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Sun 3 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Small is beautiful

Per Aquum founder Tom McLoughlin explains his one-man mission to change the face of hospitality.

Per Aquum founder Tom McLoughlin explains his one-man mission to change the face of hospitality.

I hate hotels," Tom McLoughlin tells me just minutes after we meet. "You have to stay at a hotel but you want to stay at a resort. A hotel provides a bed in a box room and a resort provides an escape, a dream and a fantasy. I prefer to do resorts, much more fun," he adds.

Health is the new wealth in life, and again it will be very different, because it will be Dubai’s first destination spa resort.

McLoughlin is explaining the difference between resorts and hotels because I have just made the fatal error of confusing the two - an easy mistake to make when you live in a city of hotels.

It's a mistake I make twice and twice I am politely corrected, but one gets the impression that if it happened for a third time the interview would soon finish. McLoughlin is, after all, the managing director of Per Aquum, a resort, spa and residence management company which has properties in some of the most desirable holiday destinations in the world.

As McLoughlin describes his successful resort concept, I can understand why he is keen not to be branded alongside the likes of Hilton and Royal Mirage.

On paper Per Aquum may seem like any other hotel brand (on a far smaller scale); a guest list which reads like the ‘who's who' with actress Liz Hurley, supermodel Kate Moss and designer Stefano Gabbana and CEOs of some of the most renowned companies, counted as guests. But the four resorts currently run under the Per Aquum umbrella couldn't be further from your average five-star holiday experience.

McLoughlin, who previously worked for Hilton Maldives Resort & Spa and Accor Asia Pacific, works hard to ensure that his resorts are, in essence, the complete opposite of the type of companies he used to work for.

We like to be an anti-hotel global brand," he says, before laughing and adding he has "come over from the dark side" of hotel chains to create individual resorts which appeal to guests who have "done the branded hotel experience and are looking for the new luxury of time," says McLoughlin.

Per Aquum guests, he says, are not looking for gold taps, marble foyers and chandeliers, but instead time to relax and enjoy their surroundings.

McLoughlin is as passionate about his resorts as he is about the big branded hotels - albeit in a very different way. "I have seen how they [the large hotels] do it. They want to create brands that are identical but we want to create resorts and residences that are completely different in every country.

"A hotel can be the same whether you are in Detroit, Michigan or Hawaii. We have a very low key-count which is something that large brands can't be bothered with or don't understand. They want to globalise, homogenise and treat people as room numbers rather than guests.

You might get the impression that McLoughlin doesn't stay in any other resorts other than his own but he does - to see what they are doing so he can do the exact opposite.

Guests at Per Aquum resorts will, in many cases, find their rooms either in the open water on stilts, or with swimming pools in their rooms, in addition to a personal butler service.

Making the most of the natural surroundings is important to the company; for example diners in its Maldives resort and restaurant have only sand for flooring. Typically the architecture is unique and modern. But the cost of this luxury doesn't come cheap with a price tag of around US$1000 per night.

Despite the heavy price to stay at a Per Aquum resort, public response has been positive and demand high. Since establishing the company in 2003 as a joint venture with Universal Enterprises with an initial concept in the Maldives - where McLoughlin originally managed the Hilton Maldives Resort & Spa - he has turned the company into a success story with a turnover of US$50m.
But it's not just McLoughlin's guests who rate his luxury resort destinations, travel companies and the media love them too. In 2007 The Fortress, the company's Dutch-style fort hotel in Sri Lanka, was voted one of the world's hottest new hotels by Condé Nast in both the US and UK editions.

That same year McLoughlin was voted one of the 15 most powerful men in travel by GQ magazine alongside the likes of Richard Branson, Sol Kerzner and Warren Buffett.

We only want to be associated with the right partners in the most desired locations with unique operations.

Deputy editor of GQ Travel, Bill Prince, described McLoughlin as "developing resorts, spas and residence from the ground up, aiming them squarely at wealthy Gen X and Gen Y-ers who want relaxed, private fun with their tropical luxury... the general feel is of private jet-set luxury, 21st century style.

Per Aquum currently has four completed projects: Dhoni Mighili and Huvafen Fushi in the Maldives, The Fortress in Sri Lanka and its first Middle East offering, Desert Palm in Dubai. There are also a number under construction including Vie, a tented eco-resort, and a second development in Dubai, near Dubailand, which is expected to be delivered in two to three years time.

"The concept for the resort spa in Dubai is that guests will be going there for the spa experience. Health is the new wealth in life, and again it will be very different, because it will be Dubai's first destination spa resort."

Desert Palm is a 24-villa resort set within a working polo estate, funded by local partner Ali Albwardy and managed by Per Aquum. "It's for guests who are looking at getting away from the traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road, the cranes and the bling of Dubai," says McLoughlin.

