Inventors of the Aman Resorts, the exclusive holiday hideaway, are putting major plans for expansion into action. Claire Wrathall is granted a rare audience
The business grew and was sold last year for $358 million to a consortium of investors (now bought out) led by the billionaire Russian construction magnate Vladislav Doronin. It has not been a straightforward takeover, however. Rather an acrimonious and widely reported dispute with another former investor continues to grind through the courts. But under Doronin’s chairmanship, the Aman brand is beginning to show signs both of exponential expansion and diversification, both in terms of the hotels it operates and the locations they are found in.
Its first uncompromisingly urban high-rise hotel, a project begun when Zecha was still in charge, opened last winter at the top of the Otemachi Tower in Tokyo’s business district. By Christmas, a golf resort will open in the Dominican Republic (not a nation one associates with high-net-worth travellers). It will be followed, early next year, by a second Japanese property, this time a hot-spring resort overlooking Ago Bay (known as the Bay of Pearls) in Ise Shima National Park, 25 minutes by helicopter from Nagoya, near the small city of Shima where next spring’s G7 summit will be held.
As Doronin tells me when we meet in Aman’s swish London office, “We are now global: we range from Utah [where Amangiri is perhaps the most striking property in the entire portfolio] to Tokyo.” By next spring, there will be 30 Aman hotels in 21 countries. Within the decade, “Maybe 10 or 15 more: in Africa [Gabon and Mozambique are mentioned], Latin America [potential ventures in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and a tented camp in the Galapagos], the Middle East, China… and some urban developments. Tokyo is achieving very good results so we want to concentrate on major cities: London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong…”
Don’t hold your breath, though. As Jolivet explains, “We always have about 50 projects under consideration. Out of those, we will enter some kind of agreement on maybe 20. And out of those, construction will start on five.” For he and Doronin are at pains to emphasise that Aman’s core values, which the latter defines as “Amazing locations, beautiful design and remarkable service: [a] combination [that] makes you feel nice and is very pleasant to stay in, where you feel totally relaxed so you recover very quickly,” will not change. He may want to make the company more profitable: “Occupancy is [already] higher because we have a very good new team,” he notes coolly. But it’s not just about money. He too, I notice, is wearing a beaded dharma bracelet on his right wrist and is sensitive to the “different energies” one encounters at Aman Resorts.
Indeed before long he is telling me not just about the “happy” atmosphere he discerns at Aman Tokyo, but about his interest in qijong, the ancient Chinese system of breathing, meditation and endurance that he practises under the tutelage of a Chinese “monk”, a “master” who cannot merely manipulate time – “two hours is like five minutes” – but materials. To wit there is a terrifying clip on YouTube of Doronin working out, so to speak, in which the sharp end of a spear is rested against his throat as its shaft is snapped and he cracks marble tiles against his skull, all with scarcely a grimace. Hard headed he may be in business, but he is hard headed literally, too.
Born in Leningrad, Doronin left the Soviet Union aged 22 in 1985, the year Gorbachev came to power, to work as a commodity broker in Geneva. By the early 1990s, he was living in Hong Kong and taking holidays at Aman Resorts, though in those days there were barely half a dozen of them, mostly in Indonesia.
“It was a unique experience for me,” he says of his first stay at Amanpuri. “I was very impressed.” After which, as he puts it, he “started to get addicted, so when I scheduled my travel I would try to find an Aman wherever I was going. I became an Amanjunkie. I’ve been to all Aman Resorts.” Has he a favourite? “I like very much Amanjena, Amanyara, Amangiri…” He tails off at Aman-i-Khás, a tented camp on the edge of India’s pre-eminent tiger reserve, the Ranthambore National Park.
In 1993, however, having returned to Russia, he founded Capital Group, Moscow’s leading real-estate developer, which has to date completed more than 70 major construction projects. Moving into the hospitality industry was then, he says, a natural progression. “I had learned the business by building and developing hotels in Moscow and always thought I would like to buy a hotel chain.”
Not that he plans radically to transform Aman. Rather his intention is “to make it a better, more 21st-century’ company and ‘to use new, talented architects”. He won’t name names – “Every time I want to do something, people copy it, so I cannot tell you right now” – but he clearly cares about design. His London home is set in a development designed by Richard Rogers. And his Russian residence, in the plutocratic enclave of Barvikha, 20 miles west of Moscow, is the work of Zaha Hadid; an extraordinary spaceship of a structure, with its own cinema, spa, meditation garden, eight-car garage and nightclub.
He is, however, prepared to talk up John Heah – “He’s very talented. I’m sure he’s going to be a big success” – the Hong Kong-born, London-based architect of Amanera, which opens on the cliff above the mile-long beach near Playa Grande on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic this winter. With a backdrop of the Cordillera Septentrional mountains, its 25 sea-facing casitas are set amid 2,000 acres, 20 per cent of it rainforest, another 370 acres of which is a golf course originally designed by Robert Trent Jones as the “Pebble Beach of the Caribbean”. Ten of its 18 holes are directly “on the water,” Doronin enthuses, “which is very rare, unique”. Is he a keen golfer? I ask, noting that there’ll also be an 18-hole championship golf course at forthcoming Amanemu in Shima. “I play, yes. But the problem with golf is that you need to have a lot of time, and I’m quite busy.”
Golf may not hitherto have been a pastime readily associated with Aman, but as Doronin points out, the original Amanenthusiasts are the far side of 50 now. Does he worry that its demographic is ageing? On the contrary, for their children are now Amanjunkies too, and their grandchildren will soon be if the kids’ clubs – hitherto anathema to Aman – that several resorts are introducing, meet expectations. “They’re very discreet,” says Jolivet. And low-tech. “No video games or anything.” At Amanyara in Turks & Caicos, for instance, “We’ve done some things with National Geographic.”
Having previously worked for the family friendly all-inclusive Club Med, one might suppose Jolivet’s appointment as CEO last year was a sign that Doronin wanted to broaden Aman’s appeal to a wider though still big-spending constituency (Aman rates tend to start at four figures). In fact, though, Jolivet was hired by Zecha and has been with Aman since 2008, one of the few senior management staff to have survived the regime change and clearly the custodian of Aman’s brand values.
So what is it, does he believe, that defines an Aman? “First, space,” he says. “Space informs everything. Second is intimacy. Even though you have space, you still want to be pampered, to feel comfortable. Number three is outstanding service. The difference between a good hotel and an excellent hotel depends on the staff. And discretion is very important,” he adds. Not least because of the number of loyal celebrity clients Aman has on its books. (“We do not name names,” says Doronin properly, not that it curtailed press coverage of David Beckham’s star-studded 40th birthday at Amanjena in Marrakech in May, nor the Clooney wedding at Aman Canal Grande in Venice last year.)
But lest this sounds as though Jolivet has memorised a checklist, he is quick to stress that actually at an Aman nothing comes as “standard”. Rather Amans are about surpassing expectations; that’s what engenders such loyalty among its fanbase. “We have no SOPs [hotel-industry jargon for ‘standard operating procedures’],” he says. “Anyone who asks about SOPs is fired. There are no standardised rooms, no standardised dimensions or designs. Everything is different. Everything is unique.” Which is why, says Doronin, “When you go to Aman you feel like you’re at home.”