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Home » Yuthachai ‘Top’ Charanachitta, the CEO of ONYX Hospitality Group and Group CEO of Italthai Group, on changing with the times

Yuthachai ‘Top’ Charanachitta, the CEO of ONYX Hospitality Group and Group CEO of Italthai Group, on changing with the times

by Nikki Kumar

Checking Into the Future!


The history of hospitality is fascinating: cultures across history have lauded it as a virtue or even a right for strangers to be welcomed and have their needs met. In modern times, hospitality has grown into a thriving global industry, with unparalleled services and experiences offered in hotels and resorts the world over. When I express this to Yuthachai ‘Top’ Charanachitta, the CEO of ONYX Hospitality Group and Group CEO of Italthai Group, he laughingly agrees, telling me that the industry is simultaneously a challenge and an unparalleled opportunity. “I encourage myself and my team by reminding ourselves of what a great and profitable industry we’re in,” he says. “It’s probably one of the only sectors in Thailand that’s doing well compared to other industries.”

Nevertheless, at its core, hospitality has remained the same through time: it’s about the relationship between host and guest. This is something that Top understands at his core, and is something that he’s focusing on at ONYX Hospitality Group, which is a hospitality management company whose portfolio includes brands spanning Amari, OZO, Shama and Oriental Residence, covering hotels and resorts, serviced apartments, and luxury residences. ONYX Hospitality Group also operates additional hospitality services across spas and F&B, spanning the likes of maai, Breeze, Prego, Amaya, Chom Sindh, and NILA. “We tailored approaches to our guests for each brand, to ensure that every single property has its own USP,” Top tells me.

“We don’t simply want to be a place to stay, but we focus on delivering experiences, what the neighbourhood can offer to the guests, and what activities are available.”

Eloquent, driven, and with a clear focus, it’s easy to see that Top brings fresh perspective to both ONYX Hospitality Group and Italthai Group, the latter of which will celebrate its 70-year Anniversary next year. “Italthai Group is a familyowned, privately-held group that focuses on the service industry,” Top explains. “It started with trading, and moved to construction and real estate, then hospitality. We’ve been evolving with the growth of Thailand’s economy for the past 70 years.

Top started with the Group at only 24, after his dad had unfortunately passed away during a plane accident around 20 years ago. “That was the turning point for me,” he recalls. “I had to jump into the business and try to learn as quickly as possible.” During his tenure at Italthai Group, Top took the initiative to restructure ONYX Hospitality Group, which is under Italthai Group’s management, ensuring that they change with the times, especially in the wake of industry changes after the COVID-19 pandemic. He spoke to Masala further about their new focus, establishing themselves as a strong regional presence, and the longterm partners they want to make along the way.

What is your overarching vision for ONYX Hospitality Group in the next five years, and how do you plan to achieve it?

ONYX Hospitality Group has been around for quite some time. We started from a small hotel group in Pattaya, and then moved to Bangkok, then Chiang Mai, and Phuket. As a hospitality player in Thailand, we’ve been developing and owning hotels and resorts for more than 50 years, but in the past 20 years, I took the initiative to really set up ONYX Hospitality Group, to make sure that we don’t run just one brand. I knew it was not sustainable to have just one brand and one segment, and we needed to expand and diversify. We’ve expanded to upper-upscale and even luxury developments, mixed-use developments, serviced apartments, and mixed-scale hotels.

In this industry, and especially in Southeast Asia, it’s important to diversify because the market is so big – there are multiple segments and regional travellers, so you have to have multiple brands to attract them. Our vision for ONYX Hospitality Group is to be the best medium-sized hospitality management company in Southeast Asia. It’s a big commitment, but I think we’re on track to get there. As of 2024, by year’s end, we’ll have a total of almost 46 properties in several countries: in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Laos, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. We aim to manage over 50 properties by 2025 and reach 70 locations by 2028.

How is ONYX Hospitality Group adapting to current trends and innovations in the hospitality industry to stay competitive and relevant?

I don’t know if the word ‘adapt’ is relevant. It’s about changing more than adapting. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our operations were quite heavy, with a big team in multiple countries. The pandemic forced us to relook at how we operate; to become more agile and nimble. In the past, I wasn’t very involved in operations. I was on the board; I listened and observed and critiqued performance, but as an owner, I never really got into the details. But COVID compelled me to get involved personally, and in doing so, I learned a lot. When you hire dedicated professionals, they work towards the company’s success. As an owner, being involved ensures you stay informed and help maintain a smooth flow of information. By hiring sincere people who are committed to growing the business, you can foster a thriving and transparent work environment.

