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Independent Minds: Girish Jhunjhnuwala, Ovolo Hotels

With a fast-paced attitude to business and life, Founder & CEO of Ovolo Hotels, Girish Jhunjhnuwala has been shaking up the boutique hotel scene by challenging the norm and pushing boundaries. While his inspiration comes from the rock legends of the 1980s, Girish is very much a man ahead of his time. But most importantly, he likes to have fun – which shows through in his hotels.

Hong Kong born and raised, Girish inherited his strong sense of entrepreneurship from his father while working in his family’s watchmaking business, before taking a chance on a serviced apartment building where the Ovolo brand began. Colourful, cosmopolitan, and contemporary, each Ovolo property has an up-to-the-moment urban edge with a touch of rock and roll. The attention to detail can be felt throughout the wonderful world of Ovolo, immediately recognisable for its distinctly daring approach to design – from the statement lighting at Ovolo Central Hong Kong, the loud wallpaper at Ovolo The Valley Brisbane, to the exposed industrial beams at Ovolo Woolloomooloo, a former wool warehouse in a trendy Sydney district.

Not only breaking the mould when it comes to design, Girish has instilled a fresh and flexible ethos into his hotels by creating a sense of “effortless living” for his guests with the modern traveller in mind – think 24-hour pools, barista-crafted coffee, requestable gaming consoles, and a cocktail menu with a different drink for each day of the week. A firm believer in being “anti-chain and anti-same”, Girish has personally crafted every element of the Ovolo brand to stand out from the creative crowd and stay that way for years to come.

What does being ‘Independently Minded’ as an hotel owner mean to you?

I have created Ovolo Hotels with an underlying ethos of connecting with guests emotionally and being personable, which to me is the meaning of hospitality. With a unique design, unique interiors and passion that can’t be found anywhere else, this is how an independent hotel stands out. Some may think that from a guest perspective, there’s not much of a difference between stepping into a chain hotel and stepping into an independent hotel. I think it makes all the difference. A hotel that’s independently operated tends to have more passion and heart behind it, often telling a story that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. A chain hotel on the other hand is exactly the opposite – the whole point is that you will find exactly what you expect, down to the furniture, replicated in another location.

The brand and the experience mean a lot to me, and 10 years later I still choose the wallpaper, the music, the art, and all the above – it’s the part of my job that I love the most – development. I get involved in crafting it from day one. This is a huge reason how and why Ovolo strays away from the cookie cutter approach. Each hotel is different, allowing us to be more nimble, agile and able to change with the times. Thinking from the customer’s perspective has been the cornerstone of Ovolo’s management and is reflected in everything we do, including the way our hotels are designed. That’s why operational freedom is so important to us.

I started Ovolo not only because I had a passion for hospitality, but because there were wrongs that I felt needed to be corrected within the industry. I believed the hotel industry needed disruption. The model hadn’t changed in a long time, and its traditional way of things made life difficult. There was no personality – you couldn’t tell one from the other. I also had a vision – of effortless living and inclusivity. I simply created my ideas based on things that made me angry. Finding things that you disliked, things that provoked you to create something better. Ovolo’s ethos is effortless living – and is inspired by everything that my hotel stays were not: effortless.

What was the inspiration behind the hotels, and where do you continue to find sources of inspiration?

Having grown up in an entrepreneurial family, a lot of dinnertime discussions and chats with my father were about his business, and I was able to learn a lot from him this way. Now having started my own business, I also very much made it a family affair – in my first hotel, my three children would work weekends, make beds, and get hands-on. I’d like to think that they would be able to take as much away from this, as I did from my father.

The way that I came to purchase my first property was definitely a happy coincidence. Hospitality was always a dream of mine, but funnily enough I stumbled upon it by accident. My wife was looking for a location for her restaurant in 2 Arbuthnot Road, the location of my first property. I distinctly remember the agent telling us, “It’s for sale!” to which I said, “Of course it’s for sale!” and he replied, “No! the whole building’s for sale!”. I followed my gut, bought the building, and here we are!

Of course, a lot came from passion. Passion was and is a key part of my entrepreneurial journey. In the initial stages however, I was just looking to survive. Passion came from survival and my ability to survive and persevere led me to be more and more passionate about what I did. People call me a disruptor – but that’s not how I saw myself. I simply created my ideas based on things that frustrated me. Finding things that you disliked, things that provoked you to create something better. So the experience and space that I have created all boils down to one thing: connecting emotionally with our guests. That is something that I will never, and have never, compromised on.

How do you think your hotels stand apart from other boutique hotels?

