In hotel circles, the million-dollar question of just what Adrian Zecha would do after his high-profile split from Aman, the luxury resort brand he founded in 1988, was finally answered earlier this year.
With no fanfare, much less advance publicity, the legendary hotelier very quietly opened Azerai Luang Prabang in the Unesco-protected old town, a couple of blocks down the road from Amantaka.
For the 53-room hotel – the first salvo in a rumoured 10-resort roll-out that will include destinations Vietnam and Cuba – architect Pascal Trahan turned an early 20th-century colonial bungalow built for French officers, into an intimate bolthole anchored around a 25m lap pool. Wraparound balconies, timber floors and cool colonnades subtly reflect Laotian architecture. Local materials of timber and cement tiles are paired with artwork, hand-stitched fabric and batik inspired by the local Hmong Lao ethnic minority tribe.
Over the phone from Hong Kong, Zecha says that the idea for Azerai had been bubbling for some time. For in his wide social circle are friends who can’t afford the price of luxury accommodation, and he has long believed there is an opportunity to create a category of mid-priced accommodation that still stands out as unique and tasteful in design and architecture.
“And I thought about opening it in Luang Prabang,” he says, “because it is and will always be a special place for me. I have a home there and, for the past seven years, I’ve celebrated my birthday there. I am so familiar with it.”
For the 84-year-old Zecha, Azerai – the unusual name combines his initials and caravanserai, resting places for ancient Persian caravan travellers – represents a reset, a chance to take a fresh look at the luxury hotel model he has done so much to define.
He relishes the challenge as he is also well aware the power of association and branding is so strong that he will always be associated with Aman.
“Everyone focuses on that,” he complains good-naturedly. “But I’ve been in the business since the ’70s when I was with the Regent. Aman just happens to be the last thing I did!”
If the Aman brand set the standard for boutique luxe, then the Azerai defines itself as boutique affordable luxe. “The Azerai rooms are half the size of an entry-level Aman villa. It’s an affordable Aman.” Zecha’s benchmark seem almost like an oxymoron. A room at Amantaka starts at about US$600 in the low season; at Azerai, it’s US$250. How can the two be compared?
“Luxury is always about a sense of simplicity and style,” explains Zecha, stressing that his idea of luxury has not changed, even after 45 years in the business. In his books, a price tag does not define luxury. Service delivered with a genuine, caring attitude is luxury.
“Look, it’s the difference between a Mercedes S-Class and E-Class. The physical aspects are different, the engine is smaller, but it’s the same brand, mechanics, engineering and quality,” he says.
The profound simplicity and accuracy of the analogy is evident the moment you step off buzzy Kingkitsarath Road, walk up shallow stone steps and enter the whispery quiet of a blonde-timbered reception. There is an immediate nagging familiarity about the space, the lighting, and the low-slung furnishings. If you are an Aman junkie, that peculiar breed of traveller who rabidly scours the world for an Aman outpost, you recognise the woven straw basket of towels by the pool, the swivelling bedside table lamps, the light touch of ethnic fabric draped over the floating bed, the straw toiletry holders by the sink and other quiet clues.
As Zecha readily admits, there is a similar sense of aesthetic sensibilities between an Aman and the Azerai. This is not to say that the young upstart brand is copying its established “competitor”, but rather that they are both products of the same aesthetic sensibilities. Azerai simply reflects Zecha’s tastes, and “tastes don’t change every season”, he says. Nor do they change with the product.
“For me, creating the Azerai is exactly like having a second child in that it has a different personality and will therefore fill a different void. But it should give similar satisfaction.”
He’s not one to dwell on the past, though. He’s far too busy. He’s on the plane at least once a week, and there are more Azerai hotels to open, though, unlike most other hoteliers, he refuses to confirm locations or opening dates. “We will announce it when they’re done and ready to open. I don’t like talking about the future,” he says, adding, “Nothing is easy. There are always things you have to do, problems to solve. Anyone who says otherwise is lying! There’s always an individuality to everything. There’s no cookie cutter aspect in this business. You have to look at it fresh each time you open a hotel.”
And on the morning of our conversation, he’s on his way to the airport for a two-week haul around the world, stopping for meetings in Beijing, Vancouver, San Francisco, Cancun, Cuba and Paris, before turning back to Hong Kong, where he has a home and his HQ is located.
“There is no downtime,” he says. “But I don’t call it work. Not if you love it. Besides, intellectualising the business is not something I have the inclination or the time for.”
Always look forward. Perhaps that’s how you get to be a legend in the first place.
7 THINGS WE LOVE ABOUT THE AZERAI LUANG PRABANG
01 The hotel’s central location in the middle of Luang Prabang. The lively night market is literally across the street, and the former royal palace – now the national museum with absorbing rooms, gold thrones and relics – is a five-minute walk away.
02 The deep-blue tiled 25m lap pool that’s framed by loungers under the shade of a century-old banyan tree.
03 Executive chef Ben Faker’s delicious seasonal menu, which includes traditional Lao cuisine and Western dishes such as slow roasted pork shoulder baguette, and homemade pappardelle with roasted eggplant.
04 The unusually comfortable (and complimentary) rubber flip-flops in the bedroom.
05 The minimalist mood-lit spa on the second floor, where the foot massages are winning raves from aficionados, and the traditional pressure-point massages unknot the toll of the day’s sight-seeing.
06 A private baci ceremony in which the neighbouring village elders will bless you with melodic incantations. The hotel will arrange the ceremony that is usually held before any special occasion such as a trip or a graduation, and it ends with each village elder tying a white string on both wrists, which stays on for three days. The more strings are tied, the greater the prospects of good fortune.
07 The flotilla of customised bikes that are parked at the entrance for very pleasant lazy spins through town and various attractions.