Seated in a corner suite in The Hari, his soon-to-be-completed hotel on that indistinct border where Wanchai and Causeway Bay wash into each other, Aron Harilela looks relaxed and very much at home. The hotel’s soft opening is planned for just a few weeks away, and every one of the floors beneath us is a cacophony of rattling and whining hammer drills, clumping work boots and the clatter of planks and scaffolding. Cables dangle from ceilings and the air is a soup of concrete dust and wood shavings, but if Harilela is concerned about the progress of the first hotel bearing his eminent family’s name – or, to be more accurate, a shortened version of it – to open in his home city, he certainly doesn’t show it.
Virtually a Hong Kong dynasty, the Harilela family has been in the hospitality business for half a century, so why did it take so long for them to go the whole hog and manage their properties themselves? “For years we had one business model,” explains Harilela, “which was to either build or buy hotels, and then give them to third- party management – Holiday Inn, InterContinental, Hilton, W, etcetera. But after 45 years of doing this, the world has changed and the landscape is very different from what it was even 20 years ago. I thought that the hotel market was ripe for something different, with little niches here and there where you could place your hotel.
“So I said let’s do our own hotel, and in about 2010 we started to renovate our London property. At that point I wanted to run the hotel ourselves, but some people in the office said, ‘Listen, what are you doing? We don’t run hotels, we asset manage.’ Weirdly enough, though, my father was very much in favour of running it ourselves. To cut a long story short, we didn’t, but four years later I said, ‘Right, sorry guys, we’ve had enough, we’re going to do it ourselves.’”
After consulting with a branding company on possible names – Harilela says they considered brands based on locations, feelings and personal or family names – they eventually plumped for The Hari, a “mixture between our truncated family name and my father’s name, which resonated with us”. Also, he says, “It’s a name that can travel, it has some gravitas, you can have it in London, you can have it in Bangkok and you can have it in Hong Kong and I don’t think it’s out of place anywhere. It would have been silly to call it The Chesham – our London property’s in Chesham Place, but what does that mean anywhere else?”
Fashioned out of an existing hotel and with just 85 rooms, the London Hari is considerably smaller than its newer sibling in Hong Kong, though there are definite similarities, not least in the fact the famed designer Tara Bernerd was responsible for the interiors of both.
“When we started on the London hotel,” says Harilela, “a hotelier friend, Jason Pomerantz, said, ‘You’ve got to get Tara to do this,’ even though she’d only ever done residential properties before. I said to him, ‘She’s never done hotels, are you crazy?’ But Tara and I got on really well and we created something in London that I think really hit the mark. It’s luxurious but it’s not crazy luxurious and you really feel relaxed – you feel as if you want to come back, regularly.
“I wanted to keep that DNA, so I told Tara that she had to do all The Haris – I don’t want them to look exactly the same but there’s a masculinity to it. It’s not refined luxury and it’s certainly not very feminine.”
Ever a dapper dresser, Harilela today is clad in a bespoke suit in an especially flamboyant blue-and-grey Prince of Wales check, so it seems obvious that the hotel’s look and ambience would also reflect his personal style. “For the first project in London,” he says, “I’d literally walk into Tara’s office and say, ‘I love that tweed jacket, and those grey flannel trousers. That’s what I want to do with the hotel.’ Not only the decor and the clothing, but also in the style of the service. I’m not very poncey and formal, I’m just not. I don’t want to arrive at a restaurant and everyone’s saying, ‘Sir,’ twenty-five times – I mean, just shut up, I’m eating my food. And I’d rather chat with the staff. Maybe it isn’t casual, but it’s certainly not formal, which isn’t the easiest thing to do in Hong Kong, because people are used to that hierarchy.
“If you give me two exact-same hotels, exact-same rooms, exact-same room rates and you go downstairs and one has a buzzing bar and the other one, you go in and the guy says, ‘Er, would you like a cup of tea?’ I’d go to the one with the buzzing bar. When you see what our Japanese restaurant looks like – it’s not designed like a traditional Japanese restaurant. It’s not all bamboo and dark, we’re going to have pumping music and it’s got nothing to do with Japan or Japanese restaurants except the food. We’ve just got a chef from Matsuhisa in Aspen, and I’m so excited about it.”
Harilela isn’t the least bit fazed by the discrepancies in location between the London and Hong Kong hotels. “It doesn’t matter that the Haris in London and Hong Kong are in very different areas,” he says. “Actually, Belgravia [in London] isn’t the best place to put a hotel, because it’s very residential, it’s not that close to the City and the Tube station isn’t that close either, but we really spruced that place up and we’ve done well with it. It’s very London, though, and this is very Hong Kong.
“A few years ago, when we did the W in Sydney, I’d never been there before. It was in Woolloomooloo – and a friend of mine said: ‘Do. Not. Touch. Woolloomooloo. Just don’t touch it, it’s terrible. It’s full of gangs and crime…’ But going to Sydney with new eyes, the one thing I realised was that you go west and you go east and everything is developed, but also that people also love places that are on the water. The hotel is on the water and it’s just a 10-minute walk through the most beautiful botanical gardens to the CBD. This was a pocket that was so overlooked and underdeveloped, and I think it’s the same for where we are in Wanchai.”
There’s a masculinity to it — it’s certainly not very feminineAron Harilela
As for London’s 85 rooms compared to Hong Kong’s 210, Harilela admits that “this is going to be a massive test for us. We can do it in London, but this is a bigger product, it’s our home base and it involves much more investment, because we bought the land, bought the buildings, tore them down and built this from scratch. So we have to get this right. And if we do, then our expansion plans – well, we’ll have to think it out. Can we go bigger, 320 rooms? Because that’s the next bracket where the economies of scale really make sense.”
And then, of course, there’s Covid-19 looming above everything – and, not least, the hospitality industry. “Well,” says Harilela, “you can’t open at 90 percent occupancy anyway. You start with 30 percent and then you nudge it up and you nudge it up again. So there’s only going up from here. We can’t go back down – all economies would be on their knees, so we’ll have no option but to open up the borders at some point. People are social animals. Will we be social distancing on planes? Yeah, for a little while, but once this is over I think that everything will go back to normal. I think we’ll go back to what we know best.
“All those years ago when my father built the Holiday Inn Golden Mile, it was at the end of the ’60s, the riots in Hong Kong had just happened and a lot of his external shareholders said, ‘I’m out.’ This is the first hotel I’ve ever built, and then Covid comes along and I said, ‘Come on, this can’t happen again!’”