Not a clash of titans

Nobu Hospitality believes its upside-down model from restaurants to hotels is hotter than hell’s kitchen. After expanding in the US, Europe and the Middle East, it is now whipping up interest in Asia. CEO Trevor Horwell talks to Raini Hamdi

Trevor Horwell

Why take brand Nobu from restaurants to hotels?
Nobu started over 20 years ago and we now have 35 restaurants in five continents. Nobu revolutionised Japanese cuisine and a lot of hoteliers were coming to us (to have the restaurant in their hotels) as a means to draw customers.

We could expand Nobu into secondary cities but we wanted to take the brand to a whole new level, so we decided to move from restaurants to hospitality, which is now the core business. We have a clientele base of three million around the world – (akin to) a clientele base of a hotel company with 25 hotels. We can now provide them with a 24/7 Nobu experience when they stay with us, rather than just a few hours when they dine with us. The 24/7 includes the restaurant experience, the Nobu room service and other aspects of what the shareholders felt represent a Nobu hotel.

Yes, but the cast of shareholders includes celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert de Niro and movie producer Meir Teper. No clash of egos?
If you break down a Nobu hotel, the creativity of the F&B is really Nobu, who is the founder of the concept. But, like a fashion house, say Christian Dior, there are creative directors who work under the founder. So Nobu too has creative chefs who work alongside him.

When it comes to the hotel, naturally Robert de Niro, who has done his own hotel (the Greenwich New York), brings his experiences to the table, while Meir Teper, who is very much into the art world, brings a lot of style.

Don’t forget they have been partners for 22 years (since Nobu Restaurants started in 1993) – you have to get along with each other if you’ve been together that long.

Why Nobu Hotels, not ‘de Niro Hotels’?
A Nobu hotel is largely a boutique luxury experience. At the same time, we wrap the F&B around the hotel. Other hotels, on the other hand, have a huge issue with F&B – they lose money on F&B, owners give them a hard time because the F&B is bland, etc. But with a Nobu restaurant, we have a high margin business. In some locations, we make as much money on a seat than on a room.

Consider too that a lot of hoteliers today are leasing their restaurants to a third party. The challenge with that is they can’t control the creativity of the F&B, or the service quality, whereas Nobu has proven itself a consistent global brand, operating restaurants in five continents for over 22 years and building a loyal base of three million clientele in the process.

With Nobu, we also attract the locals to come into the hotel. We bring in all age groups. And customers want to be in a hotel where the action is.

Are you still growing Nobu Restaurants then?
Selectively. We will go into markets where we can’t do a hotel potentially with a restaurant – if it makes sense (to open the restaurant). Why spend time and effort in a location doing a restaurant when we can do a hotel and a restaurant? We don’t want to commoditise the brand. A lot of hotel companies are stock market-driven; so many of them go to secondary locations to fulfil the numbers they promised shareholders.

But your first hotel in Asia in Manila (opened 3Q2014 in City of Dreams; see page 28) is not exactly an ‘it’ gateway.

When we started in Asia, we were opportunistic. We went into Manila because, one, it has a great service culture, two, because we knew the partners Lawrence Hill and James Packer (co-chairman of Melco Crown Entertainment, which runs the City of Dreams in Macau and is one of the companies behind the Manila offshoot). James is our partner in Australia with (two) Nobu restaurants in Crown Hotels and Casino. (Editor’s Note: As TTG Asia went to press, Packer had bought a 20 per cent stake in Nobu Hospitality – see TTG Asia e-Daily, October 30, 2015.)

Plus, we are going into what we believe is going to be the number one destination in Manila, the City of Dreams.

Our approach when we started was to establish a flagship in America, followed by Europe and the Middle East, which we have done. We now have 12 hotels opened or opening over the next two years. So now we are looking at Asia and we’ll be selective.

Where are you looking at and what are your thoughts on the market?

Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Taipei, Bangkok, Jakarta, Macau, but the fundamentals have to be there in terms of both restaurant and hotel.

A lot of hotels in Asia are still traditional, but Asia is becoming niche-driven. In future, a lot more niche concepts like ours will be coming to Asia.

We’ve seen names like Missoni, Bvlgari, Armani, transposed to hospitality, but with varying degrees of success. Why?
They sell design and once that design is dated, what’s left? We are F&B-led, it’s not just about design.

Few celebrity chefs, if any, go from fork to pillow, on a global chain scale. Why?
Just ask: How many of our competitor brands in restaurants have been around for 20-years plus? Not one. How many of them have achieved consistent growth in 20 years? Not one. How many of our competitor chefs have had their restaurants opened for more than five years? Although they are still celebrity chefs, some of their restaurants have closed.

Nobu, on the other hand, has delivered consistently, whether the restaurant is in New York, London, Dubai or Manila. And this is our approach in growing Nobu Hospitality.  It is not just about consistency in operation but consistency in growing the hotels side.

If there is a Nobu restaurant in a city – as at the InterContinental Hong Kong (in Kowloon) – won’t you be competing with it if you open a Nobu Hotel in Hong Kong?
We would do a hotel on the Hong Kong side, not Kowloon. It is important that we are loyal to our partners. And they (InterContinental) have been great partners.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, November 13, 2015 issue, on page 8. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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