How the globally-renowned brand is setting the standard and turning hospitality on its head.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
When I heard that a hotel was taking over part of the iconic King Power Mahanakhon building, I remember wondering what brand would be worthy of this idiosyncratic structure that had forever transformed the Bangkok skyline. Having since learned of Standard International and everything that it stands for, and having visited both The Standard, Hua Hin and The Standard, Bangkok Mahanakhon, I can safely say that the properties exceeded even my expectations of innovative and immersive design, with a culture of hospitality that is wholly their own.
Amar Lalvani, Standard International’s Executive Chairman, whom I met at the flagship hotel in Bangkok, epitomised the best parts of the brand:dynamic; charming; progressive; keenly aware of what people want and need; and with a timeless air of youth around him, despite being a father of two. Most of all, he clearly had an indefatigable passion for the brand, which he makes clear to me is something that they look for in all their teams. “Aside from fundamental skills, having a team with the passion and excitement for what we do is paramount. And this hotel is a great representation of what The Standard is all about,” he tells me as we settle into the plush couches of the hotel’s retro-styled meeting rooms. “It’s immersive, with lots of different entertainment destinations and food and beverage options; it’s simultaneously casual, youthful, or classic and formal, depending on what you’re looking for. The scale of The Standard properties is large, not necessarily in the number of rooms, but in the number of experiences.”
Originally from India but born and raised in the US, Amar walks me through his rich and storied professional journey in the hotel business, which started around 25 years ago. “I was with Starwood Capital Group, the original company of the Starwood group of companies including Starwood Hotels, when we visited Asia in 1998- 1999, during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. I was 24 years old at the time, and had never heard of Phuket, so when we visited Thailand, we took a one-day break and visited Phuket, and stayed at Amanpuri. I remember thinking it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen – that was a real ‘wow’ moment; something incredible both in Thailand and in hospitality. It reminded me of a very different but also ‘wow’ moment when I was maybe 7 years old and stayed at The Ritz Hotel, London with my grandfather and thinking that the environment and energy of the hotel was just so constantly exciting. H ospitality is more than just about the real estate, it covers everything – architecture, design, food, drink, music, entertainment, culture and if done right the city’s social scene. That’s what drew me to the business.”
As fate would have it, Amar was asked to stay in Thailand indefinitely during that trip, and he ended up staying in the region for two years, working closely with the Sansiri team – perhaps a meeting of kismet, as Sansiri became the majority shareholder of Standard International a few years after Amar took over the brand. “In 2010, I was introduced to the founder of Standard Hotels, and started working with him shortly thereafter. I thought The Standard was the most exciting, underutilised brand in the hotel industry,” he recalls. “After a few years I left to do my own thing, and he once again contacted me and asked if I wanted to come back onboard, this time to run the company. I told him, ‘I’d like to do things differently. If you’re ready to step back, let me raise the funds to buy the company.’” The rest was history – Amar created Standard International which took over The Standard brand in 2013, Sansiri invested in 2017, and together, they built it up as a global brand.
I ask him whether his Indian culture and upbringing, where the guest is considered akin to God, informed his decision to go into hospitality and his approach to business now, and he agrees. “Hospitality is in our blood; it’s a quintessential part of Indian culture. My mum, who lives in Turkey, will meet you and instantly ask you to come to Turkey and stay with her; every Indian auntie I know is always feeding their guests. It’s a big part of what I love about my Indian friends and family.”
He spoke to Masala further about what makes The Standard International unique, the distinctive sensibility he’s brought to the brand, and how they’re turning the usual tenets of hospitality on their head.
The Standard is known for its unique, design-forward properties. How do you balance creating a distinctive brand identity while meeting guest needs?
First and foremost, we focus on the basics: taking care of our guests, safety, security, and basic services. Everything else builds on that. In the past, hospitality was about consistency and predictability. Whether the hotel is in Istanbul or Bangkok, you could take a Marriott or a Hilton and they would look and feel the same. That started changing with the advent of boutique hotels.
People like Ian Shrager started asking, why shouldn’t hotels be interesting, with fun restaurant options? Why shouldn’t there be, for example, a nightclub at the hotel? And the answer was, it had just never been done before. At Standard we bring in designers who’d never designed a hotel before, bringing a fresh look and new elements. What takes it to the next level is the culture we create within the hotels. Changing the service culture is a challenge especially in Asia. Thailand’s service is excellent but it’s very reserved and formal. So we turn it on its head – we want people to show theirpersonalities and their style. You can feel it at any of our hotels. It makes me so happy when I get thanked by the staff, especially the younger generation, for letting them be themselves. If they’re happy, they show it, and guests feel it.
Standard International is the umbrella company for other brands. Can you discuss each brand’s unique selling points?
Aside from The Standard properties, we have The Peri in Thailand, in Hua Hin and Khao Yai so far. They’re smaller scale, more intimate, and comfortable. In Asia, there are still smaller hotels that have been owned by families for decades, and already have their own identity. We can layer The Peri in to give them the professionalism, as The Peri adds brand DNA without subsuming identity.
