HOTELS Profile: Adrian Zecha takes luxury downscale

By Jeff Weinstein on 3/31/2017

Adrian Zecha is up to his old tricks: following the backpackers, but this time with a 3-star-plus brand. This is the latest in a series of profiles of leaders around the world challenging the status quo. Read them all, including Legend Sir Michael Kadoorie of Peninsula Hotels, and Groundbreaker Cyril Aouizerate of Mob Hotels, in HOTELS' April issue.  

At age 84, the one-time high priest of ultra-luxury, Adrian Zecha, is back with a new 3-star-plus brand that he believes will cater to his former Aman “junkies” because the new hotels will be located in untested areas where the backpackers go first.

“The moment I hear there is a rising crescendo of praise for a new destination, first it would come from the backpackers. They continue to lead me,” says Zecha, who in February soft-opened his first Azerai, a name that blends Zecha’s initials and caravanserai, the Persian word for a courtyard for travelers at rest.

“They are still out there,” says Zecha from his Singapore base. “But I am being very careful not to compete for Aman guests who still love their ‘homes.’ My market is the adventurer, the younger crowd, and this time they don’t have to worry if they can afford it.”

Adrian Zecha at Hotel Azerai Luang Prabang, Laos

Zecha says the initial plan is to develop two more within the year in Asia. At a rate starting around US$250 a night, which Zecha expects to creep up above US$300, the first Azerai is in the township of Luang Prebang, a UNESCO heritage site in north Laos, 388 miles from the capital of Vientiane. The town is home to 30 active Theravada Buddhist temples.

The 53-room hotel, with three room sizes, features a fusion of cultural heritage and contemporary aesthetics. There are several lounges and terraces at the former site of bungalows, used first as French officer quarters and later by the Laotian government, before it became a hotel that closed in 2014.

The rooms are 30 square meters versus the 75 square meters of Aman, with open plans, en-suite shower room, vanities, a convertible king-sized bed and French doors that open to a balcony or terrace with loungers.

Azerai also has a 25-meter pool, a massage retreat and fitness, dining and a bar with a birds-eye view of the main street and night market.

The idea for Azerai is not new to Zecha. He created an affordable luxury concept 17 years ago in Bali under his GHM management company with a hotel called The Serai. “It was a huge success and we loved it. But we didn’t scale it at the time, as I didn’t have the time or opportunity,” Zecha says. “Now, since I’ve been gone from Aman for two and a half years, I started thinking about the concept again.”

Zecha says he feels there is an opportunity in this niche because there is so much room for improvement in terms of design, aesthetic and service. “My challenge is simple: Can I do one that is better in the hardware and the service product? That is a question of training and an obsession to create a superior product. I don’t doubt at all I can deliver Aman-like service. It’s just a matter of doing it.”

Yin and yang

When asked for his thoughts on the leading trends of the day, Zecha scoffs and refers to himself as a throwback. “I am guided by how I feel. I have a gut feel if you do the right product that you can get the rate needed to make a profit,” he says. “I am not interested in all these trends. I am interested in what I believe in and what I think can work. There is no guarantee but it will work, and if it works in one place it could work in two places, and if it works in two it can work in four. I am honestly convinced that this is something, while it costs a little more than another 60-room, 3-star hotel, can work.”

But 3-star-plus is a big change for the industry legend known for creating the most aspirational luxury brand of the recent past. “It was wonderful that what we felt could be was actually done,” says Zecha, who still professes his love for Aman. “Nothing is perfect, but it brought great pleasure to a lot of people and it should remain so. To have 31 Amans in 21 countries – there is no other one like it. That should be maintained. Don’t change the mantra of Aman.”

While complimentary of the new regime at Aman under the leadership of Vladislav Doronin, Homi Vazifdar of Canyon Equity, Larkspur, California, who owns two Amans in the U.S, adds, “Many of us Aman owners miss Adrian’s vision and sense of aesthetics. He is pushing mid-80s and starting a new brand – pretty amazing. I hope that, even if I live to be that old, I’ll have that same passion and drive. There’s only one Zecha!”

But Zecha is not looking back and says that as healthy as he feels, he can live to 100. “And I look forward to that. I keep working for the love of it,” he says. “I don’t think retirement is an option. If you love what you do it’s not really work.”

With every intention of moving forward with Azerai, Zecha concludes by joking about mortality. “I just worry the ‘Godfather’ will call me sooner because he is having problems with the hotel business up there – not with occupancy, because everyone wants to go there regardless of brand, but the problem is he can’t get my rates.”

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