The start-up diaries volume 2: Taking the plunge

In this series, "JJ", SAN's very own secret hotelier, brings us the ups and downs he encounters in his most ambitious challenge to date, the launch of a new aparthotel brand. Here he recounts how an encounter in a swimming pool got his career in the industry up and running.

Where to start? I am not a hotelier by trade. I had never worked in a hotel until 10 years ago and knew little about the language and nuances of the hotel world. When I look back with hindsight, I believe my sense of naivety and inexperience was one of my strengths. What I did know was that I was pretty dissatisfied with many of the experiences I had and felt that the hotel experience had not really changed in any dramatic way in my lifetime.

One example of this is making a booking. We all take the time to fill in our details online only to be presented with the same form to fill in when we arrive or a receptionist who can't find a booking because she can't spell a name and that's after waiting 10 minutes in a queue to check-in!

Due to a work relocation I was spending several nights a week staying in a hotel in a new city. Although at the time it was fairly depressing, it turned out to be the catalyst to a whole new career.

I noticed several aparthotels in the city and thought they may be a better option for someone like me - I could then cook my own meals and have more space. I was interested to find out the differences between the brands so I went around every serviced apartment and aparthotel in the city. I would ask questions as I went and observe the quality of the product and staff. I consistently found an average product, with poorly trained staff who did not know answers to basic questions. One even closed for lunch between 12 and 2.30 for the staff lunch break! All of these establishments were full and charging high room rates with very little add-on hotel services such as restaurants or gyms.

The seed was sown, and I started to imagine a new challenger brand sitting alongside these older clunky brands - I knew which one I would choose to stay in. A well thought-out, well designed aparthotel brand using new hospitality-focused technology to enhance the guest experience while applying practices to reduce the guest’s environmental impact while in residence. And that is where it started.

I started to approach potential investors - they loved it! They got it! But would they be the idiot to invest in someone with no experience? So I had a rethink. And I started small. Very small.

I went out and rented one apartment. I furnished it on the basis that I would sub-let it on a short-term basis. Next, I needed a client. I emailed a few friends to see who they knew in the large corporates based in the city. I had a name and was told he went swimming every Tuesday night in the local pool. The following Tuesday I put on my Speedos and went swimming. At the end of one lap I got talking to the guy and told him about my fledgling idea. He told me who to call and I made contact the next day. I had just one apartment available. He came down that afternoon, saw the flat and said: "We’ll take it for a year and can you find another four just like it." I was off!

I ended up getting six apartments for that company and 12 in total for other corporates. Within six months I was the biggest serviced apartment operator in the area with a list of A1 corporate tenants, and I could talk about what they were paying per night and occupancy levels.

It now became a question not of whether it worked, but how big it could get. I secured an investor and a site...

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it” – Johann Goethe

Next time, I will share my experience of building a brand, how it has to resonate through all areas of the business. I have taken my experience of starting and running my first aparthotel group to adapting and enhancing the offer to appeal to guests' opinions, values and beliefs - with the purpose of creating a meaningful brand with those who want to spread the word!

Click here to read the first installment of this series.


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