The Indian who tackled HK’s hospitality hitches

Girish Jhunjhnuwala is the founder and CEO of the Ovolo Hotel Group and a successful entrepreneur based in Hong Kong. He received the Hong Kong Business Award for Owner Operator, the city’s most prestigious business award in 2012.
Girish, whose mantra is ‘think different’ and ‘challenge conventions’, speaks about his dynamic hospitality company, his contribution to the hotel industry and how he tackled HK’s hospitality hitches.

Q: Being an Indian, what is so striking about doing business in HK? How has HK supported in your endeavours?

Hong Kong is one of the best places to do business in the world. Our reputation for the rule of law and transparency, combined with a low tax environment and world class logistical networks, have fostered a free flowing economy and buzzing business community eager to support new ideas.
The city’s transformation into a global travel hub with an attractive cosmopolitan lifestyle has been a real boon to the hospitality industry. I would not have been able to grow Ovolo Hotels if the neighborhoods surrounding our original properties in Central and Sheung Wan had not been free to develop into the hotspots of commerce and entertainment they now are today. With the city’s first class MTR train expanding towards our two newer hotels in Aberdeen we look forward to being a part of the next chapter of Hong Kong’s remarkable story.

Q: You’ve created an environment that encourages and sustains the region’s entrepreneurial spirit in HK. How did you do this?

I have always stressed the importance of maintaining an energetic startup atmosphere in orderto succeed and innovate within the workplace. At Ovolo, we sustain a fairly horizontal management and transparent structure across departments through a powerful shared vision ‘Shiny Happy People All Around’. Our teams are trusted with a great deal of ownership and responsibility over their roles and are empowered to make improvements in their areas of work. This is in direct opposition to conventional hotel chains, where job roles are rigid and SOPs define every element of your work life.
The positive effects of our approach are twofold. Firstly, we delegate decision-making with the confidence our managers know what their objectives are, while maintaining a degree of flexibility to cater to our customers evolving needs. Secondly, with a more transparent structure you develop a team of like-minded, multi-skilled people who are more likely to stay committed to the company and benefit the community in the long haul.

Q: What inspired you to move from watch manufacturing to hotel business?
I saw that watches were largely becoming a sunset industry.Mobile phones capturedthat market.My own kids were not even wearing watches. There was limited space to innovate. With a computer you can add more memory but 24 hours is all you ever have with a watch, and you can’t make time go faster or last longer.
The move into property came when I stumbled upon a building complex for sale on 2 Arbuthnot Road, Central Hong Kong. I researched and found that there was a shortage in quality longer-term accommodation in Hong Kong at the time so decided to enter the serviced apartment market. I wanted to bring in fresh concepts about interior design, technology and guest experience originally seen in boutique establishments in places like New York City. From there, we quickly grew to four serviced apartments within eight years before transitioning into the hotel sector in both Hong Kong and Australia to capitalize on the surge in visitors across both markets.

Q: Tell us about your contribution to HK’s hospitality industry….

I travelled a lot when I was in the watch business. When I would return to Hong Kong, I found myself asking why such an innovative, vibrant city lacked the forward-thinking hospitality scene of other international hubs. At the time operators were getting away with a dated product and sky-high rents. I knew there was more we could offer, so started Ovolo Hotels.
From the outset, focusing on today’s traveller was key.A major part of this was embracing technology. We were the first serviced apartments with plasma TVs and then the first hotels with AppleTV installed in every guestroom. We have now taken this commitment a step further, through a partnership with HKBN, becoming the first group to provide free super speed Wi-Fi in-room and also access to thousands of hotspots around the city.
How we develop our properties is also quite unique to Hong Kong. We transform existing buildings into hotels instead of an empty lot so every project has a different interior character and room types.Nowhere is this more apparent than our newest hotel – Ovolo Southside – Hong Kong’s first official industrial-to-hotel conversion. We spent three years delicately constructing this hotel to be an iconic venue within a shell of a former warehouse.For our efforts we have been handpicked by Claus Sendlinger, Founder & CEO of Design Hotels, to be a part of their prestigious worldwide collection.

Q: How have you solved HK’s hospitality hitches?

A lot of businesses say they are customer-focused but we really deliver. Ovolo has always been an all-inclusive service concept that provides complimentary Breakfast, complimentary super speed Wi-Fi, complimentary Minibar and much more as standard. We don’t nickel and dime over internet or minibar fees like some other hoteliers.
In addition, our commitment to creating attractive, light-filled and spacious interiors separates us from the field. Every room in our Ovolo hotels and serviced apartments has gone through hundreds of design revisions to ensure that every space delivers the maximum in comfort and functionality for guests with plenty of outlets to charge. It is this dedication to detail that has been the cornerstone of our success.

Q: Tell us about your F&B business in HK…

F&B is a growing part of our portfolio here in Hong Kong. This includes Café O, a health-focused European-style deli and coffee shop brand whichwas started by my wife in 2004. They currently operate three cafes in Central and Mid-Levels, and five kiosks in supermarkets, malls and most recently Admiralty MTR.
Inside Ovolo Southside we have just launched CIRQLE, a modern Mediterranean restaurant, and ABOVE, our first rooftop bar. This is the first time Hong Kongers will get to experience Ovolo in this way, and we are excited to show it off. We have high hopes that both venues will become destination dining and entertainment spots for travelers on the south side of the island.

Q: What’s the future of family-run enterprises in HK?

Being a fully privately-run family-owned business has been an advantage to Ovolo in terms of flexibility and sustainability. When you take on a partner you run a risk they might not understand your business or pull-out at the first sign of stress. This occurred with several of our competitors who had banking partners during the global financial crisis. They were forced to close or change their business while we remained free in our decision to stick it out.
With all this said, I do not believe family-run enterprises are necessarilythe way forward. Today’s communications technology allows you to network with thousands of more like-minded people than ever before. You are more likely to find that next big idea or business partner on LinkedIN.

Q: Do you have any plans to diversify?

Yes, we have moved into Australia through three newacquisitions in 2014: BLUE Sydney and Hotel 1888 in Sydney, as well as Oaks on Lonsdale in Melbourne, Australia. We successfully opened our first Melbourne hotel in 2012 and the market remained very receptive to hospitality investment and new ideas. These purchases are part of our aggressive brand expansion strategy across Australia. We were presented a unique opportunity to reinforce our presence in the Australian hotel market and are taking it.

Q: As a successful businessman, what’s your message to young entrepreneurs?

Don’t accept the norm just because people tell you that’s the way things are. Think different and at the same time be patient- because great ideas take time.

This story was published in www.theindiandiaspora.com

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