The resort will open this month with an official opening in time for the famous Cartier International Dubai Polo Cup in March.

The response we have received so far has been very positive. Being on a polo estate is real, it's not kitsch or faked up; it is a real life working polo estate. Having a local investor who is as focused on delivering the experience rather than thousands of box rooms is important too," emphasises McLoughlin.

Per Aquum may be small but that is essentially what the company is about. Profit increases are difficult to predict because McLoughlin is unsure how much he wants to continue to grow. For him, keeping the brand under his control, maintaining its exclusivity and only going into business with the correct partner is paramount to the company's future.

Our growth strategy is about being selective. It's about quality not quantity, unlike many of the other big hotel brands which are trying to get another 200-500 projects off the ground. Nine times out of 10 we will turn a project down," he tells Arabian Business.

We only want to be associated with the right partners in the most desired locations with unique operations," he adds.

"At the moment we have 10-12 resorts in our development pipeline over the next five years, and that will grow to 20 in the next 10 years, but that's very much where we want to cap it. It makes it very easy to deliver the quality and the promises when you have something small and manageable. If you are a global hotel company with 5000 hotels, it gets diluted," he continues.

Per Aquum is also currently developing ideas for a resort in Cambodia. "We are currently doing a project on two islands off the coast of Cambodia which will be the first island destination development.

We want to stay away from doing the mass market tourism thing in Thailand." Oman also holds some interest for the company, while private residences are something the company is also keen to develop alongside its resorts.

In all of our cases we have a] local investor and we are the management company but the residential sales underpin the development cost for us. It's a good financial model and it helps the developer secure something that is different."

Per Aquum's first foray into the residential sector is in the Seychelles, where 28 villas which can be bought by the public are priced between US$5-16m. Owners can live in them 365 days a year or just have them for a two week holiday and let it out to other guests, knowing that Per Aquum will take care of everything from the hotel transfers from the airport to a personal butler service and daily swimming pool cleaning.
So many people would compliment our resorts but couldn't buy because of the local laws, so we decided to break the boundaries of residential and compliment our resorts," he says.

We can manage the investment for the buyers so it can be a walk-in and walk-away investment if they want it to be." Other planned residential offerings are taking shape in the Caribbean and Grenada.

Small it may be, but Per Aquum's success isn't just based on its celebrity following; local government support has also been instrumental in its popularity. This is most evident in the Seychelles, which only opened its islands up to foreign investment three years ago and has allowed two of its islands to be developed by the company.

Unlike Thailand or Mauritius the government of the Seychelles has been particularly careful not to open the market up too quickly, and it is only now that land is finally coming onto the market to be developed for tourism purposes.

Shangri-La, Four Seasons and Hilton are already developing on the island alongside Per Aquum. "The Seychelles is an amazing destination. There are only 115 islands and we have two. There are no islands left for development so we have some great footholds in there," McLoughlin says.

"The environmental restrictions are very tough, which is a good thing. It won't be allowed to be overdeveloped like Phuket where there are hundreds of hotels on top of each other or Bali where its just getting cramped," he explains.

While one island will have the private residences managed by the company, the other one will be the eco-tent resort, Vie on Silhouette Island. Each tent in the 41-tent resort will measure 300 metres, have air conditioning and "every creature comfort" set in the jungle with 1.5km of natural beach, McLoughlin explains enthusiastically.

The government has been very supportive of inward investment and having residential [developments] brings in a lot of foreign currency so for a small island nation we are being welcomed with open arms." When it comes to pitching an idea to a country which is unaccustomed to foreign investment, McLoughlin's commitment to his corporate social responsibility programme may also help.

Like most brands, McLoughlin is keen to voice his company's loyalty to CSR and the environment.

"Sustainability is no longer a buzzword - it is a key word that has to be applied. We donate 1% of all of our resort revenue into local sustainability projects. Each resort has its own particular project for corporate social responsibility and the guests are also offered the chance to complement our donation and most of them either match it or give us more.

In the Maldives the charitable donation is used to set up a cold press virgin coconut oil for use in the resort spas, in another resort the money is given to local primary school teachers and in Dubai the company is working with the Disabled Writers Association. "Each destination we work in is micro CSR," explains McLoughlin.

For him, building an anti-brand is the very reason for Per Aquum's success. McLoughlin recognises that large branded hotels have a place but it is their growth that is also prompting his growth.

In essence we have great opportunities because we are an anti-brand and because we don't put our name on each of our hotels.

With a number of large hotel brands also developing similar style resorts and boutique hotels, does McLoughlin believe his concept is the future? "There are obviously people jumping on the bandwagon, but there is always going to be a place for the big hotels. These hotels will continue to get bigger and bigger.

There will be more consolidation and private equity companies moving in, but ours is a limited market and few get involved.

That must be a yes.

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