Adrian Zecha is as synonymous with hospitality as César Ritz and Conrad Hilton. He’s deeply rooted in the industry, and his influence has touched some of the most coveted hotels around the globe. Over 40 years, Adrian Zecha have founded a series of hotel management companies and developed over 100 ultra luxury hotels in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. But the Indonesian-born Adrian Zecha doesn’t often discuss his prolific and game-changing career. He follows a different credo: He lets the work speak for itself. Adrian is, after all, the man who founded Aman, the luxury resort brand that has manifested its own elusive aura.
Adrian Zecha was born to a well-to-do family of Czech-Indonesian plantation owners in Indonesia, and who grew up during World War II under Japanese occupation, he would have become a doctor. “During the war I attended a Japanese school in the day and had lessons from my father at night,” he says in Robb Report. “He was determined that I become a doctor and afraid I wasn’t learning anything from the Japanese. After a few years of this, I was far ahead of American kids my age.”
This became apparent when, shortly after the war’s conclusion, Adrian’s family moved to central Pennsylvania-United States, where he attended Williamsport High School. After graduating from high school at the age of 15, he enrolled at Dickinson College. “The rules said you’d be kicked out if you got more than two violations,” says Adrian, who once incited a riot during a pep rally. “I had three, but the dean was a friend of my father’s, so they let me graduate.”
After Dickinson, Adrian earned a master’s degree in science from Columbia University. But instead of entering medical school, as his father had decreed, he returned to Indonesia to pursue a career in journalism, working first for UPI, then as a stringer for the New York Times, and eventually for Time magazine. “I would recommend a stint in journalism to anyone who has an active, curious mind,” he says. “It’s great training for any field. It teaches you to be persuasive; you learn how to present the facts so that your story catches someone’s attention. It also teaches you to listen not just for what somebody is telling you, but for what he is not telling you.”
As he also learned, however, you never know how people will react to something you write about them. When the person was Indonesia’s President Sukarno, who would later be named that country’s president for life, the stakes were high. “Sukarno was a demagogue and very popular with the people,” says Adrian. He also was an uninhibited ladies’ man, and so no one was surprised when, at one reception, an attractive young lady caught his eye. “Sukarno said he wanted to have her, and he did,” says Adrian. “That was exactly what I wrote. I thought it was pretty funny, a harmless story.”
He learned otherwise when, shortly thereafter, the country’s minister of information called him in and suggested he go on vacation.
“Where?” asked Adrian.
“Anywhere but here,” replied the minister.
Thus the brash young Adrian embarked for New York City, where, in 1960, he founded a magazine called Asia. When the magazine faltered a year later, Rupert Murdoch was persuaded by Adrian to invest in the magazine (in what was his first Asian investment). In 1970, Adrian started a new travel and lifestyle magazine named Orientations based in Hong Kong. With the advent of in-flight magazines, Orientations dropped its travel content and progressed over the years to become a publication focused on the arts of East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Himalayas. It is now the leading magazine in this field and its contributors are renowned scholars and researchers from around the world .Adrian’s publishing ventures ultimately expanded into the arts, travel, and business, but he sold his share of the company in 1972.
He then spent two years wintering in Courchevel, France, and summering in Bali, where he met the circle of “Bali style” pioneers such as Jimmy Pandy, Wija Waworuntu, Donald Friend, Made Wijaya, and future collaborators Siegfried Beil, Peter Muller, and Kerry Hill. Adrian then became a land broker land for Marriott Hotels. “Marriott wanted to start in Asia because of the lower labour cost, but they had never ventured outside the United States, so they came to me for local advice,” he says. “Marriott was smart enough to recognise that, in Asia, it is not what you know, it is who you know. That is something most Americans have yet to learn.”
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Once again, the unplanned intervened, this time in the form of the 1970s oil embargo, which led Marriott to postpone the projects. This experience led to Adrian joining with Robert Burns and Georg Rafael in 1972 to found Regent International Hotels (RIH), which was one of Asia’s first luxury hotel groups. RIH was the first to introduce the five-fixture bathroom and the pool villa resort concept, which have since become luxury hotel standards. It was also the first truly Asian-based global hospitality group in an industry that had previously been dominated by European and American brands.
