Trade Talk: Charles Yap of ONYX Hospitality Group

Headquartered in Bangkok, ONYX has been growing its footprint across the Asia-Pacific region through hotel and serviced residence brands such as Amari, OZO, and Shama. The company’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications tells us about the upcoming Saffron Collection and how ONYX is tapping into domestic markets amid the pandemic.

Photo: Courtesy of Charles Yap

What’s the situation in Thailand right now?

Being based in Bangkok, we are pretty fortunate. We’ve been Covid-free locally for at least 80 days now, meaning no local transmissions. Of course there are those who come in from overseas and test positive while in quarantine, but other than that, it’s almost too good to be true. There are no local transmissions, no infections across the whole of Thailand. Life here is almost back to normal: offices are running at 100 percent occupancy, and there are no more safe distancing markers on the transit systems, on the BTS. There are black-tie gala events in hotel ballrooms now; the only thing that’s missing is international visitors. Thailand’s still not open to the rest of the world, which is very tricky, especially for those of us in the hotel business. We thrive on having people flying freely in and out, but that’s not happening.

 

How are occupancy rates at ONYX hotels within Thailand?

Those hotels that have a serviced apartment component are doing well, because many of the residents or expats never quite checked out. Thailand is seen as a safe haven, so some people—some visitors as well—decided to stay on. And then around July and August, we started opening up our hotels in places like Pattaya, Hua Hin, and Bang Saen, which are all driving distance from Bangkok, with the hope that we could get some staycation business. Because companies are allowed to resume meetings or training sessions offsite, and also small-scale conferences, we are getting certain company functions during work days. So those are coming back, which also means that slowly, we’re starting to see a balance between occupancy levels on weekends and weekdays.

When it comes to places like Phuket and Samui, those destinations are traditionally very dependent on international visitors. On both islands we have two different hotels: we’ve got Amari, which is full-service, and then we have the more midscale OZO. So, we’ve decided to open Amari in September for locals and expats who can fly in, and then we will open our OZO properties in December, hoping that by then there could either be some spillover from the domestic market or a bit of regional traffic coming in.

An interior detail of one of OZO Phuket’s 255 guest rooms. (Photo: ONYX Hospitality Group)

How has the pandemic changed your marketing strategy?

What we are focusing on a lot more is domestic marketing and PR, but that’s not to say that we are totally ignoring the international long-haul markets. While we understand long-haul travel isn’t happening yet, we’re still doing some messaging to keep the interest alive. Of course, as with any hotel company, our PR agency budgets are going to be slashed. So, in the past where we had agencies in the U.K. and Germany, we don’t really have that now, or if we do have them it’s on what I call “low-power” mode. Having said that, we still try to do as much as we can and engage on our own.

And even at this time we do have hotels that are opening. For example, we have an OZO Penang that’s scheduled to open in September, so with that our entire engagement and marketing plan is focused on domestic travelers. Right now, flights within Malaysia are still possible, and we’re identifying the key source markets: we know it’s Penang, it’s KL, so it’s working with the right travel writers and influencers within those places to get the word out. Since long-haul group press trips are not possible, everything is really focused on who is living nearby and who we can invite to our properties, to show how life still goes on in the hotel but with the right measures in place.

Poolside at Amari Koh Samui, which is reopening next month. (Photo: ONYX Hospitality Group)

What has ONYX been doing to reassure guests about their health and safety?

Just like any hotel group, we have our own enhanced guidelines when it comes to safety and hygiene. All the high-touch areas in the rooms and the restaurants—like the backs of chairs—are being frequently sanitized, but it’s also about communicating our hygiene practices, and how we’ve done everything possible to give our guests the safest environment. We created the ONYX Clean program back in May, and it’s something that we introduced in every hotel. It’s still in place even in Bangkok, where there are no [local] cases. Our guidance to hotels is, “no matter where you are, stay within that level. When it’s time to relax those restrictions, we will let you know.”

 

What changes have been made to the dining experience? Are buffets still available?

When it comes to the breakfast, the buffet is still there, but we’ve changed the presentation by portioning things out in an easier-to-take format. We still do self-service with limited numbers of guests approaching the table, and of course we make sure that hand sanitization is being done. In many cases, it’s assisted buffet service, meaning that you tell our team members what you wish for and they go get it for you. And when occupancy is lower, it’s not a buffet but an à la carte arrangement. We want to have an element of safety, but there still has to be an element of fun. So, at the beachfront restaurant in Amari Hua Hin, rather than doing a big barbecue, everybody gets their own hot stone slab and takes charge of their own barbecuing.

