Hong Kong’s inbound travellers— unless they’re staying with the Ovolo Hotel Group, one of the hotel chains that has got it right. Since the Hong Kong government introduced mandatory hotel stays ranging between seven and 21 days late last year, Girish Jhunjhnuwala, Ovolo’s CEO and founder, has guided his group’s pivot to becoming one of the most popular choices for quarantiners.

Its quarantine package has set the benchmark for the type of service people expect when travelling back to Hong Kong; dedicated quarantine groups on Facebook and posts on TripAdvisor praise the hotel for virtual happy hours and Zoom exercises classes which have kept travellers sane throughout their isolation. “Ovolo is exceptional from the minute you check in. Food selections are great, the 4pm happy hour is an excellent idea, and the virtual yoga classes are a nice way to break the monotony,” reads one review. And there are hundreds more like it.

Hailing from the Indian state of Haryana, Jhunjhnuwala’s father laid down roots in Hong Kong and founded the Hind Group in 1953 which manufactured mass-market watches. Jhunjhnuwala, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, studied business at the University of California before returning to his home city and joining his elder brother Surya in the family business.

In 1988, he opened his first factory for the business in mainland China, but with the advent of smartphones, he felt time was running out for its products. “I remember seeing someone on the street using their mobile phone to find the time and I just knew we needed to call it a day,” the 58-year-old says. In 2002, he sold his factory and used the funds to make his way into the hospitality industry, buying his first building at 2 Arbuthnot Road in Central. Jhunjhnuwala converted the space into serviced apartments and ran that business model for eight years before trying his hand at hotels. In 2010, the Ovolo Hotel Group was born, and that first property purchase is today known as Ovolo Central.

 

From the start, Ovolo’s hallmark has been its customer-focused approach. “The whole idea started because of my travels around the world,” he says. “I started thinking about all the things I didn’t like about other hotels and all the things I would do away with. I didn’t like that the other hotels would nickel- and-dime their customers from the moment they walked through the door. That’s never a cool experience.” Ovolo, meaning “little egg”, also hints at the founder’s philosophy, too: “No two eggs are ever the same, and that’s how we treat our hotels,” Jhunjhnuwala says. Bold and colourful artwork lines the walls of each property, staff are friendly and unpretentious, and, even before the pandemic, the hotel prided itself on perks—from sundowner drinks, midnight treats from the minibar and complimentary breakfasts to 24-hour gym access and self-service laundry. “We like to do things differently and connect with our customers emotionally,” Jhunjhnuwala says.

Today, the entrepreneur owns 13 hotels: four in Hong Kong, eight across Australia and one in Bali, the latter two destinations stemming from a growing demand from tourists. “When we were expanding, we thought: who are the people that come and stay with us at our hotels in Hong Kong? Pre-Covid, Australia was the largest demographic: 24 per cent of our guests were from there. So, we went to Australia and it was a huge success. Now, 70 per cent of our business in Australia is domestic, so we must be doing something right,” he says.

In a global hospitality industry decimated by the pandemic, even the sturdiest of businesses has had to play things carefully. “There were no tourists arriving. It was terrible. We knew we had to think of something, and we had to be fast,” Jhunjhnuwala says. “We were very quick to get into the quarantine business, and we started even before the designated hotels scheme started. The government changes the rules very quickly and you must learn to adapt just as quickly. Being nimble has become part of our DNA.”

 

“Hong Kong residents need to be treated with dignity and I’m proud we get to do this”
Girish Jhunjhnuwala

Ovolo’s quarantine packages are designed to keep guests happy and healthy during their stay, with quality meals and exercise equipment, such as yoga mats and resistance bands, available to borrow for free. “We thought, how can we make their 21-day stays more fun and interesting?” Jhunjhnuwala says. Daily prizes are given for those who manage 10,000 steps a day. Also included are mindfulness kits, with adult colouring books, brain teasers and playing cards, and a special bottle of bubbles is delivered to the room once the stay is complete. Last February, the group partnered with local NGOs Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, The Zubin Foundation and Pathfinders to launch The Ovolo Homecoming Project, which offered HK$1 rooms for returning Hong Kong residents facing financial difficulties.

Once normal travel resumes, how will Jhunjhnuwala feel about his hotels’ association with quarantine? “I am very proud because we’re bringing our people home. Hong Kong residents need to be treated with dignity and I’m proud we get to do this,” he says. As for what’s next, Jhunjhnuwala is excited to travel to his hotels in Australia and resume expansion plans in Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and, eventually, Europe. “I can’t wait to travel again—and, of course, come back and quarantine at my own hotel,” he says.

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.