The RIH trio built 12 hotels before Adrian sold his 30% stake for USD 30 million in 1986. He then went on to partner with Georg Rafael again in the Rafael Hotel Group, which focused on the acquisition and management of luxury five-star hotels and resorts in Europe and the US. The company was eventually sold to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. Separately, Adrian also founded Beaufort Hotels with his friend Siegfried Beil. Beaufort Hotels owned luxury hotels in Brisbane, Darwin, Singapore and Bangkok — its property in Bangkok, The Sukhothai Bangkok, is notable for involving two Aman architects Kerry Hill and Ed Tuttle and would become the aesthetics groundwork for Adrian’s future projects with GHM Hotels. Beaufort Hotels was sold to HKR International Ltd for USD 330 million in 1990.
In between times, Adrian was also involved in real estate speculation, forming an investment fund that, among other deals, bought Bangkok’s Regent Hotel and London’s Dorchester Hotel before eventually on selling them.
While in Phuket looking for a site upon which to build a holiday home, Adrian was walking along Pansea Beach when he came across a coconut plantation which occupied a prime location. Pansea Beach — a crescent sweep of powdery sand with views of the limestone islands that appear to float atop the waters offshore — was just the right spot, except for one problem: there was no economical way to bring in water. But if he built a few vacation villas for friends, he could amortise the cost of water lines. Further, because his chums and business associates were unlikely to live there year-round, he could expand the concept by renting out their villas when they were away and by building guest pavilions for other travellers. As for the business model, it was simple mathematics. “There are two ways of making money in any business,” Zecha observes. “Make something in vast quantities and charge very little for it, or make something in small quantities and charge a lot for it.”
Adrian Zecha and Anil Thadani spent mainly their own money as no banks would lend for the project due to the small number of planned rooms, instead of the 500-room hotel they thought would be more practical. Designed by Ed Tuttle, Amanpuri opened in January 1988 at a cost of USD 4 million with only 40 rooms.
One extraordinary fact about Amanpuri is that not a single palm tree was cut down during the construction of the entire Amanpuri complex and the adjoining villas. This approach was truly visionary, at a time when green initiatives and sustainability were not even part of the world’s vocabulary. Ed Tuttle’s passion for perfection made it a challenge to question his work. He even designed the cutlery, the wastepaper baskets, the stationery, staff uniforms, and all of the pots plus the art work!
The hotel also pioneered a service model where there is no front desk, no TV, no telephone, each customer will have an exclusive butler reception, can check-in privately in the room, and consume in the hotel without signing a bill. In order to establish high-quality service standards, Adrian Zecha even sent the hotel manager to study on the Emerald Coast of Sardinia-where Aga Khan IV founded Europe’s most luxurious and private hotels.
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Amanpuri proved to be groundbreaking. The name “Aman” means “peace” in Sanskrit, and would be the principle embodied by each subsequent reveal from Indonesia to Montenegro and Bhutan to Turks & Caicos. Its success, followed by that of Aman Hotel Bora Bora in French Polynesia and Amandari in Bali, confirmed to Adrian the viability of a chain of minimalist boutique resorts in remote, natural settings. Such success, on Phuket’s Amandari and elsewhere around the world, has spawned imitators. “I call them Amanwannabes,” Adrian says.
In Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom that until recent decades was closed to tourism, Adrian opened Amankora — designed by Kerry Hill, the country’s first foreign-owned hotel and first luxury property, in 2004. Aman operates a network of five Amankora properties throughout Bhutan, where, as in every place Aman builds, a concern for the environment is paramount. “We don’t cut trees, we don’t block the flow of water, and we don’t let any untreated water seep back into the ground,” he explains. “We find sites where we’re protected from visual pollution, and we don’t displace any animals.” Completed over 15 years between 1992 and 2007 each Amankora lodge is made using an earthquake-resistant alternative to the traditional mud building technique used in local Bhutanese architecture.
Occasionally Aman select sites that also require acts of cultural preservation — more than half of their resorts are located in UNESCO world heritage sites. “Every Aman is different,” says Adrian. “There is no specific design concept. The key element, I think, is that the design must be relevant to the location of the resort. We try to invest in projects with a sense of good taste. I’m not sure how to define that; it is a delicate balance, but it does not mean over-the-top.”
With an objective of providing an excellent personalised service to all its guests, the staff members are constantly urged to be as innovative and creative in their service as possible to make every interaction with the guests a memorable experience. Most of the managerial and other staff that Aman recruits during Adrian Zecha leadership era are primarily people who have had no experience in the hotel industry but possess the right attitude and the ability to conform to the Aman’s culture. This is very strictly adhered to as Aman believes that people with no experience come without any hang-ups of doing things in a particular way, without any pre-designed mindsets. This fits in very well with Aman’s philosophy of creative and innovative service.
