Q&A with Sanjay Nijhawan, COO, Guoman Hotels

The self-professed new kid on the block, Guoman Hotel Management is one of a number of firms eyeing up opportunities for development in Asia Pacific.

The Malaysian company, a subsidiary of GuocoLeisure Limited, has two brands – the upscale Thistle Hotels, and the five-star Guoman Hotels. Both brands are well established in the UK with the company possessing some 35 properties in the UK under the brands in total, predominantly under its Thistle Hotels brand.

In June, Guoman Hotel Management opened the Guoman Hotel in Shanghai – the first in a planned series of new hotels under the brands in the Asia Pacific region. Sanjay Nijhawan, chief international operating officer of Guoman Hotels, gives HM an update on the company’s plans for the Asia Pacific region and reveals how the company intends to reach its objective of as many as 50 properties in region over next five years.
 
You recently opened your first hotel under the Guoman brand in Asia – a 442-room property in Shanghai. What response have you had?
Very positive, very good, and this is without us officially launching. We don’t officially launch until the end of August. We’ve already shown some of our potential owners what the Guoman Shanghai is like and the feedback has been very positive.
 
What are your plans for Asia?
There are two brands we are bringing to this part of the world. One is Guoman Hotels and the other is Thistle. Guoman Hotels is a luxury brand, our five-star plus hotels, while Thistle is our four-star plus to five-star brand.

Thistle has been operational in the UK for 25-30 years. It’s a very established brand in the UK and we have about 30 properties in the country under that name.

Guoman is about four years old, a fairly new brand, and we have currently five properties in UK under that name. Our second Guoman is going to open in Beijing in early march next year.

We currently have two Thistles in Malaysia, and we are looking at opportunities for expanding both brands in Asia Pacific. The key focus is China and India. We are currently building another hotel in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur and we are debating whether that is going to be a Guoman or a Thistle at this stage. We have very aggressive plans for this part of the world. In the next four to five years, we want to have 45-50 properties in Asia Pacific.
 
Will these be new-build or management contracts?
We are not just going to build hotels, but we are also looking for management contracts. We are looking at all the opportunities given to us. There will be some properties we are going to build ourselves, but our key focus would be to look at management contracts and some leasing also.

For us, being the new kids on the block it’s an exciting time. We proved ourselves in the UK, we’ve got some very successful hotels there and so it’s a natural progression.
 
Which markets will you focus on?
I think the majority would be in China and then India. These are the two markets where we believe the opportunities are for us in the next 10-15 years. If you look at the hotel scene, where are the opportunities? It’s Asia, then China, India. [There are other possibilities]… give Bangladesh another 5-10 years, and that is going to be there. There are opportunities but I think the key focus for us will be China and India.
 
How do you expect to compete with the large number of established luxury brands also expanding in the region?
For us, there are so many opportunities. If you look at most of the established brands there, there is a lot of people coming in. What we want to do is try something a bit different for the owners. Every Guoman hotel is going to be unique. It’s going to be very different. We don’t have any cookie cutter hotels. We bring personal relationships, personal attention, the owners will have this interaction with us. We don’t have thousands of hotels over the world, we’re a small hotel company, we can pull out something very different to the owners which they probably don’t have today.
 
Who do you see as being in your competitive set?
Thistle is mainly Marriott, while Guoman is Shangri-La, Ritz-Carlton, Langham, the upper end.
 
Do you expect to open any other hotels this year?
Ask me in the next two or three months. We are actively looking and in discussions with different groups here.

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