Acquiring a failing hotel and trying turn its fortune around can be challenging. Firstly you need a lot of money. Secondly you need to know how to manage a hotel. If you can’t do it yourself, you need to be honest with yourself up front and find a good company to do it for you. But what if you are someone with absolutely no hospitality background, in a foreign country and in your late 20’s? Many might advise against such a move as it would seem destined to turn out badly.
This is the story of the Lui sisters, Ashley and Monica from Taiwan. They fell in love with Thailand and decided to make it their home. Their method of doing so was to invest in a 25 room hotel whose name they changed to ‘Vacio’. Vacio is located in the middle of Bangkok’s bustling Sukhumvit district. Theirs is a story of success and I believe that there are a lot of very good lessons in their story for other people looking to turn around a struggling hotel and make it profitable.
Since they took over the hotel, re-vamped it and renamed it ‘Vacio’ just over 18 months ago, it is running at 90% – 100% occupancy. The occupancy dropped for a while to around 40% during the time that Bangkok was being occupied by the protesting whistle blowing mob. The average room rates are USD$49 for a standard room and USD$100 for a family room, which is pretty much the standard room rate for 3-4 star hotels in Bangkok.
I walk past Vacio every day and couldn’t help but notice a huge Mandarin speaking guest contingent staying at this hotel. The hotel is always busy no matter what time of the day. Another reason why I’m particularly interested in this specific hotel is because I have personally watched the transformation over the past two years. In fact, I actually lived in the building under the previous management. The building was an old, ramshackle, broken down quite seedy looking building. In the past, water would run out some nights, frequent black-outs, no towels, staff that didn’t speak any English or Thai, and the building was infested with rats that for a time chose my ceiling in particular to party in. I must admit, it surprised me at first when the Lius decided to rent this place from the old owner. I am even more surprised now as these two Taiwanese sisters have turned it into a hot, hip, vibrant, chic hotel that’s always bustling and full of energy.
What Did it Take to Turn the Hotel Around?
Around 15-20 million Thai Baht (approx. USD$600,000) bought them a 15-year lease, and they invested a few million more to renovate the building.
‘There was one moment we wanted to give up, everything seemed to be a problem, nothing really worked, the former owner used a second-hand power generator that caused constant black-outs and so on’, Monica admitted.
But giving up wasn’t a choice. The two sisters kept going and were determined to make it work. To make this hotel more attractive, the Lius incorporated a lot of Thai culture and traditional forms into their designs. Every room has its own theme; an elephant room, a taxi room and even a ‘Ladyboy’ room.
It is not only the designs and décor that are drawing a constant flow of Mandarin speaking guests into Vacio. Other marketing weapons in the Liu sisters’ arsenal are Facebook and other travel forums.
‘We have not paid for any kind of advertisement whatsoever. It’s all word of mouth and making the most of social media like Facebook that is keeping the guests coming’ says Monica.
Monica said that she posts news and updates every Monday and Tuesday at 5pm- 9pm, as through trial and error she has found out that that is the time when people are using Facebook the most. Up until recently, Monica and Ashley have been on call 24/7. They believe it is a people business and they want their guests to feel like home. Now with more staff to help out, there is a little more time for them to rest, but Monica still tries to be there for the arrival of all guests when at all possible, making sure that she can play a role in their experience in the hotel and help take care of them.
You don’t just want to own one successful hotel. The Liu sisters are looking for a good location for a new hotel. ‘Being in this business is fun. You get to meet new people all the time. We feel good when we can help our guests out and help suggest great places for them to go, think of things for them to do and generally just make their trip more memorable.’
If you are in a situation where you are trying to turn a hotel’s fortunes around, I highly recommend that you take a peek in at the Vacio Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 16. These sisters are definitely doing something right..