In the past, our focus for growth was on signing numerous contracts each year. However, many of those contracts turned into liabilities. Ultimately, we had to restructure the entire portfolio, eliminating the liability contracts and refocusing our efforts. Additionally, we renovated many of our properties to ensure we could reposition ourselves effectively after COVID.

What would you say is your new focus, in this post-pandemic landscape?

Our new focus is ensuring that whatever property we own or manage will deliver exceptional experiences to our guests, and at the same time generate sustainable and positive returns to all the stakeholders, i.e. the owners, team members, and us. We asked ourselves, “How are we going to be competitive?” The answer is: reinvest in sales and marketing, in people selection, and maintain strong financial discipline to ensure that each brand delivers.

In the past, Thailand was perceived as a discounted destination that was ‘value for money.’ However, COVID forced hotels to realise that having a good location and low prices is not enough. You must make sure your price is more competitive, and products and services need to improve. Our brands were no exception.

Among our brands, we have the Oriental Residence, where the tradition of luxury boutique hotels lives on in every gesture, making each visit a celebration of the timeless allure of gracious living. At present, you may experience Oriental Residence’s charm on Wireless Road in Bangkok. Amari is an upper upscale hotel with full services catering to the discerning needs of both business and leisure travellers, offering services as a City MICE hotel, Urban MICE hotel, and resort – a celebration of contemporary Thainess. Shama is a serviced apartment brand that provides its residents with a combination of comfort, style, and luxury, now available in Hong Kong, China, Thailand, and Malaysia; and OZO is a middle-upper scale hotel brand with a touch of fun and playfulness, offering a vibrant and energetic hotel and resort experience, currently available in Thailand and Malaysia. Our brand structures are straightforward and I believe hospitality players should focus on strengthening existing brands rather than acquiring more brands if they lack traction. It doesn’t make sense to have one property for each brand. For example, many Thai- Indian families have landbanks and want to build hotels or serviced apartments. Sometimes, they may choose to manage the property themselves, but other times, they prefer professional operators who provide a structured framework for operations. That’s where ONYX Hospitality Group comes in – we aim to be the preferred choice of operator for many real-estate developers in Southeast Asia.

Sustainability is now paramount in many industries, and the hospitality industry is no exception. Can you elaborate on ONYX Hospitality Group’s sustainability initiatives and how they align with global environmental standards?

‘No single-use plastics’ has become the norm now. But we take another angle towards sustainability at ONYX Hospitality Group. We start with cultural sustainability, and in fact, we are the first hospitality firm in Asia-Pacific to follow the UNESCO framework on “intangible cultural heritage.” For example, we ask ourselves, “How can we practice Songkran like we used to?” It’s not just about parties and spraying water, there’s more depth to the festival. We need to extract the essence of the rituals and festivals, spanning Diwali for our Indian families, to Chinese New Year, and more, and respect them at our hotels.

Secondly, we’re approaching sustainability from the engineering We tailored approaches to our guests for each brand, to ensure that every single property has its own USP side – we’re pushing hard to make sure we can put more money into reducing our carbon footprint through engineering, from solar panels; to irrigation; to implementing the ISO framework, which ensures that some of our hotels can reduce their carbon footprint. It’s a long journey, but one we’re willing to take. In the F&B side, we try to get our ingredients directly from farmers and local producers as much as we can.

What strategies does ONYX Hospitality Group employ to enhance the guest experience across its various properties, including the ways it leverages technology to improve operations?

We have our own application, with which guests can sign in, upgrade, and are given all kinds of services related to the guest experience based on the brand that we have. Each brand gives a different guest experience: Amari is more refined and peaceful; OZO is more colourful, more lifestyle-related; and more engaged with local practices, from street art to surfing on the beach. I want to leave room for creativity for each brand. Every brand needs identity and ownership, or it won’t have the flair and attractiveness; it’s just hardware with no real attachment.

How do you ensure effective leadership and management across ONYX Hospitality Group’s diverse portfolio of hotels and resorts?

This was one of the most difficult tasks for me, because you need to really know your people, and ensure discipline across the board. Some hotels have had General Managers (GMs) who have been around for more than 10 years, or financial controllers who’ve been with us for more than 20 years. Joining the team, it was a culture shock for me because while experience can be good, sometimes doing the same thing for so long can mean that everyone can get too comfortable, and they’re not open to change.

