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Feature: Aman's Man

Jack Smith

Adrian Zecha, founder and chairman of the Singapore-based Amanresorts group, may be the world’s most successful creator of playgrounds for the affluent. He certainly is one of the most enigmatic. Here is a former journalist and publisher who rarely speaks to the press, a developer who is zealous about preserving natural habitats, and a hotelier who has built luxury resorts in places previously closed to outsiders. He also is the center of a cult whose 150,000 members readily identify themselves as Amanjunkies, people who voyage thousands of miles annually in an ongoing quest for the next Aman experience. For many, that quest began at Amanpuri, the first Aman resort, which Zecha opened 20 years ago on the Thai island of Phuket.

The road from the Phuket airport to Amanpuri, which means "place of peace" in Sanskrit, leads past a rubber plantation where buckets tied around the waists of trees catch the milky white latex that oozes from the bark. The scene is a reminder that this island once was thought suitable for little more than agriculture. That was before Zecha arrived.

When I arrive at Amanpuri, a golf cart transports me to the top of a ridge, where coconut trees frame a view of the Andaman Sea. From the ridge, a footpath winds its way past a village of pavilions with red ocher pagoda-style roofs that poke through the greenery. A table is set on a rocky promontory farther below, where Zecha waves me over to join him.

Close up, in his faded blue knit shirt and well-worn khaki shorts, Zecha looks more like a beachcomber than the avatar of a luxury lifestyle. Now in his early 70s, he appears a decade younger. The most striking thing about him, though, is his broad, puckish grin. But then, Zecha has much to smile about these days.

When Zecha opened Amanpuri, the experts said that it would never work. Industry investors at the time wanted economies of scale—500-room megaresorts where guests queued up cheek-by-jowl in front of buffet tables, not intimate, boutique-style resorts that were attuned to their local cultures and natural surroundings. Today that has all changed, thanks largely to Zecha’s success. His philosophy of building low-volume, high-end resorts, where rates can reach as high as $12,000 per night, has earned him the envy of the industry and a level of profitability beyond most hoteliers’ wildest dreams. The company’s gross operating profits are confidential, but they are generally conceded to be among the industry’s highest, if not the very highest. Its resorts also are widely considered among the best, if not the very best, in the world. The prospect that Zecha might create a resort within their borders can prompt statesmen to turn cartwheels. The news that Aman planned to expand into Palau, for instance, prompted the island republic’s president, Tommy Remengesau, to exult, "This is exactly the type of project that will put Palau on the world tourism map."

It would not be the first time Zecha introduced a destination to the outside world, which partly explains why industry pundits and competitors alike refer to him as a genius and a visionary. "That’s bullshit," he tells me with a laugh, after taking a puff on his Romeo y Julieta Petit Corona. "So often in life when something succeeds, people speak of their ‘vision,’ as if everything had happened according to a grand strategy. But much of what happened here was luck."

If things always worked out the way they were planned, Zecha might never have built a single resort. Instead, says Zecha, who 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 recalls. "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, Zecha’s family moved to central Pennsylvania, 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 Zecha, 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, Zecha 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 Zecha. 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 Zecha. "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 Zecha.

"Anywhere but here," replied the minister.

Thus the brash young reporter embarked for New York City, where, in 1960, he founded a magazine called Asia (with $500,000 in funding from a young Australian named Rupert Murdoch). Zecha’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, before becoming an adviser to Marriott Hotels. "Marriott wanted to start in Asia because of the lower labor 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 recognize that, in Asia, it is not what you know, it is who you know. That is something most Americans have yet to learn."

Once again, the unplanned intervened, this time in the form of the 1973 oil embargo, which led Marriott to postpone the projects. But Zecha’s appetite for the hotel business had been whetted. Instead of joining Marriott, he became a partner, along with two friends, in Regent International Hotels. The trio built 12 hotels for Regent, most notably the 602-room Regent Hong Kong, before Zecha sold his share in 1986 for $30 million.

Zecha says he had no strategy, no vision, no eureka moment when, one year later, he went to Phuket to acquire land on which to build a vacation home. 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, Zecha could amortize 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 travelers. 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."

