Fresh from his appointment as Ovolo Hotels CEO, Dave Baswal spoke exclusively to HM about his journey with the business, innovation during challenging times, and his plans for growth.
Congratulations on your promotion to Chief Executive. Tell us a bit about your journey with Ovolo to date?
Dave Baswal: I started with the group almost six years ago, right after [Ovolo Group Founder and CEO] Girish [Jhunjhnuwala] had acquired three hotels in Australia. At that time, it was the stepping stone for the brand in the market and there was really no senior leadership on ground in Australia; the hotels were running independently and reporting directly to Hong Kong. My role was to bring the team together in the local market and take it further. We managed to grow [the brand portfolio] to eight hotels now [in ANZ], one in Bali and four in Hong Kong, and establish Ovolo as a leading lifestyle independent brand in the market, which has been a great success. It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve learned a lot from Girish in relation to being an entrepreneur, trying different things and pushing the boundaries to try and set a new standard every time you come to work. I’m very proud to be where I am, gaining his confidence to be a leader for the for the group across all regions.
How have the last two years been for the business?
It’s been tough, no doubt about it, for everyone, but we’ve been very lucky and also surrounded by an amazing group of people. We used this time to rethink some of our strategies, but also explore activations to keep our existing teams engaged. We launched the Year of Veg during the pandemic to change the direction of food and beverage. The idea was to keep the chef brigade and teams engaged and find a new challenge for ourselves while everything was quiet. We did Quarantine Concierge in Hong Kong; and we launched two hotels – South Yarra and Bali. I think our way to fight through this challenging period was to stay active, stay nimble; we just wanted to make sure that we keep our creative juices flowing. That has worked out really well for us as we managed to keep our leadership team together coming out of COVID as the market is recovering. Our position of a leading lifestyle brand is bringing a lot of business towards us and that existing team which already understands who we are and what we want to deliver is now able to execute at a much faster pace.
The month of March has been the highest direct revenue generating for the group ever – that’s a little bit skewed because I have two more properties, Bali and South Yarra, but it feels good that we’re already hitting some benchmarks coming out of COVID, which are to be celebrated in my view.
How will Ovolo continue to invest in innovation in its food and beverage alongside its hotels?
When I joined Ovolo, food and beverage was a very small part of the group, but there was there was this intention and willingness to become a lifestyle brand which is celebrating the neighborhood, celebrating life overall. We realised very early in the journey that food and beverage is an integral part of that experience. Even in a confined little space you can deliver a really punchy experience. Wherever we go, we now try to create a very unique food and beverage experience within the hotel.
We are now retrospectively fine tuning our food and beverage offer in other venues. For example, in Inchcolm in Brisbane, we’re focusing on martini lunches and jazz nights, creating those unique little experiences.
Food and beverage will continue to be an integral part of the experience we provide. Currently, we are looking to revamp Alibi in Woolloomooloo with a new vision. That’s where it all started five years ago, so it’s worth doing a revisit and refreshing it. Secondly, we are working on a zero-proof cocktail menu, which is again celebrating the healthy vegan lifestyle and complementing our vegan food.
Another thing is ESG. We’ve done a lot of individual activities around being environmentally friendly, however, we’re currently taking a more holistic review of existing activities. The starting point of that is food and beverage as there happens to be a lot of wastage in that area, and then extend that to the hotel side as well.
Now that borders are open for most of your markets, how are you feeling about the outlook for the industry now?
I think the market is surprising us every day. The pace of bookings and the growth in the overall market, especially from domestic Australia, is amazing. There’s a lot of pent-up demand, but alongside the leisure demand, even the corporates are coming back but with different requirements. Small and medium enterprises are back in the market, trying to travel and connect with their consumers to find larger market share. Larger corporates are not returning; however, they are focusing on small groups and events to come together and to get to know their teams better because they’ve been working from home, and that will continue to be a norm. There’s a lot of positivity in the market.
In Bali, where we launched a property last year, we’ve had a domestic focus. And we were surprised by how good the domestic market is in Bali – we managed to get [domestic business] from Jakarta. The domestic market was never the [target] but you have to change and improvise.
I think the closer markets to Australia, like Singapore, are seeing much more frequent travel. It will be interesting to see what happens in New Zealand if it takes a large share from us or if we see a return of New Zealand travellers to Australia. All in all, it’s a good thing right when people travel, everyone will get their fair share, and we’ll see growth returning. I feel super excited and super positive about where it’s where it’s headed.
I would like to think that we’ve learned from the past and that we can create more sustainable experiences and travel more cautiously and wisely than we have in the past, and to some extent we’re seeing trends of it already in the market, that minor and frequent travel would disappear, and more meaningful travel will happen from every angle. We will see business and leisure coming together more than what used to happen in the past.
How about Hong Kong? What is the situation like there now?
It’s not ideal, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction. Hong Kong has gone from a 21-day quarantine requirement to seven-day quarantine which is a little bit more acceptable for travel. We changed gears in Hong Kong, two of five hotels are long-stay hotels at the moment, and they are doing really well, but not with a typical Ovolo clientele. It’s a very different clientele in the long-stay business which we are doing in partnership with Dash Living. The other two are quarantine hotels. Quarantine in Hong Kong is very different to what we have in Australia – the guests can actually pick and choose where they want to quarantine. We’ve done really well over the last couple of years in Hong Kong because we decided that we’re not going to treat quarantine guests the same way as they’ve been treated across the world. We curated independent experiences for the guests – a selection of menus, activations like yoga classes from the room, cocktail-making classes – to keep the guests engaged throughout their stay.
That has given us huge popularity in the local market, and the hotel has been sold out through that quarantine period.
What are the key areas where you will be putting your focus as CEO this year?
A major part is growth, for obvious reasons. We have seen in the last few years, the calibration of activity and there’s a lot of opportunity in the market. A lot of big hotel companies are trying to enter the lifestyle and boutique space, but it’s hard work and not easy for everyone to replicate. We have a good position in that market and we can take it further. There is a massive opportunity to grow the brand. We’ll always do a few things and do them well, so finding the right market to grow the brand in a sustainable way is definitely the most important task ahead of me – that could be with further investment as we own and operate majority of hotels, but also finding the right partners to grow with and the right management agreements and opportunities.
We’re looking for partnerships to work with like-minded people and bring more product to the market but, at the same time, look for management opportunities where the assets are either well-positioned to work with the Ovolo brand or have a value add where we can take an existing asset and refurb and reposition it in the market.
There’s a lot of inventory in Australia in the hotel industry that needs some love, which creates opportunity as well.
Can you share any insight into Ovolo’s expansion plans?
We’re very clear about further establishing ourselves in Australia, find some presence in New Zealand and some key locations in Asia Pacific where we would like to be. that we already have presence in Bali and we can do with few more assets in Bali and create cluster in some other locations. Otherwise, Phuket, Singapore, Vietnam, Auckland, Queenstown – these are the obvious new markets we are exploring. Adelaide and Perth in Australia are the two markets where we don’t have a presence… We would like to see further growth in the second-tier cities or the emerging markets of Australia – those that are a two-hour drive radius of a key feeder market, whether that be leisure or corporate that doesn’t really bother us – like Newcastle, Geelong, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast.