Breaking Travel News

Breaking Travel News interview: Tony Soh, chief corporate officer, The Ascott Limited

As the serviced apartment sector surges around the world, The Ascott Limited continues to set the benchmark for what is possible in the industry.

With flagship property Ascott Raffles Place Singapore having been recognised as Singapore’s Leading Serviced Apartments and the parent company up for the title of World’s Leading Serviced Apartment Brand at the upcoming World Travel Awards Grand Final in Morocco, Breaking Travel News here sits down with chief corporate officer Tony Soh to discuss what sets The Ascott Limited apart from its competitors.

Breaking Travel News: Perhaps we could begin with a brief overview of where The Ascott Limited stands in 2014. You recently passed the 36,000 rooms under management milestone, showing an ability for sustained growth for example. Could you just detail what is happening with the group as we speak?

Tony Soh: In 2014 alone, we have added more than 2,600 apartment units to Ascott’s portfolio and are on track to achieving 40,000 apartment units globally by 2015. We aim to double it to 80,000 units by 2020.

We will continue to seek investment opportunities in key markets where we have presence, such as Singapore, China, India, capital cities in south-east Asia, Paris, London and key cities in Germany.

We will also continue to expand Ascott’s presence through management contracts, strategic alliances and franchises, which will be another key growth driver.

This year, besides acquiring a prime property in Hong Kong, we have clinched management contracts for 12 more serviced residences in Yangon in Myanmar, Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian, Wuhan and Taiyuan in China, Gurgaon in India, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

We have also formed a strategic alliance with one of the largest property developers in China, Vanke, to drive Ascott’s growth in the country.

In Japan, we partnered another leading real estate developer, Mitsubishi Estate Company, to bring our premier Ascott The Residence to Tokyo. In addition, we secured our first franchise agreements in Vientiane in Laos and Bali in Indonesia.

BTN: As you mentioned, many of the recent additions to your portfolio have been in China. How important is this market at present for the brand, and how do you see this developing in the coming years?

TS: As the world’s second largest economy and a major economic driving force in Asia, China continues to be Ascott’s key growth market.

We first entered China in Shanghai in 1994, and today, we are the largest international serviced residence owner-operator in the country, with about 11,600 apartment units in 64 properties across 21 cities.

Besides first-tier Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Ascott’s footprint in China covers second- and third-tier cities such as Hangzhou, Chengdu and Wuhan.

We are very close to achieving our goal of 12,000 apartment units in China by 2015.

In addition to expanding through management contracts and investments, strategic alliances with leading developers in China will enable us to combine our expertise and industry knowledge to create mutually beneficial partnerships.

In January last year, Ascott entered into a strategic alliance with Yuexiu Property Co Ltd, and signed management contracts for two serviced residences – Somerset Riviera Guangzhou and Citadines LiZhiWan Guangzhou.

Somerset Riviera Guangzhou opened in August this year while Citadines LiZhiWan Guangzhou is scheduled to open by end of this year.

In June, Ascott entered into a strategic alliance with Vanke to drive our expansion plans in China, and secured contracts to manage two serviced residences in Beijing.

Ascott’s first Citadines-branded serviced residence in Beijing, Citadines Daxing Beijing, and Somerset Shunyi Beijing are both slated to open in 2017.

BTN: Earlier this year, The Ascott Limited announced two properties in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Can you perhaps tell us a little about this market, how important it is to you and how you see it growing in the coming years?

TS: Saudi Arabia is the Gulf’s largest economy, and has attracted US$141 billion in foreign direct investments during the past five years - the highest in the entire Middle East.

The economy continues to show robust growth on the back of infrastructure and private sector development.

This bodes well for Ascott as demand for our serviced residences will grow with more companies increase their presence in the country.

Next year, we will open our first properties in Saudi Arabia.

They are Ascott Olaya Riyadh, Ascott Tahlia Jeddah, Ascott Sari Jeddah and Citadines Al Salamah Jeddah, and we also plan to open Somerset Corniche Jeddah in 2016.

