Bold Leaps Of Faith
For many, the journey into the world of hospitality is a tale of unexpected encounters and bold leaps of faith. For Aarron Nelson, now a seasoned hotelier, his voyage began as a 19-year-old embarking on his first overseas trip away from his native New Zealand. Over the past 25 years, he has transformed his career from a budding culinary enthusiast to a pioneering figure in the emerging world of luxury lifestyle hotels.
We caught up with Aarron during a recent stay at the new INNSiDE by Meliá Bangkok Sukhumvit, a swish hotel he was instrumental in opening and one that is setting a new bar for what experience-seeking travellers can expect to find in Bangkok and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Like many ‘Kiwi’s’, Aarron is a down-to-earth guy with a good sense of humour and a passion for connecting with people: the perfect trifecta for a 21st century hotel manager. To set the tone, he recalled a chance encounter during his first trip to Bangkok.
“I came to Thailand in 1996 to attend a food and beverage promotion at a hotel in Siam Square. One night I decided to get out of the hotel and take a walk around the area. As I passed the Hard Rock Café, I suddenly came face to face with an elephant. This was a huge surprise for me as it’s not something you see in New Zealand,” he says with a laugh.
Perhaps this was the catalyst that sparked a lifelong love affair with exploration and cultural immersion, because soon after he returned home, he was on the move again. Using his culinary knowledge and passion for jumping into new situations, he took on F&B roles in Australia where he became friends with a chef he was working with. Ultimately, it was this friendship that put the budding young chef on a new career course.
Time To Leave Home – Bold Leaps Of Faith
“I believe that moving into management is always going to be organic, whether you’re in the culinary sphere or front of house. I was presented with an opportunity to work in Vanuatu in the South Pacific when I was only 24 years old. A friend called me out of the blue and asked me to join him, so I just said ‘yes’ and went for it.”
Venturing beyond the culinary sphere, Aarron seized every opportunity that beckoned and his fearless embrace of new challenges was soon rewarded. A pivotal moment in his career arose when he was offered the role of F&B manager at a resort in Vanuatu, signaling his first step into management – a stepping stone that propelled him across diverse landscapes from Vanuatu to the Maldives and then to Kuala Lumpur.
“While I was working in Kuala Lumpur, the hotel manager asked me if I was interested in working in the front office. I was only 26 and here I was being offered a new role. So with my Kiwi attitude of ‘just do it’, I stepped in to the role. This was my real first move away from F&B and I really gravitated toward the role, interacting with guests and other visitors. I’ve always taken opportunities without over-thinking. I prefer to look at it as something new,” he tells me.
“As a hotel manager, there are so many areas where you have to be involved from housekeeping to F&B to engineering and so forth. Therefore, my background has helped me relate to my staff, to put myself in their shoes and to be able to support them. There’s no doubt that my early career has helped make me a better hotelier.
“I was in Malaysia during Covid-19 and we had many challenges and lots of uncertainty. In a sense, it was a life-changing event for millions of people who worked in hospitality. After SARS and bird flu, people thought things would be back to normal in a few months with Covid, but it proved otherwise. Fortunately, I was with a lifestyle brand at the time and it helped me connect better with the people around me. There is a certain culture in this business that includes building autonomy in your teams in terms of making decisions, taking responsibility and communicating.
“I’ve been part of the lifestyle hotel sector for the past six years now. Coming from a diverse hospitality background, I’ve become deep rooted in lifestyle hotels, which is all about connecting with people. The fact that Meliá Hotels International is a family-owned company that’s entrenched in lifestyle brands, resonated deeply with me. I see myself as a lifestyle leader who is able to understand what the property is about. I also have a Spanish connection through my family, so I am immersing myself in Spanish culture and heritage,” he says.
The INNSiDE by Meliá brand is something quite different to what is currently available in the hotel marketplace. Meliá Hotels International is planting a flag in Southeast Asia with an array of brands that cover more than 30 hotels in the region with more in the pipeline. These include Gran Meliá (luxury), Meliá (premium), INNSiDE by Meliá (premium) and SOL By Meliá (essential).
Return To Bangkok
“Our brand is about is connecting with people; both guests and employees. We hire people based on who they are and not necessarily what’s on their resume. For example, we like the diversity of our people, their quirkiness. And this is evident from the great organic guest reviews we are getting. All our staff are like-minded individuals and from top to bottom we are driving this culture.
