Starck hotel by a 25 yr old in Hong Kong
'Princeling | Princess ' Starter'
Package - Real Estate 101
In just two years, Yenn Wong Pui-yain has launched her
own hotel from scratch, trained the staff and is showing an operating profit
after just six months.
All this at the age of 25 - with no experience in the
It helped that her father, semi-retired Singaporean
businessman Danny Wong Kiam-seng, put up the $120 million to buy the scruffy
25-storey residential property on Irving Street, Causeway Bay.
"He just said go do it, sort it out yourself. So
this is my baby," said Ms Wong. "My father is a self-made man and
firmly believes in letting me learn from my own mistakes."
Having bought the rundown 15-year-old building in what
she described as "this crazily busy part of Causeway Bay", she set out
to create an oasis of calm.
She teamed up with John Hitchcox, the business partner
of eccentric French design guru Philippe Starck, to create Jia, meaning
"home" in Mandarin, the first boutique hotel-style apartments in Asia.
"Home from home" and "style with
substance" were the twin goals. This was a big challenge for a novice
because the designers appeared only periodically, pontificated and went off
She soon understood the frustrations of working across
time zones and trying to order Italian marble and French furnishings during the
sacred European summer holiday months.
Staffing was the next headache. "It was so hard
to find the right people, I must have done a million interviews," she
sighed. Getting them to understand the boutique hotel concept was the hurdle.
"There are so many big hotels in Hong Kong and no
shortage of staff but it's become mechanical, ten-step training." The
problem was getting local staff to understand they were the hosts and guests
were their welcome friends, she said, adding many would do only what was in
their job description and no more.
"Their attitude is often, `If I don't do
something, then I won't make a mistake'."
Finally she got her 20 staff. Although several do not
have a hospitality background: "They understand what we are doing
As a result, she explained, even if Jia does not offer
impeccable service, guests can expect a caring, sincere attitude, which parents
with babies particularly appreciate. "Hong Kong hotels are not that child
friendly, so that's a big area of differentiation for us," she said.
And if the guest feedback is anything to go by, the
personal touch works. "People leave huge tips and write thank-you letters
to the staff. Sure, we're not like a five-star hotel, but it's about the feeling
people get when they are here."
What made her think she could succeed at the four- to
five-star level in a city saturated with competitors?
"I travelled a lot with my father and I knew what
I wanted from a hotel, from a frequent traveller's perspective," she said.
A big hotel may be excellent but it was always a hotel, she added.
She fears many have become star-obsessed Goliaths with
excessive service. "You can see what I mean in the movie Lost in
Translation - when the man walks into the lobby and everyone greets him.
"It's `Whatever I do, everyone knows my name,'
that can be overwhelming and annoying," she said. With Jia, there are no
stars, it's just back to the basics of providing good accommodation.
That begins with comfort and appropriate service. Jia
has 20 staff for its 57 suites and rooms but provides only buffet breakfast.
More staff will be needed when two hotel restaurants open next year. "We
don't overstaff, you won't walk into the lobby and find people milling
about," said Ms Wong.
Access to the hotel is secure, restricted to keycard
holders so the lobby is not an open thoroughfare. The general manager, Barry
Polson, is as likely to take your bag as the front desk receptionist.
With self-catering facilities, 360-degree revolving
flat-screen televisions, surround-sound systems and DVD units in the rooms,
guests rarely need to call housekeeping.
Ms Wong has strong feelings about hotels that fleece
guests with the phone bill.
She was shocked by a friend's experience at the Mercer
Hotel in New York last year, when a US$150 bill was presented for a five-minute
IDD call to Hong Kong plus US$25 was demanded for each of two local calls,
neither of which even connected.
Local calls at Jia were free, as was broadband access,
and the IDD charges were very reasonable, she said. "Limited access to the
internet in a hotel is very stressful. Why not have it on all the time and feel
So far, marketing has not been necessary, guests have
been attracted by word of mouth and press publicity. Of course, the
"designed by Philippe Starck" label had helped, she conceded.
This month she will hook up to a travel agent sales
network but occupancy is already running at a steady 70 per cent.
