All-Inclusive Entrepreneur

Girish Jhunjhnuwala, founder and visionary of Ovolo Hotels, made a list of what hotels should not do and with that created a brand that promises standout quality and service.

It was a bold bet he made at the turn of the millennium, but it paid off handsomely for Hong Kong-born Indian entrepreneur Girish Jhunjhnuwala.

He had taken over his family’s watch manufacturing business, called OEM, immediately after graduating from Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California in 1984, and opened two factories in China – one in Shenzhen and the other in Dongguan. Business was going well for the family until the market took a turn in 1998 – a change brought on by the nature of the business itself

“Watch manufacturing is the only industry that I know that has gone backwards in technology. You can make a faster computer, but not a faster watch; 60 seconds is 60 seconds,” he tells Business State. “Traditional timepieces have lost their place, thanks to mobile phones.”

While his competitors and other major Switzerland-based watchmakers struggled to keep up with the market and even started to forgo quartz analogue watches for ‘smart’ ones, Jhunjhnuwala saw the writing on the wall and took a leap of faith. He started to downsize and, two years later, sold the business entirely.

With the money from the sale, he bought an office building in the heart of Hong Kong’s Central Business District and developed it into upscale serviced apartments, known as 2AR, in 2002.

“I had zero experience in property back then, so it was a huge risk,” he says.

That risk started to pay off, but right after the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak that affected Hong Kong’s hospitality industry, he again noticed a shift in the market: the demand for serviced apartments was falling sharply and there was an significant shortage of hotels in Hong Kong. He decided to transform 2AR into a hotel, and that building became the flagship hotel of Ovolo Hotels Group, for which Jhunjhnuwala serves as founder and visionary.

Since then, the group has evolved and expanded to include four hotels and one serviced apartment building in Hong Kong. In 2012, Ovolo eyed the shores of Australia, starting with a hotel in Melbourne and then, a few years later, two in Sydney and one more to come in Brisbane.

Melbourne was an obvious choice for Jhunhunwala when he first decided to expand the Ovolo brand internationally. “The Melbourne culture reflects the Ovolo brand well. It’s not just about the cafés or the cool restaurants; it’s about having a great time. People here appreciate a good brand, and they liked what we offered,” he says.

Expanding abroad can be daunting, even for Jhunhunwala whose other business remits include companies under the Singapore-based Hind Group and Shalimar Paints in India. Fortunately for the Ovolo Hotels group, there was immense support from all stakeholders, including the Victorian Government. “I was a new player in the market. I made it a point to meet with everyone I could. It worked out well; everyone was approachable and welcoming. They genuinely wanted us to succeed and made the process so much smoother for us,” Jhunjhnuwala says.

Apart from external support, the success of the Ovolo Hotels expansion is also attributed to Jhunjhnuwala’s challenging of the hospitality industry status quo. He created a new concept for the brand and, most importantly, showed a deep understanding of the psyche of the traveller of today. The foundation of Ovolo’s brand philosophy stemmed from him asking himself one question: ‘What did I not like in hotels when travelling?’

“When I travelled, I realised how unfriendly hotels could be,” he says, citing an example many may be familiar with. At some hotels, there are bottles of water placed on little coasters that are connected to wires. And if you lift a bottle up for even a nanosecond, you’re charged for it. And minibars are a ‘look, but don’t touch unless you pay’. That’s not a great experience for the guests.”

From Jhunhunwala’s list of not-to-dos, Ovolo’s signature all-inclusive service concept was born. It’s a promise to its guests that, once they are checked-in, all touch points of the hotel are free. These include breakfast, in-room minibar, high-speed Wi-Fi, laundromat, and other things that are considered necessities to the 21st century traveller.

“While hotels these days do provide Wi-Fi, they also have a premium service plan for high-speed internet at another $10 or so. But everyone needs high-speed internet today – from business travellers to your average holidaygoers.

“And, at Ovolo, high-speed internet is provided at no additional cost. Finland’s made internet access a human right. When things like this are considered to be necessities, how can we charge extra for them? We’re not here to make money off our guests on necessities. Everything you see in the room is yours; enjoy it, consume it without worry.”

Jhunjhnuwala’s approach at Ovolo is to bring the hospitable back to hospitality, catering to a generation of travellers that expect convenience and exceptional service.

“We call it ‘effortless living’ in the rooms; it’s about making things accessible for the guests to use,” he says. “It’s as simple as having bedside plugs available for use to charge multiple devices, which newly designed hotels do not even have, apart from that one for the table lamps. Again, these are what today’s travellers need,” Jhunjnuwala says.

Alongside the thoughtful functionalities of the rooms, Ovolo Hotels are also known for the trendy design in each of them. From kitsch furnishings to the use of colour and pop art, each room is designed beautifully and creatively to reflect the high-end boutique brand.

While Jhunjhunwala admits that he doesn’t know if maroon is a colour that goes well with taupe, he says that he works collaboratively with the architects and interior designers. “I work hand-in-hand with them. The architect comes up with the colour schemes and how everything looks; I provide the brief on the functionalities of the rooms and spaces,” he says.

The philosophy of the Ovolo brand permeates throughout the group, with even the most important stakeholders – the staff – taken on the journey. Jhunjhnuwala is a strong believer in community building initiatives and supports ethnic minorities in China through his work with Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation, The KELY Support Group, and other Ovolo-lead CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives. He says that the brand can be broken down into three simple words: ‘shiny, happy people’.

“And that’s our vision, not just for our guests, but also our employees. They are inducted well into the program from the get-go, they understand the brand and are thoroughly engaged. It’s an all-encompassing process,” he says.

Jhunjhunwala’s emphasis on process is driven by his years in the manufacturing industry.

“I’m a strong believer in processes and that they’re more important than the results. If you have the right processes in place, and you’re patient, results are certain. But you can’t aim for results without having any proper process in place,” he says.

“This is why the way we do everything, and the way I work, is like clockwork,” he concludes.