Eleven years ago, a most unusual proposal reached the office of Olivier Jolivet. Chinese businessman Ma Dadong conveyed to Aman Resorts’ chief executive his desire to save a precious piece of Chinese history. With the construction of a reservoir, an area within his hometown of Jiangxi province that housed ancient villages and camphor trees was doomed for almost certain destruction.
What ensued was an audacious rescue effort spanning more than a decade, involving Aman, Ma, a team of botanists, engineers, architects and craftsmen. Fifty Ming and Qing dynasty houses were disassembled, transported over 800km to Shanghai and then put together again by craftsmen, the few remaining in China with knowledge of ancient building techniques.
When it opens next year, this upcoming resort – Aman’s fourth property in China – will be the luxury hotel group’s “most ambitious” project to date. Jolivet says: “It would be an achievement when we open this property – and I don’t say this for all our projects. It has been the benchmark for difficulty.
“The magnitude and cost of this project is beyond everything we have done so far. We’re rescuing not only the 10th century houses and trees; it’s the stone of the streets, it’s everything. People are telling us, you guys are crazy. Why don’t you do something simpler like a tower? You build it in three years and make a lot of returns. But that’s not our business model. That’s not the brand of Aman.”
Over 10,000 camphor trees were transported by tens of thousands of trucks over mountainous terrain. It was a race against time to ensure their survival at the new location. And never mind the effort it took to produce the resort’s artefacts using ancient techniques. “I said (to our partner), ‘We are never going to be on time.’ But he told me that it was okay. Time doesn’t matter when you do things right, like it was done in the old days.”
After all, Aman has never been one to go the conventional route.
What does it take to create Aman’s upcoming sanctuary in Shanghai? Nothing less than transplanting an entire ancient city over 800km in a project spanning 11 years.
THE NARROW WAY
“Aman is what you don’t do at hotels,” Georg Rafael, the founder of the Rafael hotel chain, once famously said. Indonesian-Chinese hotelier Adrian Zecha arrived in Phuket intending to build a holiday home for himself, but ended up realising Aman’s first ground-breaking resort Amanpuri in 1988.
Due to its small number of rooms, banks refused loans to Zecha. His ultra-luxurious boutique concept would never work, naysayers sneered.
As the story goes, room rates at Amanpuri hit an outrageous high of US$250 per room, compared to average room rates in Phuket of US$75 at the time.
(RELATED: Why You Should Care About Phuket’s Resorts Boom.)
Today, few in the hospitality world can match Aman’s exclusivity. Its locations border on the otherworldly (think praying with monks in the temples of Borobudur); and its sophistication, unparalleled (think the most intuitive service, with a staffto customer ratio of 4:1). And there’s its almost hyperbolic attention to creating an exquisite environment.
“It’s part of us to restore historical buildings, to bring the history of a country back to the surface again with the local people. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years,” says Jolivet.
Such is Aman’s uncompromising stance that Jolivet admits the risk the brand has taken in its upcoming Shanghai property. “I don’t know if this project is going to make great returns. But we looked at (Ma’s) proposal, and we said, ‘Okay, you’re crazy, and sometimes Aman is also a bit crazy – maybe we can do something together.’”
The 43-year-old Frenchman has front-row access to the enigmatic workings of a brand that is synonymous with discretion and for being an exquisite hideaway for the world’s ultra-rich. In person, Jolivet is similarly subtle and clearly private. During our interview at Jolivet’s office in Orchard Spring Lane, we tried to look for clues to what has been referred to as a secret club but to no avail. Little is revealed in his office with its minimalist interiors, save for family portraits and a wall of drawings by his two young daughters.
During the photo shoot at his office, Jolivet was open to direction yet clearly in control. He decisively selected his preference for designer glasses, and even directed our makeup artist: “Do I need some powder? Because my face will be very shiny.”
Aman’s clientele includes celebrities, royalty, business elites and the ultra-rich, including the late Princess Diana, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and George Clooney, who are part of a fiercely loyal tribe of repeat customers called Aman Junkies.
