The reputation of the Dusit Thani as a luxury Thai brand is assured, but although the group’s first property opened way back in 1948, expansion further afield has only recently become a priority. Rustom Vickers, the Group Director of Development, recently talked to Hotelintel.co about Dusit International’s current plans for growth and how the company might address the obstacles they face along the way.
“The intention is to take Dusit to the next level. I don’t usually like to talk about numbers because there’s so much not in our control in terms of the economy, and being selective on projects – but targets have been set, and the main aim is to make Dusit one of the best Asian companies, recognized globally, to be up there with the Shangri-Las and Mandarin Orientals of the world.”
The current wave of expansion looks set to take the Dusit brand to a number of novel destinations. Within Asia, Dusit already has a presence in the Philippines and stands on the brink of a deal for a new property in the Vietnamese hill station of Sapa. Further afield, a deal for six safari lodges has been signed this year for Tanzania and Kenya, while a second deal for six properties covers South Africa and Mozambique. “There’s a real interest in Asian brands coming into Africa, especially with the Chinese going in there, so we’re piggybacking on that,” adds Rustom.
These new markets all present their own cultural and logistical challenges, but perhaps the biggest challenge of all will come in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where Dusit’s latest project is set to open in 2018. The conservative Arabian Kingdom might not appeal to, or even admit, tourists, but as Rustom points out, there is sound reasoning behind Dusit’s interest and the company is well aware of what it will take to succeed.
“It’s a tough market in that things operate differently there but it has huge potential. It’s still a very wealthy country with the oil, and still relatively underdeveloped in terms of the hotel market so there is room for growth. We also looked at the outbound aspect; Saudis travel quite a lot and they have money to spend, so for our properties in the Maldives and Dubai it’s good to have representation in Saudi Arabia, so there are two angles.”
“Adapting to the local culture and conforming to work well in that environment is essential. In the Middle East you have to source a lot of things from overseas, and in Saudi Arabia it’s even more extreme as it’s very conservative. There are restrictions there in terms of the labour force, so it won’t be easy.”
This conservatism might seem especially awkward when it comes to Thai specialities such as Dusit’s renowned spa services, but Rustom remains confident.
“It’s all possible – it just has to be segregated in terms of areas and also in terms of timings. Dubai has the same segregation so we have no problem in doing that, but it won’t be the same service that you get in Thailand.”
“The way the world is evolving it’s not about cookie cutter brand standards – you have to have some brand consistency to create that loyalty, but in each location you have to adapt to local ways. We learned that the hard way after 12 years in Dubai. In the beginning it was too Thai – everyone was wai-ing everywhere and it was disorientating, so we toned that down. We’ve tried to find three or four key guest touch points where we can give that Thai feel but not overdo it. The obvious points are the spa and the restaurants, but apart from that it’s much more localized.”
In keeping with the slow but steady progress of the last 65 years, Rustom explains that the main focus for Dusit International is the long term. With the number of overseas properties about to double in the next two years from roughly twenty to forty, the current expansion is relatively dramatic, but the group’s conservative tradition still guides their approach.
“We’re opportunistic, so if the partner’s right and the project is right then we’re interested – but the hotel business is a long term business so you want to be in it for the long run. We work with family businesses because they have the same ethos as Dusit. It’s more like a marriage than a corporate relationship. We’re not looking to do make a quick buck and do short term institutional stuff that the private equity people look for, so most of the people we work with are smaller companies that want to add something to their community.”
“In the long run, Thai hospitality is on the up, China will come back and Asia will be more dominant than ever in the coming years, so working with a company which is well represented in Asia should be very beneficial. In the end, though, it’s a people thing rather than a systems thing, which is what the industry was based on, originally.”