"Wow" factors such as big plasma TVs and spas are becoming the norm of new-generation serviced apartments. And they are still providing the extra-mile service that impresses, says Lucinda Law.
Jan Stanger turned up in Singapore in 2006 from New York City with only two suitcases. Although he didn’t know what the new life would bring, things began impossibly simple for him. He had already found a home and it came in the form of a tastefully furnished one-bedroom serviced apartment.
“When my relocation was confirmed, I wanted to live in a serviced apartment to minimise the hassle of moving and settle in right away. Once I saw my apartment at Somerset Grand Cairnhill (by Ascott International), I knew immediately I could live in it since it was exactly the way I’d envisioned my home to be,” says Stanger, a vice-president of an investment bank.
Timm Weidner was another executive who found himself in the same situation. The investment banker from Germany arrived in Beijing with more than Stanger – he had brought along his wife and two children. “The stress of relocating the family to a new city was minimised by moving into a serviced residence, and when I learned about it through the internet, I knew it is where I wanted my family to be,” says Weidner, referring to their three-bedroom apartment in the recently opened Westin Beijing Residence.
For seasoned travellers like Singaporean Kevin Verghese, who has been on the road for 11 years as a senior trainer for M.A.C Cosmetics, convenience is key. From his current base, Hongkong, he visits various markets around the region, sharing his expertise on grooming trends.
“I don’t have to buy any furniture since it’s already fully furnished. This means I’ve no liabilities and worries.
“Having a kitchenette is another important reason why I prefer a serviced apartment to a hotel room for long-term stay. In this way, I’m not constantly at the mercy of the minibar.”
The added feature of a kitchen is, perhaps, a compelling draw to choose a serviced apartment over a hotel.
Laure Geneste, an interior designer at RMJM in Hongkong and a veteran of temporary nests, remarks: “Serviced apartments provide the sense of freedom and autonomy for me to read, watch TV, cook, entertain friends and do the things I would normally do at home. In short, my normal routine is not disrupted.”
While the idea of home may vary among different travellers with specific tastes and certain idiosyncracies, the need for comfort and relaxation remains a highly rated constant. With this in mind, various operators – and their tribe increases at record pace –?have been sparing no effort to win guests, not only providing the basics of comfort and cleanliness, but a dazzling slew of other wow factors as well.
Today’s de rigueur checklist of perks might look like this: 24-hour security (tick), high-speed broadband access (tick), state-of-the-art home-theatre system (tick), plasma TVs in the living room, master bedroom and bathroom (tick), fully equipped kitchen (tick), washer and dryer (tick), housekeeping services (tick), gym and so on (tick).
Far East Organization, Singapore’s largest serviced apartment owner and operator, has even added recreational facilities worthy of an upscale members’ club, including a spa and dining rooms with kitchens attached for private parties. According to Arthur Kiong, director of hospitality operations, “We’re continuously defining and redefining standards in the industry.”
Ida Tan, a senior producer at BBC Global Channels, Asia-Pacific, says: “It is only natural for guests to compare what is being offered out there since most of the information is available on the internet. With most of the operators offering the same amenities, I’m looking out for serviced apartments that will put in the extra mile.”
Ascott International couldn’t agree more. The world’s largest serviced-apartment operator outside the US (managing the Ascott, Somerset and Citadines brands) believes service must be “delivered from the heart”. Celina Low, vice-president, corporate communications for the group, says: “This is an experience that instills pride in our service staff and enables us to build traction with our residents. That’s one of the key reasons why they keep coming back.”
Karen F L Li, executive director of Lanson Place, shares her view: “There is a reason why the motto of our properties is ‘Home more than home’, because in reality, guests are more pampered in our serviced apartments than in their real homes, since we provide plenty of perks and services.”
Pushing boundaries is the name of the serviced apartment game. Choe Peng Sum, chief executive officer of Frasers Hospitality, believes in cultivating a strong customer-centric culture. He says: “Our philosophy is encapsulated in our brand promise, ‘Where you’re more than just a guest’.”
Frasers reproduced two booklets of anecdotes to illustrate its motto in action. Choe cites the example of how an employee convinced the management to create special child-friendly towels and cutlery, which have become a signature service of Frasers worldwide. With such intuitive services, it’s easy to see why guests build up loyalty to their brands and establish strong familial ties to the employees.
For Sejal Patel, who recently moved to Hongkong with her husband, life could not have been more complete. She chirps: “I definitely feel a sense of pampering at the Ovolo (one of the boutique serviced apartments by home2home lifestyles management). They provide daily housekeeping services, fresh sheets and towels, take care of the laundry and even deliver breakfast, newspapers and an assortment of magazines every morning.”
Such services may seem banal, but to some individuals, these could be a real luxury. Patel explains: “When I’m back home in the US, I would be running errands myself. I love having the apartment cleaned, and not have to do it myself.”
In just three months of her stay at the Ovolo, Patel has gotten deeply attached to the staff. “Not only are they friendly and polite, but they pay a lot of attention to the guests’ needs and keep an eye out for them.”
She explains: “I was flipping through the classifieds for a new job when the housekeeping lady was doing the chores in my apartment. She must have noticed what I was doing because the next day, the management staff gave me an extensive list of classifieds. I was surprised and grateful for this effort.”
