Aman is one of the iconic brands to have emerged from Asia. Widely acclaimed as the best luxury resort brand in the world, Aman is known for ultra premium service and luxury, high profile clientele and the most exotic locations. True to the meaning of its name – Aman means peace in Sanskrit – Aman has built up a reputation of providing a divine and peaceful experience by maintaining exclusivity and being totally discreet about its clients among them many famous celebrities. A magazine once referred to Aman as being “faultlessly discreet”.
Despite not going by the trodden path of traditional brand building, Aman has managed to build one of the strongest brands in the hospitality industry across the world. Creating a perfect blend of a resort experience with the local history, culture and heritage, Aman has been able to create a real world paradise. As with most iconic brands in the world, Aman was also guided by its visionary founder and chairman, Dutch-Indonesian Adrian Zecha, and his clear cut business strategy right from the start.
The brand equity was built by creating a very strong and distinct personality in line with the organization’s philosophy. The management team lead by Adrian Zecha has ensured a continuous investment in all aspects of the brand to ensure consistent delivery of Aman’s brand promises.
Aman were born out of Adrian Zecha’s strong contempt towards corporatization of the hotel and resort industry. The first of the Aman resorts was started in Phuket, Thailand in December 1987 and it was called Amanpuri. Based on its founding philosophy, Amanpuri had fewer than 50 rooms as against the over 400 room norms of the big hotel chains. This was a part of the strategy. By having fewer than 50 rooms in each of the Amanresorts, the company has been consistently able to provide a world-class personalized service to every guest. Aman runs one of the highest yields per room in the entire industry.
The strategy has been so successful that today Aman has its “pieces of paradise” spread across 11 countries – France, Indonesia, French Polynesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Morocco, Philippines, USA, India, Bhutan and Sri Lanka with more in pipeline.
Right location is the key factor in the hotel industry, and particularly for a luxury brand like Aman, it simply defines the success of the company. Adrian Zecha is known for being a great site locator and has an impeccable nose for future sites. He said Croatia would become the next hot destination in Europe while the Balkan war was still tearing countries apart. Many of the greatest and often hidden locations in the world reside with old families who only rarely consider selling their heritage jewels. When they do decide to sell, it is very likely Zecha will get the first call due to his reputation and exclusive network.
Aman has emerged as one of the iconic brands of the global hospitality industry. Apart from a pro-active and supportive top-management, a dedicated alignment of the corporate vision with the branding strategies and programs has been the other main factor contributing to the brand’s success. Aman’s corporate strategy and hence its branding strategy has been built on four main pillars:
Right from the start, Aman has strived to be as far from being a typical commercial resort chain as possible. The owners’ aversion towards corporatization of the hotel industry has led to a very unique work culture and atmosphere within Aman. With an objective of providing an excellent personalized service to all its guests, the staff members are constantly urged to be as innovative and creative in their service as possible to make every interaction with the guests a memorable experience. Most of the managerial and other staff that Aman recruits are primarily people who have had no experience in the hotel industry but possess the right attitude and the ability to conform to the Amanresorts’ culture. This is very strictly adhered to as Aman believes that people with no experience come without any hang-ups of doing things in a particular way, without any pre-designed mindsets. This fits in very well with Aman’s philosophy of creative and innovative service.
The right attitude was the key point when Adrian Zecha and once stumbled upon a great front office desk clerk in a Sydney hotel whom they subsequently hired to run Amanpuri. He developed later into one of the best performing managers at one of the resorts.
Further, there is no written manual describing Standard Operating Procedures nor are there any set ways of doing things. Managers and staff are asked to run the resorts as if they were their own companies. This unique work culture has enabled Aman to continue to delight its high-paying guests since the inception of the brand.
When Adrian Zecha started Amanpuri with just 40 rooms, it was evident that it was going to target the ultra-premium customer segment of Hollywood stars, pop singers, sports icons and wealthy business people. Given the limited number of rooms and the very expensive luxury facilities provided, it had to be priced in the very upper end. This justified its target customers.
Another main attribute was the strategy of providing ultra-premium and extremely personalized service to the limited few guests at each resort. At some properties, Aman maintains a 6-to-1 employee guest ratio, something that is unheard of in the hotel and resort industry.
With such a high commitment on delivering the brand promises, it is not surprising that Aman has maintained a highly loyal customer base that keeps returning to one of the many Amanresorts to experience the paradise once again. They are also referred to as “Aman Junkies” and would come back year after year and/or try the latest resort regardless of its location.
The next main pillar of the branding strategy has been the holistic holiday experience offered by blending comfort, personalized service and luxury with the culture and heritage of the local place. One of the main characteristics of any Aman is the fact that the location of all resorts has some historical background and importance.
Aman offers special guided tours to the surrounding areas of the resorts to explore the local traditions and cultures through interactions with the local population. It also takes its guests on unique travel journeys around the resort.
Before the opening of Aman-i-Khàs in India, the French manager spent 6 month exploring the neighborhood in a radius of some 20 kilometer around the resort on a motorbike. He showed Anil Thadini, the co-founder of Amanresorts and himself a native Indian from the region, an abandoned village from the 12th century that everyone had forgotten about.
The affluent guests at Aman are used to all sorts of haute cuisine in their daily lives and most travel extensively on business while staying at hotels and eating at restaurants everywhere all year round. Therefore, Aman provides no fancy food, but instead simple local cuisines prepared with fresh ingredients served by local cooks to maintain the authenticity of the local place – and to great satisfaction of the guests who finally get a “home-cooked” meal. Most guests do not leave the resorts to eat outside.
