How Regent Hong Kong brings meaning back to brands

One of the industry's favourite moans is how brands have lost their value. Then comes the rebirth of Regent Hong Kong, which gives us some break from that despair over brand dilution. May there be more such breaks in the future

I stayed multiple times at the former Hotel InterContinental Hong Kong, which is now Regent Hong Kong, as it was from 1980 to 2001 before it became InterContinental.

Brands may change, but great hotels don’t. This hotel has always been special because of its location on the edge of Victoria Harbour, which makes guests feel as if they are on a cruise absorbing the most splendid views of the harbour and Hong Kong skyline.

The Regent brand returned to Hong Kong on November 8 with a big celebration

It’s also special because it’s a dining destination before the catchphrase was even invented. Then there’s that grand marble staircase leading to the ballroom that has witnessed many life moments. Service is courteous, caring and always consistent.

It is special because of its history. The hotel isn’t the first Regent hotel in the world, but it’s the one that made Regent famous. Robert Burns, who founded Regent, along with Adrian Zecha and Georg Rafael, reinvented luxury in the 80s with this hotel. Their vision was to create an innovative product that blends the best of Asian and Western hospitality. Put together three hotel supremos – an American, Asian and European – innovate they did, and the hotel captured the imagination of world travellers at a time fascination with the exotic Far East was rising.

Regent gave us what we take as a given in luxury hotels today, i.e., the five-fixture bathroom – bathtub, walk-in shower, separate toilet and two sinks. It eschewed the opulence of traditional grand hotels for something “simple yet elegant, modern yet timeless, global yet local”, in the words of Steven Pan, chairman of Regent Hotels & Resorts and owner of Regent Taipei, in a chat with me at the grand opening event on November 8.

But Regent went into wrong hands several times in its history. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts bought it, only to reflag Regent hotels in the choicest locations such as Bali as Four Seasons. Radisson put the brand on its cruise line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Were it to go into wrong hands again, Regent might be history. Fortunately, there’s a new ‘trio’ to reignite Regent, namely the brand’s new ownership under a joint venture between IHG and Steven Pan, and Gaw Capital Partners, which led the acquisition of the InterContinental in 2015 and its rebranding as Regent Hong Kong today.

A royally expensive renovation of Regent Hong Kong, believed to cost US$300 million, reflects the hotel owners’ commitment to reproduce the original top quality Regent hotel, yet one that will appeal to new travellers.

As Tom Rowntree, IHG’s vice president global luxury & lifestyle brands, told me, many of the great brands that exist today were built on the traditional cues of luxury, which no longer resonate with today’s clientele. Moreover, majority of wealth previously was inherited; today, it is earned, he said. That changes the way today’s new rich consume luxury – less formality, for instance, and more tailor-made to the individual rather than rigid conventions as in the past.

The new Regent Hong Kong is sleek, stylish and sensuous in elegant and quiet ways. There’s a distinct air of sophisticated modern Asia about it, a nod to its location. It also shows us how functionality and beauty can work well together. I’ve been to luxury hotels which are beautiful but utterly impractical, and others that are functional but sadly plain.

The overriding design of Regent Hong Kong is more ‘zen‘ than I expected. That was the plan; it’s listening to people’s desire for more moments of calm and well-being.

“Our property defines itself as ‘quiet luxury’, ‘serene environment’, ‘urban sanctuary’ and the designers (led by Chi Wing Lo) have achieved this. Then we bring in decadence through sumptuous dining, among many other ways,” said Michel Chertouh, Regent Hong Kong’s managing director.

Regent is back on an even keel because there’s a lot of love for the brand, a kind of fervour rarely seen in a hotel world overflowing with brands.

It reminds us that the industry is a better place if brands are meaningful and treasured, not a means for quick conversions or expansion.

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