Room to grow

Demand for serviced apartments in Asia-Pacific is expected to grow this year but more needs to be done to realise the full potential of the market

20apr_story4_1From left: Ascott Raffles Place Singapore; Modena Putuo Shanghai; Oakwood Premier Pune 

Serviced apartments in the Asia-Pacific region have been experiencing a reversal of fortunes since the global financial crisis (GFC) in late 2008 pummelled the sector.

Demand continued to rise last year and the uptrend is widely anticipated to spill into this year. Cheaper rates charged by serviced apartments – 15 to 20 per cent lower than before the GFC – are helping to fuel both business and leisure arrivals. Simultaneously, business travel, the core market for branded serviced operators, is growing at a robust pace within Asia as foreign direct investment continues to stream in and companies continue to extend their footprint in the region.

Frasers Hospitality’s group director of sales and marketing, Joanne Ang, forecasts that bookings for the group’s serviced apartments in Asia-Pacific will grow by 15 to 20 per cent by end-2012.

Jia En Teo, co-founder and COO of Roomorama, an online booking engine that specialises in non-hotel accommodation, expects to also “more than triple the number of travellers from Asia using our service in 2012”. Roomorama has 100 primarily unbranded serviced apartments in Asia-Pacific in its system.

“Awareness among Asians about the concept of serviced apartments and their brands is growing,” said Teo, attributing it to the presence of prominent players such as Ascott, Frasers Hospitality, Far East Hospitality and Oakwood Asia-Pacific, which have shaped the industry in the region.

“In Europe and the US, fewer brands occupy the serviced residences sector and, as such, the concept is not as well-known outside the major urban centres,” she said.

Market sources
China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia are the main source markets for serviced apartments in the Asia-Pacific region, according to industry members interviewed.

Housing staff who have been relocated or have been assigned short-term projects still constitutes the bulk of corporate business for branded serviced residences. However, according to a Global Serviced Apartment Report 2011-12 published by The Apartment Service Worldwide, serviced apartments in the region are being increasingly used by corporate clients for extended stays of over a week but under a month.

Ang said guests at Frasers’ properties in Asia-Pacific stay for three to six months on average and 80 per cent of bookings come from corporate firms, with the exception of properties which can accommodate shorter stays. However, Frasers also sees an increase in stays from guests working on projects, as well as leisure bookings.

The increase in leisure guests at serviced residences can be attributed chiefly to the premise that serviced apartment rates can be as much as 30 per cent lower than rates charged by hotels in a similar category. “More leisure travellers perceive them as good value-for-money alternatives, especially if they are staying for more than three or four days in a destination with a large group of friends or family,” said Roomorama’s Teo.

But while awareness of serviced apartments is rising as a whole, marketing intermediaries and corporate travel managers believe many multinational companies as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises based in North and South-east Asia are still deeply unaware of the advantages in using this accommodation. Many still use hotels to house employees for a month or more.

In fact, few firms in Asia issue clear guidelines on when serviced apartments should be used.

“When it comes to travel policy, I have not come across a clear definition of when (business) travellers should use serviced apartments versus hotels. Most clients who use both hotels and serviced properties tend to make their decisions based on which property offers the lowest logical rate at the time of booking, rather than other criteria,” said Mike Orchard, senior director, CWT Solutions Group, Asia-Pacific, Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

For serviced apartments to become a top-of-the-mind alternative for corporates seeking extended and long-term stay accommodation, Orchard advises operators to focus on certain industry sectors.

“Consulting, project-driven organisations, and firms in the mining and financing industries are prime targets as they tend to have a higher proportion of long stays,” he said.

Serviced apartments should also consider integrating their reservation systems with that of the GDSs to gain more traction with corporate clients, suggested Orchard, while highlighting areas of interest close to the serviced apartments such as facilities, activities and services in nearby areas.

He said: “It’s about getting the message across that serviced apartments offer more than a box standard (hotel) room.”

To nurture demand from the leisure market, serviced apartments have to focus on educating consumers, said Teo. “Highlight the innate advantages that serviced apartments bring within the marketing collateral – for instance their ability to offer travellers a ‘home away from home’, and the opportunity to experience living like a local,” she said.

