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Mekong region's boutique hotels raise the bar

Character and warm guest relations are key to success of small hoteliers

The charming interior of one of Rajabori Villas' wooden houses, set in a lush garden on the unspoiled riverine island of Koh Trong. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan) 

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- With its seemingly endless tropical summers, increasingly vibrant urban centers and relatively low living costs, the so-called Mekong region -- comprising Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam -- is drawing a rapidly growing share of Southeast Asian tourism.

The region, which tracks the mighty Mekong river, attracted just under 60 million visitors in 2017, up 13% from the previous year, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association's Annual Tourism Monitor 2018. Growth in visitor arrivals has driven a steady increase in tourist accommodation. But the region faces a serious challenge if it is to continue to grow without damaging its fundamental character, say hospitality industry veterans.

"The future of this region is exploding, but unless there is a more coordinated approach between local and national governments and regulatory bodies, the potential for oversupply and out-of-control development, going down the path of other tourism hotspots in Asia, is very real," said Nicholas Wright, the Australian co-founder of hotelieriQ, a boutique and luxury hotel advisory company. HotelieriQ, which has offices in Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia, advises prestigious boutique hotels such as Villa Ni Say and Heritage Suites Hotel, both in Siem Reap.

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, had 317 hotels with 15,000 available rooms in late 2015, according to Bunna Realty Group, a local property company, while Siem Reap, an ever-growing tourist town developed around the Angkor Wat temple complex, had 417 hotels and 17,000 rooms. These numbers have soared in the last couple of years: A search on Booking.com -- which includes hotels, guesthouses, hostels and private accommodation for rent -- brings up a total of 514 listed properties in the capital, and a staggering 821 in Siem Reap, which has a population of just under 140,000.

"Siem Reap is starting to have many more rooms available online than guests able to fill them, and hotels are now in a race to the bottom on room rates, which is unsustainable," Wright told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Bric-a-Brac's coloniale room mixes quirky Asian crafts with trendy and modern decor. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

Oversupply has inevitably fueled intensifying competition, forcing hotels in the region to rethink their strategies in order to remain in business.

Among the winners is a new generation of more creative, smaller, independent boutique hotels. Competitively priced, they are carving a reputation with younger or style-conscious travelers by offering highly tailored services and developing excellent guest relations. "A lot of big hotels see the success of these independent boutique properties, and want to catch up on that market," Wright said. However, he added, the management approach typically favored by big hotels would not work in the smaller, boutique properties that many tourists prefer.

Robert Carmack, left, and Morrison Polkinghorne, who run Bric-a-Brac in Battambang, at their beloved street corner (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

"Corporate hotel chains' biggest mistake is not considering the guests themselves," said Wright, who used to scout properties for Mr & Mrs Smith, an online travel club specializing in luxury hotels. "I believe that what makes a boutique hotel truly special are its owners, who should invest in their team and their staff, encouraging them to go above and beyond the call of duty, and not be afraid to talk to guests to improve their service."

Staff training is a key aspect of running a business, especially when hotel owners are expatriates, like designer and cookbook writer Robert Carmack and his partner Morrison Polkinghorne, who run Bric-a-Brac, one of the most distinctive boutique hotels in Battambang, an increasingly popular destination in northwestern Cambodia. "We help pay for our staff's education as they are the country's future. We want to help them succeed," said Carmack.

"It's crucial to define your target market: We decided early on that we wanted high end, but at the same time, we like local arts and crafts, which do not necessarily mix well with that niche," Carmack added. "So we chose very high-end products, like goose feather pillows, all sourced outside of Cambodia."

To Polkinghorne and Carmack, attention to detail and being different are the biggest secrets of a boutique hotel's success. "That's why we decided to offer French-inspired petit dejeuner (breakfast), with an addition of local pastries, rather than the usual eggs and bacon that one can get anywhere else in town," Carmack said.

Polkinghorne, who also exhibits his weaving in a boutique on Bric-a-Brac's ground floor, said an important criterion for a hotel's success is to have a street corner location. "If you are stuck along a road, [your hotel] will not become a real landmark. A corner gets so much more attention and business."

View of the swimming pool area of Apsara Rive Droite, a boutique hotel in Luang Prabang (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

But as many of the region's hoteliers acknowledge, in the digital age of Tripadvisor and online reviews, a property's success does not depend entirely on an establishment's staff-training efforts and attention to detail. "Just having the essentials, such as comfortable beds, hot water, good food and service, is no longer enough," said Ivan Scholte, the British owner of the Apsara and the Apsara Rive Droite, two luxury boutique hotels in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Laos.

"As hoteliers, we always have to think up new ways of attracting guests; aside from being able to organize trips to the main sites and activities, these days visitors want to feel they are making a difference by giving back in some way," Scholte said. "A popular option is to involve them with local communities -- all we need is a temple, a school, or social enterprises."

"People love to think they are trying something a bit different, that is not on the tourist path," said Robert Brennan, an Australian hotel manager who formerly worked at Seven Terraces, a heritage boutique hotel in Penang, Malaysia, and is now manager at Satri House -- one of Luang Prabang's leading boutique properties.

"I like to suggest good local places to my guests, because I love when they leave feeling they have had a special and unique experience," said Brennan. "In that case we, as a boutique hotel, have achieved what we should be offering."

With original four poster beds and a unique design that greatly exploits the former features of the Laotian mansion it occupies, Satri House has well earned one of TripAdvisor's much coveted Top Ten spots in Luang Prabang. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

However, French hotelier and tourist guide Pierre-Yves Clais believes that today's guests are more interested in technology and fittings than unique experiences. Clais, a long-term Phnom Penh resident, founded two of Cambodia's earliest boutique resorts: Terres Rouges, the first high-end property in Banlung, the principal town in remote Ratanakiri province, and Rajabori Villas, on the river island of Koh Trong, near Kratie.

"When we had no internet, you were judged by decor and atmosphere. But now it's all about online reviews and social media: We have to adapt to the times, even if I don't like it very much," said Clais. "Back in the 1990s, all you needed was an atmospheric setting and clean bed sheets. Terres Rouges worked well from the very beginning thanks to simple word of mouth, because I and my wife were very dedicated to growing the property."

Wright has a more nuanced view. "To some of our hotel clients, booking sites are indeed the bane of their existence, but we recommend [that hoteliers should] learn how to deal with these modern promotion tools, and learn not to take negative feedback personally," he said. "We advise [clients] to acknowledge each review, and consider any relevant suggestion when thinking of ways to improve particular aspects of the business."

In a final word of advice on how to boost a boutique hotel's reputation and sale revenues, Wright added: "If you can't manage to create a bond between the staff working in a property -- whether that's a newly built hotel or an old, established grand dame -- your concept is not going to resonate with guests, because all they want in the end is a 'home away from home' experience."

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