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Capella CEO Nicholas Clayton: We have big plans for Asia

Clayton details the hotel group's ambitious expansion plans.

These are exhilarating times for everyone who works at the Capella Hotel Group.

Last month, it was reported that Singapore’s Kwee family had bought the ultra-luxe hospitality company from veteran hotelier and Ritz-Carlton founding president Horst Schulze.

The deal – the terms of which were not publicly disclosed – also resulted in Capella relocating its global headquarters from Atlanta, Georgia (in the United States), to Singapore.

The Kwee family owns Pontiac Land Group in Singapore, a real estate developer that has assets including the five-star Capella Singapore resort on Sentosa, which opened its doors in 2009.

After more than eight years of having just that one Capella hotel in all of Asia, the company’s chief executive officer Nicholas Clayton is now busy racking up the frequent flyer miles as he oversees the brand’s massive expansion across the Asia-Pacific region. In September this year, he was in Shanghai to open an urban resort comprising unique heritage buildings in a historic district of the bustling Chinese metropolis.

Come February 2018, Capella will welcome the first guests to its resort in the Balinese town of Ubud, a 22-tent property designed by renowned architect Bill Bensley.

In October 2018, Capella will add Bangkok to its list with a new hotel along the famous Chao Phraya river.

Some time in the second-half of 2020, the Capella flag will be flying high in downtown Sydney and the Maldives. At the time of this article’s publication, there are ongoing discussions to build a luxury hotel in Japan.

“Everything is going to happen in the next 18 months to three years, so it’s not very far off at all. It’s a very probable timeline,” says Clayton in a recent hour-long interview with The Business Times.

“Once we have these hotels in the Capella group, I believe this will create a brand awareness in the region that will make us a very sought-after hotel group,” said the American.

Even as these numerous hotels come on board, Clayton – who joined the company a year ago in November 2016 after a stint as the CEO of operations at Dubai-based Jumeirah Group – says he isn’t done with growing the Asian footprint.

Far from it, in fact. The senior management is already looking at other major cities in China. He cites the capital Beijing and Hangzhou in Zhejiang province as those currently on the radar.

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Clayton goes on, rattling off a wish list of sorts that includes countries such as the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and emerging tourism markets like Bhutan and Tibet. He also speaks highly of Vietnam (a nation experiencing a “growth spurt”, he says), and mentions the possibility of opening a second hotel in Thailand and Indonesia some time down the road.

Outside of Asia, there are Capella hotels in the German city of Dusseldorf and Marigot Bay in Saint Lucia, among others. But Clayton makes it clear the priority for now is to grow the business in Asia.

“There are so many opportunities for us to look at right now. Growth is what we’re all about today. We’re certainly not anywhere near a mature company. We’re fairly young in our development (Capella has been in operation since 2002), and one can easily see 25 hotels under the Capella brand in the next 10 years,” he says.

“That number seems very reasonable. If we talk about a hundred hotels, then you’re probably not always going into markets that are good for the company. We don’t need 10 hotels in China, what we want are hotels that are, primarily, financially successful for their owners,” Clayton adds.

As the Capella brand continues to spread its wings, he wants to make doubly sure that the people who end up working at these hotels have the right service culture to do the company proud. It may sound cliched, but having a consistently high standard of service – from the bellboy to the concierge to the housekeeping staff – is imbued within the Capella DNA.

When asked what he looks out for when he hires, especially for those working in the front line, he insists that it’s easy to spot when a person is suited for a hospitality job or not.

“We’re not playing poker, but there are some tells and signs. I always look out for how often he or she smiles. If I’m in a 15-minute conversation and they don’t crack a smile or show any type of joy, then it might be a sign that he could be just a little too serious for the work we do. This friendly disposition has to come naturally,” says Clayton.

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He makes sure he walks the talk as best as he can, having worked in the industry for well over 30 years and counting. His career has seen him lead some of the world’s top hotel brands such as the Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons.

And whenever he heads overseas for work or leisure, he makes sure he uses every chance to glean new ideas along the way.

“Anyone who’s a professional in their trade should maximise their opportunities whenever they are travelling. For me, if I’m in a location that I’ve never been to before, I would visit the top four hotels in that market immediately,” he says.

“I want to see the best-performing hotels there, what kind of pricing they have, check out the service, see if the hotel is well maintained, and understand their strengths, if you will. I’d say this is the easy part of my job, and it can be quite nice to see what others are up to.”

Story first appeared on The Business Times.