Conversation with Philippe Zuber, CEO Kerzner International
With borders closed for a second year in a row and many travel restrictions looking to last well through 2022, domestic tourism has at times, flourished. But Chinese tourists, already well traveled across the globe, are looking for memorable experiences and expect innovation at every turn.
Kerzner International, the luxury hospitality group owning the iconic Atlantis Resort and Residences and ultra-luxury One&Only Resorts brands worldwide as well as the new sports and fitness brand SIRO, is embracing innovation and have used its expertise to position themselves well during the domestic tourism boom.
Atlantis Sanya, the group’s first resort in the Pacific Rim, has seen exceptional popularity. During the Lunar New Year holidays in 2022, Atlantis Sanya recorded an occupancy rate of 98.6% and a revenue growth of 28.4%. The Luxury Conversation sat down with CEO of Kerzner International, Philippe Zuber to discuss China’s domestic tourism trends, how to attract Chinese travelers and keep them coming back, and what it means to invest in sustainable business practices in China.
It has been an extraordinary time for the travel industry. How do you evaluate the impact of coronavirus pandemic?
The pandemic put the entire global travel industry under a stress test, including China. Operators in the hospitality industry have been motivated to make changes, seek out previously unidentified opportunities and optimize operations. We are expected to be more resilient than ever before.
Certain destinations have performed well, relying mainly on domestic tourists—for instance, our 3 resorts in Dubai—Atlantis, The Palm, One&Only Royal Mirage and One&Only The Palm. We have also seen Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley perform well for the last 2 years with only domestic travelers. Other destinations, such as The Maldives have proven strong with clear restrictions and open air lift.
Past experience has shown us that China is able to dynamically contain the spread of the virus while maintaining minimal disruption to the country’s economic activity. We firmly believe China’s travel industry is well poised for a strong post-pandemic future.
What’s your view on the recovery of Hainan’s travel industry in the near future?
While short-term impact is unavoidable, we believe in the resilience of Hainan’s tourism industry. The region boasts many advantages, including desirable climate, unique culture, as well as government policy serving to foster the development of tourism. Only three years ago, Hainan was thought of solely as a tropical paradise, but today Chinese travelers realize that Hainan is also a place of fascinating ethnic culture, technology innovation, exciting sports, cultural events and a hub for traditional medicine. Chinese tourists’ exploration in Hainan will only continue to grow.
Atlantis Sanya, Photo courtesy of Kerzner International
What aspect of the Chinese hospitality and tourism industry do you think will fundamentally change after Covid-19?
As many challenges as the industry has faced, the pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to challenge how we have been doing business. We’ve always been super nimble and agile and we have gone further with our flexibility for our guests, as well as evolve the experience to different demands and acutely understand how to leverage our strengths. This experience has encouraged us to go a step further to make continuous efforts to elevate our guest service and provide confidence to our guests , operate more efficiently, diversify our product portfolio, expand our talent pool — all things which greatly enhance our business
One area in particular which we have been able to fast-track is our digital transformation. Improving digital capabilities is significant for both tourists, partners and locations. These services can provide a customized experience, real-time information for decision-making, and more efficient business operations through data collection and analysis.
As cross-border and cross-regional tourism is subject to many restrictions, hotels are exploring the local market and placing a high priority on tourism for local destinations. In addition, hotel operators are expected to improve relationships with local operators and ensure the wellbeing of local communities. In fact, we had a new brand in incubation, SIRO and felt last year was the perfect time to introduce it to market. This experience focuses on fitness and sports, as well as recovery, with an overall lens to wellbeing.
So how has domestic tourism in China evolved over the past two years?
We have identified two major themes emerging in tourism and hospitality industry in China:
Rediscovery of domestic destinations: Chinese travelers are rediscovering local destinations, finding many hidden gems. Hainan is the best example, and we still see both the government and travel operators are reinventing this destination.
Innovation: Chinese travelers’ rediscovery of domestic destinations can only be sustained through evolution of experience. At Atlantis Sanya, we have been proactively adding additional reasons to stay longer and repeatedly visit with new cultural, entertainment or nightlife elements. A great example is the Mermaid show we developed last year. We created a spectacular display in The Ambassador Lagoon of professional mermaid performers and set the Guinness World Record for the “Largest Underwater Mermaid Show”. With vibrant costumes and colorful tails, the mermaids danced in the waters of The Ambassador Lagoon, perfectly executing a difficult routine, setting a new Guinness World Records™ and celebrating the 3rd anniversary of Atlantis Sanya.