A young couple, who had moved from Singapore to an Ascott property in China, could not find a certain milk formula locally, which their baby was used to. The staff did not think twice to contact their Singapore colleagues and had them send the item. Just another example of a host of intangibles that the chain’s fans cite as the reason for their fierce loyalty.
Concierge service is another value-added service that has become a staple of the growing menu of perks. Besides dispensing shopping and sightseeing tips, Far East Organization helps guests needing to set up a base, by referring them to its Central Square Serviced Office, which features office space, meeting rooms and a secretarial pool.
Operators, which try to accommodate all members of the family, including pets, score high points.
Sunny Williams, an attorney from the US, praises the Oakwood Premier Tokyo Midtown for being dog-friendly. She is thankful her beloved 12-year-old Shih Tzu was able to join her and her husband.
“Gordie is not just a pet or a property – she’s considered family and the property must be able to accommodate her as well. Gordie adds to our enjoyment of Tokyo.
“The staff members are already suggesting shops for grooming and dog-sitting services.”
First impressions are usually lasting ones and hence, the growing importance of design and layout.
Ed Ng, interior designer for Lanson Place Jinlin Tiandi Residences in Shanghai, explains: “The guestrooms are my main considerations as people spend most of their time there. A personal space must exude warmth and comfort, and the fittings must be user-friendly.
“I don’t bring anything intricate into the room, instead I leave room for storage, coffee tables and shelves for guests to bring in their own personality and style.”
Geneste, the interior designer who recently moved to Hongkong, concurs: “Home is a place where your personality shines through. I look for a space that is not overly decorated. The best option is when I’m able to customise it.”
Parkside of Pacific Place Apartments by Swire Properties is flexible in this concern. It allows guests to configure a space within the bedroom, turning it into a work area or an additional closet space without additional charges.
Units at Ascott’s mid-range Citadines can be adapted to their occupants’ diverse lifestyle requirements, for example, using a sliding panel which can turn the place into a meeting venue by day and a retreat at night.
Boutique products such as Shama, Ovolo and The Putman offer trendy furnishings and furniture as eye-candy for the design-conscious tenant. The Putman is named after the famed French interior designer, Andrée Putman. And rightly so, as she oversaw the entire creative process and even handpicked items for the rooms.
There’s nothing like moving into a ready-made home with high-end furniture and fittings, boasting the likes of Eames, Stepevi, Kartell, Poggenpohl, Gaggenau, Villeroy & Boch, Dornbracht and Bisazza. They make great conversational pieces when having friends over – provided one doesn’t mispronounce the names.
The race between serviced apartment operators to differentiate will undoubtedly heat up even further, and consumers can only look forward to more luxury and cossetting to come.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Place
Far East Serviced Residences
Marriott Executive Apartments
Parkside of Pacific Place Apartments
Shangri-La Hotels and Residence
The Westin Beijing Residence
LOOK WHO'S FIGHTING BACK
Don’t count the international chains out of the serviced apartment boom just yet. As precursors of the trend – their inventory always allocated some rooms and suites for long-stay guests, some even equipped with kitchenettes – they’ve had experience in this market for a very long time.
Five-star brands such as Four Seasons, Marriott, Shangri-La and Westin are now going one step further, establishing their own serviced apartment products, which are usually built next to their hotel property.
Jojo Aasnef, a American homemaker, enjoys the renowned Marriott service at her Lakeside Chalet Marriott Executive Apartments (MEA) aerie in Mumbai. “I don’t want to leave!” she says, gleefully, adding: “We just love it here as we’re so pampered and taken care of by the staff who treats us like extended family.” For Aasnef, “we” includes her husband and 11 year-old twin girls.
Asked to share her impressions, she recalls: “One of my daughters mentioned that she felt a sore throat developing, and the next day, there was a pot of herbal tea with honey brewed by one of the staff especially for her. I was really touched.”
Prior to the interview with Business Traveller Asia-Pacific, she’d just finished practising badminton in the hotel’s ballroom. “MEA knew the guests like badminton, and we’re going to have a tournament soon, so it converted one of the ballrooms into a court for us to practise while two staff waited for us with cold drinks and towels.”
The Four Seasons Place in Hongkong strives to help guests hit the ground running by providing an “Orientation Specialist”, who helps them with the intricacies of a new environment. Besides offering (stylish) lodgings and (efficient) housekeeping, the five stars, like their serviced residence competitors, also offer a sense of community.
Banker Timm Weidner, a Westin Beijing Residence tenant, says: “My children and I took part in a noodle-making class by the hotel’s Italian chef. We had so much fun together as a family.”
He adds: “The Kids’ Club is fabulous because it’s like a kindergarten. My five-year-old boy and three-year-old girl just love the activities.
“It is not enough for me to be successful in my work.
Seeing my kids and wife happy here with me in Beijing makes life enjoyable.”
Hotel-cum-serviced residence operators are always open to customers’ needs. Says Charlie Dang, Westin Beijing Residence general manager: “I’m happy to change the fittings as long as the guest is willing to bear the cost. Everything can be discussed.
“Even our signature Heavenly bed was once sold to a guest at CNY18,000 (US$2,400).”
Hotels are fighting back, and customers are loving it.