‘On this issue I won’t compromise’ – Vladislav Doronin, owner of the Aman hotel chain on growing the business vertically, elegant simplicity, and future plans.
Text by Kristina Moskalenko
In March 2016, the High Court in London issued an order confirming a settlement, in which Russian developer, Vladislav Doronin, was to have full control of the luxury hotel chain, Aman. The lawsuit had begun over ownership rights: issues had arisen over them following Doronin’s acquisition of the chain for $358 million (with debts), in 2013. The deal had been instigated by American serial entrepreneur Omar Amanat. He had also tried to take an active part in it, while failing to meet his financial commitments in the partnership. In making the order, Mr Justice Henderson referred to Amanat as having “an established record of dishonesty”, and Amanat’s company, Peak Hotels & Resorts Limited, which was later forcibly wound up, agreed to pay Doronin £12 million in compensation to cover court costs, including those of Johan Eliasch who was a party to the lawsuit.
As a result of this settlement, Doronin now has full executive control of Aman, and he says, ‘Mr Amanat no longer has any association or connection with Aman’. The new holding company that owns the luxury hotel chain is AH Overseas Ltd.
… I met Vladislav Doronin at the Aman chain’s London office. A mirror-lined lift, an office interior suffused with the fragrance of scented candles – notes of lime, basil, mandarin, and sea salt; Vladislav couldn’t be more upbeat and attentive, and outside – Mayfair spring sunshine, Yevgeny Chichvarkin’s wine store, and Phillips auction house.
My first question isn’t original. It’s what everyone is, naturally, asking these days, but I have to ask it: why was it needed – a hotel chain with debts whose acquisition turned into a right old Santa Barbara-style soap opera in a London courtroom, with insults, accusations, and fake papers?
‘I first stayed in an Aman hotel in 1990, and was pleasantly surprised,’ Doronin begins, putting his smartphone down. ‘It was Amanpuri in Thailand: they pronounced my name and surname correctly, knew me by sight, and yet I enjoyed a sense of total confidentiality, like being at home, because nobody asked me to sign a bill, nobody asked for gratuities, and service was available around the clock, including a luxury spa and gym, and extending or making a new booking took seconds. From then on, I became a devotee of Aman hotels, and if I was going somewhere, I’d first check if I could stay at an Aman. There’s a special group of people – Aman junkies. I’m one – wherever I was travelling to, I’d always check if there was an Aman, and if there was, that’s where I’d stay. Travel is what I enjoy most, I’ve been virtually everywhere, but I love travelling just as much.’
But for him, Vladislav Doronin emphasises, Aman is no trophy investment: the hotel chain fits perfectly into his existing real estate portfolio. Aman’s traditional growth strategy has been to develop resort real estate with accommodation in individual private houses, and also villa sales, with the purchased villas always retained under Aman management. A new growth area has seen the construction of urban hotels with apartments. ‘I acquired Aman because it’s a luxury hotel brand, and I can see its growth potential.’
‘So, had you decided to buy a watch brand, you would have selected it on the same principle – a top brand objectively and your own personal choice?’
‘As far as watches go, I like Patek Philippe, and if the brand was for sale at a good price, I might acquire it.’ (He laughs.)
Doronin’s first decision as the chain’s owner was to restructure the company by introducing top management changes “because the company was being run along outdated lines”, and by investing in existing assets and new projects. $1.5 million was invested in just one new website.
However, none of the existing assets was sold. ‘My strategy has been to grow the brand in big cities. To create the same Aman, but vertically, not horizontally: the same service, the same perfect Asian design, the same feeling that you’re at a resort, whereas in actual fact you’re in a city centre. This is the new area of growth I’m personally working in with a new team. I can see the growth potential and I’m fully engaged in the process.’
Four new hotels have opened since the chain’s acquisition: Amandayan in China, Amanera in the Dominican Republic, Amanemu in southern Japan, and Aman Tokyo – the chain’s first urban hotel. Other new ventures have included the launch of the sailing ship Amandira, offering cruises through Indonesia for up to 10 guests, and private jet expeditions with in-depth sightseeing tours and stays at different Aman hotels.
‘The first urban Aman opened in Tokyo in December 2014,’ Doronin starts searching for photos on his smartphone, ‘and it was a total success.’ I have no reason to doubt him: in 2016, Wallpaper magazine design awards chose Aman Tokyo as the winner of its Best New Hotel category. The spa design at Aman Tokyo also came out top in the Tatler spa awards, and the spa at Amanzoe, Greece, was voted Most Zen Spa by American Express Travel. Occupancy for Aman Tokyo during its first year was above the sector average (according to Fortune magazine, the average occupancy for elite hotels is 76%; before Doronin’s acquisition of the chain, occupancy at Aman ran at around 30%).
‘I got a call from a friend, who was a hotel owner in America himself, and just back from Aman Tokyo, and he said, “You can easily charge double and I’ll pay because no hotel comes anywhere near Aman Tokyo”.’ The businessman then continues, ‘Aman data is unique: over 50% of our guests come back, and at some hotels, including Aman Venice and Aman Sveti Stefan in Chernogoria, Gross Operating Profit is about 50% up.’
The elegant simplicity of the contemporary Asian design, unrivalled levels of service, and healthy lifestyle indicate yet another new area the chain is developing in: reflecting the philosophy of holistic and Ayurvedic spa therapies, and anticipating the creation of new spas and retreats, and structured courses helping guests to relax, de-stress, restore equilibrium, improve fitness and health, and lose weight.
‘As a result, a full range of relaxation programmes have been designed (5 – 21 days in length), and now available at Amanpuri,Thailand, Amanbagh, India, and Amanoi, Vietnam.’ And then Vladislav Doronin starts showing photos of the latest programme running at Amangiri in America. ‘One of the additional inclusions has been the spiritual practices performed by Bhutan monks. Material values don’t matter to them, but they do appreciate Aman’s philanthropic initiatives. For example, recently we made a donation towards the construction of schools and nurseries in Bhutan.’
‘Vladislav, Fortune magazine again wrote that the previous owner, Indonesian entrepreneur, and company founder Adrian Zecha, could spend $350,000 on the design of just one room. Are you continuing to do things like that?’
‘But what exactly is included in those costs? If they include architecture, interior design, furnishings, and construction, then that figure’s too low! Aman is a luxury hotel brand, and building costs are high. Of course, there’s a project budget, but I get the architects to focus on designing a perfect masterplan and layout plans, and using the latest technology. For instance, for Aman Tokyo the Kerry Hill Architects team designed an open lobby seven storeys high. The sensation you experience in there is that of being inside a Japanese lantern. We sacrificed those square metres for the sake of the Aman Tokyo design concept which was to be unique. Our new Tokyo hotel is directly opposite the Imperial Palace and Gardens. I’m not going to lower the bar.’
…Now Aman is looking for locations for new urban hotels in its chain in New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, São Paulo, and Mexico – figuratively speaking, opposite the equivalent of the Moscow Kremlin. ‘If we don’t find such a location in one of those cities, we’ll wait and keep searching until we do find the right one,’ says Doronin confidently. ‘I’ve been working in real estate for 25 years now, and I know that location is the number-one factor. On this issue I won’t compromise.