We started with the conviction that there was space for a company with hoteliers rather than asset managers at its heart, one that would challenge the status quo by crafting a world where guest experience is everything,” says Markus Engel. “Ten years down the line, I hope our team continues to be non-formulaic, to stay critical, and be human, intuitive and inclusive in all we do.” The CEO of Urban Resort Concepts (URC) is casting his mind into the future, a decade on from today, following what promises to be a crucial era of growth for the Shanghai-headquartered group. With four existing properties in China and Malaysia, URC is gearing up to almost triple its footprint by 2025 with further resorts planned for China as well as the Indian Ocean and Middle East, marking the group’s debuts in these regions (see p64). All will adhere to ‘hostmanship’, a word that has come to encapsulate the company’s people-first culture. In practice, this means engaging service, an end to petty hotel charges, plus generous rate inclusions (see p66) that vary from 24-hour check-in/out to fully stocked mini bar, breakfast for two to laundry/pressing. Additionally, all the forthcoming hotels will accommodate floors for wellness with proprietary spa brand, UR SPA, an integral cornerstone of the overall experience.
“We don’t treat UR SPA as an amenity,” observes Engel. “It’s a critical extension of our immersive guest experience so we work with some of the best in the industry for advice and counsel. We’re investing significant time and resources in research and development to retain a nimble and adaptable wellness offering that embraces up-to-date consumer behaviour, best practices and technology.”
Time is of the essence
Despite spending over half the year in hotel rooms, Engel is not a regular spa user by choice: “Once you factor in time for drinking tea, going to the treatment room, listening to the sounds of marine life, staring at a wilting orchid before recuperating in the lounge, the conventional visit typically requires at least 90 minutes for a one-hour massage. I don’t have this to spare. But if I knew I could alleviate a physical condition or target a problematic area in 45 minutes, in a less female-centric environment, then I would jump at the chance.”
With a 25-year track record in hospitality starting at London’s iconic Dorchester hotel, German-born Engel has been overseeing spas for 15 years, the first one falling under his mandate during his tenure as general manager of The Oberoi Mauritius. Since leaving Oberoi to co-found URC with a small group of similarly minded hoteliers including Bernd Koehn and John Laing, Engel has been honing a hotel concept with disruptive qualities, in a positive sense. Opened in 2009, The PuLi Hotel and Spa in Shanghai has established itself as a traveller favourite, picking up design, luxury, service and food awards on a consistent basis, and becoming the darling of the fashion crowd. While Anantara initially managed the Shanghai spa, Engel and his team realised that URC would be better served by a proprietary brand entirely compatible with their hotel product. Developing the offer under the UR SPA banner, URC has placed a strong emphasis on treatments that are tangible, effective and results-driven. Express therapies of 30 or 45 minutes cater for time-poor guests alongside more comprehensive spa rituals, while the aesthetic is gender-neutral, sleek and uncluttered, picking up on hotel design cues that speak of the destination and contextual culture. “For our urban properties, the attitude is dynamic, energetic and integrated as opposed to a monastic, incense-heavy, hush-hush environment,” adds Engel.
After eight years of in-house operation, spa revenues in Shanghai have increased by 40 per cent, with capture rates comparable to luxury competitors in the city. “At this stage, as we establish ourselves in a very crowded space, the single KPI focus is guest satisfaction for which we’re achieving 95 per cent using two measurement tools,” Engel notes. “Wellness is frequently part of our tactical activities and has demonstrated its ability to both increase achieved hotel rates and counter off-peak periods.”