Within Saudi Arabia, Jeddah has emerged as one of the key business destinations, attracting a steady flow of travellers who are there for projects, meetings and conventions.

The city is also a gateway destination for Muslim pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Medina.

There is huge demand for international-quality accommodation in Jeddah but supply is lacking.

With our four upcoming properties in this city, discerning travellers can expect spacious and stylishly-designed apartments that come complete with amenities and personalised services, providing them with an ideal home away from home.

BTN: Do you feel serviced apartments have the potential to grow in the Middle East, which has most lately been associated with the leisure sector? I am thinking here mainly of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and perhaps Egypt?

TS: Yes, we do see strong demand for serviced residences in the Middle East.

It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and continues to attract significant foreign direct investments.

As government investments in tourism and infrastructure continue to grow, we expect to see an influx of corporations, expatriates, business travellers and tourists.

We have recently expanded our presence in the UAE with the signing of an agreement to manage our second serviced residence in Dubai.
The 117-unit premier Ascott Culture Village Dubai is scheduled to open in 2017.

Besides opening our first properties in Saudi Arabia over the next two years, we are also slated to open our first properties in Oman (Somerset Panorama Muscat and Sohar Garden Residences) in 2015.

Ascott currently manages four serviced residences - Ascott Park Place Dubai, Ascott Doha, Somerset West Bay Doha and Somerset Al Fateh Bahrain.

We will continue to strengthen our presence in cities where we have properties and seek opportunities in new cities where there is strong growth potential for serviced residences.

BTN: The Ascott Limited is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2014. Are there any celebrations planned for this milestone?

TS: As Ascott celebrates 30 years of hospitality excellence, we would like to thank all our customers for their unwavering support.

Hence, we are offering special promotions for our customers that include discounted rates and free nights from now till December 31st 2014.

For example, Ascott’s online members will enjoy at least 30 per cent off Best Flexible Rates at participating properties in over 30 cities worldwide.

They can sign up for the complimentary online membership at Ascott’s websites to enjoy the special rates.

In addition, Facebook pages of our three brands - Ascott, Citadines and Somerset – are running contests where our fans can win limited edition Ascott’s 30th Anniversary premiums.

We also launched a cookbook, titled ‘30 Years, 30 Recipes: A Gastronomic Journey’, which can be found in our serviced residences worldwide and in libraries in Singapore.

The cookbook features Peranakan recipes developed by Singaporean Chef Malcolm Lee. As a Singapore company that has grown to be the world’s largest international serviced residence owner-operator, Ascott is proud to share Singapore’s unique food culture with our residents globally.

The cookbook will help our residents, who are expatriates and travellers on the road, to create the taste and enjoy the feeling of home in the fully-equipped kitchens of their apartments at Ascott.

To commemorate Ascott’s 30th anniversary in a meaningful way, we have various activities across the world where staff and residents can participate to support the educational and healthcare needs of underprivileged children.

In addition, through a fitness and charity campaign, ‘Moving Feet, Touching Lives’, we mobilised our staff globally to walk, jog or run and Ascott will donate S$1 for every kilometre covered to Save the Children, an international organisation that supports needy children in 120 countries.

We have already achieved our target of raising S$30,000 for the charity.

BTN: Do you feel consumers, with particular reference to the business sector, are increasingly aware of the benefits for the serviced apartment sector when compared to more traditional hotels?

TS: Increasingly, more savvy business travellers are choosing to stay in Ascott’s serviced apartments.

Serviced apartments bridge the gap between hotels which cater mainly to guests on short stays and the traditional rental market.

In addition to services and facilities typically found in hotels, serviced apartments offer more space, comfort and privacy, much like a normal apartment.

At Ascott, guests can easily move into our spacious apartments that come with a fully equipped kitchen, separate living area, home entertainment system and broadband and wireless internet connectivity.