I had to force a lot of changes: we rotated all the key management at the property level, and established targets and financial goal posts that they needed to deliver in three years. We built up the team, and as we continue growing our portfolio, we’ve handpicked talent for each property, and created a roadmap for them. Sometimes, Thailand’s hospitality industry is so tight-knit, and after being here for so long, people’s mindset can become too sabai; too laidback. We’ve really set out to challenge our key management and ensure they don’t become too complacent. We encourage them, after a while as GM, to either move to the corporate office, or try something new, even exploring opportunities outside of ONYX Hospitality Group. However, as a medium-sized company, we still retain the personal touch; we recognise all our people and know their names.

What are the biggest challenges you face in the hospitality sector today, and what opportunities do you see for growth and expansion?

A lot of people have or inherit real estate, but they don’t know what to do with it to generate recurring income – everyone just wants to build hotels and serviced apartments. My goal is to ensure that the ONYX Hospitality Group brand portfolio can create opportunities for all the real estate developers and landlords who would be interested to enter the industry. We’re here on the ground, we know the turf, we know the players; we’re not just the new kid on the block.

We want ONYX Hospitality Group to be one of the top brands in Thailand or the region that those who want to enter the hospitality industry would want to consult and seek advice from. Our portfolio is not going to have 1,000 properties in the next 10 years. At maximum, we’ll maybe have around 70 by 2028, although the target is to move to as many as 100 properties. But if they’re the right properties, with the right people, the pressure to manage 100 properties will be the same as managing 10 properties.

Hospitality and real estate are long-term businesses. It’s not about posting on TikTok or Instagram, and getting a million subscribers. Often, the younger generation want something more flexible and an easier take on life – that’s okay, but with hospitality, you’ll need to build your business from the ground up, like a tree. The payback period will take at least 10 years, which is a big investment in time and money. With the current economic landscape and high interest rates, the pace of growth will be a lot slower, but more selective. Whatever location and brand you put together, you have to be 150 percent sure that it’s going to work.

Going forward, I try to ensure that hospitality in Thailand and SE Asia is still an attractive industry to be in. If it’s not an attractive proposition, I can’t attract talent and media attention, and the brand value won’t go up.

As you mentioned, many in the Thai-Indian community own real estate, or are hoping to enter the hospitality industry. Which elements of your businesses have been particularly attractive to the community, and what opportunities for collaboration do you foresee?

For one, the Amari brand has a great reputation in the Thai-Indian community. But right now, we’d love to focus on the next generation of Thai-Indians who own real estate and are thinking of expanding beyond full-service hotels. Perhaps they’re considering serviced apartments, mid-scale hotels, or 3-star hotels with high profitability. Many want to work with overseas brands, but if you don’t have the scale to contribute, then you become just a number to them. However, ONYX Hospitality Group will always treat our partners like people – we have an owner-to-owner relationship. As we ourselves own over 12 hotels in our portfolio, we do understand the challenges in hotel ownership (i.e. the Capex cycle, loan repayments, lease payments, etc.), and hence we are mindful of proposing any brand standards. The brand standard needs to make commercial sense for owners as well.

Are there any exciting new projects or developments in the pipeline for ONYX that you can share with us?

We just launched Shama Hub, a studio serviced apartment in Hong Kong, and next month we will launch another Shama Hub in Hangzhou and then Amari Colombo in Sri Lanka, and Amari Vientiane in Laos. There are a lot of big openings we’re trying to complete this year, and there will be some conversions as well, like an Amari resort in Bang Saen. We’re targeting around THB 5 billion of reinvestment next year. We’re also in the process of signing a joint venture with a hotel operator from Malaysia, to do a project together in Phuket. It’ll be the first joint venture for us, which is very exciting.

What message would you like to give to the Thai-Indian community, including advice for those in the industry?

We want to ensure that Indian culture is a recognised part of Southeast Asia – for example, we’ve opened our brand-new NILA restaurant on the 18th of March, on the 4th floor of Amari Bangkok. This establishment promises an unforgettable culinary journey curated by Chef Bharath S. Bhat, the esteemed winner of Thailand’s Iron Chef one-on-one battle chef competition. NILA sets a new standard for Indian cuisine, blending traditional recipes with contemporary flair to create a truly immersive dining experience, indirectly catering to the Thai-Indian community. Additionally, we’re hoping to incorporate more Ayurvedic treatments in our spa brands. We’re also working with one of the best F&B consultants in the region, Soho Hospitality, which is Thai-Indian owned.

As a local player with strong presence in the region, I believe we can find great synergy with the Thai-Indian community to create something exciting. and a win-win proposition. My advice would be, don’t look at us as solely a local brand, we are a regional brand committed to long-term partnerships. We seek owner-to-owner relationships that are personalised and enduring. In short, don’t be a stranger. I’m around, I would love to meet you and get to know more people in the Thai- Indian community, and help in whatever way I can.



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