The value of partnerships
With three hotels launched in the past 12 months, there’s been a chance to root UR SPA wellness offerings from ground-up. Alongside a spa, services include personal training, lifestyle coaching, movement studios, hair salons, barbers and retail. Juices and nutritionally balanced lunches are available from food and beverage outlets on wellness floors while community events, such as a poolside yoga and brunch session at The RuMa in Kuala Lumpur, are being introduced. While wellness floors are designed to blend organically into the hotel aesthetic, the URC team in partnership with consultant Adria Lake take the lead in conceptualisation, space planning and material choices. As an example of how spas convey a sense of local history or culture, the 2,000sq m facility at The PuShang in Xiamen has an array of hydrothermal pools and baths, chosen as a subtle homage to the purification rituals once undergone by concubines before they were presented to the Emperor. In Kuala Lumpur, the Malay tradition of kelarai weaving is incorporated into treatment rooms, the wall and ceiling panels handmade by a family in Terengganu.
Engel describes the role that Lake plays in shaping the concepts: “Adria is always ready to come up with new and original angles. I admire her radical thinking about wellness; it’s a significant departure from the conventional. We tend to balance her ideas with factors such as operational feasibility and economic viability but she, like us, is not content to stick with the status quo.”
Another important layer is the partnerships with product houses. Comfort Zone is the unifying range throughout UR SPA but at The PuXuan in Beijing, there are also tailor-made treatments based on LVMH’s Cha Ling, L’Esprit du Thé skincare range. Influenced by TCM principles and containing antioxidant-rich pu’er tea from Yunnan Province, Cha Ling makes an ideal partner for the Beijing property where guests can also enjoy ceremonial Chinese rituals in the Tea Room. Down in Shanghai, UR SPA has enhanced its therapeutic menu with treatments by Valmont while The RuMa team is in talks with several prestigious beauty and wellness brands. The approach fits into the overall URC strategy of forming considered collaborations with select luxury names; the furniture of Hermès-owned Chinese lifestyle brand, Shang Xia, can be found in the public spaces of The PuXuan, for instance.
Vying for the top spot
While URC has been cautious about its trajectory over the past decade, the aim is now to open one to two properties annually. Since every aspect of each URC hotel is bespoke, starting with a blank piece of paper, the choice of developer is paramount. “Development partners need a high level of local and insider knowledge coupled with an understanding of the lengths we’ll go to in achieving a tailor-made, authentic yet contemporary property,” Engel notes, highlighting as an example the task of finding the right contractor to build The PuXuan, with its intricate architectural design by Ole Scheeren.
For Engel, it’s only possible to commit to expansion if a prime location becomes available because it’s his intention that URC contends for the number-one spot in each destination. It’s also essential to conceive properties with distinctive design and aesthetics, a proposition that will become harder in locations such as Dubai. “We’ll never settle for a glass palace, lots of marble and golden mosaics, or over-patterning everywhere,” Engel states. “Rather it’s about taking the time to delve into Arabian heritage and culture, going back thousands of years to create a contextual background.” Lake’s company will likely be retained on a creative consultancy basis to feed into the wellness propositions for the new hotels and resorts, especially critical in crowded spa markets such as Dubai and the Maldives.
Alongside launches in new countries, URC is expanding its horizons in China too by jointly undertaking rural restoration – a departure from the urban locations favoured to date. “There are genuine opportunities in some of China’s more beautiful unspoilt regions, currently under-developed in terms of high-end resorts,” explains Engel. “We’re aware we will, at some point, exhaust the Chinese cities in which we can command the rates we do, so it’s exciting to see how we can be part of development elsewhere.” One such project will see architect David Chipperfield restore brick by brick a 300-year-old village in the hills of Fujian, while weaving in sensitive contemporary additions. The ambition is to employ willing members of the community as part of the new resort experience, to grow organic produce, and to embed wellness activities into the pristine natural environment. Similar conversions are taking place in Moganshan and Yunnan Province.
“URC entered this industry with the desire to positively disrupt stale thinking and practices, to return to the origins of luxury through simplicity of design, context, craftsmanship and attention to detail,” concludes Engel. “My greatest hope is that we will continue to cultivate the guest experience, to stay in tune and evolve, in all the locations we will eventually call home.”