Founder & CEO,
Absolute Hotels Services.
Born in Hong Kong but educated at an English public school, Absolute Hotel Services founder and CEO Jonathon Wigley had no doubt of his career choice.
By John Howe.
Jonathon Wigley knew exactly what he wanted to be before he was out of short trousers. There was never any doubt in his mind that the family tailoring business was not for him. He could not see himself with a measuring tape nonchalantly draped around his neck, needle and thread in hand, deftly sewing expensive bespoke suits. At 16, when his father asked him what he wanted to do with his future, his answer was unequivocal: he wanted to become a hotelier.
His well-connected father spoke to a family friend who was general manager of one of Hong Kong’s most exclusive hotels. He requested that the young Jonathon be employed but given no quarter. The word was taken as his first job in the hospitality business was making up and cleaning 14 guestrooms a day.
Over 12 months at the hotel the budding high-flyer swept through the range of hospitality jobs: from the arduous kitchen duties to the back office and perhaps the most challenging of the lot, at the front of house. But talking to Jonathon I had the feeling that his greatest achievement was at the breakfast egg station where he proudly claims that for a few months he cooked at least 1,900 omelets every morning.
Far from being discouraged by all this hard work Jonathon’s mind was now firmly set on a hospitality career. After studying in Europe he returned to Asia and settled down to making a go of his chosen career. Over the next 24 years, Jonathon gained a wealth of experience in the hospitality business, including working for major international hotel brands such as Hilton, Omni, Delta Grand Pacific and the Landmark group.
Headhunted twice by Minor International’s hotel division, Jonathon at first declined their approaches; but succumbed on their second invitation and had no regrets accepting. He says this was one of the most enjoyable experiences in hospitality management. He was as vice president of operations for the Minor International’s hotel division and particularly enjoyed working with the group’s founder, Bill Heinecke, whom he claims is a business genius.
In this job he was responsible for establishing and maintaining the group’s brand standards and enhancing growth. This gave Jonathon a wealth of experience in places as diverse as Bali, Vietnam, and Dubai, as well as inculcating a well-developed sense of local business cultures.
Eventually his seeming appetite for adventure and burning business wanderlust told him it was time to move on, Thus, Absolute Hotel Services (AHS) was born. From that moment, AHS has moved forward in leaps and bounds and is becoming a regional leader in hotel management.
AHS has a stable of brands under the Eastin and U hotels and resorts wing. Asked if he had plans to add a five-star hotel to the portfolio Jonathon said, “The five star hotel market is a small segment in terms of investor and consumer base and is already well serviced or almost saturated. We have strategically decided to play in the deluxe and mid-tier segments, which have a greater and ever growing investor and consumer base.”
Indeed, the brands are very different from each other in terms of positioning and target markets. U Hotels & Resorts is an uncomplicated bijoux deluxe hotel brand for experienced travelers while Eastins are international deluxe hotels/serviced apartments, respectively, for travelers who want comfort and convenience at the right price with maximum flexibility. The main key points for AHS’ target market are consistency, flexibility,and value.
Today, AHS has an office in Mumbai, three U hotels in the thriving tourist friendly Goa and another in Mumbai; with plans to expand into other cities and locations. A new brand has been created for both India and Vietnam: Eastin Easy, a budget three-star hotel brand based on traveler needs.
His plans for the group are ambitious, and besides expansion in India, the Middle East is on his radar ( The Muscat Eastin Hotel serves Oman’s biggest airport in this fast developing region). Jonathan is also looking to Africa and is currently in negotiation for expansion in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. AHS will be opening an East African office in 2013.
But Jonathon has confidence in the Thai domestic tourist sector too. “The Asian inbound market continues to grow<" he claims. "For instance, a growing number of Indian tourists, as well as an increasing number from China, Taiwan and Japan, visit Thailand." But he believes some of these Asian tourists are more risk adverse than their Western counterparts, which is why they are launchng programs to counter their concerns. He was also direct in his praise of the Thai people, saying they are one of the country’s greatest assets. "The Thai hospitality culture is second to noe," he says. But he said that what he calls ‘Brand Thailand’ has lost its way in recent years and is falling behind competitor countries. "Thailand is truly amazing and the 'Amazing Thailand' campaign was a good one," he says. "It could have been built upon to highlight Thailand’s amazing culture, mountains, beaches, marine and land nature, and not least the people themselves. Thailand under-promises and over-delivers, and this contrast may be detrimental to the country’s future tourism potential. Thailand should not be afraid to learn from its neighbors in using foreign talent to promote the country’s charms." Jonathon may be hospitality’s high-rolling mover and shaker, and a self-confessed ‘achievement junkie’ but he is also a family man with two daughters, both studying abroaad. When he talks of them he visibly sparkles and his pride is obvious. Jonathon’s early years of hard work literally starting at the roots of his profession and climbing to its top most branches combined with his father’s foresight and open-mindedness may have created Asia’s next Bill Heinecke.