Off the centuries-old cobbled streets of the medina in Marrakech is an oasis thick with the aura of yesteryear and stories from an era past. Owned by an Italian prince, the riad hotel was converted from Marrakech’s very first foreign restaurant in the medina. Here, legends such as Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth and even Ernest Hemingway supped on fine Moroccan delicacies. But La Maison Arabe is a destination that offers its patrons more than just a luxurious place of rest: It serves up a delicious slice of Marrakech’s culture, heritage and history. And just as it drew Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli to buy it over in 1996, it beckoned to Gary Xie.
The executive director of SGX-listed Bonvests Holdings – which operates hospitality arm Cenizaro Hotels & Resorts and includes Sheraton Towers Singapore in its portfolio – is an intrepid traveller whose holiday experiences include trekking through misty bamboo forests at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to seek out Silverback Gorillas. Beyond the thrill of an adventure, the 41-year-old seeks to satiate an innate curiosity about the world through travel: to feel the pulse of a city, to taste the flavours of a culture, to stand in places were the walls speak volumes.
He says of La Maison Arabe: “It was a perfect opportunity to own a piece of history in the medina of Marrakech.” The estate’s long link to the culinary culture of Marrakech – and the fact that La Maison Arabe offers world-famous refined Moroccan cooking classes and features a cooking school that is an institution in its own right – further piqued the interest of Xie, who is also interested in the culinary cultures of the world.
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Your hotel, your window to the world
La Maison Arabe would become the latest jewel in Cenizaro Hotels & Resorts’ collection of hotels, spread across some of the most exotic destinations: think Tunisia, Mauritius, the Maldives and Zanzibar. Attracted by the potential of frontier economies, the hospitality arm of Bonvests – then under the leadership of company founder and Xie’s father Henry Ngo, who still serves as chairman and managing director of Bonvests Holdings – made its first foray into the overseas market in 1996 with The Residence Tunis, and The Residence Mauritius in 1998. “By the time we opened our third hotel in Zanzibar in 2011, we had a strong and loyal clientele, as well as brand recognition as a trusted, award-winning hotel group in Africa,” says Xie, who joined the company in 2007 and was appointed executive director in 2010.
Their forerunner position as a luxury hotelier in a region where the hospitality industry remains under-invested has taken the group far. Last year, the company reported an annual revenue of over $130 million from the hotel segment. Today, The Residence by Cenizaro is a portfolio of six hotels with a strong presence in Africa, where it continues to expand with launches, such as The Residence Douz in the desert south of Tunisia, set to open in Q3 next year. “Further developments are planned over the next two years, with the expansion of The Residence Tunis and two more hotels in Tunisia – The Medina of Tunis and on the island of Djerba,” says Xie.
Beyond doling out luxurious pampering in spades – be it in the form of cavernous, thoughtfully designed rooms or discreet, intuitive service – the group takes pride in creating boutique hotels that deliver a distinct sense of place. “According to the ITB World Travel Trends Report, two-thirds of luxury hospitality will be experience-based by 2022.
Intangible, memorable moments are now sought after, over traditional souvenirs or material possessions, and tailored personalised experiences will trump standard tourist offerings,” says Xie. “We offer something different, exciting and memorable through our distinctive hotels that build on a particular experience, feeling and ambience.” The group seeks out pristine landscapes and places of rich history and heritage that are, in his words, “undiscovered secret sanctuaries”.
Cenizaro Hotels & Resorts centres its brand promise on “Moments Enriched”, and Xie has also taken these moments to familiar grounds closer to home: Bintan. Nestled amid nature, The Residence Bintan marks the group’s first Asian venture when it opened last February. “On the horizon is a new jewel in Indonesia’s necklace of islands, set on a deserted private beach – an eco-luxe hideaway resort on Mapur Island in the Riau Archipelago,” he shares, highlighting the little-known destination just 20 minutes away from Bintan by speedboat. “As long as there are hidden gems to be uncovered, we will be in search of these across Asia, and beyond.”
The quiet adventurer
For one who professes to be addicted to travelling – he makes sure to get the window seat – Xie’s earliest memory of it was one of him in tears. “Travelling to Bali, and sobbing in the back seat of the taxi,” he describes the moment. “I suppose the journey to Ubud must have been quite long and bumpy then… and I used to get scared of the statues and masks as they seem to stare at you. It’s really cute that my son reacted the same way when we took him to Bali for the first time.”
Fast forward to today, when his idea of travelling is to live and breathe the soul of a place. This he does through getting lost on foot in old towns, sitting down in traditional cafes and historic hotels, and attending cooking schools – be it in Thailand or Morocco. “I feel this is a great way to experience the culture of a destination. For example, the Moroccan kitchen is a celebration of flavours from Berber, Arab and Spanish cultures.”
He adds: “Travel is about uncovering new experiences, immersing oneself in the local culture, decor and flavours offering a truly memorable insight.” Thus destinations like Marrakech, Tunis and Zanzibar resonate with him. The cultural centres of each city, all of which are Unesco heritage-listed, offer a richness of historical and cultural legacies from each of their unique storied pasts; from cuisine to music to art and handicrafts.
A wired city dweller, he also expects “vital essentials” such as practicality, functionality, comfort and excellent guest service in his accommodation. “In today’s tech-driven world, fast and free Wi-Fi access and in-room AV equipment that connects to the modern traveller’s devices are non-negotiables,” details Xie. “I can’t do without a good night’s sleep so I have to add a comfortable bed, blackout curtains and privacy to the list. And to fuel my daily fitness regime – an on-site fitness centre and healthy menu options, too.”
Fussy? Not quite. Just as his father changed the playbook for luxury boutique operators when he ventured into unknown territory, Xie is simply rewriting the rules for an industry – that which needs to adjust to the demands of a new league of luxury traveller seeking the once-in-a-lifetime moment in every holiday.
Perfecting the balance
Soulless, overcrowded and overrated destinations and hotels without an authentic sense of place – that is, a place which could very well be found in any part of the world. Hotels must provide authentic travel experiences and offer insights into enhancing travel adventures.
The immediacy of social media
Travellers want things now – and they want them on-the-go. Hotels must be agile and always be available for customer service requests and provide instant updates, which means being engaged across all social media platforms. This also allows hotels to quickly respond to and address issues, complaints and feedback in real time, in order to maintain positive guest relations.
Everything, from plastic straws to leftovers, has an effect on the environment. Hotels must now be committed to and actively track food chains, reduce waste, minimise greenhouse gas footprints and integrate green building strategies into their design and construction.