Guests range from businessmen to families with
children, even fashion models. "Only the very famous ones, otherwise they
couldn't afford it," said Ms Wong. Rack rates are in the four- to five-star
Jia's unique selling point, she believes, is the
experience it offers. "It's an intangible feeling rather than 10 people
chasing after you to serve you. It's a home in this crazy place where you can be
Her father is happy. She's in operating profit already
and, having paid $120m in 2001 and spent $60m on renovations, the building was
valued in March at $300 million for the property alone.
She thinks her own inexperience has been a big plus.
"I don't have a big ego, so I ask questions and learn from everyone."
- 2004 August 24 SOUTH
CHINA MORNING POST
Apartments, then hotel in
About a decade after Philippe Starck shocked and
delighted Hong Kong with a radical redesign of Felix restaurant atop the
Peninsula Hotel, the maverick French designer is back in town to develop his
first serviced apartments in the region.
The planned September unveiling of Jia By Yoo, a
57-unit project in Causeway Bay, is a collaboration between the designer and
renowned UK property guru John Hitchcox.
As Asia's first chance to live in a Starck-designed
home as opposed to just owning one of his distinctively reshaped objects, Jia By
Yoo is seen by many as the ultimate litmus test for a possible Starck hotel in
``A serviced apartment is fine for now but there may
be a hotel,'' he said by phone from Paris, where he was preparing to move to
Since launching Yoo in 1999, partners Hitchcox and
Starck have developed similar serviced apartments in every major metropolis from
Melbourne to Madrid. The idea, according to Hitchcox, is to offer residents a
prefabricated shell of a home with which a choice of Starck interiors can be
applied depending on personal tastes. These interiors include classic, minimal,
nature and culture designs.
Starck describes Jia By Yoo as ``helping people find
themselves'' in a warm family atmosphere, something that may be difficult to
achieve in a more formal hotel environment.
``We do that by allowing people to choose the
finishing of the apartment so that they can make themselves more healthy,'' he
This ability to transform just about any and every
object into a coveted masterpiece of beauty and function has helped mark him as
much more than just your typical toothbrush and table lamp designer.
Born in Paris in 1949 to an aircraft designer, Starck
hit the headlines in 1982 when then French president, Francois Mitterrand,
commissioned him to furnish his private residence in the Elysee Palace. Since
then, he has transformed countless landmarks, including a waste recycling plant
in Paris. Oddly enough, he just revamped French national newspaper Liberation
and, this week, London-based Virgin Records releases The Shadow, his
fifth album in four years and an ongoing project that is the main reason behind
his move to the UK.
``I live and work with music. People listen to music
but they do not understand. Music is a tool to dream, to concentrate, to work.
The album is a new concept in music. I produce albums for dancing, crying,
dreaming, concentrating, politicising,'' he said.
Starck's musical collaboration blossomed after he was
egged on by a president at the record label and ``a friend of mine for 30
years''. This resulted in a four-CD pack debut where the discs were called Consciousness,
Head, Heart and Body. His next album is entitled Light.
``I have no specialty. I have designed glasses,
watches, cars, planes, clothes, so why not music? I was scared at first but,
when I am scared, I work my best,'' he said.
This is perhaps why Starck, who turns 54 this year,
agreed to tackle one of his most personal projects to date, a logo for the
Italian city of Venice, where he has been a citizen for the past 15 years and
owns three properties.
The idea came from Paolo Costa, Venice's mayor. He
enlisted the designer to adjudicate over a competition last month for a Venice
logo that can be trademarked worldwide.
However, ``the results were not very good, as the
entries were of landscapes, gondolas, initials and abstractions with no
meaning'', Starck said.
Dissatisfied, he brought in French graphic designer
Thibaut Mathieu, who created the image of a winged lion against the letter V.
``The logo of the winged lion is a fantastic image
that is timeless and classic. It is very Venice and unique as it shows the power
of the history of Venice. The letter V means the next victory of Venice over the
future challenge of not being just a tourist trap or an entertainment park. It
shows that Venice will never be a place only for tourists and it will go back to
what it was: the most modern and creative city in the world,'' he said.
Is Hong Kong listening? - 2003
March 17 HONG