Each villa he built at Amanpuri was a spacious, self-contained compound comprising three separate pavilions—a dining room, a living room, and an oversize bedroom—set around a private swimming pool. The inveterately warm and friendly Thai staff welcomed the resort’s first guests as if they were visitors in their own homes. They coddled these tourists in ways that other hotels never had dreamed of, even spraying the hot sands of the beach with water to ward off the heat of the midday sun. "Six months after opening, I knew Amanpuri was a success," says Zecha.

So did other developers and investors, one group of which retained Zecha to come to French Polynesia to view the site of a potential resort. Zecha rejected the project, but, while there, he slipped away from his clients to walk the beach. When he found a spot where no other hotels or resorts could be seen, he decided to build his second resort, the Hotel Bora Bora, on the site. A community of 54 thatch-roofed bungalows, the Bora Bora is readily identifiable by its 14 over-water dwellings, whose interiors of rattan and bamboo evoke a 19th-century Polynesian trader’s home.

Today, the Aman group consists of 18 resorts that reflect their disparate settings, which include Marrakech, Morocco; the French Alps; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and an Indian game reserve. In Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom that until recent decades was closed to tourism, Zecha opened Amankora, the country’s first foreign-owned hotel and first luxury property, in 2004. He now 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."

Occasionally Amanresorts selects sites that also require acts of cultural preservation. In Cambodia, Zecha acquired a ruined guest villa that the country’s King Sihanouk had built in the early 1960s. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed all architectural records of the villa, but Zecha discovered an old tourist guidebook with pictures of the building, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once stayed as Sihanouk’s guest, from the early 1960s. After a yearlong renovation, the villa emerged as Amansara, a walled, 24-suite hotel, with teak paneling, terrazzo floors, and bamboo sconces, set close to the temples of Angkor.

"Every Aman is different," says Zecha. "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."

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 Vaturi $120 million. After removing Vaturi from the Silverlink board, Colony Capital asked 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."

Zecha ultimately resigned from Aman and remained uninvolved until October 2000, when the shareholder dispute was settled. With Colony Capital now out of the picture, the controlling interest in Silverlink passed to Zecha’s allies, and he rejoined Aman as chairman and CEO.

Since then, the company has grown rapidly, and Aman has several projects in the works. The group’s first city hotel is scheduled to open this year in Delhi; Aman also will expand into Japan with a property in Kyoto modeled after a traditional ryokan, or inn. Another Aman resort will open on the island of Sveti Stefan in Montenegro, and a fourth project will debut in Utah by the end of next year.

As chairman of another hospitality company, GHM Hotels, which he founded in 1992, Zecha also is involved in what promises to be one of the resort world’s most talked-about properties, Cape Yamu. The Philippe Starck–designed hotel, which is scheduled to open later this year on the east coast of Phuket, will feature 63 rooms and 27 villas, as well as six glass cubes that will accommodate a restaurant, wine cave, cigar lounge, kitchen, chocolate room, and boutique. Perhaps hinting at Cape Yamu’s prospective market, one of the suites will be attached to a recording studio.

It all sounds very un-Aman-like, but that, says Zecha, is by design. "Everything has changed since I first built Amanpuri. Today I could not repeat what I built here," he explains. "The room size used to be 500 square feet; now our new resorts begin with 700 square feet. Twenty years ago we didn’t have a spa; now you can’t think of opening a resort without a state-of-the-art spa."

Zecha looks over toward the bar on the other side of the pool, where a dozen male and female guests in their 30s are conversing. "The problem is, now, I can’t change a thing. If I did, these guys"—he nods in the direction of the guests—"would be on my ass. That’s what makes Amans unique; they’re all different, but they are all bound by one unifying element. It’s like being a member of a club without the odium of a club."

So much so, he says, that his Amanjunkies send books to the various resorts for use in their libraries. No less telling, in 20 years, only five of Amanpuri’s 40 privately owned villas have gone up for resale. Such success, on Phuket and elsewhere around the world, has spawned competitors. "I call them Amanwannabes," Zecha says.

But the only real competitors for Aman resorts are other Aman resorts. "Some of our Amanjunkies come to Amanpuri every year, while others want to experience the newer Amans elsewhere in the world. But wherever they go, the first thing they do when they check into a new place is ask, ‘Who else is here?’ "

He glances again at the guests by the bar. "It’s funny," he says. "They know the Amans, and they know each other, and they know the general manager and staff. But they don’t know me."

That, however, is just the way Zecha likes it.

Amanresorts, +65.6887.3337, 800.477.9180, www.amanresorts.com

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