As most of us who have started to slowly shake the dust off and gain a little focus after two years shrouded in a gloomy COVID-19 atmosphere; two first-time hoteliers have been working in tangent in the background, over Zoom calls and text messages, and the result we see today is the Else Kuala Lumpur.
Founders Justin Chen and Javier Perez are the brains behind this new hotel property, where the iconic 100-year-old Lee Rubber Building has been transformed into a sleek, luxurious haven for travellers to gather.
Architecture-trained Chen is also the deputy CEO of Arcc Holdings, who has transformed his family’s traditional real-estate business into a fast-growing, hospitality-oriented company focusing on creative spaces and neighbourhoods. He also currently leads Arcc Spaces, a collection of shared workspace brands with a network of over 20 locations across Asia, including Kuala Lumpur.
Perez is a native Puerto Rican, who has over 15 years in the food and beverage industry. Having managed Kilo and Grain Traders concepts, he now steps foot into the hospitality business as a co-founder himself.
Before the official launch of Else Kuala Lumpur, I dialled into a call with both Chen and Perez to find out their purpose, vision and growth plan for Else and left the call feeling the need to revel in the beauty of this new space right in the Golden Triangle.
It's still a learning process for us as well. I think we definitely, honestly, somewhat underlooked the challenges of setting up a hotel brand and especially one during such a time like this.Justin Chen
Kuala Lumpur is saturated with hotels and shopping malls. Why do you think KL needs another hotel?
Chen: As a brand, when we first thought about Else, one of our goals or visions was that we could actually help people discover new destinations or even different communities that may or may not been given much attention to.
Perez: To add on to that, you're right; there is a saturation of hotels within the KL market, but they all serve a certain market that’s right for business travellers. We know for leisure travellers, they want to enjoy great hotels at a great rate that they wouldn't see in neighbouring markets.
It also seemed to me that the majority of the properties just serve a certain function, and they fell short, sometimes, on the kind of engagement and experience of the property.
Here's what we intend to do: Be it in the actual spatial programming of the property where our guests can find forms of escapism – whether it's to read, relax, or just switch off – to just think about mindfulness.
We hope that when people do step into Else, they're like, ‘Wow, this was really nice. This was really intimate. It was very personal.'
We need to look at what else we can do within the city that complements the property and that creates somewhat of an ecosystem to bring people together and have different products and services attached to the name of the house.Javier Perez
What does it take to sell a type of lifestyle and in this case, because you're starting the brand from scratch?
Perez: That's a great question. We have to identify what are the needs of, first and foremost, our guests. I can tell you that intuitively.
I believe that today, when we set out to build the house brand, we thought that this was going to be an exercise of building a brand. You know, kind of understanding what our intention and execution, and hopefully, in exporting the brand to neighbouring markets like Thailand, Vietnam and so forth.
Today, I don't feel that way. I think that there's such great potential to build a brand that is insular, that is truly a Malaysian brand. And so what I mean by that is in order for us to expand on the lifestyle aspects of the hotel, then other things have to happen outside of the hotel.
The one thing that I can appreciate about Malaysia is that you don't have the kind of red tape or limitations that you have in Singapore. Here, you can take a building, and pretty much do what you want with it to a certain degree.
As I said, it's a very new conversation, which is to build a presence outside of the hotel. Now that presence has to have another set of services and offerings. We need to look at what else we can do within the city that complements the property and that creates somewhat of an ecosystem to bring people together and have different products and services attached to the name of the house.
Chen: I think it started when we looked at creating this brand of Else; we were very clear actually that it wasn't necessarily just a hotel brand. We started with the ambition that Else wanted to be a hospitality and lifestyle brand, meaning that the hotel that we see today in the Petaling Street area, that's maybe just the first expression of what our brand is putting forward.
That's also one of the reasons why as a property, we didn't choose to just cram it full of rooms. We're very sensitive to the fact that we intentionally chose to keep the hotel small, with 49 rooms and two restaurants. And by design, because I think that for us, the experience was paramount in terms of what we were able to present to our guests, but also the level of engagement that we wanted to have with them.
Malaysia is a city that is refreshing in that regard because I think there is much more willingness for collaboration and for openness and maybe to make things a little bit less commercial than some other cities like Singapore.Justin Chen
You both have a background in architecture and hospitality, which makes it a good combination. When it comes to managing a hotel, do you think it's important to have those field experience or is good taste enough to create a lifestyle hotel brand?
Perez: I think we need a lot more than that.
For myself, even having studied hospitality and having worked in different hospitality properties; it's been a long time because I haven't plugged into a hotel ever since I started my own company, which was 15 years ago.
So we quickly learn that building a restaurant has 30 pieces whereas building a hotel has 300 pieces. And so, I think it's so much more. I think it's much more than having a kind of foresight or intuition and how you want this product to look for the guests.
So I guess the short answer is no, I don't think it's enough. I think that you need a lot of smart people and a lot of really professional people like our General Manager, who is a gentleman and who's extremely organised.
We need people that can plan, are good at timetabling and all of these other things. Justin and I can only speak for ourselves. But in order to bring it to life, we recognise that it's a team effort, and we wouldn't be able to execute it without the people that we have so far plus the people that we're still looking for.
Chen: I think we set out from the start with a vision. We have certain intentions behind our project, and of course, we hope that we can satisfy the expectations of our guests coming to us.
We've always been very mindful that even as a hotel, it needs to look and be able to evolve 10 years or 20 years down the road. We are also very mindful of not wanting to create something that's stagnant or only relevant for a short moment in time.
It's still a learning process for us. I think we definitely, honestly, somewhat underlooked the challenges of setting up a hotel brand and especially one during such a time like this.
I liked the fact that you actually worked with Studio Bikin, which is a local agency. How much of the decision-making was placed on them regarding the local elements, the decor or the look of the hotel?
Chen: Right from the start, we were very clear that we wanted to work with someone local because we’re obviously not based in Malaysia. And so we definitely needed people on the project who could kind of bring that local insight and reflect that local character and aesthetic into the project.
So, I think, especially over the course of COVID-19, one of our biggest frustration or challenge has been the fact that we have not stepped foot on the property physically in almost two years. And as a project, so much of a hotel planning is in the detailing aspects.
Naturally, we’ve had to rely on our teams even more so during these times; whether it's giving them more freedom or having their own intuition on what to do. We've been blessed to have people who are passionate, who know what we're trying to build, and who are very aligned on that goal.
Malaysia is a city that is refreshing in that regard because I think there is much more willingness for collaboration and for openness and maybe to make things a little bit less commercial than some other cities like Singapore.
How important was it for you to retain the building's nostalgia or the historical elements?
Perez: Oh, extremely important. You know, I think both Justin and I appreciate history. We appreciate just keeping things in their purest form. And when you're given a canvas like that, there's no reason to disrupt such a great structure, right? I mean (sic) were built to last. The building is pretty much eight years away from being 100 years old.
Chen: I think even when we were looking at the selection of the property, what really spoke to us about the Lee Rubber Building was how it kind of reflects the story of Kuala Lumpur itself. It was sitting in the shadow of its neighbouring buildings and was covered up, and it kind of lost a sense of historical significance and depth.
We were also quite mindful beyond just preserving it, as we also needed to make the property feel relevant now. So it's not just about conservation for the sake of conservation. The building has kind of worked for us in many ways, and it’s going to be a beautiful space.
You mentioned two restaurants. Could you tell us a bit more about the cuisines offered?
Perez: We have two restaurants, one on the ground floor, which is kind of evolving and one on the fourth floor. I have to put this out there; I just sold my share of the Kilo brand almost two years ago. With that, we took over what used to be the Camp Kilo space here in Singapore, and we just started a very simple restaurant called Raw Kitchen Bar. Over the course of the year that it's been opened, we are now in search of a new location here in Singapore, for it to be taken seriously as a restaurant.
So one of our first steps towards that will be in KL, and as you know, we have a beautiful space on the ground floor of Else. We will open an extension of Raw Kitchen Bar called Raw Kitchen Hall. It will be an all-day, all-day restaurant, serving fusion Latin cuisine across lunch, dinner and of course, brunch on weekends.
On the fourth floor, we have a restaurant called The Yellow Fin House which will be a woodfired charcoal restaurant and will primarily be focused on seafood and fresh produce.
What do you want travellers or guests to remember after they stayed a night or two at the Else?
Perez: I would love for them to feel restored and nourished. When I use the word nourished, I don't mean nourishment just like food.
You would hope that from the music that may be playing in the halls to the experience programming or any intention that people can acknowledge, wow, there’s fun injected into this, and feel that they have learned something.
I think the words that come to mind are restoration, nourishment, and discovery. Really, we want to make sure that things are anticipated, or needs are met.
We know that we're competing against larger properties that have established loyalty programmes, and the business travellers are always looking to ensure that they get to maximise their points. Even for yourself Reta, if you were to travel to KL and you say ‘well, my favourite hotels are The Four Seasons or whatever, it may be that just once in a while, you would want to stay in Else because it's the mood that you're in when you come back to KL. So that’s what I can think of right now with what I mean when they feel refreshed when they go to our property.
Chen: I think one silver lining fix coming out of the fact that we've been two years experiencing this pandemic is that for many travellers, the reason for travelling is somewhat a bit different now. I think that they're looking for something that is special, with some kind of ease, and we hope to leave them with new perspectives and a sense of a refresh.