The final brand pillar has been the exclusivity of Aman. Given the high profile of Aman’s clientele, it could have been very easy for Aman to capitalize on the presence of the celebrities to gain wide scale publicity and media coverage in the global press. But in line with its overall strategy Aman has refrained from doing so. Amanwas never meant for the mass public and will never become one. It has been created for people who pay an extensive premium to have an experience of a lifetime. So the company has maintained a strict policy of exclusivity.
The company has put in place a system where by all the employees act as brand ambassadors. It has managed to do this not through any brand manuals (by and large Aman does not use manuals), but by being a very responsive and caring employer.
Aman has also invested a lot of time and effort in nurturing the leadership in its organization by regular training programs. In fact each resort manager has become so attached with the resort that it has created a culture that is self-fulfilling. With these measures, the management has been successful in aligning its entire staff in line with the activities of the organization.
Aman, by religiously practicing and consistently delivering on all four of its brand promises externally and aligning the commitment of its staff to its brand promises internally, have been able to build an almost iconic brand with a very loyal customer base without resorting to the traditional ways of brand building.
Aman is probably the only resort brand in the world to have achieved this iconic status with absolutely no advertising since its inception. Being true to its underlying philosophy of exclusivity, Adrian Zecha and his team decided against any form of advertising right from the start. The company does not send out press releases. The only brand communications that Aman has made use of in the last 15 years is word-of-mouth. Ninety days before the opening of every Aman, the company sends out postcards to its list of approximately 120.000 recipients with the new beautiful location shown but without mentioning the actual place to tease the prospective customers in advance and create attention about the new resort.
In addition, Zecha invites a close circle of friends to experience the resort before it opens. This way news about the resort spreads quickly within the target segment of Aman’s customers and would also reach very exclusive travel media like Condé Nast Traveler and Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report. The exclusivity in itself entices more customers towards the Aman brand. With the leading Hollywood stars, pop singers and sports personalities visiting these resorts, it creates a very desirable attribute for the brand in the eyes of prospective customers.
Company culture as driver: With its iconic status and following from all over the world and the cream of the society being the die-hard patrons of the brand, nothing seems to be challenging to Aman at the outset. The biggest challenge will be to sustain the unique company culture and commitment to delivering the brand promise without manuals and detailed management practices. With success comes the obvious threat of copycats – different hotel and resort chains starting their own version of Aman in an effort to give a similar paradise experience. Although no other resort chain is mentioned in the same breath as Aman until now, it will indeed be a threat worth keeping an eye on.
Leadership transition: Leadership succession for the ageing founder Adrian Zecha (born 1933) has been probably the most important challenge for the continued success of Aman. Olivier Jolivet was appointed CEO in August 2014. He worked very closely with Zecha for years, Most “Aman-junkies” shudder at the thought of Adrian Zecha not being at the helm of the luxury chain. Adrian Zecha personifies the brand. The resorts’ niche clientele has come to see hotelier Adrian Zecha as a living legend, with his creative vision being the cornerstone of the Aman brand offering. The upmarket and highly personalized lifestyle strategy purported by Adrian has a high uptake by Aman’s discerning patrons.
The second challenge is to nurture a solid lineup of capable and passionate managers, who are well-equipped to carry on the organization’s unique culture and philosophy after the first generation of managers led by Adrian Zecha, fade out. A new Executive Management team with veterans of the travel industry was put in place in July 2014.
Turbulent ownership: Despite Zecha’s incredible leadership at the helm in terms of keeping the Aman brand a potent force, maintaining and managing exclusivity, while still expanding globally, the company has had a long history of ownership troubles. The latest series of ownership troubles continuing in 2014 is the ugly spat, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits that have continued between a Russian billionaire and an American entrepreneur, who are the newest owners of Aman. This constant challenge in terms of finding and maintaining a stable set of owners has hampered the growth of the chain and has thrust itself into the eyes of the international media and law, a situation which goes completely against the brand’s ethos and philosophy of remaining discreet. The chain definitely needs an owner who has a long time interest and vision for the brand.
Brand innovation: Adrian Zecha’s impeccable penchant for hand selecting exotic locations for Aman, virtually makes him the inventor of the concept of the luxury hideaway resorts. The heady Aman success “formula” comprises of unspoilt remote locales, minimalistic architecture, local cuisine and providing superlative guest experience. This innovative offering has gained it much adulation over the years.
Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”. Aman’s concept of a luxury hideaway resort has been copied by many hoteliers, which include Richard Branson’s Necker Island and five star developments of major hotel brands. Though Aman may have pioneered this ultra-niche luxury hotel segment, the competition is catching up fast. On the other hand, the tastes of Aman’s main client group (high net worth individuals) are fickle and varying. This high-flying customer base continuously seeks new experiences that their money can buy and create and latch on to new trends.
In the wake of a savvy customer base and heightened global competition, Aman can only maintain its elite status through market-leading brand innovation. With the turbulent ownership challenges in recent times, focus on brand innovation could easily have taken a secondary place on the management agenda which may be detrimental to Aman’s market positioning and status among their loyal customers.
Aman hired a very experienced CMO in July 2014, who reorganized the Marketing department to include a director of marketing, and three managers handling brand, digital and CRM. The hires will ensure that marketing continue to take center-stage at the luxury brand.
Aman remains to have very strong brand equity, dedication to innovation and passion for quality in all aspects of their operations – driven by a new strong management team. Aman is a true iconic luxury brand with Asian roots, and the legacy of Adrian Zecha seems to continue with velocity towards new horizons.