EVAN KWEE HAS LONG LOVED HOTELS.
“I still remember peering over our balcony [at home in Singapore] every night watching them construct the Regent [hotel] as a young boy. Hotels are in my blood,” he once said in an interview. It’s a good love to have as he is part of the Kwee family, who owns one of Singapore’s largest property groups—including the Regent—that is chaired by his father Kwee Liong Tek.
Now the younger Kwee is helming one of the biggest hospitality projects ever undertaken by Pontiac Land— the Fari Islands development in the Maldives. At 88 hectares, this project is the largest by land size that Pontiac Land has done. The first phase of the development has cost to date about $400 million—more than the $345 million in revenues that the group had last year—and the entire project won’t be finished for another two years. Fari Islands is a major bet for the family, who rank No. 11 on Singapore’s 50 Richest list with a fortune of $5.4 billion.
With the pandemic, Kwee’s dual role as vice chairman of Capella Hotel Group and head of hospitality and design for Pontiac Land puts him in a crucial position. He’s optimistic: “We’ve received excellent feedback and strong interest since the opening.” Its two recently launched hotels are averaging about 30% occupancy, a rate that is typical during the low season in the Maldives. One is a Ritz-Carlton, the chain’s first property in the Maldives, while the second is a Patina, an in-house sister brand of Capella. A third hotel, the Capella Maldives, is slated to open in 2023. Each of the three has its own manmade island, all located in an atoll and centered around a deep lagoon.
The 44-year-old Kwee takes a broad view. “I think the Covid lockdown has really perpetuated the fact that people love to travel. They just love to explore, they want to experience new things and see new cultures, new places,” he says by video call in a rare interview. “We already are seeing that the luxury leisure travel market will definitely return first [before business travel]. In some ways, it already is returning. Thankfully, our brands and our hotels are positioned in that segment of the market.”
The expected pressure to earn a return may mean Pontiac Land must move ahead with Fari Islands regardless of the pandemic. “Pontiac has way too much invested in the Maldives project not to proceed with opening if possible, and as it turned out, the Maldives is perhaps the only market in the region ex-China in some form of recovery,” says Robert Hecker, managing director for hotel consultancy Horwath HTL Pacific Asia, by email from Singapore.
Capella—which has been operating in Asia for 12 years—is a springboard to extend Pontiac Land’s reach worldwide, with planned expansion of the brand across the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East within the next four years. Yet with Covid-19, choppy waters lie ahead. Like elsewhere, bookings are mostly down across the hotels that Pontiac Land owns or operates, and many believe global travel may not recover to pre-pandemic levels before 2023. Amid travel restrictions and lockdowns, Capella hotels in Bali, Bangkok and Hanoi have been struggling to fill rooms, Kwee says. The managed hotels in Shanghai and Sanya, China, he says, have seen an uptick in business, with up to 80% occupancy thanks to a domestic travel boom; before Covid-19, these hotels were logging rates around 60%.
Pontiac Land also pivoted from international to domestic tourism. “When it was clear that international travel would experience significant restrictions, our teams swiftly re-engineered all revenue-generating activities to cater to our domestic markets. These allowed us to see commercial success at our Singapore and China properties,” says Kwee. The family has also used the pandemic period for refurbishments and renovations, such as upgrading the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia.
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