Posted in Business, People on 26 October, 2022

As air travel continues to inspire and pave the way for YOTEL, Emma Kennedy talks to Rohan Thakkar about their plans for the future.

When Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe presented his concept for a radical new hotel brand 18 years ago at the 100% Design show in London, the hospitality industry looked on with interest. If successful, YOTEL was set to break the mould of the traditional hotel in every sense; from what it offered to how it was delivered. Inspired by the luxury of first-class air travel, the rooms would be compact, but style and function would be paramount. To ensure the latter, PriestemanGoode, doyens of aircraft interiors were tasked to deliver the original concept design.

With ‘Everything you need and nothing you don’t’ as its mantra, the first YOTEL launched – though I suspect given their fondness of airline terminology they would prefer to say ‘landed’ – in 2007 rather appropriately at Gatwick airport.  21 hotels across three brands later, I caught up with Chief Development Officer, Rohan Thakkar to discover more about YOTEL’s ambitious plans for future growth.

I meet Rohan at YOTEL London City, a light, bright modern new-build in Clerkenwell that opened its doors in 2020. The reception is a low-key area, where guests are encouraged to check-in online at the kiosks provided for speed and convenience. Happily, there is a ‘crew’ member ready to escort me through the spacious and relaxed Komyuniti bar leading up to a mezzanine area where Rohan is expecting me.

Rohan greets me warmly and orders me a thoroughly welcome (and exceptionally good) coffee as I admire my new surroundings. It’s instantly a comfortable environment, and although its design has obviously been thought through, it isn’t trying too hard to be anything it’s not. Before we give YOTEL our undivided attention I start by asking Rohan to tell me a little about his own journey into hospitality. His soft American accent informs me he’s not from these shores.

“I grew up in Minnesota, and my family were involved in restaurants, so hospitality was ingrained in me from a very young age. My Mother is East African and my Father is Indian, so we were always travelling to visit family, and I soon became passionate about hotels, airlines and well, all hospitality.”

While studying hospitality at Cornell University, his summers were filled with internships within the industry, working across different departments including operations and technology before finding his true interest lay in hospitality real estate. Securing his first job with Ernst and Young before joining the real estate team at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, put him in good stead for his next move in 2014 to YOTEL. Eight years and several titles later, I ask Rohan as Chief Development Officer, what he is ultimately responsible for.

“My team is responsible for global business development. This means half the team are out looking for new opportunities – working with brokers, investors, consultants, owners… essentially introducing ourselves and our brands; YOTEL, YOTELAIR and YOTELPAD. We now have 21 operating hotels and 14 in development across the globe. The US, Europe, and Asia Pacific – more specifically Japan and Australia – are our main focus areas, and we have ‘hubs’ in New York, London and Singapore. We would love to be in other markets, but these are currently our primary focus.

The other side of my team are design and construction. Once a deal is signed, we are the team that works with the new owner to build a YOTEL. So, we guide them and the local interior designer on layouts and the brand ethos, so the right look and feel is achieved, and also to ensure it makes sense from an operations standpoint. So, it’s managing this team as well as driving growth in Europe myself.”

Following last year’s announcement by CEO Hurbert Viriot that YOTEL were entering the franchise market I wonder what impact this has had on the company’s growth. “Unlike many companies, the pandemic accelerated our plans for future growth which was interesting” Rohan tells me. “Franchising had always been considered an alternative business model for YOTEL, as it would give us access to new markets where we didn’t have the infrastructure to operate ourselves. We were going to wait until we had about 50 to 60 hotels before entering the franchise stage but during covid, we signed three franchise deals. This surprised us, but also told us that the brand was needed in the market. Ironically the first two franchises we sold were in the UK – Manchester and Shoreditch, London, where we had the infrastructure. We then went on to sign four more management deals in Tokyo, Lisbon, and two more to be announced in Asia Pacific and Australia. So, in a period of low expectations we managed continue to grow the brand.”

This conversation leads onto the fact that YOTEL have recently started taking on selective leases. I ask Rohan to share a little more on this subject. “While we were reviewing our growth strategy for Western Europe, in particular markets such as Paris, Berlin and Munich, we realised that we needed to take out select leases in order to accelerate growth in those markets where leases are the most commonly accepted strategy.”

Their next area of growth surprised me slightly when I originally read about it. Given that one of YOTEL’s key selling points is that they cater very much to the short-term market, I was interested to learn about their foray into the extended stay market. YOTELPADS’s as you would expect are the same smart designs, efficiently executed but offering more space and a kitchenette, and this time aimed at guests wanting a longer visit. YOTELPAD Park City, also marked their first property within a resort setting and was followed most recently by their second offering in Miami, Florida. Already proving to be a successful model, Rohan tells me “What we are now interested to see, is whether people will choose to live there full time. There are the public amenities available should they wish to, but at the moment we are basing future predictions on the assumption that guests are wanting a five-to-ten-night stay.” Given how popular the long stay market is with both operators and guests, I ask Rohan why they didn’t move into this market sooner. “We had spent a lot of time looking at this market and once again, it had always been something that we had our sights on, as an extension of the Yotel brand.”

With technology at the forefront of the YOTEL brands, I wonder how big a part Rohan believes it plays in their ongoing success. “We are known for our tech, that’s true, and I think it is a part of our success. It all begins with the check-in experience which nobody really enjoys. It needs to be pleasant, and it needs to be quick.” Casting my mind back, I reflect on the ultra-calm scene in reception as I passed through just half an hour earlier. “With the average stay of just one to two nights, whether it’s two in the morning or two in the afternoon, guests are keen to get to their room. The question is; How do you make this seamless but also include the human element? How do you automate it to make it efficient and quick? There will always be reasons for human interaction, and some people do prefer it, so there will always be someone available to help and assist.”

I’m curious to know whether there is a clear age divide as to who is happy checking in online and who prefers the human touch. From a design standpoint we decided not to design for the younger demographic as we wanted to be inclusive, and we wanted YOTEL to be a timeless brand. So, when it came to check in, we wanted to make it ‘tech enabled’ which in simple terms means ‘improve the guest experience’ versus doing technology for the sake of it. It must serve a practical function. So no, it’s not age related because everyone is used to technology. Most of the airport experience is tech-based, so maybe if that wasn’t already in place it would be a different story. Where we are transitioning to now, is the phone check-in. And again, as most people are checking-in for flights on their phones, getting boarding cards through their apple wallets, airports continue to pave the way for us to enable the guest experience.”

The YOTEL experience is different from other hotels. It is both slick and relaxed. While the rooms are all designed down to the last millimetre and are reminiscent of a first-class cabin – lots of white modular furniture and sofas that turn into a bed at the flick of a switch – their public spaces have a whole different vibe. Keeping their in-house designers for the rooms, they bring in local designers for the F&B areas. It’s an interesting concept that keeps the areas relaxed and culturally in keeping with the neighbourhood.

Marching to the beat of their own drum, is what YOTEL do well. They watch and listen to the market, but also have their own clear idea of who they are and what they offer. They aren’t following trends, but I would put money on it that they’re setting them as they continue to grow. Finally, I ask Rohan what the goals are for the future. “We currently have 35 hotels, either operational or in development, and the target is to make that 50 in the next two years, and it’s my team’s role to make that happen!”

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