LuxuryJohn Blanco, general manager of Capella Bangkok, talks about the challenges and opportunities he faces in unveiling the long-awaited hotel.

What it's like to open a luxury hotel during Covid

Blanco: strategy changed to focus more on the local market
Blanco: strategy changed to focus more on the local market

Travel Weekly Asia: What are the challenges of opening a hotel at this time, especially in a crowded market like Bangkok? How does Capella stand out in a crowded field, and how has Covid-19 changed that?

Blanco: I don’t think Covid has changed our brand or product – though we have recognised certain things such as social distancing in events and emphasised the spaciousness and new-built qualities of the urban resort to be relevant to the market. We are located in the Chao Phraya Estate, a secure, private and serene natural 5.7-hectare compound on the Chao Phraya River which I think will appeal to guests particularly at this time.

I think we will stand out for our destination and hotel. We have embraced both the river in front of us and Bangkok's oldest road, Charoenkrung, connecting our guests to both experiences that traverse the traditions and modernity of one of Asia’s greatest cities. It is where we are located that settlers and traders docked for decades.

TWA: You had to further delay opening this year because of Covid-19. Has your strategy changed?

Blanco: It’s a good question and something we have considered carefully. I think in terms of opening we did not want to make any announcements during the lockdown period. We are also very much aware that Thailand’s borders remain closed and that there’s a long way to go before there is a vaccine. However, Thailand has managed the virus situation clearly very well and we are quickly returning to normal domestically.

So, if there has been a change in strategy it has been to concentrate more on the local market. This presents opportunities as well as challenges. With no international guests currently, we are challenged on the room side. We have seen strong pre-booking interest for staycations domestically – but the change of strategy has been to focus more on domestic weddings and our F&B.

TWA: Have you done things to attract Bangkokians or Thais from elsewhere in the country?

Blanco: We are certainly appealing to Bangkokians and this is our key market before borders open, for our restaurants, bar, meetings and weddings in particular. We have been working on a staycation experience too that will reach out to other key urban centres in Thailand – such as Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Hat Yai and the resort destinations of Pattaya, Phuket and Hua Hin.

Our [up to 800-guest] ballroom is light filled, with cinematic riverside views and a ceiling decorated with 1864 hand-blown glass butterflies by local artisans – in testament to the date 1864 that Charoen Krung Road was completed – has been very popular.

TWA: Are you going to rely more heavily on F&B and other non-guest services?

Blanco: Yes, I think this is clear. Outside guests will be a large component of our business initially. In terms of the F&B, celebrity chef Mauro Colagreco, whose three Michelin-starred restaurant in France, Mirazur, claimed first place in The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in 2019, will set up Côte with our team. This will be a fine addition to Bangkok’s gastronomic scene.

Côte is already generating a waiting list. There has been plenty of interest in our riverfront Phra Nakhon Thai restaurant by the highly talented Charoen Krung native, Chef Lek for dinners and functions. And then there’s [high-style bar] Stella, which we expect will do very well in the local market. Tea Lounge offers remarkable river views and a calming lily pond as the backdrop for indulgent afternoon tea.

Auriga Wellness will also open October 1. Guests will find a wide range of offerings which tap into traditional wellness practices as well as modern cutting edge concepts.

TWA: Real or imagined, the 10,000 baht (US$300) glass ceiling for an entry-level room was something of an unbreachable obstacle for five-star hotels in Bangkok. Capella shatters that. 

Blanco: I think the 10,000 baht glass ceiling in Bangkok is more imagined. A number of hotels have broken this over recent years for entry category rooms.

What I do think is pertinent is less an issue of price but one of value, creating the perfection of an understated but exciting, engaging and fulfilling hospitality experience. That is certainly what we strive for and hope to be remembered for in the years to come.

TWA: When travel resumes, what makes you think there will be enough demand for a product priced in that range and why? 

Blanco: The Bangkok travel market has grown enormously in the past five to 10 years. It is a sophisticated, high-end international travel market which is unable to travel.

We feel this is a strong captive audience for us as they are currently not able to travel. So there's pent up demand for exceptional travel experiences which we will offer.

This is for not only staycations – though this will be particularly strong due to our urban resort location on the river and the chance to stay in the first-ever riverfront villas in Bangkok – but due to our F&B experience, highlighted by Chef Mauro Collagreco's Cote restaurant and Stella.

Capella Bangkok opens to the public on October 1, offering 101 rooms, suites and villas from 61sqm rooms to the 595 sqm Presidential Villa. Opening packages start at 17,500++ baht per night for two. 

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