Bringing back the notion of human connection and emotional experience, I think what sets us apart is our emphasis on making sure everything we do revolves around that. Boutique hotels are naturally more personable and intimate than a chain hotel, however I like to think that we take it one step further.

One of my favourite initiatives that we do (pre-Covid, of course) was the social hour. Guests come down to the lounge, enjoy a couple of drinks and most importantly, socialise with other guests staying in the hotel, or the staff itself. GMs attend the social hour everyday and get to know our guests, whether that be offering up a simple restaurant recommendation or delving deep into personal stories and experiences.

Guests are also able to directly send me an email, telling me about any comments they had during their stay. A CEO feedback email is displayed throughout the hotels, because I always want to hear about my guests’ experiences no matter how big or small the feedback.

If you only had 24 hours to get a taste for the Ovolo experience, what would you recommend a guest must do?

All of our rooms are very nice, but of course I would choose to stay in any of the suites. Named and styled after rock and roll icons, the suites at any of our hotels scream Ovolo.

In terms of what to choose for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I would say any of the F&B offerings that we have within our properties. We just recently went vegetarian in all of our restaurants, so what better way to start and end your day than with a nice, hearty, vegetarian meal? Negroni will always be the cocktail of choice. My personal favourite, Ovolo is all about the Negroni.

In terms of outdoor experiences, my favourite is definitely hiking. With a hike you can best get a glimpse of the city from afar, and you’re getting your steps in as well!

How would you describe your own perfect luxury experience?

For me, a perfect luxury experience would be a safari. I would love to take a couple days and explore the wildlife in Kenya, South Africa, and the likes because this way you truly feel away from home. Returning to a luxurious tent or resort room after a long day in the wild is the perfect experience for me.

On the other hand, there is a lot that disappoints and frustrates me about hotel experiences – which is why I started Ovolo. I couldn’t believe that such luxurious hotels were nickel and diming their guests, and that with every touch-point, there was payment involved. At my hotels, once you step inside all the touch-points are seamlessly included – no paying for a bottle of water in the mini-fridge or a cocktail at happy hour.

Do you have a vision for the future of your hotels?

I think it’s more important now than ever to move ahead with any visions that we have. The hospitality industry is undergoing a massive shift, and it only makes sense to change with it rather than be left behind. Now that the industry is headed towards an uncertain direction, it’s important to be part of shaping the industry rather than just riding along and taking the back seat.

In times of uncertainty, guests are also increasingly scrutinising companies to provide a sense of reassurance. This is when companies need to be proactive, giving them what they need before they even knew they needed it.

Which is why we have very recently launched our new initiative, Year of the Veg. For 365 days, all Ovolo restaurants are going vegetarian! We want to be conscious about what we’re consuming and practice sustainability as much as we can because we believe this can have an enormous impact on the environment and humanity at large. To that end, we’re evolving our food offerings so that our guests can continue enjoying great dining experiences in a more sustainable manner. After going vegetarian across all their restaurants, we will continue to incorporate sustainable and ethical practices throughout our properties as much as possible.

Do you see any new trends emerging for 2021 in luxury hotels?

Design-wise, I believe there will be a trend shifting towards de-cluttering to minimise touch-points. Urban hotels will become more modern with more indoor-outdoor spaces and open windows, as people are starting to value space and openness more than before.

Technologically speaking, I do believe that many restaurants may look into scanning QR codes for the menu and ordering to reduce physical touch-points, but this is not something Ovolo is interested in. As mentioned previously, we value connecting with customers. For me, you go to a restaurant so a waiter can explain the food to you, and for the service. If not, why not just order take-out?

We don’t believe in technology for the sake of technology. Ideas have been floating around regarding a key card that can be integrated into your mobile phone, but checking in at the front desk and being welcomed the way you should be is what makes your stay all that different. Luxury hospitality always needs human to human contact, but technology will find other ways to reinvent our spaces.

Wellness will be given a huge boost as well because of health consciousness. This trend has been on the rise for a while now but has recently become more pervasive with the pandemic, so it will be interesting to see how hotels will incorporate this into their spaces – such as how hotel gyms keep their cleanliness, keeping yoga mats in rooms, walking pads, spas, and such.

I do anticipate that the general trend of travelling will gear towards staycations and domestic travel for the rest of the year, but the travel industry has the ability to bounce back very quickly because of pent up demand. Travelling is a huge part of many people’s lives whether it be for leisure or business, and that is not something that can be replaced. Therefore, although staycations will become more popular amongst those that are wary, international travel will have its momentum back soon enough.