Alila hotels: bottling the magic of a truly distinctive service brand

Post by Remona Duquense, Managing Partner for South East Asia.

Luxury boutique hospitality business Alila is one my favourite examples of a distinctive service brand. And I was lucky enough to meet the co-founder and former CEO of the business, Mark Edleson, prior to a recent stay at Alila Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur. He generously shared the vision he and his partners had for Alila and the journey to build the brand from its inception in 2001 to 2018, when Hyatt acquired for almost half a billion dollars Two Roads Hospitality (of which Alila Hotels & Resorts was a part).

Here, I share the learning about the brand’s magic formula for success.

Ingredient #1: An authentic Brand CEO

Mark is clearly an example of what we call ‘Brand CEOs’: living, breathing embodiments of their brand. The inspiration for Alila came from his early days in the Peace Corps where he spent a few years backpacking and teaching in the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia, developing a love and respect for the local culture. This respect and desire to preserve culture has formed the foundation for the Alila story and its tight-knit corporate culture.

Ingredient #2: A clear and inspiring brand story

Mark confirmed that a clear and inspiring brand proposition was a catalyst of Alila’s success:  “Creating destination experiences in amazing locations that combine innovative design and luxury service, whilst respecting and conserving the environment and local communities.”

The brand positioning attracted a certain type of employee, partner and investor. This in turn led to a passionate and united internal stakeholder culture committed to creating and nurturing relationships with like-minded guests, who in turn then shared their experiences and adventures with others.

Ingredient #3: Distinctive ‘service signatures’

Alila means ‘surprise’ in Sanskrit and the brand lives up to this name by creating a whole series of what we call ‘service signatures’: distinctive, replicable customer experiences at moments of truth:

  • “Learning Journeys” allow guests to discover and immerse themselves in local culture. The Bangsar location offers pewter crafting lessons at Malaysia’s very own pewter manufacturer Royal Selangor, as well as cooking classes in the jungle.
  • Local culture is ‘baked in’ to the experience. For example, on exiting the elevator at Alila Bangsar you’re greeted by an Alila Living Room (1), inspired by the Malaysian concept of ‘open house’ that opens up living spaces and homes to anyone visiting during festive seasons.
  • Alila was from the start a pioneer of responsible, sustainable luxury, and this was evident during my stay:
    • Employing local people from surrounding areas and developing them through skills training
    • Using products and services from local suppliers
    • A Giving Bag in each room for travellers to leave items they don’t need or want, that are then given to local communities

Ingredient #4: Distinctive design

Alila uses a gorgeous mix of natural materials (think wood, stone and bamboo) and contemporary architecture and design, preserving local culturally significant structures. For example, Alila Yangshuo was a sugar mill, and whilst the hotel looks extremely modern, it has conserved much of the original structure and story.

Alila Bangsar has expansive rooms and uses accessories and design pieces from village markets in Peninsula Malaysia and Borneo. Common spaces like the reception and pool are all or almost completely alfresco – giving a sense of being outdoors. Juxtaposed with this local sensibility is cutting-edge innovation and technology, like its digital-only approach to room service and entertainment.

The distinctive design encourages customers to share their experiences via social media. I myself discovered the brand via discerning traveler friends who flooded my Instagram feed with their magical Alila stories, alongside stunning photos of beautifully designed structures and majestic views.

Ingredient #5: Conscientious brand image management

Conscientious brand image management was clearly crucial in creating and growing Alila. Two points in particualr stood out when Mark shared his approach:

  • Masterbrand architecture: each property uses the Alilia name plus a local touch (e.g. Alila Yangshou, Alila Bangsar, Alila Uluwatu). From a business point-of-view, this helped build a single strong brand that was easier to sell. From a brand point-of-view, it plays up both the distinctive Alila service experience and the unique location of each property.
  • Brand image control: all Alila properties were managed by local owners. The Alila brand magic was captured and codified  as part of hotel management agreement, to ensure that the brand promise and identity were respected across locations. Mark and the team also invested time to ensure the owners aspired to the Alilia vision and values in these guidelines.

In conclusion, Alila shows the business benefits of crafting a compelling brand positioning to inspire truly distinctive design and customer experiences. I do hope that the Hyatt Group treats the brand with the same love and attention that made Alila what it is today!