In the US and Mexico, we have Bunkhouse. It’s a culturally-relevant brand with a great sense of style, but more limited service. While The Standard is in global gateway cities like New York, London, Bangkok; Bunkhouse is for smaller markets, like Austin or Louisville, but still with a sense of design and deeply-rooted culture. We haven’t brought Bunkhouse internationally, but we’re looking to do so.
The hospitality industry has faced many challenges in the past year due to the pandemic. How has The Standard adapted to these challenges, and what changes do you see sticking around even after the pandemic ends?
It was the most challenging time of my 20-plus years in the hotel industry. At that time, I think we had 19 or 20 hotels. We shut down all but one small one. Hotels are fascinating because they usually never shut. Restaurants close their doors, retail shops close their doors, offices close their doors, but hotels never shut. So, the idea of even shutting down a hotel seemed unthinkable. The ability to do things remotely really helped. In fact, this hotel and the one in Hua Hin were designed during the pandemic. When you build a hotel, you create a model room, and historically, you go see the model room, you sleep in it, you look at it, you test it, and we had to do all that remotely, via Zoom!
Business operations are mostly back to normal now, and I don’t think much has changed. For example, I think you should always have been doing great sanitation, so we’ve stepped that up, and we will obviously keep that at the highest level. People thought that there will now be fewer in-person groups and meetings, but that’s not true at all. It’s bounced back stronger than ever.
What I hope sticks is that people don’t take travelling for granted anymore. If you go somewhere, you should enjoy it – stay the extra days, because you don’t know whether it can disappear at any moment. With remote flexibility, people can work from ‘home’ on days around the weekends, which has been good for hotels.
The Standard has properties in several cities around the world. How do you ensure that each property reflects the local culture and community, while still maintaining the brand’s identity?
It all comes down to the team that you hire; we look for people with a passion for hospitality, a passion for the brand, and who embrace the non-traditional values that the brand represents: kindness, inclusivity, excitement, and progressiveness. The local team is critical because while we can bring the DNA of the brand, it has to manifest here in a way that is appropriate for the local culture and team. We find the right balance between what is comfortable for people here, and ways to challenge the local crowd. That chemistry is important.
For example, in Ojo, The Standard, Bangkok Mahanakhon’s Mexican restaurant, our talented chef, Francisco Ruano, did a big study here of which local ingredients we can use with Mexican techniques and recipes, not to replicate other ingredients, but to assimilate them into Mexican cuisine. So we have Thai flavours and ingredients used in Mexican cuisine.
Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important issue in the hospitality industry. What steps has The Standard taken to reduce its environmental impact, and how do you plan to continue to make progress in this area?
To be honest, we’re not as far along as we should be. We do all the basic things that everybody should be doing: using less plastic and recycled water bottles or glass bottles, and asking guests not to have their sheets changed unless they have to. But I would like us to get further ahead. There are a few things we’ve done that are quite innovative, but we haven’t yet brought to Thailand.
In Austin, for our Bunkhouse brand, we’ve constructed the first mass timber hotel, a type of construction that uses timber, which is much more sustainable than concrete, and that uses local timber so there’s no carbon footprint in transporting it. The timber retains permeability for CO2, and at the end of its useful life, it decomposes. We’re very proud of innovative initiatives like this that we’ve done, and I think we do need to get further ahead of the curve.
The Standard has been known to collaborate with artists, musicians, and other creatives. How do these collaborations come about, and what impact do you think they have on the guest experience?
Again, it’s through the team here. If there are things that we’ve done with other artists around the world who are interested in Bangkok, we bring them in. A good example is Lucy Sparrow, a fascinating artist that does all-felt creations. We’d worked with her in New York, and she loved Bangkok, so she’d created an immersive street market experience here. We also collaborate with international DJs such as Diplo who played the opening party here. But we also have a local team that researches different local artist collaborations. For example, we did some really fun things with Dry Clean Only. The nice thing is, young brands want to be associated with The Standard. We make them look cool, and they make us look cool.
And what does it do for the guests? For travellers like us, we want to feel like we’re immersed in what’s happening locally. When I visit our international properties, I want to go check out what’s happening around town. But oftentimes, it’s already happening here! [Laughs] There was a great Thai band and local DJ playing here this week, a poetry reading last night, and we have one of the best mixologists in town. We bring these experiences to you.
In the last few years, The Standard has opened two properties in Thailand, one of which is their flagship property in Southeast Asia, with plans for more. What are Thailand’s unique selling points (USPs) that drove you to establish such a strong presence here?
I would say my personal history here and relationship with Sansiri is a big part of it. But as for why Bangkok, at one time, Bangkok had the highest number of visitors of any city in the world. That’s a big deal; it’s a jumping-off point to a lot of other places in Southeast Asia. Overall, it’s about the relationship we have, the ease of doing business, and then all the cultural dynamics and the pillars of the brand that are well represented in Bangkok, in particular, such as music, fashion, art and culture.