Building blocks 

More units are opening and operators are stepping up their game to win over more guests to serviced apartments

Serviced apartment operators are intent on widening their presence across Asia-Pacific as the region continues to prosper amid a global economic slowdown.

Optimism among operators remains high, as demand from the corporate sector, the core market for serviced residences, continues to climb (see above), and as more leisure travellers use this accommodation in place of hotels.

Robert Hecker, managing director, Horwath HTL Asia-Pacific, said: “There is still room for growth and lots of opportunities in the Asia-Pacific serviced apartment sector, especially out of Australia.”

“There are lots of intra-regional business activity, and more individuals and businesses now view serviced units as an alternative to hotels. Demand should remain strong, and this will continue to power the growth in supply.”

Singapore-based Ascott, the largest branded serviced apartment operator globally, plans to open more than 40 serviced residences with over 8,300 apartment units in first- and second-tier cities in China, alongside major urban centres such as Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

Ultimately, the chain hopes to achieve 40,000 apartment units worldwide by 2015, effectively doubling the size of its current portfolio. Over 70 per cent of these are expected to be based in the Asia-Pacific region.

Tony Soh, Ascott’s chief corporate officer, said: “In China, which we have earmarked for aggressive expansion, besides expatriates and foreign tourists, a rising number of domestic business travellers are staying at our serviced residences.”

“In India, the shortage of international-class accommodation presents opportunities for Ascott to tap unmet demand from both foreign and domestic tourists.”

“Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines also have significant potential for serviced residences due to increasing foreign direct investment and tourist arrivals.”

Frasers Hospitality, another game changer in the Asia-Pacific serviced residences sector, currently operates 35 properties in Asia-Pacific. This year, the firm intends to open properties in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Beijing, Gurgaon (New Delhi), Melbourne and Perth.

20apr_story4_2From left: Hecker: lots of opportunities; Soh: redesigning experience; 
Leong: deliver on the promise

Plans are also underway to determine the feasibility of opening further properties in Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as in emerging destinations including Cambodia and Myanmar.

“Frasers is taking calculated and strategic steps to ensure that we expand our footprint across Asia and the Pacific in a sustainable manner as we capitalise on current trends, such as the growth in demand for serviced suites, while developing a better understanding of our current and potential customers, and developing new ways to engage them,” said Jastina Balen, director of group branding and communications, Frasers Hospitality.

Oakwood Asia-Pacific, a smaller branded player in the region, has several projects in the pipeline, chiefly in China and India. By the end of the first quarter, the chain is scheduled to open Oakwood Premier Guangzhou, its sixth property in China and also its first luxury brand in the country.

In China, with the opening of Oakwood Premier Guangzhou, Oakwood will offer almost 1,500 serviced apartments in six key cities, namely Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

“China’s economic development has led to an increase in business activities and corporate expansion of many multinational and large-scale domestic companies, generating an increasing demand for serviced apartments especially to accommodate senior executives,” said Caroline Leong, marketing director, Oakwood Asia-Pacific.

In addition, the company hopes to manage nine more properties in India by 2014 in major urban centres including New Delhi and Hyderabad. Currently, the company manages 25 properties in China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan.

One of the main priorities for serviced residence operators expanding in the region is ensuring that service standards remain consistent. A way to achieve this is to step up employee training, something operators said they were focusing on.

“Operations-wise, we endeavour to live up to our promise of offering the Oakwood Gold Standard of service by placing a priority on training our people – motivating and empowering them to fulfil our residents’ and clients’ needs,” said Leong.

Rising affluence and a broader range of travel experiences mean Asians are now more discerning than ever. Serviced operators have acknowledged this attitudinal shift, and are adapting to meet the evolving needs and desires of Asian travellers.

Ascott, for example, will be rolling out a series of consumer-centric initiatives designed to make guests feel more at home. “We want to redesign the experience guests have while staying in Ascott properties through the insights gained from our improved reservation and property management systems,” said Soh.

Frasers is adopting a similar strategy. Balen said: “Based on data gleaned from our customer relationship management system, Frasers is hoping to roll out customer-centric programmes and products that will better meet the needs and desires of our existing and potential clients in the near future.”

This article was first published in TTG Asia, April 20 issue, on page 9. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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