Further, there is no written manual describing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) nor are there any set ways of doing things. Managers and staff are asked to run the resorts as if they were their own companies.
Another main attribute was the strategy of providing ultra-premium and extremely personalised service to the limited few guests at each resort. At some properties, Aman maintains a 6-to-1 employee guest ratio, something that is unheard of in the hospitality industry.
The affluent guests at Aman are used to all sorts of haute cuisine in their daily lives and most travel extensively on business while staying at hotels and eating at restaurants everywhere all year round. Therefore, Aman provides no fancy food, but instead simple local cuisines prepared with fresh ingredients served by local cooks to maintain the authenticity of the local place — and to great satisfaction of the guests who finally get a “home-cooked” meal. Adrian Zecha himself has little time for haute cuisine and once warned a General Manager that he would be sacked if they ever won any gastronomic awards as his whole philosophy was to keep it stylish but simple.
With such a high commitment on delivering the brand promises, it is not surprising that Aman has maintained a highly loyal customer base that keeps returning to one of the many Aman to experience the paradise once again. They are also referred to as “Amanjunkies” and would come back year after year and/or try the latest Aman property regardless of its location.
Aman is probably the only hotel brand in the world to have achieved this extremely iconic status with absolutely no advertising since its inception. Being true to its underlying philosophy of exclusivity, Adrian Zecha and his team decided against any form of advertising right from the start. The company does not send out press releases. The only brand communications that Aman has made use of in the era of Adrian Zecha leadership is word-of-mouth. Ninety days before the opening of every Aman, the company sends out postcards to its list of approximately 120.000 recipients, including the Amanjunkies, with the new beautiful location shown but without mentioning the actual place to tease the prospective customers in advance and create attention about the new resort.
Given the high profile of Aman’s clientele, it could have been very easy for Aman to capitalise on the presence of the celebrities to gain wide scale publicity and media coverage in the global press. But in line with its overall strategy Aman has refrained from doing so. Aman was never meant for the mass public and will never become one. It has been created for people who pay an extensive premium to have an experience of a lifetime. So the company has maintained a strict policy of exclusivity.
One manager explained that “he (Adrian Zecha) was an inspiration because of all that he brought to the company but most of all, he did all this while having fun. He never drew a salary from Aman. He just wanted a bowl of rice, a dog at his feet and a beautiful view, because he was creating a product not a business.” Adrian Zecha once said that “I have always been careful to keep the number of the villas below the number of rooms, because that is the one thing that is so important with Aman. If I had wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn’t have spent my time doing this.”
In 1996, Zecha’s refusal to lower his standards cost him temporary control of the company he founded. His friend Clement Vaturi, who owned a majority share in Silverlink Holdings Ltd., Aman’s parent organization, was forced to cede control to Colony Capital, a firm that had loaned Clement Vaturi USD 120 million. After removing Clement Vaturi from the Silverlink board, Colony Capital asked Adrian Zecha to rebrand some of its own holdings as Amans, but he refused to do so. “They weren’t bad hotels,” he says. “They just weren’t Amans.” Adrian Zecha ultimately resigned from Aman and remained uninvolved until October 2000.
During his couple of years absence, he started a new hotel company called Maha in 2000, with their only property being Jimmy Goldsmith’s elegant mountain estate in Mexico. It, too, knocked on heaven’s door, what with its own smoking volcano on the horizon and one of the most exquisite tennis courts in Central America — upon Adrian Zecha’s second coming as the Chairman and CEO of Aman, Mahakua Hacienda de San Antonio was added to Aman portfolio for a couple of years before eventually departing the Aman brand to run as an independent hotel until now.
Since mid 2000s, there has been a steady stream of companies and investors such as Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, and LVMH that are in the front-line to acquire Aman. In the first half of 2010s, the story of the acrimonious battle over Aman management has been well told across various media outlets. And finally, the new group of investors announced Adrian Zecha’s departure in 2014.
Although the Aman’s official announcement states that Adrian Zecha had decided to step down from his position as chairman and CEO, his closest friends remain sceptical. Adrian himself declines to comment. As one of his friends remarks in Newsweek: “His real fear is that whoever buys it or controls it will overdevelop it.” Since then Aman have opened two property developed in Adrian Zecha era, Amanyangyun and Aman Kyoto, and to open Aman Niseko in 2022. They announced a sub-brand called “Janu”, launched Aman Private Jet, and currently developing new Aman resorts in Baja Mexico, Al-Ula Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica, New York City, Bangkok, and Miami.
