When small is beautiful in hotel industry

Updated: 2013-08-15 01:18

By WANG WEN and MARK HUGHES (China Daily)

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Boutique business owner, manager sees opportunities to import her unique brand

There's a best-selling book with the arresting title Chocolates on the pillow aren't enough: reinventing the customer experience, by Jonathan M. Tisch, chairman and chief executive officer of Loews Hotels and a global leader in the travel and tourism industry. It distils many years of experience in the highly competitive hospitality business that have helped him to enormous success in the art of creating great experiences consistently, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for his grateful customers.

It may not be Anchalika Kijkanakorn's type of literature. She prefers early Tom Clancy and Harlan Coben thrillers when she has time to read.

When small is beautiful in hotel industry

International visitors at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, The country experienced a 16-percent year-on-year increase in tourist arrivals in 2012 and also attracted foreign hospitality businesses. [provided to china daily]

However, the founder, visionary and managing director of Thailand-based Akaryn Hospitality Management Services betrays a full awareness of every one of its perceptive insights.

Despite having been a hotelier for just 10 years, the 42-year-old is clearly a natural in knowing how to run a successful boutique hotel and villa business for discerning travelers.

Having proved her acumen with three owned and one managed resorts and assorted villas in gorgeous locations in Thailand, the ethnic Han Chinese businesswoman is in talks over three locations in China: one in Taiwan and the other two in Hangzhou and Taizhou, both Zhejiang province.

"The hotel industry in China is going through an exciting time," she said.

The company is looking for a place that is really special and should not be too small. "It must be a place where we can make a difference. I think for local and foreign tourists China is ripe for that," Kijkanakorn said.

She said the company will need a Chinese partner with whom to work.

"We will bring our environmental concepts and we don't want to go into debt," she added.

However, it may be not a good time for a luxury hotel enterprise entering China's market because inbound tourism in China is stagnant and the hotel business has been suffering from increasing costs in recent years.

Statistics from the China Tourism Academy show the number of inbound tourists to China was 133 million person-trips in 2012, a 1.7 percent year-on-year fall.

Zhejiang province, for example, faced a problem.

In the first half of 2013, 4 million inbound travelers visited the province, up just 0.7 percent but, nonetheless, up. The number of Asian visitors fell but other regions saw rises, according to local tourism authorities.

High-end hotels in the province were affected seriously.

The total revenue of five-star hotels in Zhejiang province in the first half of 2013 fell by 14.7 percent compared with last year. The average rental rate was 597.80 yuan ($98), down 4.2 percent.

However, hotel groups will continue to build new hotels in China despite the latest figures, business insiders said.

"If we stop, other groups will continue adding rooms," said Michael Stevens, deputy president of Wanda Hotel and Resorts Co Ltd.

Taking a good share of the hotel market is one of the reasons for the hotel group' expansion, he added.

China is not the only destination Kijkanakorn put her eyes on. She is also planning new hotels in other neighboring countries, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, where inbound tourism is growing at a high speed.

In 2012, the Asia-Pacific region recorded 232.9 million international tourist arrivals and was the fastest growing region for the second year in a row, with a 7 percent increase in tourism arrivals from 2011, according to the World Tourism Organization.

Thailand also enjoyed a 16-percent year-on-year increase in tourist arrivals in 2012 and the country attracted foreign business in hospitality.

Explaining why she gave up a good career in finance, Kijkanakorn, who has a bachelor of arts in marketing from the University of Texas and an MBA in international business from the University of South Carolina, said she simply missed Thailand. She was speaking during a laughter-filled delicious lunch at one of her first boutique hotels, the award-winning Aleenta Resort and Spa Phuket-Phang-Nga, overlooking a virtually deserted golden beach.

Many years ago, Kijkanakorn's grandparents moved to Thailand to set up various businesses. She spent many a happy holiday near this very spot in a beachside home her parents owned.

Kijkanakorn started her working life in hospitality after holding several leadership roles specializing in auditing, consulting, mergers and acquisitions and financial control, managing at one time 12 teams in Asia, Europe and the United States.

"Thailand to me has always been the leading country in terms of hospitality and hotels," she said.

As an indication of her instinctive abilities, Aleenta was voted one of the world's best resorts by readers of the industry "bible" Conde Nast Traveler US in its first year of operations.

"I guess it was one of those ignorance is bliss things," she admitted. "I didn't know anything about the hotel business."

She said she thought she could just get into it and have a retirement plan based on a 10-room hotel.

"I thought I would do just fine sitting on the beach with my guests, drinking cocktails," she said.

The best thing that ever happened to Thailand was that movie called Lost in Thailand, which was low budget but hugely popular in China.

"So that meant big margins. I love big margins," she added.

Akaryn Hospitality Management Services hotels doubled in size in 2012 after Kijkanakorn added Akaryn Samui Resort and Spa and Akyra Chura Samui to the portfolio, to complement Aleenta Resort and Spa Phuket-Phang Nga and Aleenta Resort and Spa Hua Hin-Pranburi, the first resort she launched on the site of her family's original beach home in 2003.

Kijkanakorn was praised by her staff for her work.

General manager, Provencal Frenchman Yann Gouriou, who has years of experience in the business, said it was Kijkanakorn's insistence on training that is key to the success of the business.

"We put a lot of emphasis on training our staff," he said. "Our guests are international. They all have different characteristics, ages, expectations. Some of our staff have never been away from this small community. They are not worldly. She recognizes that and insists on regular training."

Another element that distinguishes Kijkanakorn's business is her emphasis on conservation. At Aleenta, the company pays for a caretaker and the food for hundreds of rescued sea turtles at a nearby sanctuary. "Why? Self-preservation and self-interest. Whenever we look for a business I look for the most pristine location. When I go there I do not want to be the cause of trouble. I want to preserve it," she said.

"But I realized very quickly I can't do it alone. So I need a voice or a mascot, which I found in the turtles, to help make everybody else understand the need to preserve nature. The easiest way to make them understand is commerce. If you destroy what you make a living out of you are not going to have a place to make a living out of. We still have turtles laying eggs on the beach. It is an important attraction."

The AHMS flagship boutique resort, Akaryn Samui Resort and Spa, located at private and secluded Hanuman Bay, picked up Best New Luxury Hotel at the 2012 World Luxury Hotel Awards, as well as making it on to DestinAsian magazine's coveted Luxe List less than a year after welcoming its first guests. Aleenta Resort and Spa Phuket-Phang Nga was named the world's Best Small Hotel at the International Hotel Awards in London.

The busy mother of two children aged 3 and 4 has, however, found time to launch the Pure Blue Foundation, a charity dedicated to marine conservation including regeneration of damaged coral reefs and work with endangered sea turtles.

"When a luxury resort is running properly, it's like a symphony orchestra, where each instrument has its part in the whole production," she said.

Contact the writers at wangwen@chinadaily.com.cn and markdesmondhughes@gmail.com