Atlantis Sanya, The Lost Chambers Aquarium, Photo courtesy of Kerzner International
Do you think Hainan will remain a popular destination in 2022 and even after when boarders reopen to international travel?
We want to make Atlantis Sanya a 365-day destination, with new reasons to visit every season of the year. We wish Atlantis Sanya to become an all-in-one destination meeting diverse needs of Chinese travelers, where they can enjoy quality time with ease of travel whenever they visit.
In this way, we wish to contribute our part to the overall appeal of Sanya and Hainan. Hainan still has apparent peak seasons (the summer vacation and the Lunar New Year), while travelers are less likely to visit Hainan during some other times of the year. There are multiple reasons behind this, but one factor is that many people don’t know you can have an incredible experience, regardless of the weather.
Atlantis Sanya, Photo courtesy of Kerzner International
How do you keep guests coming back?
At Kerzner, experience means something that sparks emotion in someone as it is the emotion that will be remembered. As Maya Angelou said, “people will never forget how you made them feel”.
We see a strong repeater rate across our portfolio. The key to this is innovation which is ingrained in our DNA. For example, at Atlantis Sanya, we keep adding children’s camps, gourmet offerings and wellness programs so that guests could always find a reason to visit all year long and year after year.
We are also very personal in how we do business and that is important for every interaction—whether that be from when a customer discovers Atlantis on WeChat, arrives at the resort, or gets ready for the spills and thrills of Aquaventure Waterpark. Every moment can be a differentiator that will build a lasting memory and earn a loyal guest.
Innovation for us is continuous, and consistent. We have worked hard to build something irreplaceable — a privilege only few brands can enjoy. That’s part of the reason why we are successful. When people think of the ocean or marine life, they think of Atlantis. This is a combination of science, experience and expertise. At Haitang Bay, where Atlantis Sanya is located, there are at least a dozen resorts. People visit Atlantis Sanya because that’s the only place they can enjoy the ocean without ever having to get wet, and they can always discover something new.
Atlantis Sanya, Aquaventure Waterpark, Photo courtesy of Kerzner International
How has Kerzner approached the tricky task of localization in China?
As part of our commitment to China and Hainan, we are proactively offering differentiated experiences that connect and adding intrinsic value to the destination at the same time. We understand that our future depends on the prosperity of where we operate.
In making Hainan a year-round destination, through a variety of engaging entertainment, children’s summer camps, gourmet, and wellness programs, it creates opportunities for the local partners to participate and generate revenue.
We keep celebrating Chinese culture. For example, we understand many Chinese travelers spend their Lunar New Year Festival in Hainan and want a bit of festivity. Therefore, we introduced the iconic Yu Garden Lantern Festival to Atlantis Sanya last year, combining Chinese traditional culture with modern Atlantis elements to create an immersive experience for guests and residents.
We keep caring for our communities. We uphold an unwavering commitment to the utmost respect and care to the environment and locations we work in, and we keep building better connections with local communities through our innovative initiatives and best-in-class services. For example, we offer the local community special access for some Atlantis Sanya events and special packages for healthcare workers.
What action is Kerzner taking to ensure sustainable business practices?
The entire inspiration for Atlantis as a brand is to bring the ocean in for guests and visitors alike to discover this incredible underwater world. Most people around the world will never have a chance to immerse themselves in the real oceans due to the training and investment required. But we wanted to change that through every element of design. We want to entertain, but we also want to educate through exploration.
The relationship between the ocean and humans is vital. That is why we launched the Atlantis Atlas project, which is our commitment for caring for people and the planet. The Atlantis Atlas Project is focused around four core pillars: Responsible Operations, Education & Awareness, Marine Conservation & Animal Welfare, and Corporate Social Responsibility. These fully incorporate Atlantis’ commitment to economic, social, and environmental responsibility — and provide plenty of opportunities for guests to experience and learn more about their local environment in-resort. Education makes us more responsible global citizens and we aim to do that in fun and immersive ways, whether that be through exploration of The Lost Chambers, Marine Biologist programs or diving in The Ambassador Lagoon.
The Atlantis Atlas Project is also aligned with the free trade port plan published by the Chinese government in 2020. The plan stipulated “the ecosystem should be put at priority, and the development should be green.” It was a reminder that the entire industry needs to put sustainability at the center of their operations, and sustainability is definitely in the best interest of Hainan and the community.