Girish Jhunjhnuwala hits a home run with his homes away from home.
By Shruti Kothari and Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Hospitality has long been held sacred across cultures – from Greco-Roman myths of gods in disguise bestowing blessings on welcoming households, to the Pashtunwali code of melamastia which necessitates respect towards visitors. Girish Jhunjhnuwala, a man with laser-focus and vision behind his fresh face and affable smile, took this sacrosanct concept to heart, building a thriving hospitality business from scratch. While the famed adage might be “go big or go home,” Girish took it one step further and decided to go big and go home (or at least home-like) with Ovolo Hotels, which has 10 properties in both Hong Kong and Australia, with more in the works.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Girish went to Island School in the city before doing his Undergraduate degree in Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California in 1984. Girish attributes his childhood in Hong Kong with the development of the curiosity intrinsic in developing Ovolo Hotels: “Hong Kong has always been a vibrant city,” he enthuses. “A simple walk down the street exposes you to diverse cultures, design, art, food and more. All the different art, food, and personality that each hotel has are thanks to this!”
Although the ease and pride with which he speaks about his business shows a passion clearly geared towards hospitality, Girish’s professional life started with a different set of gears – with his family’s watch manufacturing business, which he joined shortly after graduating. However, he felt that his talents and dreams lay elsewhere. Thus began his journey which led to acquiring his first serviced apartment in 2002, a decision that eventually led to the business that continues to thrive today, despite the hit the hospitality industry has taken post-pandemic. Girish shares the highlights of his story with Masala.
What exactly led you to the hospitality industry?
I saw watch manufacturing as a sunset industry with little to no room for growth, especially as the smartphone gradually became our primary timekeeping tool. What then led me to the hospitality industry was all the travelling that I did when I was still working for the family business. I stayed at so many different hotels and distinctly remember that every drink I took from the minibar, every breakfast I had each morning, and sometimes even the WiFi I would use, all required extra costs! This is what really led me to start Ovolo, a hospitality brand that got rid of all these unnecessary costs that I despised so much as a guest.
Tell us about your first hotel! What was the experience like, how did it do, and what obstacles did you have to overcome?
The first hotel was an incredible learning experience. It was our Central property, which still holds a special place in my heart because I was actually born in that exact building, so going back to purchase it so many years later felt like a whole other type of beginning! Getting the licensing and permissions was one of the biggest challenges, and then to build a hotel that addressed all the needs of a modern traveller took many tries before getting it completely right.
Were there any times you thought about just quitting the industry altogether? What kept you motivated?
The early days of Ovolo were challenging, no doubt. There was a lot to learn, and I actually opened my first hotel during the SARS outbreak, so there were definitely immense challenges. However, quitting never crossed my mind. Nothing good ever comes easy!
Ovolo properties are unique and full of character. Tell us about the philosophy behind the brand.
We have an ethos of effortless living at Ovolo, which navigates everything we do. We want your stay with us to be as effortless and seamless as possible, so your booking comes with the perks of complimentary breakfast, happy hour, minibar, and more. Of course, effortless takes effort, so we spend a lot of time making sure each room is right for our guests. You’ll find that Ovolo is the happiest hotel in every city we operate in, and that certainly shows in our hotel staff. The amount of glowing reviews I have personally received about our front office staff is what pushes me to keep doing what I do!
Where does the name ‘Ovolo’ come from?
It is a name for ‘little egg’ in Italian. The symbol of an egg is used throughout the brand as it represents something starting from nothing, which is how I like to think of the Ovolo brand.
One of the biggest selling points is the warmth of the team. How do you motivate hotel personnel to be so robust?
Our core mission is: Shiny Happy People. We look after them so they can do the best job of looking after our guests. It is also a huge part of our hiring process. Every single staff has been selected more or less for their personality and radiance.
How do you choose the locations for your properties?
Location, location, location – oh so important! Ovolo loves a vibrant neighborhood, full of good food, bars, art and people – just like our hotels. That’s why all our properties are named after their location, and also heavily influenced by the destination.
What or who have been your biggest inspirations?
I don’t think I can boil it down to a select few, because if you’re curious enough, you can find inspiration in almost anything. That said, when travelling, I always take time out to visit some notable hotels and venues to learn and grow from them.
Any future plans for Ovolo that you’d like to share with us? Any possibility of expanding to Thailand?
We are opening our second location in Melbourne later in 2020, and this summer we are bringing a breath of fresh air to Kuta Beach, Bali with a new brand called Mamaka. As for Thailand, nothing is set in stone but you never know!
Any advice for others looking to start their own ventures?
Feed your curiosity, look around and expose yourself to everything you can. It’s the best way to become better at things.
Also make sure to venture on something that you are passionate about and means something to you. This way you are more inclined to be disruptive, make a change, and put your heart and soul into it. However, my most important piece of advice would be: Don’t procrastinate – go out there and get it done!