As chairman of another hospitality company, GHM Hotels, which he co-founded in 1992 with Hans Jenni, Adrian was involved in numerous hotel projects with high design sensibilities. The Datai Langkawi in Malaysia, The Legian Bali in Indonesia, The Setai Miami in the US, The Chedi Andermatt, The Chedi Muscat, and The Nam Hai Hoi An (now Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai) in Vietnam are among the best resorts in the region.
The unique “a style to remember” that GHM Hotels grew famous for was forged by Hans Jenni and Adrian Zecha together with some of the world’s most ground-breaking architects and designers, including Kerry Hill, Jean-Michel Gathy, Ed Tuttle, Reda Amalou and Jaya Ibrahim. GHM Hotels and Aman grew alongside each other as sister companies, sharing a similar ethos and style.
“There was a definite decision to specialise in small but very upmarket and highly personalised lifestyle products. Clearly, that is a limited market and if we were to go beyond that, which is always possible, then we would be changing our product. That is why we created GHM. For example The Setai (in Miami) has 125 keys where no Aman can go beyond 50. The GHMs have a deliberately wider scope than the Amans do,” he told Official Bespoke in 2007.
GHM Hotels was also managing pre-existing hotels — mostly heritage hotels such as The Strand Hotel in Myanmar, Carcosa Seri Negara in Malaysia, and three hacienda lodges in Mexico under The Hacienda sub-brand.
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After his abrupt departure from Aman in 2014, Adrian Zecha has quietly been working on his new hospitality projects, Azerai. Azerai opened their first two hotels in Laos and Vietnam, both designed by Pascal Trahan.
“A long time ago I asked Hans Jenni, my co-founder at GHM Hotels, whether it was possible to create hotels with the same sensibility as Aman but at a different price point. He answered, ‘Sure, but why would you want to do that?’ I said it’s because I have friends who have great taste but without the means to stay at an Aman. He agreed to try it out and hence The Serai in Bali was born,” he shared in Singapore Tatler.
The Serai ran successfully for over five years before it was bought over and then became the first Alila property. “When I decided to do something myself again, I called it “Azerai” — I put my initials AZ to the Serai name to differentiate it.”
At a time when most of his peers have already retired or are at least slowing down, the octogenarian travels non-stop to establish Azerai and address the demand for stylish accommodation in “places of great beauty and cultural richness” focusing particularly on his home ground of Southeast Asia. After the reflagging of Azerai Luang Prabang to Avani Luang Prabang, Azerai currently has two properties in Vietnam — Azerai Can Tho, near the Mekong river, and Azerai La Residence, Hue — both of which are characterised by refined design and superior service that is expected of a Adrian Zecha-driven project.
But how does a tastemaker like Adrian Zecha begin the story of creating a hotel? “It always starts from the site. It has to be beautiful and unspoilt because nothing is sadder than a beautiful site that is developed badly. When I see a site, one visit is enough to tell me whether it’s a yes or a no. It’s not something intellectual. It’s a feeling. Secondly, I ask a question: Can we do something special here?”
One topic Adrian is comfortable talking about is the unchanged formula for success in hospitality. “Like in everything today, there’s hardware and software. People ask me what is more important — I say to clap your hands, you need both.”
But even with over 40 years of experience, he still does not claim to know what people want. “I only know what I think would please me. Whatever you do, you can’t say 100 per cent of the guests would like it. We need just enough people to like it in order to make it viable. Fortunately, you see more and more people especially in Southeast Asia, which means there are a lot of potential customers,” he said with a laugh.
Right now, he and his team are working on the third Azerai in Vietnam — a beach resort located on a sweeping bay north of Ho Chi Minh City, set to open at the end of this year. He also hinted at properties in Indonesia and the Philippines but was sparse on the details as he prefers not to talk about unfinished projects. “As an ex-journalist, you stick to the facts. Not to speculation,” he quipped.
Two things keep him going: “I smoke cigars,” he says. And he has a clear conscience. He would like to live to be 99 years old, and when friends ask him why he isn’t shooting for a round 100, he told Hotels Magazine: “I negotiate deals all the time. And I’ve learned that if you go one step too far, you lose the deal.”
This Hoteliers series documented some of the innovators who laid the groundwork for modern-day hospitality industry. More stories will be gradually added.
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