Brand image should speak for itself. That’s the whole point. So if you have to actually explain your brand identity that’s a bit like showing up at a fancy-dress party and having to tell everyone what you’ve come as. Hong Kong brand Ovolo Hotels definitely don’t have that problem. With four hotels in Hong Kong and six in Australia they’re not especially large, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of them yet, but they certainly have something a little different – and if you check out their website that all-important brand image becomes crystal clear. The properties are described as individually designed lifestyle hotels, with award-winning interiors, all-inclusive services, and the latest in-room technology. They’re youthful, fun, and sometimes spell words using too many letters – in short, they’re cooool! And recently had the chance to pick the brains of COO Dave Baswal to find out more.

What’s the reasoning behind the all-inclusive concept you promote?

The all-inclusive hospitality concept was conceived by Ovolo’s founder Girish Jhunjhnuwala, and stemmed from his belief and passion in putting the customer at the heart of everything we do. Our effortless living ethos is born from this notion and represents our passion for making our guests’ experience as easy and seamless as possible, with every aspect of their stay considered, right down to the design and features of every room and public space. Another way this comes to life is through our FREEBIES brand offering, which aims to make our guests’ stay as effortless as possible, with everything from snacks, drinks, internet and laundry provided.

Having been one of the very first hotel operators to offer ‘Freebies’ are you afraid of competitors? What’s the strategy to stay ahead of the game?

As everyone is aware, almost all products and services can be imitated – it’s very rare for this to be otherwise, so we are not unique in that way. For Ovolo, we believe in continuous innovation through insights gained by listening to our customers. Whenever we see a customer need or want, or a way we can make their stay more effortless, we look to implement this change as quickly as possible. We firmly believe it’s these little things that have the biggest impact on a guest’s decision to stay with us. Others can certainly imitate us but they’ll have to catch up to us first. Did you know we now have Alexa in our rooms?

You encourage guests to book directly with you; can you share with us what’s the percentage of direct bookings vs OTA bookings?

We’re not in a position to provide exact figures, but year-on-year we’ve seen direct bookings increase by more than 20%. Why wouldn’t they when all our fantastic FREEBIES are included when guests book direct?

In this world full of disruptors, OTAs, Airbnb, and such, what challenges do you have in running Ovolo? And what challenges are there for a brand like Ovolo?

The growth in the sharing economy via Airbnb and other market disruptors has certainly had an impact on all hotel businesses and we know there are always going to be companies wanting a share of our pie. In terms of Airbnb, we know they now host over 32,000 listings within Australia’s state capitals, with domestic travelers accounting for the majority of Australian Airbnb guests. Places that provide an effortless experience rich in culture from the property’s surroundings are what Australian travelers are increasingly choosing for accommodation. In this way, Airbnb has actually helped Ovolo by educating the customer about the benefits of local immersion when traveling and in shifting customer desires for a more unique experience. We have answered this change by providing a curated experience for our guests’ needs which is delivered in a known environment. As such we see this change very positively.

Most other successful disruptors who have made an impact have done so because of a deeper consumer insight and ability to foresee a customer need. We look to do the same with the product and services we offer and ensure the customer is at the heart of everything we do.

Being a boutique brand, we are often able to implement changes much more quickly than some of our larger competitors and that really helps us in terms of speed to market. Our major challenge now is really around how we equip our business to stay nimble and flexible in the face of the major growth we are undergoing. This is an exciting challenge to have and we look forward to bringing more products to market into late 2018 and beyond.

What’s the future of hospitality? Will we see more hotels like Ovolo? Fewer staff? Kiosks or robots?

Yes, absolutely the future of hospitality will indeed see many changes including more hotels like Ovolo, fewer staff, and indeed more robotics and automated experiences.

There will be business growth in a few different directions with automation being the first major shift. In areas where the hotel stay is transactional in nature, there will be a move towards automation as AI + other technologies become more prevalent. For us, we see there will be some strong growth in this area and we would definitely like to play in the automation space with our new brand Mojo Nomad.

Hospitality at its definition is the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests and this is the area where the second major shift will occur. Where there is a service experience, hotel brands will put more emphasis into extreme personalization, with customers increasingly able to curate and shape their stay to suit their own personal preferences.

What’s the plan for 2018? Any hotels in South East Asia?

For now, we are focused on establishing a stronger brand presence via products across the key Eastern Australian cities which we are developing through our recent acquisitions including Emporium Hotel in Brisbane and Hotel Hotel in Canberra. We do also have plans to bring our new co-living concept Mojo Nomad into the Australian market given recent successes with this product in Hong Kong. Further to this, we are aggressively looking for growth opportunities in South East Asia to boost our portfolio across the region with our Hong Kong office spearheading this development initiative.