AZ of Hospitality
No company handbook could ever list all the hospitality essentials that secure client loyalty. Amanresorts founder Adrian Zecha tells Charmaine Chan why.
“Amanjunkie” is one of those terms that stick. Describing repeat customers’ incurable addiction to the hotel brand that made quiet luxury irresistible, the phrase remains a badge of honour for 88-year-old Adrian Zecha. The Amanresorts founder is keen to set the record straight on its provenance, however. “Some people have said, ‘It was very clever of you to upgrade the idea of a junkie,’” he says, chuckling. “I don’t know who came up with it, but I’m grateful they did.”
Zecha’s attentiveness to client loyalty is clear as he recalls a conversation he’d had about the 30th anniversary of the first Aman hotel, Phuket’s Amanpuri, which opened in 1988. Explaining that guests were grouped as 10-ers, 11-ers, 12-ers, and so on, he says that the figures did not refer to the number of Aman hotels around the world they’d experienced. Rather, they correlated with the “unbroken” period of years in which they had stayed at one of the hotels. In 2018, despite having moved on to create other travel destinations for different brands, Zecha was still curious enough to ask the Thai resort: “How many 30-ers have there been?”
The receptionist’s happy response (“17!”) was his prize, he says, halfway through a video shoot for 2021’s Knowledge of Design Week. Because a pandemic-related lockdown in Singapore has curtailed filming locations, a skeleton crew records the interview in the airy living room of Zecha’s art-filled black-and-white house. Built during colonial times to accommodate European expats, the distinctive home was restored by Australian architect Kerry Hill (1943-2018), a “great friend” who also designed nine Amans, including the tower-top Aman Tokyo.
Halting production temporarily, a plane flying overhead allows reflection. For the first time since entering the world of hospitality five decades ago, the West Java-born former journalist and publisher has been unable to travel or to “walk the site”, as he calls his peripatetic work. In recent years such recces, to check out potential plots for transformation, have resulted in three Azerai resorts in Vietnam, including one in Can Tho, belonging to the affordable-luxury brand Zecha created after exiting Aman. Then there’s the Azumi Setoda, the Japanese flagship of his latest venture that opened early this year.
An updated 140-year-old merchant’s house, the ryokan, on a small island off Hiroshima prefecture, allowed Zecha to step back in time. “For me, it was a flashback to the Japan that I first encountered,” he says, recalling his posting to the country as a Time magazine trainee in 1956. “It was what a small village in Japan felt like.”
The 21st-century inn, designed by Shiro Miura, burnishes Zecha’s already lustrous reputation in the country. A meditation on harmony, it celebrates local culture while offering omotenashi, Japanese-style hospitality that extends beyond kindness and comfort. “You basically are a guest in the house of a friend,” he says. “The whole experience is created by your interplay with the ‘family’.”
That he is the father of the family is more than happenstance. Time and again during the Saturday-morning interview, dressed in a uniform of ivory on ivory, Zecha talks about warm service and its crucial role in hospitality. He also returns to important relationships and how they’ve been the bedrock of business. Ask him, for instance, what he was looking for in the architects who would chisel Aman into history and he talks not about their portfolios. Instead, he responds, “That there was a feeling of kinship.”
The initial architects – Hill and Ed Tuttle (1945-2020) among them – were still shaping their respective careers when they entered the fold, according to Zecha. “As I was,” he says, adding that in his “new profession” he learned from them, and vice versa, along the way.
“New”, however, is relative. In the early 1970s, Zecha, then based in Hong Kong, was one of the founders of Regent International Hotels. Subsequent ventures included the Rafael Hotel Group and Beaufort Hotels.
As with the Amans, their difference lay in the feeling each would impart. The effect, while palpable to patrons, was impossible to put into words, which is why, Zecha argues, there was never an attempt to create a company handbook listing the essential elements for success. “Where is the genuine willing to just do something nice for that person in that particular moment?” he asks. “Creating emotion – there is no rule for that.”
Covid-19 restrictions aside (and age notwithstanding), there seem to be few limits to Zecha’s enthusiasm for exploring the world, be it for Azerai or others. Already home to four Aman properties, China still excites his interest, he says, because it is “a wonderland” of culture, people and terrain.
The challenge in the world’s second-largest economy, however, will be to stand out. “You can’t just do the basics,” Zecha says, returning to the inherent drawbacks of any rule book.
To create a fixation, he insists, you have to inject that special something.
Any Amanjunkie would concur.
Charmaine Chan is the South China Morning Post Design Editor and author of Courtyard Living: Contemporary Houses of the Asia-Pacific, published by Thames & Hudson.