Can anyone really say anything with absolute certainty these days?
Well, there’s this: “I think 2020 is going to look very ugly,” says Aron Harilela, chairman and CEO of Harilela Group, the Hong Kong-based hospitality company that has owned hotels since it was established by his father, Hari Harilela, and uncle George in 1959. With occupancy rates dropping as low as the single digits industry-wide this spring, no one could argue the year will be anything but a financial disaster for companies that rely heavily on tourism and travel. The big question is what comes next. And certainty holds a great deal of importance in the worldview of Harilela, who, during his recently concluded tenure as chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, was frequently vocal about his belief that much of the city’s unrest was rooted in the disillusionment of young people with their government and their future.
“I’ve said this recently, and I will get my wrist slapped for saying it again, but I don’t care,” he says. “I think that people don’t have security in Hong Kong. They don’t.”
Nevertheless, Harilela, 49, remains decidedly optimistic. So much so, he’s going ahead with plans to open a new upscale hotel, The Hari, a ground-up construction with 210 rooms, a Japanese restaurant and a chic outdoor terrace within the commercial heart of Wan Chai later this year, a move that could have been seen as considerably risky even before the onslaught of a global pandemic.
“We’ve always wanted to reinvest in Hong Kong,” says Harilela during an interview in the Harilela Group offices, just a few blocks from the Holiday Inn Golden Mile in Kowloon that his father opened in 1975. He looks as relaxed and dapper as ever in his signature style of a Milanese custom-tailored suit and open-collared shirt, offset with bracelets of wooden beads and one shaped like a polo mallet. “We’ve gone from Thailand to New York to London, but we’ve never really spent our time reinvesting in Hong Kong, and this is the place that started us in the hotel business.”
Neither protests nor Covid-19, nor a trade war, nor even the swift passing of the National Security Law in June has shaken his confidence.
“This one has to work,” Harilela says. “If it works, and I'm quite certain it will, then this will be the direction of the company.”
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