We provide guests with the unique feeling of staying in a home away from home by paying attention to their needs and having dedicated Ascott Hosts to take care of our long-stay guests.

Furthermore, we have residents’ programmes such as city tours and cultural workshops to help expatriates and business travellers assimilate quickly into their new environment.

Compared with booking multiple rooms in a hotel, companies are able to enjoy greater value by housing their executives in a larger serviced apartment where each executive can still enjoy the privacy of individual bedrooms.

Your flagship property, Ascott Raffles Place Singapore, recently recognised as Singapore’s Leading Serviced Apartments by the World Travel Awards, has made the final short-list for the 2014 ‘Travel Oscar’ for the title of World’s Leading Serviced Apartments. As voting opens, can you outline what makes
Ascott Raffles Place Singapore such an outstanding candidate?

TS: Ascott Raffles Place Singapore is a heritage gem.

It used to be the Asia Insurance Building, Southeast Asia’s tallest building in the 1950s, a symbol of Singapore’s aspiration to be a key financial and commercial hub.

After acquiring the building in 2006, Ascott invested S$60 million to preserve the building’s heritage and charm while creating a premier serviced residence with modern comforts.

The property has an original Art Deco architecture and distinctive features such as a 15-storey James Cutler designed brass mail chute.
James Cutler was an American designer and architect who invented the mail chute in the 1880s where mail could be dropped from a high point and collected at a central depository.

Ascott has also conserved the five-footway, made of Nero Portaro Italian marble, around the perimeter of the building, and two Nero Portaro Italian marble pillars at the front of the property, where two inlaid plaques were set in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of the Queen of England and in 1955 for the official opening of Asia Insurance Building.

The intricate retro motif design on the stair railings from before has been adapted and replicated as a decorative air-conditioner grille in every apartment, acting as a subtle reminder of the building’s history and heritage.

For carefully preserving the unique features of the heritage icon, Ascott was conferred the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore’s Architectural Heritage Award.

Ascott Raffles Place Singapore provides the comforts of a home in the heart of Singapore’s Marina Bay business and lifestyle district.

The serviced residence offers 146 luxurious apartments that come with kitchen equipped with Gaggenau appliances including cooker hob and hood, microwave oven, refrigerator, dishwasher, washing machine and dryer; LCD televisions with cable channels and a state-of-the-art BOSE home entertainment system; as well as complimentary wireless internet connectivity.

There is also an impressive range of facilities including meeting rooms, an infinity pool, jacuzzis, fully-equipped gymnasium, residents’ lounge, lounge bar and restaurant.

Upon your 30th anniversary, The Ascott Limited has been nominated as the World’s Leading Serviced Apartment Brand at the World Travel Awards. Can you tell us how it feels to have been recognised by the prestigious organisation and why the brand would be a deserving recipient of the 2014 Travel Oscar?

TS: It is a tremendous honour for Ascott to be nominated as the World’s Leading Serviced Apartment Brand again this year, having won the award last year.

We are humbled by the recognition, and it drives us to work harder to consistently deliver the kind of memorable experiences that have helped us to grow into the world’s largest owner and operator of serviced apartments.

Over the past 30 years, Ascott has been recognised internationally for our products and service excellence.

Our focus in delivering service from the heart to our guests and providing them with a memorable stay experience is what drives our business.

Our brand promise, ‘LIFE’, is to provide residents with ‘Local Touch’, respect their ‘Individuality’, make residents ‘Feel at Home’ and ‘Exceed their Expectations’.

We provide consistent service by having talented people with the right service attitude.

We invest heavily in enhancing the capabilities of our staff and developing their potential. This ensures that our staff can deliver the high service standards that have defined our award-winning service.

Ascott is the only serviced residence company to have a dedicated training centre, the Ascott Centre for Excellence in Singapore, to continuously improve our capabilities to deliver special Ascott moments to delight our customers.

Interview: Chris O’Toole