Now under the sole ownership of its chairman, Russian billionaire and real estate mogul Vladislav Doronin, Aman can continue to dictate its own terms. It opens one or two properties a year – there are currently 31 resorts across 20 countries; development decisions are not based on the bottom line; and the number of rooms within its properties is characteristically limited.
“In hospitality today, everybody wants to the biggest. It’s all about consolidation. We are very exclusive and we are lucky because we are very private,” Jolivet says.
“We say no when it’s not good for an Aman. We don’t open a hotel for the sake of opening a hotel. It takes a lot of time to open an Aman and to develop it. We need to find somewhere that represents the soul of the city. At the end of the day, when all these brands are very big, they don’t mean anything. They all want to copy us in the high-end segment but I trust in the power of being authentic as long as we keep innovating. In 20 to 50 years, the one who is successful is the one who has never compromised their brand and with the highest return guest ratio. Aman is best positioned for it.”
Despite being slightly reticent when we first meet, somewhere mid-way through our interview, he relaxes, revealing a wry humour and a willingness to divulge a secret or two. We begin to discover how Aman’s and Jolivet’s journey have strangely intertwined.
THE CHOSEN ONE
Born in the town of Annemasse, a city on the French/Swiss border, Jolivet spent his childhood in Morocco and Ivory Coast. Mum was a teacher, while Papa worked for the foreign offi ce. From an early age, he remembers being “open to the world”. He says: “I had to read fi ve books a week and answer questions about history. My parents gave me a taste of travelling and discovering the world.”
His earliest ambition was to become a professional tennis player, but acknowledging his own lack of talent, he pursued an MBA in France, Germany and United Kingdom, before joining McKinsey & Company as a consultant in Germany for three years.
At 26, through his contacts in consulting, he was offered an opportunity to enter the world of hospitality by joining Club Med in Asia. He recalls: “I’d thought that relocating to Asia was never on the cards for me until I worked for McKinsey and was approached by then CEO of Club Med, Philippe Bourguignon, who offered me a position to restructure Club Med’s assets in the Asia-Pacific.”
While his initial plan was to stay in Asia for only two years and return to France if all else failed, he ended up feeling at home in Singapore, getting married here, and eventually assuming the role of chief development and real estate offi cer at Club Med. Then, opportunity literally knocked on his door.
About eight years ago, he had moved back to Paris with his wife. He received a call informing him that Aman was looking for an executive director. “I thought it was a joke. I thought the call was from a friend of mine,” he says. It wasn’t – the man on the line was from a headhunting fi rm in London.
“I told my wife not to unpack. We’re flying back to Singapore. She’s Singaporean so she was happy to be back home,” recalls Jolivet. “In the interview, I was so passionate. I said, ‘I’m the one. Don’t look around!’ Sometimes in life, the train comes. You think it’s the right train and you jump on it. I’ve been lucky that the train I’ve been taking is a good train.
“I had always been fascinated by Aman. At that point, I hadn’t had any connection with it and thought it was a sect. How could they charge so much? How could they survive? “When I first came to Aman, I was one of the youngest ones. People said, ‘A French guy? From Club Med? 35 years old? Is Adrian (Zecha) nuts?’ Everybody was looking at me with big eyes, saying this was not possible.”
The surprises continued. Jolivet was eager to get down to business, but was informed by Aman’s executives to “take my time – six months, even a year” to learn about the company. Jolivet lets out an amused laughter at the memory. “I said, ‘People are very relaxed here!’ It was very strange in the beginning. There were not many processes. Even the shareholders didn’t know what was happening. It was very special, very secret, very closed.”
Jolivet attributes his affinity with Aman in part to his French heritage. “In France, we take care of our know-how very well. We know how difficult it is to create a great wine because it depends on the soil, the weather, the grapes and of course, time. It’s a lot of factors to create a great wine, as well as to create a great brand.”
Aman has built a very valuable brand, but its formidable allure has also led it onto difficult paths. Jolivet is well aware of the irony that despite Aman’s brand as a “place of peace”, the company has had its fair share of troubles.
