Building a world-renowned luxury brand in the hospitality industry today is no mean feat; building one in under a decade is little short of a miracle. Yet that is what CEO Deepak Ohri has achieved since joining lebua Hotels & Resorts in 2003. Armed with a diploma in hotel management and 15 years’ industry experience, he has since built a chain of award-winning hotels, resorts and restaurants that continue to set standards in luxury.
Originally from Delhi, Deepak was the first employee of lebua Hotels & Resorts, taking responsibility for opening The Dome restaurants including Sirocco, Mezzaluna and Distil Bar in Bangkok. Today, the lebua brand also has two luxury hotels in the city, as well Lake Okareka Lodge in New Zealand, while there are solid plans to expand into Hong Kong, Australia and France.
It is testament to the power of lebua’s brand that its Bangkok operations have come through a global economic downturn and Thailand’s political turmoil virtually unscathed. Witnessing the scenes of violence central Bangkok earlier this year, few would have thought that Bangkok hotels would be back to full business before the end of 2010, but lebua is on track to do just that.
“We were lucky enough to get through the economic downturn relatively unscathed. Then came the political upheaval, and occupancy plummeted to as low as 12 percent, compared to an average of 70 percent the same period last year,” says Deepak.
“With so many external factors that were out of our hands, such as travel warnings, there was not much we could have done. Situations like these call for going back to basics, focusing on customer loyalty and exceeding the expectations of every guest. Now that the situation has stabilized, we are more prepared than before to serve our guests. Since August, our occupancy has steadily increased to currently hovering between 60 – 65 percent.”
While lebua’s high number of repeat customers means it is well ahead of many of its rivals on the road to recovery, Deepak is upbeat about the prospects for Thailand’s tourism industry as a whole.
“The Thai tourism industry has been historically resilient and has proven time and time again to rebound fast. We’ve been seeing signs of healthy recovery already, with airport arrivals increasing and occupancy numbers nationwide on the rise. I do believe a full recovery will happen, but I’m not qualified to predict how long this will take for everyone else. By the way we’re going at lebua, assuming the political environment stays peaceful, I’m confident that we will be back to pre-unrest levels by the end of the year.”
Room for improvement
Although many would say that lebua has already arrived as a luxury brand, Deepak is not the type to rest on his laurels. For him there is no pinnacle of luxury, so lebua most continuously learn from its customers and adapt to their tastes and needs. On the flip side of that coin, he believes that lebua has a role to play when it comes to educating its customers about what real luxury is.
“So long as there are different experiences to be had, lebua will be continuously learning and be constantly innovating. We actively make it a point to educate our customers, and increasingly, they understand more about luxury. The more they’re informed, the more they understand, and consequently demand the best and expect new experiences every time,” he said.
“We’re not looking to duplicate any of our products elsewhere – take for example our Bangkok city hotels and our ultra exclusive three-suite lodge in New Zealand – the service would be of the same standards, but the products and experiences offered will be very different.”
If there is a theme that is common throughout the lebua network it’s an unparalleled commitment to customer satisfaction. In fact, it runs far deeper than just customer satisfaction. For Deepak, it is more about delivering an emotional experience that customers will not forget.
“As an independent hotel, we are able to put each individual customer first, ensure that they are satisfied initially, and maintain that for every single stage during their stay. Earning our guests’ loyalties and their emotional attachments are what enables us to record a 65 percent return rate of customers at our properties.
We undertake intricate research and technology to better understand our customers, including studying anthropology reports for psychographic analysis, passion peak and mood map analysis, correlation study for employee and customer satisfaction, and analysis of purchasing behaviour.”
lebua is currently planning destination restaurants in Sydney, Hong Kong and London, which will open soon. Longer-term, it’s starting the groundwork on an invitation-only chateau in France, tentatively priced at €8,000 per night. The 11-12 suite château, which will be refurbished, will mark lebua’s entry into the European luxury accommodation market.
“Europe is arguably where the idea of luxury in the sense that we understand it originates from, so I think it’s fitting that we return to the birthplace of it. France in particular has a great culture. This will definitely be a challenging project, but for ‘true’ luxury, we believe the only way is to get to the beginning of it all,” said Deepak.
“We also like destinations that appeal, that have a story behind it. Our Bangkok property is located in an old area of town, where much hasn’t changed much for the last century, with some nearby pawn shops that are over a hundred years old and still standing. When we started our Bangkok property, people were sceptical and asked, ‘who will go to this place?’ Now, the question is, ‘Who will NOT go to this place?’”
Deepak Ohri is originally from New Delhi. After receiving his diploma in hotel management in Chennai, he started his career with India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) in 1988. Since then, he has worked in the hospitality industry in the United States, Indonesia and Singapore, as well as back home in India before arriving in Thailand. He was the recipient of Entrepreneur of the year Award by Art of Travel two times in a row (2007 and 2008) and HAPA Most Enterprising Entrepreneur of the year award for 2008-2010. In addition, he is also a member of WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council) and sits on the advisory board of the Cornell-Nanyang Institute of Hospitality Management in Singapore.