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How prominent Hong Kong hotelier Dr Aron Harilela is navigating the pandemic

It’s a trying time for the hospitality and tourism industry but Dr Aron Harilela is taking bold steps, including opening The Hari Hong Kong late last year.

How big are the Harilelas? They have their own Wikipedia page. One of the most prominent families in Hong Kong, the Harilelas own and operate The Harilela Group, which focuses on hotel development and management. Last year, in December during the middle of a pandemic, the Group opened the doors to its latest property, The Hari Hong Kong.

The Peak speaks to chairperson and CEO of The Harilela Group, Dr Aron Harilela, about this bold move and his thoughts about the future.

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How do you deal with the pressure of the family name? And does that make you more careful of the decisions that you make knowing the legacy?

Business decisions always require careful consideration whether one comes from a big family. A decision maker must take all stakeholders into consideration. This includes not only shareholders but also directors and all staff. The hospitality industry has suffered in the last 18 months and the decisions made will impact the livelihood of staff.

For example, in December 2020, we opened a hotel in Hong Kong during a tough time as we were encountering a fourth wave of Covid related infections. Borders had been closed for most of the year and we encountered severe indoor dining restrictions. We opened the hotel regardless and transferred many of our staff from our existing hotel to the new one so we would let no one go.

The entrance lobby to The Hari Hong Kong, shot by Dennis Lo.

The entrance lobby to The Hari Hong Kong, shot by Dennis Lo.

How did the pandemic affect the opening and operations of The Hari?

At some point, we have to find a way around the pandemic rather than shutting down and maintaining constant stringent restrictions. People still need to earn a livelihood. For this reason, we pushed ahead with the opening. The Hari’s staff remain vigilant with everyone’s health and safety. Hong Kong is vibrant, quirky, and colourful, and we want to represent these qualities while welcoming all of our guests, and as a gradual return to some normalcy.

We always set our minds to reinvest in Hong Kong. Neither protests nor Covid-19, nor a trade war, nor even the swift passing of the National Security Law in June has shaken our confidence in this city as a family. Hong Kong is our home.

Could you share some highlights of your career that you’re proudest of?

My family has been building and growing our company for 50 years. My father set it up in 1959 with a simple business model – we buy or build hotels that are then offered to third parties to manage. But we always knew that we would have a brand that we would own and manage ourselves. We just had to find the right property to start with. In 2010, when we started renovating our London property, it just felt right.

It took us another four years before we eventually took the jump. In 2016, we unveiled The Hari London. We’ve created a five-star luxury brand with actual personality and character. We focus on impeccable hospitality and service, with a large dose of wit and quirkiness.

The Hari’s homecoming to Hong Kong was an important step for me. Following the success of The Hari London, we brought our latest brainchild home to Hong Kong. There have been many Hong Kong hotel brands that have successfully travelled abroad and we want The Hari to be just that: a hotel brand that’s reminiscent of Hong Kong’s dynamism, multiculturalism and charming efficiency.

The Hari Hong Kong, which was built from scratch, is symbolic. It is the physical representation of my family’s importance to a city where so many luxury hotel brands, including The Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental, Shangri-La, Rosewood, Langham and Ovolo, reside in. We can consider hotel rooms to be one of the city’s most important exports.

  • The living room of The Hari Suite in The Hari Hong Kong.
    The living room of The Hari Suite in The Hari Hong Kong.

(Related: What will hospitality look like after the pandemic? Florian Sander has answers)

What are your fondest personal and business memories of Singapore?

Singapore has always been my second home. I have great friends there and many great business contacts. I have spent so much of my life in your city. I remember spending many early mornings riding horses at The Singapore Polo Club and many a stolen afternoon playing polo there. Actually my first polo horse was stabled in the Club!

In fact, Scott Hetherington, who introduced me to the site in London that became The Hari, worked in Singapore for many years before retiring. He helped to set the ball rolling for The Hari brand. I have very fond memories of the time spent with him in business settings and at social occasions with his wife and three young daughters (who were under 10 at the time – they must be in their 20s now!)

With global travel still some time away from resumption, how are you looking to keep The Hari afloat?

We are lucky to have the support of our local community. Staycations have proven to be not just a lifeline, but our key supporter during these trying times. We aim to continue being creative in our seasonal offerings, providing experiences that offer particular insights into the city, and continually anticipate guests’ needs.

Our F&B team provide freshness, simplicity, and consistency in every menu we serve at the hotel. Each outlet has their own distinctive identity, which we believe has garnered a reputation amongst the local dining scene.

The city is also a place where celebrations and meet ups are part of everyday lives. We are fortunate to be located steps away from the Hong Kong Conference and Exhibition Centre and we hope The Hari will be first in guests’ minds, whether it’s for a drink, entertaining, or relaxing.

Last, we want to come together with other homegrown brands to create and showcase a space for Hong Kong’s creative minds and personalities. The pandemic has tested us. But it has also pushed us to think outside the box.

How has it changed the way you run your hospitality empire?

A lot has changed, from the way we serve food in the restaurant to the way we welcome guests in the lobby. We had to keep the experience as warm and inviting as before whilst maintaining a social distance. These past two years have taught us so many things and made us realise that we have to be as authentic as possible.

Looking forward, I believe vacations will be more meaningful and longer but less frequent. People will think about spending more time with their families and also giving back. A sense of space and minimalism will be what people are looking for in their trips. Homegrown brands will be a key focus – people will try to “buy local” more and more.

(Related: The Clan Hotel is Singapore’s latest addition to the hospitality scene)