Building lasting heritage

Under his leadership, YTL Corporation’s hotels and resorts division has grown beyond its Malaysia base to across Asia and the UK. Executive director of YTL Hotels, Mark Yeoh Seok Kah, tells S Puvaneswary why sustainability and conservation ethos remain a natural fit for the company as the family corporation’s hospitality arm scales up.

Sustainability is a key theme at YTL Corporation. How is this ethos translated to your hotel projects?
We started sustainability in the 1980s before it became fashionable. The green story is something we are really passionate about and it is part of our DNA. As the resorts operate in the proximity of protected areas or primary forests, and some of the resorts’ attractions also rely on the (health of) the ecosystems, extra care has been taken to assess and monitor any habitat changes and trends.

We also strongly encourage our guests to participate in activities with an environmental focus. We had a resident naturalist in Pangkor Laut Resort to show guests the nature and the two-million-year-old jungle on the island. Later, when we opened Gaya Island Resort in Sabah in 2012, we employed a marine biologist and resident naturalist. At Tanjong Jara Resort, we have a turtle hatchery.

YTL has preserved the heritage of luxury properties took on, from The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur, The Majestic Malacca and Tanjong Jara Resort, to the latest Monkey Island Estate. What drives your passion for heritage conservation?
I like history. Classic properties have its own unique DNAs which we are keen to preserve, while at the same time, modernise the facilities to provide comfort for today’s guests. The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur was once the Hotel Majestic, and later housed the National Art Gallery. I told then minister of culture, arts and tourism, Sabbaruddin Chik, that Kuala Lumpur did not have a classic hotel and he brought up the idea of converting the building into a hotel, which I thought was a brilliant idea.

After we took over the management and ownership of the Tanjong Jara Resort in Terengganu, we renovated it and enhanced its Malay cultural heritage. Its ethos and experiences are centred around the tagline “Unmistakably Malay” because that was what Terengganu was at the time. We are proud that it was awarded the Aga Khan award for architecture.

Monkey Island Estate, Bray-on-Thames (in the UK), which has a rich history dating back centuries, was recently relaunched after we did an extensive restoration to the Grade I listed building. The Monkey Room is particularly special, with its ceilings slathered in singerie, depictions of monkeys punting, fishing and hunting by French specialist, Andie de Clermont.

The most satisfying thing to me is when customers love our award-winning properties. This is the success of YTL Hotels.

How do you intend to grow business through the sustainability investments made?
It is about giving guests a complete experience. I think our guests like to be in an environment where they can also participate in our conservation efforts.

At the turtle hatchery in Tanjong Jara for example, guests can adopt nests. Through participation, people feel they are socially responsible and they have played a part in conserving nature, and this trend is growing. To grow the business, we have to tell the story of what we do and how guests can also be part of these efforts.

How do you see the hotel industry evolving?
The hotel business is a bit like the fashion business – you have to be relevant and understand the trends and your customers. In the 1980s, our clientele in Pangkor Laut Resort was predominantly western. As I had the benefit of a western education, I was able to understand their needs and how to satisfy them. For westerners, living in a wooden house is exotic to them because they had lost the history of living in a wooden house for the last 300 years.

I always tell my team, at the end of the day, we are purveyors of peoples’ dreams and fantasies.

Do you see YTL going into other categories of hotels as the group is currently focused on the luxury and business class segments?
Yes, we are always interested in good investments and getting into new segments where we can add value, especially if it fits into our demographic profiling of the segment of the market and investment philosophy. If there is a demand from millennials, then we would probably do a hotel for millennials.

The reason why we are in hotels is because we always believe we can build and design buildings 30 per cent cheaper, thus we have a 30 per cent head start over our competitors.

In Malaysia, how many YTL properties are there now and what kind of new hotel investments are you looking at?
We have 36 properties in 10 countries, and in Malaysia, we have 12 properties. We are looking at developing an Edition in Kuala Lumpur, an upmarket lifestyle hotel by Marriott International which will be the first in Malaysia. It will be located within Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle, close to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. We are also looking at having a second JW Marriott property in Kuala Lumpur and converting an office building to a hotel near Petaling Street. All these are currently in the planning stages.

As the second-generation chief of a family business, what’s different about your leadership?
There is not much difference between my leadership and that of my late father, Yeoh Tiong Lay. Leadership is about getting your fellow co-workers or whomever is with you to be in one complete alignment. It is the ability to get people to go in the direction you want them to. Leadership is also about making decisions, and engaging, motivating and educating the younger generation. This was what I learnt from my father. Young people, then and now, have to buy into the vision and the challenge; and if they are, they become goal-driven.

A little bit of history – my father encouraged me to go into the family business and start the hotel arm of the business. This was a new sector for us three decades ago. I learnt leadership from my father from my early childhood days when I used to follow him on site visits. At the time, we were strong in the construction industry.

What do you want to achieve next through your job?
I’d love to develop the next generation of employees. YTL Corporation has a hospitality school called YTL International College of Hotel Management, which has close to 1,000 students. We provide diploma and degree courses that are recognised. I spend a lot of time with our management developing talent development programmes for our trainees. Our hotel school has international standards, and I am so confident about the programmes that I guarantee every graduate a job within YTL Hotels.

I always like to tell the younger generation my story. At seven years old, I was walking barefoot in Kuala Selangor. Now, we are global leaders. The moral of the story is that you can be whatever you want to be provided you work hard.

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