As anyone who has ever stayed in an Aman resort and paid attention to the literature will know, aman is Sanskrit for peace. The group’s hotels are havens of tranquillity, places the wealthy go to withdraw from the world. Their locations tend to be rural and remote. Those in cities, in Beijing and Venice (the Delhi outpost was rebranded the Lodhi in 2013 after less than four years), occupy parts of former palaces set within substantial grounds to retain the air of calm.
So it’s a surprise to find the 27th hotel in the portfolio, which opened on December 22, in Tokyo’s business district. It occupies the top six floors of the 38-storey, 200m-tall Otemachi Tower, which it shares with the Mizuho Financial Group, Japan’s third-largest bank, a couple of blocks from frenetic Tokyo Station.
But then the past year has been a tumultuous one for the company, which last February was sold for $358m to a consortium of investors led by two self-confessed “Amanjunkies” (the infelicitous term for devotees of the brand): Russian real estate tycoon Vladislav Doronin and Indian-American entrepreneur Omar Amanat, who saw off rival bids by LVMH and the Carlyle Group.
Their relationship soon soured, however, and a bad-tempered drama of baroque twists ensued that saw the company’s founder, chairman and chief executive, Adrian Zecha, ousted from his role. Two lawsuits are still ongoing, one in the High Court in London, the other in the New York State Supreme Court.
Emails from aggrieved former staff who wanted to vent to a journalist began to appear in my inbox after Doronin briefly became chief executive. In July, he had to step down from the role following an interim British court ruling in which the judge criticised his representatives for “needlessly and inappropriately aggressive conduct”. Zecha was reinstated, only to step aside again on July 31, though he remains on the board.
By contrast, the atmosphere at Aman Tokyo when I arrived last week was one of rarefied calm. A hotel Volvo had whisked me from Haneda airport to the ground-floor reception in less than 30 minutes. An elevator then sped me to the 33rd floor, where I emerged into a space I can only describe as spectacular: a cathedral-like hall that soars to a height of 26m, its upper walls and ceiling lined in textured translucent washi paper to give the impression that one is inside a gigantic lantern. In its centre there is a Zen garden, with a pool out of which rises an arrangement of branches to evoke a tree, an expression of the Japanese flower-arranging tradition known as ikebana that will change with the seasons, on either side of which lie expanses of gravel and rocks. But even all this pales beside the view, which stretches miles across the city, over the Imperial Palace Gardens and as far as Mount Fuji and Tokyo Bay.
Though the tower was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, the hotel’s interiors are the creation of Kerry Hill Architects, whose earlier projects include Amanusa in Bali, the two Amans in Sri Lanka, five in Bhutan and one in Cambodia. Hill himself may be Australian but the look and feel is uncompromisingly Japanese, right down to the fact that you are asked not to wear shoes in your room (quilted slippers are provided), where, in line with the prevailing fashion, check-in takes place.
Mine is a standard “deluxe” on the 38th floor, a generous 71 sq m with clearly delineated working, sleeping and living areas, separated by a sliding paper shoji screen from a narrow bathroom, furnished with an ofuro, or deep square tub of the same black basalt as the walls, as well as a low stool, wooden bucket, scoop and low-set shower (there’s also a ceiling one) with which to wash before bathing.
If the bathroom is a dark intimate space, the bedroom is filled with light from its entire wall of windows, against which runs a long, low, very comfortable day bed and a tokonoma, the raised platform found in Japanese homes usually used to display flowers, ornaments, shrines, or in this case an artful arrangement of books. Its walls are lined in pale wood and heavily textured washi paper, the bespoke furniture is pale ash, and the pine floor is softened by tatami mats. There is no clutter, yet I want for nothing either except perhaps some Japanese tea to go with the kettle (there’s only coffee) and a more ergonomically designed desk chair.
So far, so Aman. As are the 30m swimming pool and spa, with its bathing areas designed to imitate what you find in traditional ryokans, right down to the yukata (or robe) and geta (platform flip-flops) they give you to wear.
The restaurant, though, represents a step change. If earlier Amans laid themselves open to criticism, it tended to be that the catering that fell short. But Tokyo’s restaurants hold more Michelin stars than any other city’s, prompting Aman to wake up to the fact that guests inclined to spend on accommodation often like to eat and drink extravagantly, too. To which end, the weighty wine list ranges from a Slovenian house white at £7 a glass to a 1990 Château Margaux (£1,700 a bottle), by way of many sakes, including seasonal sparkling ones served directly from a vat.
The menu in the 33rd-floor restaurant, unimaginatively named The Restaurant by Aman, is also ambitious, offering foie gras, truffles and Kobe beef and extraordinary, if delicious, Asian-inflected reinventions of classic Mediterranean dishes. Order what they call bouillabaisse, and you’re presented with a square of flaked Japanese whitefish surrounded by unfamiliar local vegetables and glasswort, a sort of black samphire, cooked at 74°C (so barely cooked at all), over which is poured an aromatic broth. It was perfection, but not what you’d encounter in Marseille.
Breakfast, too, is wonderful, whether you opt for the Japanese or “continental” options, each a succession of exquisite salads, cut fruit, fish and juices, served in trios of shot glasses. The principal difference is whether there’s a bowl of miso or Hokkaido yoghurt, and whether the carbohydrate is rice or wheat.