Amaya Café, the lobby lounge at Amari Johor Bahru. (Photo: ONYX Hospitality Group)

With international travel still some way off, how is ONYX diversifying its sources of revenue?

Like many hotel groups, we’re looking at converting some of our guest rooms into offices for day use. Obviously, that doesn’t work in every location—in places like Bangkok that might work, and we are testing that out. Another example is the Amari in Johor Bahru, which is traditionally a place to go for meetings, but those aren’t quite happening in Malaysia just yet. So now the hotel is positioning itself as a hub for the arts and culture; we’ve been inviting local artists to come in and run workshops to showcase their creativity. Our thinking was, how can we create a place for locals to drop in, have a meal, relax with a bit of art—whether it’s a painting workshop or some kind of local performance—with everything done safely, in small numbers, and having the distancing in place? It might be seen as slightly different, but we are doing anything to get business while creating some happiness for local residents. Everybody’s under lots of stress, so what can hotels do to uplift people?

I also want to mention a promotion we did last month at Amari Pattaya. In Bangkok there’s still quite a number of businesses that are running on a work-from-home basis, and some schools were still doing homeschooling. So, we offered a weekdays-only package that gave people a slightly better rate and let them choose where they wanted to work during the daytime, whether it’s a beach cabana or in our large dining room. And then we also converted our kids’ club into a homeschooling facility. When it’s time to log off after six, we’ve got water slides and the whole pool area where families can have fun, and then depending on how long they stay, they can also join activities like a pizza-making workshop. When you work from home you don’t really have to be at home—if the situation allows, you can come to our hotels and work from the beach, do a Zoom call from the beach. These are little things we tried that normally, in the good old days, hotels would never think about.

Inside a Deluxe Pool View room at Amari Pattaya. (Photo: ONYX Hospitality Group)

ONYX is about to launch the Saffron Collection. Can you tell us more about that?

The Saffron Collection has been years in the making—it’s always been our aim to have our version of what we might call a “soft brand.” As a company we have established brands like Amari, OZO, and Shama, but having said that, we saw the opportunity to go into something that’s a bit more intimate, a bit more story-driven. We’ve always been eyeing this whole segment of boutique hotels with a very individual character. From time to time, in our discussions with property developers, we come across a family, or even a company, which is keen to develop something a bit smaller. And when they’re working with a hotel company on a long-term project, they’re also keen to look at a way of preserving either their family story or the corporate history as part of the hotel. So, for us, this is a good way of going into this market—it’s about giving us a different avenue for growth and making part of the property developers’ vision a reality.

The plan is to open The Five, our first new-build property for the Saffron Collection, in Hanoi this October. And we’ve always had the Oriental Residence in Bangkok, which has been open since 2012. We decided it made sense to include the Oriental Residence as part of this collection given its existing qualities. And being a hotel that has operated successfully for eight years and counting, it serves as a good showcase when we have partners who want to learn more about the Saffron Collection.

The lobby of the Oriental Residence Bangkok. (Photo: ONYX Hospitality Group)

What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

We’ve also been working quite closely with a Penang-based property developer to build a hotel that’s going to be known as The George, opening the middle of next year. The George is a name we created together with the owners; it’s a new build on a piece of land that used to be a pharmacy and a sundries shop in the historic Old Town, and will be sensitive to the architecture around it. There is a fourth property that has been confirmed on the eastern coast of Thailand, but the concept and name are still a work in progress. More hotels will be included as well in this collection, and we think that the Saffron Collection will work not just for city hotels but also for those in a resort location.

 

Are there plans to take the Saffron Collection beyond Southeast Asia?

Yes, we are in active negotiations with a developer for a potential Saffron Collection hotel in Australia. China is a growing market and one of our key focus areas, and we are now in discussions with several different parties, so there’s a high likelihood that in the months to come or even within the year, we could be announcing Saffron Collection properties in mainland China and potentially Hong Kong as well. I think Hong Kong is one market where the Saffron Collection could very well grow into, because it is a city where there is an appetite and thirst for boutique hotels, and given the space considerations of Hong Kong, many of the deals that we are looking at are not exactly a good fit for larger-scale properties like Amari, OZO, and Shama. For example, a hotel like Mira Moon is very narrow, it goes skywards, so we are in discussions with developers on these types of projects to do something quite quirky and individual.

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