Hospitality Industry

The Alila journey: In conversation with co-founder Mark Edleson

Episode 1- Series - Conversations with hospitality entrepreneurs & leaders

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Alila – meaning ‘surprise’ in Sanskrit - was founded in 2001 on the back of personalized hospitality, private spaces and bespoke journeys. Today, Alila is one of the most well-known luxury brands in Asia and has 16 hotels globally, each in unique locations across 6 countries. In a webinar with EHL, Co-Founder Mark Edleson shared with us the story of how the brand came to be – beginning from his ardour for the Southeast Asian region, to his adventures scouring for new hotel sites with Aman – and how the Alila brand has risen to the prominence it enjoys today.

How was the Alila conceived

Alila was inspired by Aman. We wanted to bring a little more flexibility in matters such as pricing and marketing, as well as cash-flow management; but their design, spirit, soul, personalized service, architecture and choice of locations – we wanted to try to emulate that.

[At first,] I wasn’t sure whether Alila was going to grow beyond these first three hotels. But as that process developed, I decided that we should move to Singapore and establish the headquarters of Alila. By that time, we had developed regional and perhaps global aspirations and having grown Mandara Spa from Bali, I knew how difficult it was to grow an international brand from Bali, so we moved to Singapore.

We created some values of sustainability, culture, community and nature. These are all things that had appealed to me and why I originally got into hospitality – because I’m interested in design and the cultures, and lived with the cultures of Southeast Asia. The properties that we were developing in places like Ubud and Manggis were very much dependent on their location and the support of the local community. In Bali, many hotels have conflicts with their local communities, and it’s hard to survive under those circumstances. Our business’ sustainability is dependent on the sustainability of the villages and the beautiful environments in which we operate. This belief developed the foundations of Alila from the Bali core, which was very critical to us, especially when our flagship Alila Villas in Uluwatu, as well as Alila SCBD Jakarta were developed.

We did have setbacks along the way; we had gained a few, we lost a few. We had to be opportunistic. Not every hotel in the portfolio was ideal or perfectly suited to our core values. But whatever it was, we were able to impose our values on it and I think our customer base appreciated that. Our repeat guests could see that in each hotel, there was something of the spirit of the destination. It was about the attention to detail and good hospitality, so the brand continued to prosper.

Lessons for Hospitality

Building independent brands

More than ever, I think there are opportunities to do creative things, particularly in the resort business. Resorts are unique because when people travel to cities, often it’s on business and you look for convenience, location etc. When you travel on leisure, you tend to look for something that is unique in each destination – you want to immerse yourself in it. I still believe strongly in the spirit of what we did [with Alila] and I encourage people to do that.

But I can see it being done by people who have the financial resources, maybe to develop three to five hotels and put their own brand with a small, dedicated team for that in-house brand and eliminate third-party fees. I see that even with KP Ho in Banyan Tree, who started with a good base of land and properties; or with Sonia Cheng in Rosewood or the Kwee family growing the Capella brand – big families with large resource bases that don’t have to be too opportunistic. I believe that the financial returns in hospitality are in the real estate more than the management. I think it’s very difficult [to build your own brand] unless you have the resources to really build out the brand yourself.

The impact of COVID-19 on hospitality, health and wellness

I think it’s anybody’s guess these days how the industry is going to adapt to COVID. Smaller, more villa-style hotels, for those who can afford it, give people social distancing opportunities. But [beyond that,] I think that wellness will continue to grow – and not just the cleanliness or spa treatments, but into various holistic aspects of wellness: cuisine, eating, diet, exercise, sleep; all of these elements of wellness.

I’m hoping that COVID is another wake-up call from nature that if you don’t take heed of nature, COVID will seem like nothing when New York is flooded, or when the Maldives is gone. COVID is just a reminder of how powerful nature is. When you see the reactions to COVID, the people who have respected nature and science seem to be doing better in dealing with it – so that’s my argument for hotels moving not only into wellness, but also to sustainability in their operations.

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