3 Industry Insiders on What it’s Like to Open a Luxury Resort in Asia During a Pandemic
This September, Banyan Tree will be opening the first Banyan Tree Escape in Bali in a secluded spot in Ubud. Dubbed Buahan, Banyan Tree Escape, its "no walls, no doors" concept comprises only 16 villas and a zero-waste philosophy designed to deliver a sustainable yet immersive holiday experience in the rejuvenating embrace of untouched nature.
About 20 minutes away in the coastal town of Sanur, Andaz opened its first property in Bali in April. The Hyatt-branded hotel features a rustic contemporary design with a Village Square dedicated to cultural experiences.
Ritz-Carlton can finally boast of an address in Maldives with the opening of The Ritz-Carlton Maldives Fari Islands. Located in the North Malé atoll, it has 100 villas set above the crystal clear ocean or along the beach, designed by Kerry Hill Architects. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh welcomed Wink Hotel Saigon Centre, which holds the highest certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, Gold v4 in Vietnam. The Vietnamese hip hotel is located in one of the most vibrant parts of the city, perfect for the urban explorer with an eco-conscious mindset.
As exciting as all these sound, it's almost unfathomable to think that they were launched or will be opening during a pandemic when leisure travel restrictions are still very much in place. They may feed our already pent-up desire to travel but we can't yet plan a visit to any of these destinations.
So who are they opening for? Most likely domestic tourists. How long is that sustainable? And what is the long-term outlook for these brand new vacation abodes?
We check in with Renyung Ho, vice president, Brand HQ of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts; Mark Hehir, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Maldives Fari Islands; and Michael Piro, CEO of Wink Hotels for their thoughts.
More than a year into the pandemic, what’s your assessment of Covid-19’s impact on travel and tourism?
Renyung Ho of Banyan Tree (RH) Although international travel borders remain mostly closed, we have seen encouraging upward trends in hotel occupancies for domestic travel, which will continue to be a key segment of growth. At the same time, amidst the measured recovery, we see pent-up demand for international travel as borders aim to gradually re-open at a cautious pace.
We firmly believe that opportunities exist even in this time. With an increasing shift towards purposeful tourism centred on green choices, personal growth and wellbeing, brand offerings must now fulfil people's desire to live better.
Mark Hehir of Ritz-Carlton (MH) The Maldives is a luxury destination that has been performing extremely well during the current pandemic. We've been observing a strong recovery and confidence in the tourism industry. The island nation offers a natural social distancing in the resorts, with most communal areas being outdoors. The outlook is positive, and as other countries start relaxing their border and quarantine policies, we are confident that demand for the destination will surge.
Michael Piro of Wink Hotels (MP) Vietnam’s handling has been commendable. The response here was quick and people really abided by healthy and safety instructions. The government closed borders on March 22, 2020, so inevitably travel and tourism took a major hit. Vietnam’s tourism growth depended on short haul markets like China, South Korea and Japan. With those gone, the five-star segment was especially badly hit.
The lockdown was fortunately short-lived but like many other businesses here, we were pushed to focus more on the domestic market. Hospitality had to diversify. Industry players had to be more creative with their products in a shifting market. We threw a pyjama party to celebrate the launch of the first Wink Hotel with DJs and performers and pillow fights in the lobby.
By the end of June and into July, the number of domestic airline travellers was up 20 per cent from the previous year. During national holidays, occupancy exceeded 80 per cent and it stayed around 60 per cent on normal weekends. So we’ve reason to be confident about the recovery here.
How are you able to expand during such a difficult time?
RH (Banyan Tree's) diversified portfolio of hotels, resorts, spas, galleries, golf and residences defines an ecosystem of five award-winning brands (Banyan Tree, Angsana, Cassia, Dhawa and Laguna) under our Group, with four more brands in development for launch this year. Despite the downturn in overall tourism, we opened three new properties and signed 20 new hotel management agreements across all our brands (including our new brands) in 2020. This multi-branded strategy allows us to expand laterally, providing us with a diversified revenue stream and expansion at a Group level. In 2020 alone, our essential spa products boomed with an 80 per cent growth in e-commerce sales. Also, residential sales continue to be strong, where investments are not dependent on open borders.
