Innovation within the family business
Winnie Chiu – president of Dorsett Hospitality International and the third generation of her family to sit on the board of parent company Far East Consortium – on seizing opportunities and the importance of sustainability in the real estate market.
A crisis can also become a buying opportunity, so while investment in hotels in the Asia Pacific region fell in 2020 as a result of the pandemic – transactions in Q3 were down 54% year on year to around $1.7bn – the hotels division of Hong Kong property business Far East Consortium has been keeping an eye on growth prospects.
“Chinese travel is going forward strongly, but there will be many hotel assets around the world that are undervalued. It’s a huge opportunity,” says Chiu.
In order to raise more capital quicker than the business could manage alone, Chiu is looking to partner with other investors in a fund model. “We’re setting up a hotel fund so we can grow faster and also share the opportunity with partners,” she says.
She has also moved to create a more attractive restaurant and bar offering in her properties, while reducing demands on executive time, by outsourcing. “Food and beverage is a source of a lot of the headaches for a hotel general manager, but in revenue terms rooms are more important. So, we lease restaurant space to partners who take on the headaches so we can concentrate on making our rooms pay. We don’t charge them huge rents – a rising tide floats all boats. I am happy so long as they draw a crowd.”
Chiu is fast establishing a name for herself both inside and outside her company as a leader on green business practices. She acknowledges that the hospitality industry can change significantly to reduce its carbon footprint, in everything from food supply to energy use; and she adds that hotels have an important inspirational and informational role to play in terms of communicating with guests. “Hotels are great platforms for sustainability because you are so close to the customer, you can help them understand sustainability,” she says.
She says Dorsett Hospitality International is responding to the growing sustainability concerns around meat production – particularly pork, which is the most widely consumed meat in Asia and a major contributor to global warming. Working with Hong Kong-based social enterprise Green Monday, its hotels’ menus now offer new more sustainable products including a pork alternative made from pea, mushroom and rice proteins that is vegan and Buddhist friendly as well as being less harmful to the environment.
Wider use of renewable energy is another focus, adds Chiu. “We are looking at installing solar panels so that our hotels can contribute to the green grid.” The new Dao by Dorsett aparthotel in London has solar panels on its roof, as do many of Dorsett’s properties in Hong Kong, where the government purchases electricity generated by grid-connected renewable energy systems at feed-in tariff rates.
With embedded carbon in the built environment accounting for around 11% of global emissions, sustainable construction is also important. “We are looking at modular construction, it creates much less waste on site,” says Chiu. Provided it’s done at scale, modular construction – where repeating units such as kitchens or even hotel rooms are made in factories and slotted together on site – also has the potential to be faster and cheaper, leading to quicker returns for investors.
The focus on sustainability is increasingly expected as part of the guest experience, Chiu adds. Details such as using refillable soap dispensers containing environmentally friendly products and eliminating the use of disposable cutlery and plastic cups not only reinforce the sustainability message but also make good business sense.
Chiu’s ultimate goal is to secure the future for coming generations by proving to the wider industry that green business can be good business. “As a mother of two, I wonder where we are going to leave them. That’s why I’ve become even more committed to building a better and more sustainable world for the next generation.
“I’d love to do a net-zero hotel – that’s my ambition. We’re always very conscious of the numbers, but I want to prove that sustainability doesn’t have to cost more or harm profitability. In fact, it has the potential to do quite the opposite.”
Winnie Chiu is also chairman of Agora Hospitality Group and honorary vice president of The Federation of Hong Kong Hotel Owners.
2010: Appointed president and executive director of Dorsett Hospitality International
2013: Becomes a board member of the Hong Kong Arts Centre
2014: Becomes a board member of the Wu Yee Sun College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
2016: Appointed chairman of Hong Kong Art School
2017: Appointed joint vice president of the Hong Kong Society of The Academy for Performing Arts