Veteran hotelier Edmond Ip arguably created the wave of contemporary China brands and is back to take his Zitan out of the wraps. Raini Hamdi talks to the vice chairman of Artyzen Hospitality Group.
I believe there’s a history between Zitan and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)?
I developed a contemporary luxury brand during my IHG days and asked to keep it as part of my retirement. At the time, around seven years ago, there was a restructure at IHG and no one really knew what to do with the brand, then called ‘Huadi’, grand noble house.
I sold my brand to Pansy Ho’s (managing director, Shun Tak Holdings) Artyzen (Hospitality Group). She’s very fond of Chinese art and culture, collects art and has in-depth knowledge of Chinese history and literature. She liked what she saw. We explored how we could work together to inject this brand (into the industry), create new ones and recruit a team to run the business.
So what’s your idea of a China brand?
I won’t say Zitan is a ‘China’ brand but a contemporary lifestyle brand based on Chinese fine living. Luxury hotel brands have been based on Western fine living but China, with 5,000 years of history, has its own fine living. Have we ever tried to express it in a contemporary form, so that everyone, be it a Westerner, Asian or Chinese, can enjoy it, just as we have enjoyed Western fine living?
Give me an example of how you would express it.
For example, in the olden days of multi-generation living, there’s a chief-of-staff and a team of people who really look after the family: if it’s cold weather, they put a scarf around you; if you are unwell, they get the cook to prepare a herbal soup for you. The guanjia service is an expression of luxury hospitality, where guests are taken care of like family.
What made you create the brand?
I saw that everyone developed the same brands – if you shuffled these brands, the DNA was similar. Only the logo was different.
In the last 50 years, Western brands were powerful because Americans could afford to travel, thus hotels were built to suit their lifestyle. Now, if China is the biggest economic power, shouldn’t I do something for these people who can afford to spend?
The younger generation of travellers overall also want to have a new experience.
As well, this may sound a bit noble, but we’ve done brands for other people, why not do something for us, a brand which we can be proud of, which represents Chinese art, culture, way of living.
Since then, there have been only a few China-oriented brands. Why?
It’s easier to launch a brand with a common denominator. The people who operate it are used to operating the standard hotels so, when they run the hotel, they always fall back on the traditional Western way.
Secondly, you may not have the entire vision – a girl wearing a cheongsam does not make a luxury lifestyle brand. A concept is not exclusive. I can’t stop anyone from doing a Chinese, Japanese or Western brand, but it is how much you really understand it that makes a difference.
And unless the person who develops it is hands-on to ensure the DNA of his brand is properly executed, you’ll fall back again. Not every company wants to invest to that degree and often, there is time and financial pressure to prevent you from running things differently. That’s life.
The handful of global China brands to date have been created largely by Westerners, unlike Zitan. Why aren’t more Chinese entrepreneurs doing it?
I’m not sure if there aren’t. I’m sure there are a lot of creative people out there. But you also need experiences and an understanding of the business. Fortunately, my team and I have done this for a long time and we have been around. I am a Chinese. Although I have lived everywhere, and appreciate different cultures, I still like my soup. And I have spent enough time in China and have lots of contacts with people on the ground, owners and government people.
Are prospects better now for your brand than when you first created it?
In China, for luxury brands, it is more challenging. Seven years ago, the market was booming – you could launch any brand, as we did with the previous company (IHG). But China is still strong, it will come back.
A lot of people love the idea of Zitan when we share it with them. But if you love it, it does not mean you’ll do it. There is, for example, the risk of ‘Am I the first one?’, no matter how reputable the team backing it is. But there are people who are willing to do it and we are talking to them. We’re also looking at our own investment to create a hotel.
Getting the right location is also a problem. The brand needs to match a location and client base that can afford to pay the rate; places like Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta – the major gateway cities. Indonesia has big economic growth, driven by domestic consumption, so I think its future is really good.
Pansy has deep pockets. Why can’t she build the first Zitan or do a conversion with Shun Tak-owned Grand Lapa and Grand Coloane in Macau, for instance?
Pansy may have deep pockets herself (laughs) but she has a business to run. We can’t expect her to just come up with x million dollars to build a Zitan and I would be the first to object if it will not bring a reasonable yield. We did one exercise in Hong Kong, for example – we can’t even bring returns for 20 years because of such factors as high land cost.
We will be renovating Grand Lapa and Grand Coloane, which we (Artyzen) are managing. It depends on how much the owners are prepared (to invest in the renovation) that we may convert them to one of our brands. But they may not be a Zitan.
Editor’s Note: Artyzen’s other three brands are Artyzen, a five star emphasising the artistic and cultural enclave; Artyzen Habitat, a 4.5 star catering to extended and short stay, with the first, in Beijing, opening end 2016/early 2017; and CitizenM (TTG Asia e-Daily, October 10, 2014).