My sense is that this is the meal those who work in the area will choose to meet over, for as the new chief executive, Olivier Jolivet, a Frenchman formerly with Club Med, whom Zecha recruited in 2008, told me by phone: “Like any city hotel business, we can’t only rely on room revenue. We need also to create some food and beverage concepts so that we can attract clientele from the city and keep the hotel busy.”
Ah: busy. Not a word one necessarily associates with Aman hotels, where the average occupancy rate at some of its properties has been running at 30 per cent. I put this to Jolivet. He pauses.
“Low occupancy depends on where you operate,” he says. “If we take Courchevel, we have 95 per cent occupancy. But we only operate for four months of the year, so it’s all relative. In Bali, we’re open all year and run at 30 or 40 per cent occupancy, which is true. But it’s a low-cost country. What matters is the break-even point.”
In any case, he continues, “Aman never discounts in low season. It’s like an Hermès bag. It’s the same price whether you buy it in March or in August. Aman is a brand business. It may be linked with hospitality, but to be very profitable in this industry you have to maximise room count to reduce costs, and Aman doesn’t do that.”
Rather, he counters, Aman Resorts are “run like golf courses. People like to come and play, but the real business comes from selling the villas around the golf course. That’s what we’re about: promoting amazing destinations for Amanjunkies by giving them access to Aman real estate potential.”
Marketing them as “ideal for those wishing to rent a piece of paradise”, the company now offers serviced villas to buy or rent attached to its hotels in Greece, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Turks and Caicos and the US, with others in development, the idea being that when owners aren’t in residence, the villa can go into a rental pool and be let to paying guests, generating income for both owner and resort.
“We don’t have the same ambitions as the rest of the industry,” Jolivet continues. “And since we don’t decrease our rates, we are not competing with other hospitality players either. We are small and we don’t want to be big. We just want to be the best luxury experience, to perpetuate the heritage of what Aman is known for.”
He won’t, therefore, be messing with the brand’s core values: its reputation for service, discretion and design. (Doronin’s Moscow home, incidentally, was designed by Zaha Hadid.)
For though Doronin has a reputation as a forthright businessman, a spokesperson says that he bought the company because he loved the product. As he declares on his personal website (he declined to speak to me), he is a “self-obsessed [sic] Amanjunkie [and has] been a loyal client for over 20 years. Whenever I am travelling, I like to stay in an Aman. The quality of service is amazing, with the ratio of staff to guests sometimes up to seven staff to one guest. It makes you feel at home.” But unsurprisingly he is committed to expanding the brand, to what he calls its “urbanisation”, and has plans for Amans in London (where there’s already an Aman-branded spa at the Connaught), New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“We have to move forward; we are growing up,” says Jolivet, to which end, “we plan to open two or three new hotels a year and are expanding in new territories.” Up to four new openings are promised this year, including one in — unexpectedly — the Dominican Republic, though first up will be a hotel in Lijiang in China and another in Japan, in Shima. A hotel in Portugal’s Alentejo region is also on the cards, or will be if “our partners can find a solution to restart the construction”. And next year should see six in Gabon: “A very complex project because we will be operating in some very remote places that at the moment can only be accessed by elephant, so it is taking a bit of time.” South America, too, “is definitely a priority”.
Even if there is change afoot, I sensed no fall out from what Jolivet calls “the adverse conditions” of the past year during my stay at Aman Tokyo. All of which put me in mind of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s line in The Leopard, that “everything needs to change so everything can stay the same.” Zecha, undoubtedly one of the most influential and innovative hoteliers of the 20th century, will be 82 this year; he could not have run the company indefinitely. Even without him at the helm, Aman Tokyo is very much a credit to his legend.
This article has been amended since publication
Virgin’s Chicago hotel opens for business
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group made its latest foray into the hotel sector this week, opening a 250-room property in Chicago that it promises will deliver “the loudest shake-up in hotel history”.
Virgin already operates six small luxury hotels under its “Limited Edition” brand, including Necker Island in the Caribbean and Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco, but now says it plans to open hotels of between 150 and 400 rooms in cities served by the group’s airlines. The next openings are due in Nashville in 2016 and New York in 2017.
The Chicago hotel, where rooms cost from $209, is housed in the Old Dearborn Bank Building, a 26-storey art deco tower that Virgin purchased in 2011. The hotel has been heavily hyped by its owners, who claim that it will “redefine the market” with features such as free WiFi, minibars without inflated prices, and no unexpected fees at checkout. Guests will be able to control their air conditioning and television and order room service via a smartphone app, while guestrooms feature a separate sleeping and dressing area. (Rival hoteliers may quibble about how revolutionary such concepts really are: the Hoxton hotel group, for example, first offered free WiFi and bargain snacks in 2006, while several hotels already offer smartphone-controlled rooms.)
The project has not had an easy start. When Virgin Hotels was launched in 2010, it predicted a first property would open in two years, with 25 on stream by 2017. Instead, the flurry of anticipated property purchases and management contracts did not materialise and senior executives Anthony Marino and Paul Whetsell both left the company in 2012.
Even aside from the Limited Edition properties, hotels aren’t new for Virgin. In the 1990s it owned or marketed a collection of more than 20 hotels in the UK, and at one stage had plans to develop the County Hall building on the bank of the Thames. That project was abandoned and by the end of the decade most of the hotels had been sold.
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