With current border closures, we will be focusing on the domestic market while creating greater international awareness on the new meaning of "Escape" with Banyan Tree. Concerning guests' quarantine requirements, the resort presents an open experience with naturally distanced surroundings to unwind, reflect and disconnect. In addition, through our social campaigns and resort giveaway contests, we hope to truly inspire our guests to dream now, book now and travel later.
MH The border policies (in Maldives) are very relaxed; there have been challenges during the development phase of the resort due to the global movement in hiring our Ladies & Gentlemen (the terms used by the resort for their internal team) and getting products and supplies on time. However, we're now in a comfortable position. The solution was by adapting and thinking ahead of time. Comprehensive planning, communication, and teamwork are key to successfully open a resort, especially in this business climate.
MP We’re taking the long term view; Wink Hotel Saigon Centre is the first of 20 hotels. Right now there’s a dozen in the pipeline and four in construction with the two properties in Danang opening next. Generally, in downtime, we stay busy studying and acquiring greenfield locations, refining our operations and fine-tuning our talents.
With travel still largely uncertain, why is this good time to open a new property?
RH Our brands emphasise wellbeing and nature-focused offerings, a dimension of hospitality that is part of Banyan Tree's DNA. We believe that this will be particularly relevant post-pandemic, as travellers increasingly seek out purposeful and healthful experiences that connect them to nature and the environment.
Banyan Tree Escape in Ubud will pioneer a signature "no walls, no doors" experience throughout the property and in each of its 16 villas. The distinct indoor-outdoor living offers a sanctuary for urban detox, self-introspection and emotional awareness in privacy. Combining deep nature and sustainable design, we also reinvent the basics of food, sleep and in-resort interaction. We aim to bring travellers on a renewal through immersion in nature. In addition, we feel there is a need for opportunities to disconnect and reconnect again in unfamiliar ways after being in our homes for so long. It is a chance to gain a new perspective on life as we look to the future.
MP We want Wink to be a lifestyle movement, so the sooner we could set about building the brand and our community the better. Besides, many of the design and tech-driven features fit perfectly in these challenging times. We have space for social distancing, contactless payment and mobile check-in.
In your opinion, what must be done for tourism to recover?
RH For tourism to take flight again, vaccination of the Balinese population is paramount to ensure the community's safety. The vaccination target of at least 70 per cent must be achieved in order to kick-start international tourism. With the Phuket Sandbox's launch to quarantine-free travel in July, this model may become a viable strategy for island destinations in Asia like Bali to follow and open its borders to global visitors. With Bali's ever-strong appeal as a vacation hotspot, we look forward with confidence to its re-opening.
MH Look at markets that can travel now, with an eye on those that traditionally travel to the destination and are opening up, along with the new markets that may not travel to this destination before but now see us as an option . We must remain open-minded. The travel industry will need to ensure their products and services have been refreshed, then curated to inspire our guests. Quality in all aspects of the various offerings, from product, service and innovation, will be paramount. Second, a clear active communication targeting specific markets (affluent tribes) that focus on the emotional connections to trigger the decision to travel safely to the destination and return home with dreams and memories.
MP We're really focused on working with local partners to curate experiences that go beyond a bed for the night, ones that motivate people to travel again. For example, at Wink, you can learn to brew the perfect cup of Vietnamese arabica, sweat it out on a fitness bootcamp, or explore the modernist architectural gems on our doorstep.
How will travel and staying in hotels change following the Covid-19 pandemic?
RH The pandemic's widespread impact has underscored the importance of wellbeing and sustainability, and how the two are interlinked. Consumer surveys have shown that over 75 per cent of consumers will choose to live healthier lifestyles, positively impacting our shared environmental wellbeing. As such, every brand needs to think about how they truly contribute to the lives of their customers.
For Banyan Tree Group, re-centring on wellbeing and sustainability positions us to benefit from the growing interest in how self, others, and nature interconnect. Our name and founding DNA makes this a natural pivot for us. Our entire ecosystem of brand experiences will feature wellbeing elements by offering nature-oriented environments, plant-based menu options and sustainable lifestyle practices.
MH People are already seeking a more meaningful and sustainable travel experience. Long stays are increasing as travel has truly become such a luxury these days, especially after strict lockdowns in many countries. Guests are opting more for nature-based experiences and adventures. Our guests enjoy dining outside more than ever; they enjoy doing extreme watersports, discovering new experiences and completely immersing in the destination. Wellness, health and sustainability are on the rise. Now more than ever, people are conscious about their lifestyle choices.