Exclusive: Ovolo CEO Dave Baswal’s growth plan

Fresh off his appointment as CEO of Ovolo Hotels, Dave Baswal spoke exclusively to SM about his journey with the company, innovation in difficult times and his plans for growth.

Congratulations on your promotion to CEO. Tell us a bit about your journey with Ovolo so far?

Dave Baswal: I started with the group almost six years ago, just after [Ovolo Group Founder and CEO] girish [Jhunjhnuwala] had acquired three hotels in Australia. At that time it was the brand’s stepping stone into the market and there really were no senior executives on the ground in Australia; the hotels operated independently and reported directly to Hong Kong. My role was to bring the team together in the local market and take it further. We managed to grow [the brand portfolio] at eight hotels now [in ANZ], one in Bali and four in Hong Kong, and established Ovolo as a market-leading independent lifestyle brand, which has been a great success. It was an amazing trip. I learned a lot from Girish about being an entrepreneur, trying different things and pushing the boundaries to try and set a new standard every time you come to work. I am very proud to be where I am, to have earned his trust to be a leader for the group in all regions.

How have the past two years been for the company?

It’s been tough, no doubt, for everyone, but we’ve been very lucky and surrounded by an incredible group of people. We used this time to rethink some of our strategies, but also explore activations to keep our existing teams engaged. We launched the Year of Vegetables during the pandemic to change the direction of food and drink. The idea was to keep the brigade of leaders and the teams engaged and to find a new challenge while everything was quiet. We did Quarantine Concierge in Hong Kong; and we launched two hotels – South Yarra and Bali. I think our way of fighting through this tough time was to stay active, to stay nimble; we just wanted to make sure we keep our creativity flowing. It worked really well for us as we managed to keep our management team together coming out of COVID as the market recovers. Our position as the leading lifestyle brand brings us a lot of business and this existing team that already understands who we are and what we want to offer is now able to execute at a much faster pace.

March was the highest direct sales ever for the group – it’s a bit skewed because I have two other properties, Bali and South Yarra, but it feels good that we are already reaching some milestones in the aftermath of COVID, which in my opinion need to be celebrated.

How will Ovolo continue to invest in innovation in its catering alongside its hotels?

When I joined Ovolo, food and drink was a very small part of the group, but there was this intention and this desire to become a lifestyle brand that celebrates the neighborhood, celebrates life in general. We realized early on in the trip that food and drink was an integral part of this experience. Even in a small, confined space, you can deliver a truly impactful experience. Wherever we go, we now try to create a unique dining experience within the hotel.

We are now retrospectively refining our catering offer in other locations. For example, at Inchcolm in Brisbane, we focus on martini lunches and jazz nights, creating these unique little experiences.

Food and beverages will continue to be an integral part of the experience we provide. Currently we are looking to revamp Alibi at Woolloomooloo with a new vision. This is where it all started five years ago, so it’s worth revisiting and refreshing. Second, we are working on a rock-solid cocktail menu, which again celebrates the healthy vegan lifestyle and complements our vegan diet.

Another thing is ESG. We have done many individual activities around environmental care, but we are now taking a more holistic look at existing activities. The starting point is food and drink, as there happens to be a lot of waste in that area, and then extend it to the hotel side as well.

Now that the borders are open for most of your markets, what do you think of the current outlook for the industry?

I think the market surprises us every day. The pace of bookings and the growth of the overall market, especially inland Australia, is incredible. There is a lot of pent-up demand, but alongside leisure demand, even businesses are coming back but with different demands. Small and medium-sized businesses are back in the market, trying to travel and connect with their consumers to gain more market share. Big companies are not coming back; however, they are focusing on smaller groups and events to get together and get to know their teams better as they work from home, and this will continue to be the norm. There is a lot of positivity in the market.

In Bali, where we launched a property last year, we focused on the domestic market. And we were surprised by the quality of the domestic market in Bali – we managed to get [domestic business] from Jakarta. The internal market has never been the [target] but you have to change and improvise.

I think markets closer to Australia, like Singapore, are seeing much more frequent travel. It will be interesting to see what happens in New Zealand if that takes a big bite out of us or if we see a return of New Zealand travelers to Australia. All in all, it’s a good thing when people travel, everyone will get their fair share, and we’ll see the growth come back. I feel super excited and super positive about where he is heading.

I’d like to think that we’ve learned from the past and that we can create more lasting experiences and travel with more caution and wisdom than in the past, and to some extent we’re already seeing the trends of that in the market, that minor and frequent travel would disappear and more meaningful travel would occur from all angles. We will see business and leisure come together more than has happened in the past.

And Hong Kong? What is the situation there now?

It’s not ideal, but it’s definitely going in the right direction. Hong Kong has moved from a 21-day quarantine requirement to a seven-day quarantine, which is a little more acceptable for travel. We’ve changed gears in Hong Kong, two out of five hotels are long-stay hotels right now, and it’s working great, but not with the typical Ovolo clientele. It’s a very different clientele in the long stay that we do in partnership with Dash Living. The other two are quarantine hotels. Quarantine in Hong Kong is very different from what we have in Australia – guests can actually choose where they want to quarantine themselves. We have done very well for the past two years in Hong Kong because we have decided that we are not going to treat quarantined guests the same way they have been treated around the world. We’ve curated self-contained experiences for guests — menu selection, activations like in-room yoga classes, cocktail-making lessons — to keep guests engaged throughout their stay.

This gave us huge popularity in the local market, and the hotel was fully booked during this quarantine period.

What are the key areas you will focus on as CEO this year?

A big part of it is growth, for obvious reasons. We have seen over the last few years the calibration of the activity and there are a lot of opportunities in the market. A lot of big hotel companies are trying to get into the lifestyle and boutique space, but it’s hard work and not easy for everyone to replicate. We have a good position in this market and we can go further. There is a huge opportunity to grow the brand. We will always do a few things and do them well, so finding the right market to grow the brand in a sustainable way is certainly the most important task ahead of me – this could be with additional investment as we own and operate the majority of hotels , but also finding the right partners to grow with and the right management agreements and opportunities.

We seek partnerships to work with like-minded people and bring more products to market, but, at the same time, we seek management opportunities where assets are well positioned to work with the Ovolo brand or have value. added where we can take an existing asset and renovate it and reposition it in the market.

There are plenty of stocks in Australia in the hospitality industry that need love, which also creates opportunities.

Can you share an overview of Ovolo’s expansion plans?

We are very clear about establishing ourselves more in Australia, finding a presence in New Zealand and some key places in Asia Pacific where we would like to be. that we already have a presence in Bali and that we can do with some additional assets in Bali and create a cluster in other places. Otherwise, Phuket, Singapore, Vietnam, Auckland, Queenstown – these are the obvious new markets we are exploring. Adelaide and Perth in Australia are the two markets where we are not present… We would like to see further growth in the second tier cities or emerging markets in Australia – those within a two hour drive of a key feeder market city, whether leisure or business, we don’t really mind – like Newcastle, Geelong, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast.

Peter M. Doran