ZECHA’S NEXT PLAY

Aman founder launches af­ford­able re­sorts with touches of his leg­endary brand.

The Peak (Singapore) - - Contents -

Aman founder launches af­ford­able re­sorts with touches of his leg­endary brand.

In ho­tel cir­cles, the mil­lion­dol­lar ques­tion of just what Adrian Zecha would do af­ter his high-pro­file split from Aman, the lux­ury re­sort brand he founded in 1988, was fi­nally an­swered ear­lier this year.

With no fan­fare, much less advance pub­lic­ity, the leg­endary hote­lier very qui­etly opened Az­erai Luang Pra­bang in the Unesco-pro­tected old town, a cou­ple of blocks down the road from Aman­taka.

For the 53-room ho­tel – the first salvo in a ru­moured 10-re­sort roll-out that will in­clude des­ti­na­tions Viet­nam and Cuba – ar­chi­tect Pas­cal Tra­han turned an early 20th­cen­tury colo­nial bun­ga­low built for French of­fi­cers, into an in­ti­mate bolt­hole an­chored around a 25m lap pool. Wra­paround bal­conies, tim­ber floors and cool colon­nades sub­tly re­flect Lao­tian ar­chi­tec­ture. Lo­cal ma­te­ri­als of tim­ber and ce­ment tiles are paired with art­work, hand­stitched fab­ric and batik in­spired by the lo­cal Hmong Lao eth­nic mi­nor­ity tribe.

Over the phone from Hong Kong, Zecha says that the idea for Az­erai had been bub­bling for some time. For in his wide so­cial cir­cle are friends who can’t af­ford the price of lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tion, and he has long

be­lieved there is an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a cat­e­gory of mid­priced ac­com­mo­da­tion that still stands out as unique and taste­ful in de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture.

“And I thought about open­ing it in Luang Pra­bang,” he says, “be­cause it is and will al­ways be a spe­cial place for me. I have a home there and, for the past seven years, I’ve cel­e­brated my birth­day there. I am so fa­mil­iar with it.”

For the 84-year-old Zecha, Az­erai – the un­usual name com­bines his ini­tials and car­a­vanserai, rest­ing places for an­cient Per­sian car­a­van trav­ellers – rep­re­sents a re­set, a chance to take a fresh look at the lux­ury ho­tel model he has done so much to de­fine.

He rel­ishes the chal­lenge as he is also well aware the power of as­so­ci­a­tion and brand­ing is so strong that he will al­ways be as­so­ci­ated with Aman. “Ev­ery­one fo­cuses on that,” he com­plains good-na­turedly. “But I’ve been in the busi­ness since the ’70s when I was with the Re­gent. Aman just hap­pens to be the last thing I did!”

If the Aman brand set the stan­dard for bou­tique luxe, then the Az­erai de­fines it­self as bou­tique af­ford­able luxe. “The Az­erai rooms are half the size of an en­try-level Aman villa. It’s an af­ford­able Aman.” Zecha’s bench­mark seems al­most like an oxy­moron. A room at Aman­taka starts at about US$600 (S$817) in the low sea­son; at Az­erai, it’s US$250. How can the two be com­pared?

“Lux­ury is al­ways about a sense of sim­plic­ity and style,” ex­plains Zecha, stress­ing that his idea of lux­ury has not changed, even af­ter 45 years in the busi­ness. In his books, a price tag does not de­fine lux­ury. Ser­vice de­liv­ered with a gen­uine, car­ing at­ti­tude is lux­ury.

“Look, it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Mercedes S-Class and E-Class. The phys­i­cal as­pects are dif­fer­ent, the en­gine is smaller, but it’s the same brand, me­chan­ics, en­gi­neer­ing and qual­ity,” he says.

The pro­found sim­plic­ity and ac­cu­racy of the anal­ogy is ev­i­dent the mo­ment you step off buzzy Kingk­it­sarath Road, walk up shal­low stone steps and en­ter the whis­pery quiet of a blon­de­tim­bered re­cep­tion. There is an im­me­di­ate nag­ging fa­mil­iar­ity about the space, the lighting, and the low-slung fur­nish­ings. If you are an Aman junkie, that pe­cu­liar breed of trav­eller who ra­bidly scours the world for an Aman out­post, you recog­nise the wo­ven straw bas­ket of tow­els by the pool, the swiv­el­ling bed­side ta­ble lamps, the light touch of eth­nic fab­ric draped over the floating bed, the straw toi­letry hold­ers by the sink and other quiet clues.

As Zecha read­ily ad­mits, there is a sim­i­lar sense of aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties be­tween an Aman and the Az­erai. This is not to say that the young up­start brand is copy­ing its es­tab­lished “com­peti­tor”, but rather that they are both prod­ucts of the same aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties. Az­erai sim­ply re­flects Zecha’s tastes, and “tastes don’t change ev­ery sea­son”, he says. Nor do they change with the prod­uct.

“For me, cre­at­ing the Az­erai is ex­actly like hav­ing a sec­ond

child in that it has a dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity and will there­fore fill a dif­fer­ent void. But it should give sim­i­lar sat­is­fac­tion.”

He’s not one to dwell on the past, though. He’s far too busy. He’s on the plane at least once a week, and there are more Az­erai ho­tels to open, though, un­like most other hote­liers, he re­fuses to con­firm lo­ca­tions or open­ing dates. “We will an­nounce it when they’re done and ready to open. I don’t like talk­ing about the fu­ture,” he says, adding, “Noth­ing is easy. There are al­ways things you have to do, prob­lems to solve. Any­one who says oth­er­wise is ly­ing! There’s al­ways an in­di­vid­u­al­ity to every­thing. There’s no cookie cut­ter as­pect in this busi­ness. You have to look at it fresh each time you open a ho­tel.”

And on the morn­ing of our con­ver­sa­tion, he’s on his way to the airport for a two-week haul around the world, stop­ping for meet­ings in Bei­jing, Van­cou­ver, San Fran­cisco, Can­cun, Cuba and Paris, be­fore turn­ing back to Hong Kong, where he has a home and his HQ is lo­cated.

“There is no down­time,” he says. “But I don’t call it work. Not if you love it. Be­sides, in­tel­lec­tu­al­is­ing the busi­ness is not some­thing I have the in­cli­na­tion or the time for.”

Al­ways look for­ward. Per­haps that’s how you get to be a leg­end in the first place.

03 LO­CAL LOOKS Lao­tian ar­chi­tec­ture is re­flected in the gen­er­ous show­ing of tim­ber. 03

01 FIRST STOP Zecha’s mid-range Az­erai brand was in­tro­duced in Luang Pra­bang ear­lier this year.

02 ON FA­MIL­IAR GROUND The 84-year-old has a home in the Lao­tian city. 02

04 BUN­GA­LOW WITH CHAR­AC­TER The re­sort, which used to house French of­fi­cers, wraps around a 25m lap pool. 04

05 NEW BE­GIN­NINGS Zecha in­sists he looks at each project with fresh eyes. 05

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