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Why there's never been a better time to be a small luxury hotel brand

Olivier Jolivet has been at the helm of Como Hotels and Resorts for three years, overseeing a small group that packs a big punch when it comes to style, sustainability and wellness.

Olivier Jolivet has been running Como Hotels and Resorts for almost three years
Olivier Jolivet has been running Como Hotels and Resorts for almost three years

From the hills of Tuscany to the valleys of Bhutan, it's all about service, sustainability and wellness for Como Hotels and Resorts

While this will always be a softly-spoken brand, Olivier Jolivet admits he would like to see Como at least whisper a bit louder.


“It’s not our philosophy to make a big noise,” he says. “But yes, I have been trying to amplify awareness a little more since I joined.”


Often seen as a leader in understated luxury and respected for its focus on wellness – a journey the brand has been on for many years, not just as a modern fad – Como has just 15 hotels, but they are spread from the Maldives to Miami.


Aman, the company where Jolivet previously worked for eight years is known for its “Amanjunkies” – affluent, dedicated guests who sashay elegantly to any of its resorts around the world – and while he doesn’t say it himself, I’d posit that with a repeat factor of 40% worldwide, maybe there is also a breed of Comojunkies too? “We don’t sell rooms, we sell experiences,” he says.


Having just spent a couple of days myself at the most recent addition to the fold, Como Castello del Nero in Tuscany, it’s easy to see why people would fall in love with the group’s hotels. And having been fortunate to notch up visits to six of the other hotels personally across the years, I’m happy to admit my own addiction; not least to Como’s own-brand Invigorate amenities, an uplifting blend of eucalyptus, peppermint, lavender and geranium.


But having incredible aromas in your hotel is one thing; Jolivet is set on service as the core reason people return to Como’s hotels.


“I think people come to us because they like discreet hotels and ones focused on wellness, cuisine and service: the difference between ‘good and great’ comes down to service, and that’s what we focus on, not on being an overly modern brand for the sake of it,” he tells me as we sit in the lobby of Como Metropolitan in London. “Guests return to us because of the care they receive from our people. When you are so trusted, you have to be consistent.”


He also believes in the power of sustainability as a brand standard for the hotels. “We have such a long-term philosophy, and again while many people talk about it [sustainability] now, it’s always been a key part of our make-up, we just don’t feel the need to shout about it,” he says.


“However, it is something I know people appreciate, especially young people – both in terms of those we attract to work for us and in younger guests. We live in a very transparent world today, so people can see how you are behaving as a business. They also want to know who you are, and what they will learn from you. How will you go beyond the normal for them?”

Looking for the right fit

Looking for the right fit

While there may only be 15 hotels now, the cheque book is very much open, should the right project come along for the company, created by founder Christina Ong and her family 28 years ago. An asset-based organization, they prefer to own the hotels, if not outright, then in tandem with a local partner.


During the European visit I meet him on, Jolivet has already been looking in the UK for projects. “The family have long wanted something in the countryside that would be a good fit for the urban properties in London,” he says.

“There are lots of opportunities in the luxury market generally right now,” he continues, “especially in southern Europe, Africa and South America, which are all places we’re interested in. People are selling their assets, interest rates are low in many places and there are great opportunities.


“I think there is a big growth in traveller interest for Europe, driven by the desire to experience the culture and a less polluted environment, than say, some parts of Asia; even Singapore has been having smog warnings recently [due to fires in Indonesia causing cross-border haze as a result of land-clearance for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations].”


“The fact that we’re an asset-based company is also appealing to many people who are looking to sell or build a hotel at the moment, as it shows we have a long-term strategy. It sets us apart in a world that is increasingly driven by management contracts,” he explains. “It also fits our objective to hold onto assets for future generations of the family coming through.”


He also takes pride in the smaller size of the business, rather than feeling threatened. The likes of Marriott, Accor and IHG have been on hardy acquisition trails of late, consolidating many high-end brands under just a few umbrellas, but with the “big boys expanding at any cost”, Jolivet believes it gives other players an opportunity to showcase the benefits of smaller, unique hotels.


“We certainly don’t want to be the biggest, but we do want to be the best at what we do and you will see us moving ever higher into the upscale segment. Small is beautiful! Plus our brand is our main equity, so we have to protect that and we are careful about how we use it.”

Making plans for the future

Making plans for the future

Plans are afoot for a travelling luxury camp in Bhutan, where the group already has two hotels, Como Uma Punakha and Como Uma Paro.


“We will be able to take our guests to valleys not visited at all by tourists, offering amazing hiking experiences on seven-14 day trips, with around five tents on the move, we think for up to 12 people, either as an exclusive group, or mixed,” he says excitedly. “We can do this because we are so small.”


There are also plans to renovate London’s Como The Halkin, one of the oldest hotels in the group, and currently sitting right in the shadow of the construction site of The Peninsula being built at Hyde Park Corner.


“London is actually doing really well at the moment,” says Jolivet. “Yes, there are so many new players, but we haven’t seen a corresponding pressure on the rate; there are many more people coming to the UK because of the weaker currency.”


“But we do have to think about how we position Como The Halkin in the light of all the new hotels,” he says. “We have a 60% repeat factor there, so customers are very loyal to the hotel. They have always liked it for its privacy, discretion and elegance, and this is not going to change, but we will be investing in a refurbishment, and we have to continue to differentiate, as it is a very competitive market.”


This winter, there are plans to ramp up the spa (pictured above) at Como Castello Del Nero, Tuscany, part of an historic 740-acre estate with a twelfth-century castle at its heart.


Following the takeover of the hotel by Como late last year, designer Paola Navone spearheaded a subtle contemporary upgrade into a building packed with terracotta and dappled with Renaissance frescoes; the spa will now become a souped-up COMO Shambhala Retreat ready for next season (the will be closed from 9 November until 4 April).


Jolivet adds that a selection of farmhouses will also be gradually made into homes for sale. “We need to move much more into the model of having residences for sale alongside the hotels,” he says. “So often I hear guests say they’d ‘love to live here’ when at one of the hotels, and I think we can do that; we have already done it successfully at Como Parrot Cay.”

Taking the brand further

Taking the brand further

It may be some time off yet, but also on the horizon will be hotels in New York and in the Japanese ski resort of Niseko on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and known for incredible terrain covered in powdery snow.


More lifestyle hubs could also follow around the world, along the same lines as Como Dempsey in Singapore. Home to everything but a hotel, the project includes an outpost of Dover Street Market (one of only four in the world), a fashion mecca featuring some of the world’s most desirable brands and set in a vast 12,325 square-feet space in an old army barracks.


Also set in the Como project amidst Dempsey Hill’s lush greenery, are four fine culinary institutions – Candlenut, the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant; The Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar (pictured above) by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten; COMO Cuisine, which serves up signature favourites from each of the hotels worldwide; and Ippoh Tempura Bar by Ginza Ippoh – the first south-east Asian outpost for the Japanese brand.


“We’ve clusterized great culinary experiences in one place – an historical one at that – and created a lifestyle destination, that while it doesn’t have a hotel, showcases what we are about anyway,” says Jolivet. “It’s also in a beautiful garden setting and next to Singapore Botanic Gardens, so has a lovely feel to it. We’d like to be able to create similar concepts in major cities so we can bring the brand into those places.”

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