The story of 137 Pillars began in Chiang Mai with its iconic luxury resort created from the original Baan Borneo house. With just thirty exquisite suites, this property set the brand standard and inspired the direction for 137 Pillars’ next venture in Bangkok, as COO Christopher Stafford described.
“When we designed this hotel, we originally wanted 250 residences, but we put 179 and then we put a luxury hotel on top, because we had a successful brand in Chiang Mai, and when you’re driving a luxury price point, you have to bring luxury. When you put a luxury hotel on top of residences you couple the residence brand to the idea of luxury. Without the hotel, the profile of the residences would be lower, no matter how well they were designed. We’ve lifted the profile through international PR, and we’re very specific about the price point, and holding that price point, even if the occupancy goes down a little bit.”
“Of course, this only works when you have a very good marketing and distribution team, so that’s where we focus. Our brand is now coupling with Hyatt to have access to their 12 million points members, so that’s how we’re competing, and we become the premier hotel for Hyatt in the boutique segment.”
According to Christopher, the focus moving forward will not, however, be on residences. The next property under development in Phuket is set to go ahead as a combination of villas and suites, but it’s the element of luxury that will be the focus.
“The idea is to adopt the Chiang Mai model rather than the Bangkok model. The Chiang Mai model is pure luxury, so there’s no confusion. When you try to lift the residences there’s always the danger that the luxury client doesn’t want to stay where residence client is. There’s no question that the model works, but in Bangkok we still have a long way to go to reach the top three, which is our goal.”
The next challenge for 137 Pillars is to become the best boutique brand in Asia – a task to which Christopher brings his previous experience with Anantara.
“I’m going to take the brand out of Thailand – leaving it in Thailand makes it a Thai brand – so the first step is likely to be the Pacific, and that will change the entire structure. Once you go international you change the whole fabric of what you’re doing because you have to adapt your own culture to the foreign environment. With Anantara, we went international with three hotels in the Maldives. With Six Senses, they started in the Maldives and then came to Hua Hin. While Hua Hin might not be a major global destination, it was another country and that gets the media attention. So when we go international, that’s when we can think about being the best Asian boutique brand.”
To actually achieve that number one ranking won’t simply be a matter of expanding the brand, however.
“You need people, as you can’t even think about being successful without a great team. And then you need culture. We have our own 137 culture built around the idea that everything can be improved. You never reach a point of perfection, you’re always striving towards it. The only way to be number one is through quality. It’s quality training, quality ingredients in your food, everything has to combine. People get lazy in the hotel business – they don’t inspect. My big thing is inspecting, and it’s something we do without the customer every really knowing what we’re doing. It’s a constant process – but once you pay attention to that, the rate always goes up.”
“This industry has been going a long time, and there are still three things to focus on: service passion, cleanliness, and safety. We have to ensure the safety and health of our customers, and that’s a huge thing now. China is asking Thailand to raise its standards in this regard. Our European wholesalers now come to check on our safety standards. They’ll take samples from the pool back to Germany, test them in the lab, and then send a report, so our standards are imposed by global travel providers.”
Standards are also set by the demands of guests, as Christopher explained exactly what it is that the modern luxury consumer is looking for.
“The three things guests look for today – the real luxury customer with real money – are space, privacy, and quality, so they haven’t changed. But they’re moving, and some luxury brands are having problems attracting high-quality guests because those people don’t want to be at the buffet counter with 300 other people. That’s why I’m a huge believer in the boutique segment.”
“Luxury is not going to die – the market will simply move to where people get what they want – they’re not price sensitive. There’s certainly a market there because there aren’t too many competitors. The world possesses incredible wealth, and that wealth travels where it wants because it can.”
“In the modern world, things have got smaller, so in high value destinations, and that includes Bangkok, space is at a premium. Here we have high ceilings and large balconies which give the impression of space, and then soundproofing for privacy. The niche that we fit is a market which takes time to develop so our owners need to be patient, but they understand the vision.”