At the tender age of five years old, Crown Group’s luxury suites brand Skye Suites is gearing up for an exciting period of growth as it begins to take on hotel management agreements (HMAs) for the first time and looks to new markets for development in Australia and overseas.
Skye Suites Head of Hotels Australasia, David Bowen, spoke exclusively to HM about the brand’s global expansion plan, embracing the power of F&B, and the thoughtful ways in which its hotels are giving back to local communities.
Skye Suites is a recognisable brand in Sydney and Australia, but for those who may not be familiar with the properties, can you explain a bit about the hotels currently in operation?
We currently have three locations in Sydney. The hotel on Kent Street in the CBD gets a lot of publicity through reality TV show Married at First Sight. We have been the host hotel for that for the last three years, which is fantastic. It’s really driven a lot of demand into the hotel.
Our other hotel is in Green Square – we opened this right at the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020. And our first hotel is in Parramatta.
They are all a suite product but, in terms of the markets that they serve, they are very unique.
Sydney CBD is very corporate and high-end leisure; Green Square is more leisure – there is some corporate but there’s a real eclectic mix of people that go to that hotel because the building (Infinity by Crown) is so iconic. In Paramatta, the customer is corporate government and domestic leisure.
Parramatta is just booming. For us, it’s a key city. There’s Parramatta Square, the Walker development, and lots of new office spaces and hotel development. There’s a new QT being built down the road from us and there’s an InterContinental going in [nearby]. Right now, we’re by far the most premium product in Parramatta – we trade about $60-70 above the market in rate. We’re really happy that there’s some more high-end stuff coming in so we can really push the market.
You’ve just opened a cafe at the Green Square hotel. Can you speak to your strategy around food and beverage and how that’s evolving?
Yes, it operates as a cafe during the day and then a cocktail/wine bar in the evening. Typically, the Skye Suites model is an urban resort, and a mixed-use development. Usually, there’s a hotel, a residential component, and retail. The idea is that you’ve got a multitude of restaurants around so there is lots of choice for customers. It’s just recently that we’ve started moving into the food and beverage space. This is our first foray into that.
By operating F&B internally, we can control the hours of operation to suit customers and offer a product that our customers want. We’ve seen other hotels grow by bringing in external expertise, and that’s what we’ve done too – David Allison from Stix Catering helped us curate the menu for Green Square. The idea is to have the F&B built into a lot more of our newer hotels and this is being considered as part of the planning process.
We’re also building a conference centre at Green Square, which will open around mid-2023. We’re trying to encompass more of a hospitality offering overall. Almost 20 years ago, [Crown Group CEO] Iwan Sunito had a vision for creating a space to give back to the community; he wants to start a foundation that gives back – and the conference centre complements that. On Sundays, for example, it could be used for cooking classes for young children or education for parents on how to deal with behavioural issues, things like that. We’re working with the University of Western Sydney to develop that idea. The rest of the time, it’ll be used as a traditional conference centre for meetings, events, gala dinners, etc. We’ve had the experience in running a conference space – our Parramatta property has a 200-seat ballroom, primarily used for corporate conferences.
Can you tell us a bit more about those new hotels that are in the works and your broader expansion plans?
We’ve got new hotels coming up in Chatswood, Waterloo, and Macquarie Park. Waterloo is an interesting one – that’s probably two years away [from opening]. We have a high-net-worth individual that’s bought one of the buildings in the Waterloo precinct. It will be a 40-room all-suite hotel with a Japanese theme. We’re creating a Japanese town [within the precinct]. This hotel will feature an onsen and possibly a Japanese Whiskey Bar concept.
This is our first HMA. We’re working in that space now because a lot of developers can see that through the last three hotels that we own, build, and manage, we put our money where our mouth is, and we’re delivering on it now.
Macquarie and Chatswood are still in still in the planning stages – they’re probably three or four years away. We want to have a presence in Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra – we’re looking at all those sites whether that be our own or through management agreements. We’ve also got land in LA, so there’s broader scope. And the owners are Indonesian, so we could look at having something in Bali or Jakarta.
The goal is to is to have AU$1 billion dollars’ worth of assets under management over the next 10 years. In terms of how many hotels, that all depends on what business is out there, what we will build ourselves, and what HMAs might become available.
How is hotel occupancy at the moment and when do you expect to see more growth in international traveller numbers at hotels again?
[Occupancy numbers are] absolutely fantastic. Sydney is trading in the 90s(%); Green Square in the high 80s(%) and Parramatta is in the mid-80s(%). The demand for our product is super strong. We don’t see it really slowing down until probably mid-2023, over that winter period, but it will be interesting to see what will happen at that point.
International travel is still lagging. I think in early 2023, we will start seeing more come back. I know the New South Wales Government is putting a big focus on India, Indonesia, and other markets. The cruising industry returns next year, and Events NSW, the ICC have a busy schedule this year that is going to provide a lot of business into Sydney.
With the ongoing skills shortage, how is the business attracting and retaining talented workers to deliver the experience guests expect at hotels?
We’re very focused on culture. Having a small group helps; the hierarchy is very flat. Iwan, our owner, walks into each hotel and knows everyone’s name. It’s like he’s one of them. We try to make sure we celebrate milestones as much as possible. We recently put in place an Employee Assistance Program. We really try to create that team culture within the hotels.
In terms of recruitment, it’s about aligning with the right hotel schools. One of our GMs is a lecturer in a hotel school, which really helps. We don’t have the reach that a lot of the big companies have so it’s about bringing people through that traineeship and right through to being an FOM (Front Office Manager). For example, at Skye Suite Green Square our current junior manager team have all come through that student base. We do the goal setting and personal development plans to help them grow.
It’s not just about revenue, it’s about NPS, employee engagement, responsible business, giving people purpose – people want to be part of the bigger picture. One of the things we do is sponsor Ronald McDonald House. Kids that have been there for like 100 days, every quarter, we take them for a weekend at one of the Skye Suites. We’ll pick them up a Skye Suites van and bring them to the hotel where we’ll do a kid’s minibar and take them out to dinner or a show or football game. We try to give back to the community and I think staff really like being part of that.
There’s quite a big focus on female management and female senior leadership at a corporate level. Is diversity an important factor in the hiring process?
Yes. The focus is trying to get that that balance right. It’s not only about gender diversity, but also ethnic diversity.
It’s being really conscious and purposeful in what you’re doing. We don’t have any set quotas or anything like that but when we are hiring, it’s diversity of thought that we’re looking for. And we believe that you get that diversity of thought through different sex, different culture, rather than just a bunch of white guys sitting around the table.