In his eight years, he has been a witness to one of the most dramatic legal battles in the hospitality industry. In early 2014, Aman was sold for US$358 million (S$488 million) to a group of investors, headed by Doronin and American entrepreneur Omar Amanat. The relationship between the two subsequently soured, escalating into a legal feud across New York and London, involving 30 attorneys and allegations of fraud and conspiracy.
During the process, he managed to keep his head above the fray. “It was a challenging situation for a CEO to be in, when both shareholders are fighting on both sides of the table. But that’s the DNA of this company – to fight for its employees, guests and the local community where Aman is established. I focused, put my head down and did the best I could for the company and for our partners.
“This brand is so huge that everyone wants to have a piece of it. Everybody’s fighting to get Aman. There’s never a dull moment at Aman. Behind the peace of the place, there’s always been some activity, battle or issue; maybe part of the brand has always been like this. But now everything is settled and Aman is stronger than ever.”
Legal battles aside, Jolivet also engaged in more operational “battles” to direct Aman’s course. “I’m trying to keep everything true to Aman but also to change everything. Internally, we also had our own debates. We did not agree on everything.”
He cites the digital revolution as an example. When he joined Aman in 2008, Jolivet had to convince Zecha, who did not own a computer, of the importance of investing in social media and an online presence.
“I think it’s important in a company, after 30 years, that it moves forward. We have about 7,000 employees today; we need to move forward and the world is changing.”
Aman is certainly not standing still. It has already moved past its original winning formula of building resorts in remote locations by launching a new generation of hotels in urban cities, beginning with Aman Tokyo in December 2014. Jolivet says this strategy was conceived by “listening to its clientele”, who wanted a “120 sq m suite”, in the “perfect location” and “perfectly managed”.
The company plans to launch similar hotels in New York, London, Paris, Singapore and Hong Kong. His next ambition is to develop a series of hotels along the Silk Road between Aman Beijing and Aman Venice, where its customers can travel on a journey akin to the one taken by Marco Polo.
“We don’t want to be the biggest. We just want to be who we are. We don’t do things differently; we do different things and we believe simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
This year sees the launch of Aman Wellness, a forward-thinking concept that includes individual immersions and group retreats to help restore mental, physical and spiritual wellness. “It’s part of our DNA to deliver wellness. Now, we want to go a step forward. We want to convert our properties into a complete wellness destination.” The road to paradise hasn’t been a bed of roses but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve had opportunities to make more money, but I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery. Life is short. We need to enjoy it, and it’s important to be passionate.”
He’s travelled the world in his capacity as Aman’s chief executive, but which places are really on his bucket list? Here are the top three.
“I dream of going to the white continent. I think it will be the most peaceful place on earth. This will take careful planning and a lot of time.”
02 URUMQI, CHINA
“Urumqi is a big city in the northwest of China. It’s an unknown destination, where you have the most amazing mountains, lakes and untouched nature.”
03 SAMARKAND, UZBEKISTAN
“The name of this place sounds to me like a dream. This is an old city, one of the places in the world where civilisation started.”
AN ELEGANT FEAST
Visiting an Aman resort is often described as visiting the home of a close (and extremely cultured) friend. How would Jolivet greet us in his own abode? With home-cooked meals prepared by the meticulous host himself.
“I will cook you my signature dish – a duck confit with mashed potatoes and green salad. It’s a very simple dish but also very complicated, like a cheese burger. When I go to a hotel, I ask them for a cheese burger – it’s simple, but it can be very good or very bad. A good duck confit depends on the crispiness of the skin. You have to put it in the oven for a long time, and, before serving, you have to grill it.”
BACK TO AFRICA
“Next would be a fish tagine from Morocco, paired with a Moroccan rose wine. This takes me back to my childhood. I will need the recipe next to me because I don’t do it very well all the time. To make it good, I’ll need to find harissa, a chilli paste from Morocco. It’s difficult to find a good one. If it’s a lucky day, this dish will be good, but if it’s not a lucky day, you may not come back anymore.”