Lily Udomkunnatum is the Managing Director of Burasari Hotel & Resorts, which she founded 16 years ago on her return to Thailand from the United Sates, where she had already embarked upon a career in investment banking and risen to Assistant Vice President of the Mergers and Acquisitions Division at Bear Stearns in New York City.
Lily kindly agreed to tell Hotelintel.co the surprising story of how she ended up in hospitality, as well as a few of the secrets behind the Burasari Group’s early survival and eventual success.
How did it all get started?
Back in 2001 I was an investment banker in New York. I hadn’t been home for a long time as I’d been working there since I graduated and I’d just earned a promotion to Assistant Vice President. Before I took the position, my parents asked me to come back to Thailand for a vacation, and they took me to Phuket and showed me a vacant hotel that had been taken over by the bank. They’d put in a bid for it, but weren’t sure if they would get it. Then the bank called to accept, and suddenly I was in debt for 500 million baht. So I had no choice but to start.
Were you interested in hospitality?
At the time, no. I was interested in numbers. So as an investment banker I thought I’d get a management company in to run it. So I tried every management company and every chain I could think of and they all turned me down. We were too small, only 90 rooms, and it was our first hotel, not some big five-star.
In the end we recruited a GM we could afford, but I forgot to think that an expat GM who would settle for a low salary might actually be a problem. If you have a good, experienced GM he would not be earning less than 100,000 baht. I was focused on numbers and not business common sense. In the end, the only way to succeed was to open as fast as possible to be able to pay off the interest.
What was the defining moment for the Burasari Group when you became well-known?
It’s hard to make money in the first three months, and back in those days there were no OTAs so 80% of the business was trade, or 99% for a new hotel. We opened in December and we had operating losses for the first three months, but we put every bit of spare cash into advertising. There wasn’t a magazine in Thailand that we weren’t in during that time. We were everywhere. And people asked why we were advertising in Thailand when our customers weren’t Thai. But the point was to build awareness and to make the agents in Thailand curious. Nobody in Europe would be interested until we could advertise in Thailand as if we were a big chain.
Shanghai Mansion was also important, and got us noticed because it’s in Bangkok, but another defining moment came a couple of years after we first opened, during the Tsunami. We were the first hotel to open again within two weeks, so that limited our losses.
You’re now becoming a management company – how do you stay competitive and what sets you apart?
I think for management companies the important thing is the culture of how we operate. If you look at lot of management companies you never talk to the owner or the MD – you meet them at the start and then never see them again. Then you see how the management companies act – they don’t wear the hat of the owner. When they manage a hotel for someone, they all travel business class but when it’s their own hotel they travel economy. That’s not the kind of ethics we want. Owners who have a lot of money to spend – they want five-star hotels at 8 million baht per key – they don’t come to us. They go to the Accors or Kempinskis of this world. Owners who come to us are using their last savings, so every amount of money is significant for them. They trust us and give us their business, so we treat their business as even more precious than our own hotel. We have to become creative because we cannot afford to let these owners down.
What is the vision for the future of Burasari?
To grow as much as possible, both our own hotels and managed hotels. We don’t just want to stay as a small boutique collection. We are trying to manage in every category of hotel. We would really like to look outside Asia, especially with the crisis going on in Europe. We are not a cash-rich company like some other chains, so we have to look for a gap in the market and find the opportunity to succeed at this point in time. Right now in Europe, with the Thai baht so strong, we are actively looking for places to acquire and manage. Then next year we are opening a luxury property on Mapraw Island off the coast of Phuket.
Do you think investment banking background can help you manage hotels?
I think it gives me a different perspective. We always go opposite the trend – in every crisis we have always excelled. During the coup, our ADR and occupancy were very close to what you see this year. When you are trained to see the numbers, you don’t make excuses. So, during crises we have never implemented a pay cut. We are the only one I’m aware of who has never had to do that. You have to meet your financial obligations and service your debts, but taking something away from staff should never happen. So I think that financial background makes us a little different to other hoteliers.