“We’ve hired mixologists and baristas who have never worked in hotels before. Some of our ‘INNSiDERS’ – our front office people – have little or no experience, but we tell them, we are hiring you because of who you are and that makes a big difference. We’re all about driving inclusiveness.”
“What we’re trying to offer our guests is that we are all like-minded and purpose-driven travellers. We are more focused on independent markets, especially the ‘bleisure’ market of business and leisure travel. We offer a product that has a lot of storytelling behind it with something different on every floor of the hotel. Also, our location makes us ideal for MICE planners as we are close to Bangkok’s two major convention centres as well as EmQuartier and True Digital Park, which both have convention space.
“I think it is very important for a lifestyle hotel like ours to create a mix of guests. It’s not something you can force, but there are some steps you can take to achieve that. The story-telling, the design, the branding. What we are seeing since the INNSiDE brand opened in Bangkok is that we are attracting younger, purpose-driven travellers from across Asia and Europe.
“Part of this is because we are well positioned for travellers who have been coming here for years and are looking for something a little different; unique even. Just outside our door, you can see regular Bangkokians going about their daily business. We are part of this exciting neighbourhood. There is a lot happening in this up and coming area of Bangkok.
The INNSiDE Brand – Bold Leaps Of Faith
“We are a premium lifestyle hotel and we plan to make this property a flagship for the rest of Asia. Everything we do over the next 12 months will be driving this brand experience to a wider, global audience. I’ve visited some INNSiDE properties in Spain and elsewhere in Europe and there are many similarities in our people. When I visited INNSiDE UK, the GM and I just hit it off immediately; like a house on fire. Here in Thailand, I feel we have an Asian translation of the INNSiDE brand.
“What makes me happy is seeing guests connecting with what we are: the creativity, the brand. We’re not taking the conventional approach to selling the hotel. We’ve got a stunning rooftop pool, we’ve got LUZ, our Spanish tapas bar and we’ve got a variety of rooms. It is the INNSiDER experience which we give to our guests. This includes inside information about Bangkok and where to explore. Perhaps our guests have visited Bangkok before and have seen the Grand Palace and the beautiful temples. What we do is recommend different parts of the city for them to explore.
“We’re very fortunate to have an owner who has the same vision of the story we want to tell and you can see that clearly throughout the hotel. The design is connected to Bangkok with each level telling a story about a certain Bangkok landmark. It’s neither too classical nor overly contemporary. They’ve really struck a balance and it fits perfectly with the casualness of the INNSiDE brand.
“Today, brands need to have a different approach, you need to think differently and you have to challenge conventionalism. At INNSiDE we have a lifestyle driven team that help to run it. Our tapas bar is really popular and we’re getting a great response from guests. We’ve conceptualised it and the organic growth has been great. We didn’t want it to be just another hotel bar, we wanted to make it a location where people will come and stay for more than one drink,” says Aarron.
So, coming from an island, to working on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, then working on another island in the Indian Ocean before moving to mega-Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, which environment does the congenial general manager enjoy most?
A Biker At Heart
“I’ve spent a lot of time at island resorts, but I do like cities and the energy they generate. So, working in cities is where I see myself for the foreseeable future. I like the busyness of the city, the challenges, there is always something happening. I enjoy the excitement. On the other hand, now that my son is fully grown, my wife and I are able to move around a bit more.
“I like the freedom of riding my motorbike and enjoy going on long rides. I sometimes ride with other people or I go on my own. Other than a great way to travel, bikes are perfect for getting around Bangkok. Motorbikes are also a great way to meet other people, which you don’t always get with cars. There is a lot more connectivity with motorbikes. I recently rode from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and did the Mae Hong Son loop and then I rode back again. In total, I covered 1,950 kilometres. My wife joined me on the Mae Hong Son loop and we rented a bike for her. It was really a nice way to get out and explore a different part of the country.”
As we begin to wrap things up, Aarron turns to me and says matter-of-factly, “It is nice to be out of your comfort zone sometimes. I was in my comfort zone in Malaysia for so many years. For example, I’ve been opening new hotels for a number of years and I like to hire people I don’t know. It is very easy to hire people you get along with, but when you hire people that you don’t know, it takes you out of your comfort zone and provides you with challenges, which I really like.”
So, during your next visit to INNSiDE by Meliá Bangkok Sukhumvit, you will probably meet Aarron on one of his walkabouts, but don’t feel afraid to approach him and start up a conversation. He won’t bite, I promise.
For more information and reservations, call +66 (0) 2340 – 5499 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Punch Media Digital.