We’re fortunate for the collaboration with Sansiri because they’re based here, they’re very professional, very brand-conscious, and very aggressive in their growth. So they provide a lot of the push to grow and build these two properties. They introduced us to King Power who owns this building and Sansiri themselves built our Hua Hin property. The intention that we have is to build flagship hotels like the one we’re in, which helped us get a property in Singapore, and one in Melbourne.
Interestingly, the next couple of things we’re going to do in Thailand are going to be residential projects, one in Hua Hin and one in Phuket. And those are going to be some of the first branded residences that we’ve done, but also some of the most innovative branded residences that Thailand has seen. So those are underway and will hopefully debut in the next couple of years.
The hospitality industry is known for being fast-paced and often stressful. How do you prioritise work-life balance for yourself and your team?
Especially as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised it’s important to set limits and parameters. When you’re younger, you don’t prioritise yourself because your body can handle it. In recent trips, I spend my mornings going to the gym or having a swim, and ensure I don’t have any meetings before 10am, unlike before, when I’d be working first thing in the morning till late at night. I’ve learnt to say no to things that don’t benefit me or the company. You need to carve out time for productive things while also taking care of yourself.
For the team, we want people who will work hard and get their job done, of course, but how they do it should be up to them as much as possible in my view. Despite all my travel, I’ve always prioritised my kids. If people need to pick their kids up from school, or work from home, or take their kids on a trip with them, we’re ok with that as long as they work hard and get the job done; we try not to set rules that don’t make sense.
The Standard has been around for over two decades now. How do you think the brand has evolved over that time, and where do you see it going in the future?
Clearly, transitioning from a US-based brand to an international brand is a significant evolution; establishing a presence in cities where people might not have heard of us and integrating people into the brand. One very challenging aspect is that around 90 percent of the people working in this hotel had never been to a The Standard hotel before. So how do you instil the culture without them even having seen the representation? So, the global nature of what we’re doing represents a substantial shift from before.
Another change is that The Standard used to have a bit of a reputation for being a party hotel, possibly a bit standoffish and perhaps catering more to ‘high society.’ I aimed to change that. I wanted everyone to feel welcome here and make it more inclusive. We’ve also made the brand a little more age-inclusive. Some of our properties are adult-only, but we’ve now become more inclusive on kid-friendly activities, and are also trying to appeal to older demographics. For example, Mott 32 is somewhere that you can take your father to for his birthday.
We have a saying at The Standard: “Everybody’s welcome, but it’s not for everybody.” And that’s okay. We aren’t striving to be everything to everyone. But for anyone who walks in, we want them to feel welcome here.
The Standard has won several awards and accolades over the years. Which one are you most proud of, and why?
One I’m very proud of is The Standard, Hua Hin getting ranked as the number one hotel and number one resort in Southeast Asia by Travel + Leisure. Not only is it a big honour coming from such a great publication, but I’m most pleased because there was a lot of scepticism both locally and internationally about The Standard going to Hua Hin, which has been considered a ‘sleepy’ town for retirees. In my view, if we build the right product, it’ll work. In a way, I think we’ve helped put Hua Hin back on the map, and I’m really proud of that.
Can you tell us a little bit about your support over the years, and your inspirations?
Business-wise, Sansiri has been a great support because they’ve said, “This is the vision; we’ll back your vision. And we’re going to give you the resources that you need.” Of course, personally, my family has been very supportive. My daughters and wife, in particular, support the fact that I travel all over the place. I personally need to take time for myself, or spending down time with my wife in our house in Austin, because the day-to-day business is so social and interactive. It’s important to have people who are willing to give you the time to yourself to think and be creative.
And then, of course, the team that we have is fantastic. We have great members of the team all around the world, all of whom blow me away every day with their talent and passion. They know so much more than me in their areas of expertise. I’m here to put the pieces together, but to open a hotel like this requires a lot of coordination, and we have the best team – from F&B, to operations, to finance, to PR, sales and revenue management, technology, and more.
As for inspiration, I find it everywhere. The creative people that we work with are hugely inspiring to me, the third-party designers, the chefs that we work with, and even our musical directors. My inspiration comes from the whole internal and external creative teams.
What new horizons do you hope to explore, both personally and professionally?
Professionally and personally, I love new destinations. There are still cities that I love like Mexico City or Lisbon, and when I visit I always think, “I wish there were a Standard property here.” Not because I’m running the business, but from a customer’s perspective. Another reason we’d like to grow the company is because it offers opportunities to the people that work for the company – they’re free to move between properties all around the world. So that’s exciting.
For me, personally, I like the creative parts of what I do, and now it’s become more about directing and editing. So there are a few passion projects where I take on every detail personally, such as a vinyl record bar called Equipment Room that we opened in of our Bunkhouse hotels in Austin and a new hotel concept we are developing in New York City.
We’re excited to be in Thailand and grow in the region. We also really want to start entering the Indian market and find properties there, and find partners like Sansiri or King Power there that can help us grow. So if you know anyone in India who’d like to do business with us, make sure to let me know! [Laughs]