The big interview: Winnie Chiu, president and executive director, Dorsett Hospitality International

by | 06 Jul 2022 | Interview, People, Portfolio

TOPHOTELNEWS talks exclusively to Dorsett Hospitality International’s chief about the hotel group blending local and global presences to ensure that its rapid growth continues, but in keeping with each community.

For a group that’s only 15 years old, Dorsett Hospitality International has come flying out the blocks, with 54 hotels across four core brands already operating globally, and another 12 underway.

And while the company was first founded in Hong Kong, in the 25 cities worldwide that Dorsett now calls home, it likes to blend its international experience with local teams and knowledge to create a ‘glocal’ presence.

Main brands include luxury Dorsett Hotels, with 23 properties totalling 7,298 keys throughout China, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and London in the UK; while boutique brand d.Collection and cost-efficient marque Silka are both in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, the former with three hotels consisting of 458 rooms, and the latter with five properties collectively amounting to 1,200 keys.

Post-covid solutions

But it is the Dao By Dorsett modern and flexible four star aparthotels which the group is turning its attention to, with its recent Singapore site being joined by the just-opened Dao By Dorsett West London in Shepherd’s Bush, which is where TOPHOTELNEWS sat down for a chat with Winnie Chiu, Dorsett Hospitality International’s president and executive director.

The group knows the area well, having entered the UK market with Dorsett Shepherd’s Bush in 2014, and the new Dao adds 74 high quality apartments to this hotel complex. Chiu believes this expansion is perfect for catering to today’s guests. “Aparthotels are really our answer to post-covid travelling behaviour,” she believes. “It gives that apartment feeling but with full hotel amenities and it’s fully serviced.

“We offer ‘your way anywhere’, and because post-covid, travel is more hassle, people tend to merge trips. They are staying longer and this concept really fulfils all the requirements. We still have Dorsett as our four-star brand and we’re not slowing down on that but we realise there’s a market for Dao that we’ve come across.”

Own assets

As Dorsett’s parent company is real estate developer Far East Consortium, Chiu describes her firm as a “fully integrated hotel company, which means that we are also real estate players”. Therefore as Dorsett owns the majority of its assets, it can spend less time courting external investors and can move quickly to make financial decisions when trends like aparthotel expansion become apparent.

This may be the key to the group’s rapid rise, nearly quintupling its site total from just 11 in 2010. This development will continue apace with the 12 hotels in its pipeline comprising: Dao by Dorsett Hornsey and Dorsett Canary Wharf, London in the UK, Dorsett Kai Tak in Hong Kong, Agora Osaka Ohama Kitamachi in Japan, and eight properties across Australia numbering Ritz-Carlton Melbourne, the 316-room Dorsett Melbourne, the 263-key Dorsett Perth, The Star Residences – Epsilon, Dorsett Sydney, the 387-room Dorsett Brisbane, Rosewood at Brisbane and The Star Grand.

Looking for locations

So how does Dorsett decide where to set-up next? According to Chiu: “We look at return on investment and that’s actually how the company grows from strength to strength – we’re very disciplined.” This was typified in last year’s sale of Dorsett City London Hotel to Cerberus Capital Management, with the 267-room skyscraper costing £65 million to construct and the 2021 transaction totalling £115 million just four years later. Dorsett still holds the lease for the site too.

Chiu continued: “Each site is different and we always look at how we can add value. We also very much believe in working with the local council, that’s part of our brand. The Shepherd’s Bush property used to be a Walkabout bar and we revitalised it because when we talked to locals we felt the area was ready for something.

“Everything we do surrounds making a positive impact. Our upcoming site in Hornsey is an old town hall, so there are opportunities in London. If there’s another town hall that is interested, we are happy to do that together. We listen together.”

She underlined that as the group is familiar with UK operations, it wants to further expand. “We are a very city-focused company, so if we are in a city we don’t mind developing more sites there. If additional opportunities are showcased to us, London will be very good for more Dao or Dorsett properties.”

Scoping out the competition

Dorsett doesn’t tend to have a long term development plan that stipulates a specific target number of new hotels, but its strategy is very much location-driven, according to Chiu. “Because we are asset owners we believe in value enhancement. When we look at a project we will consider which brand will be better for return on investment.

“It’s based on feasibility studies and we have a whole team to study compsets [hotel competitors], the area, and how it will look in five to 10 years. It’s hard to explain the actual formula but we feel the momentum of an area and we go in during that time.”

The compset studies usually analyse two to three international brands and a further two to three local ones to create a full picture. “We always believe in benchmarking against our competition. If we are way above them then I’m happy,” said Chiu.

Staying strong through covid

With covid creating such a paradigm shift within this and most other industries, Chiu acknowledges that long term planning may be gone for good. “We have a plan but we have to stay very agile,” she noted. “Who would have expected covid? I believe we all have to work very hard and I am blessed with a very tight team.”

Nevertheless, Dorsett emerged from the pandemic having opened six hotels, which Chiu credits to her strong local teams. “Our global offices have grown organically over the years, all our teams are local. We share the same vision and culture but the rest is very much local and organic.

“We were able to come out of covid so strongly, and so many people actually got to know our company during this period. Our numbers were two and a half times better than some competitors, but money only comes after you just keep doing the right thing and staying on track.”

‘Glocal’ design

In terms of each hotel’s design, Dorsett is a rare hotel owner that has an in-house interior design and project team. “Because we have that knowledge in-house then we can work with all kinds of interior designers and architects,” said Chiu. The group works with both tried and tested architects and local experts, with the decision often depending on local council planning restrictions, especially in the UK.

On the supplier side of things, Dorsett has made a conscious decision to support more small and medium sized businesses. Chiu detailed: “When we talk about supply, we talk about community. Every site is different and we are staying fluid. We try to showcase different architects and the history of the site – for example because Melbourne has a street art culture, Dorsett Melbourne has a strong street art influence. We don’t want to stand out, we want to be part of the community.”

Sustainability drive

Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) is another factor in supplier choices, with Dorsett committing to elements such as only serving cage-free eggs. Chiu outlined: “Our investing in positive impacts core value means that we are sustainable. Over 50% of the food in Dao sites will be plant-based and because we built Dao By Dorsett West London from scratch we were able to put solar panels in the shower system and a meter in the shower so guests use less water.

“Everyone thinks ESG is a big effort but I think we just need to start somewhere, engage our guests and do it together. A lot of the spaces we have will be fluid because we believe in working not just as a hotel but also working on our supply chain and our influences.”

She concluded: “The word Dao in Chinese means ‘road’ so it’s like a journey and it will evolve. The most important thing is to create content together – I don’t believe in dictating it. How would I know what guests think is comfortable during their stay? It’s really about inviting all of them to do it with us, so in fact it’s very much experience-based.”

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Dorsett Hospitality International is one of Asia’s fastest-growing hotel groups. The Hong Kong hospitality brand has an international footprint in 25 major cities worldwide with a total of 54 properties with strategic partners TWH and AGORA Hospitality Group, including Dorsett Hospitality International’s four core brands: Dorsett Hotels, Dao by Dorsett, d.Collection, and Silka.