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Interview

Vladislav Doronin

The owner of boutique hotel brand Aman tells Katie Barnes why wellness is so important to him –and to the future of the company


When Vladislav Doronin talks wellness, it’s clear he’s not just paying lip service to what’s become one of the most overused words on the international spa scene.

“Wellness is not only related to the physical, but also to the strength of the connection between the body and mind,” he says. “This is of the utmost importance to me.

“I meditate regularly and I work with a qi gong specialist who helps me focus on aspects of wellbeing that are easy to neglect, such as posture, breathing and movement. I recently had an amazing experience at Amanjiwo in Java where I was able to practice qi gong in Borobadur, a ninth century Buddhist temple and UNESCO World Heritage site.”

Originally from Russia, Doronin is super-fit and in his Moscow home – a spaceship-like creation by the late Dame Zaha Hadid – he has a gym and a thermal suite comprising both a traditional banya and a hammam with hot and cold plunge pools. He takes rest seriously too and recommends watsu “to anyone looking for deep relaxation and total release”.

He feels wellness “enables you to be more productive elsewhere in your life” and is prioritising it at Aman by investing up to US$30m (€26m, £21m) in spa development.

Self-confessed Amanjunkie
Originating in Phuket, Thailand in 1988, Aman is known for sites that have a sense of space, exquisite design and uncompromising service and locations – think Moroccan deserts, Balinese jungles and Indian tented camps. Privacy is key, and this is something many stars appreciate, including George Clooney who got married at the Aman Canal Venice and David Beckham, who hosted his 40th at Amanjena in Marrakech. In fact, the 30 properties (see p41) have somewhat of a celebrity status themselves and have their very own cult-like followers known as ‘Amanjunkies’ – of which Doronin is one.

He says: “Every time I stepped through the doors of an Aman, I felt as though I was returning to a home of a friend… The destinations quickly became somewhere I would visit to restore my energy and focus on wellbeing. I started to plan my travels around them, meticulously ticking off each resort and hotel in the 20 countries around the world.”

So when Indian real estate firm DFL put out the feelers to sell the brand in 2013, he was first in line. Doronin, 53, is estimated to be worth US$1bn and made his fortune first in commodity trading and later in real estate with his Russian-based firm Capital Group. He teamed up with a consortium of investors to buy Aman for US$358m (€315.9m, £245.4m).

While there’s been a very public legal battle over Aman’s ownership among the original investors since the initial deal, disputes seem to have now been settled. Last August, Doronin became chair of the board following a corporate restructure. His goal now is to “continue to set the benchmark with our bespoke approach to hospitality and rigorous attention to detail which is applied to every aspect of the guest experience.” And spa is a key focus.

Aman Wellness
As destinations that aspire to offer ‘transformative experiences’, it’s fair to say that Aman properties have always had a strong focus on spa (see SB10/2 p24). All sites, regardless of their size, feature spa facilities and services, including highly localised treatments – from those incorporating fresh medicinal herbs in Montenegro to hot spring bathing in Japan.

“Aman means ‘peace’,” says Doronin. “People come to Aman to relax, enjoy, experience great food and to feel peace. The spa is a big part of this. They’re so much more important to us than being just another revenue stream.” He adds that guests are the backbone of the Aman business and that “if we can make our guests feel renewed, refreshed, healthier and happier, then we’ve achieved what we set out to do. Many other hotels and resorts are losing the human touch, which in turn means many guests lose their connection and loyalty.”

Over the last three years, he’s been working closely with Greg Payne, Aman’s group director of spa who’s been in the industry for 18 years, to bring its spas to the next level. Part of this includes the US$30m investment in new spa developments and refurbs (see p44). Another essential element is the Aman Wellness concept, which launched in June. The concept comprises a series of Individual Wellness Immersions run in parallel with Group Retreat Experiences across the Aman portfolio in 2016. They focus on four new approaches for the company: cleanse and detox, awareness and spiritual awakening, weight management and fitness. Of the latter, Doronin comments: “We’ve noticed guests of all ages are consistently looking for healthy alternatives and ways to keep active while on holiday.” At Amankora in Bhutan, for example, there’s hiking through the kingdom and therapies based on Tibetan medical treatments and Bhutanese ingredients. Meanwhile in Amangiri in the US, adrenalin-fuelled adventure is offered alongside its peaceful 25,000sq ft (2,323sq m) spa – “a combination that’s hard to find”.

Doronin says Payne and his team “have been instrumental in introducing the more holistic concept”. He adds: “Each focus area is designed to remove barriers guests face with high-stress lifestyles and to help them achieve: whether a physical objective or a more spiritual and internal focus... It’s an experience which opens up the soul to infinite possibility. Far beyond the massage bed, we deliver a feel-alive result which ensures guests return home feeling strong of spirit and with renewed intentions.”

New ventures
Critics of Doronin fear that being a commercially-minded real estate mogul, he may have a focus on just turning the investment around quickly. But he argues differently: “I’ve been a long-standing admirer of the brand and I want to ensure that we remain true to all of the characteristics that Aman is known for,” he says.

That said, he does – of course – intend to address performance and he has a new finance director and marketing and PR team in place to help. One step is to increase occupancy and it’s also been reported that there are plans to raise room rates, which currently start at over US$1,000 a night.

Venturing into urban locations and the highly lucrative realm of branded residential units are on the cards too.

Doronin says: “In December 2014 we launched Aman Tokyo, our first vertical Aman, which was a milestone for the brand [see SB15/2 p52]… Its success has encouraged us to venture further into developing more urban retreats and I feel it’s a natural progression for us to have a presence in the international hubs of the world. This is perhaps also a reflection of what the next generation of our clients are looking for.”

When it comes to the potential of Aman residences he says: “we’ve found that many of our guests want to make long-term investments in the Aman lifestyle.”

Global growth
Another priority for Doronin in the future is to strengthen Aman’s global footprint to keep pace with other hospitality groups. The company’s operational headquarters have moved to London from Singapore because of the city’s international reach. And in terms of new developments, there are a possible 10 properties in the pipeline over the next five years. Gabon and Mozambique have been brought up in the media as potential locations, as have Argentina, Brazil, Peru and even the Galapagos Islands. Meanwhile, with Aman’s interest in urban expansion, New York, London and Hong Kong are all maybes.

However, with more than 50 projects under review at any one time, this could easily change. Doronin says: “I’m unable to divulge too many details at the moment, but what I am excited by is the diversity of wellness experiences we’ll be able to offer.”

He refers to Amanemu, the company’s second property in Japan, which opened in March. “It’s a hot spring sanctuary overlooking the nearby Ago Bay. The spa embraces the theme of water and offers many water treatments, including watsu therapy.” He also hints at more diversity for guests in upcoming projects. “There are plans to open our fourth hotel in China and further properties in Japan, so watch this space,” he says.

In conclusion, Doronin adds that the team have: “ensured that Aman’s spa and wellness offerings are no longer simply seen as an amenity, but are one of the most important factors in defining the positioning of our resorts. Together, we want to take our spa offering to a higher level, making it an even more special experience.”

Aman portfolio

Launched in Phuket, Thailand in 1988, Aman has grown steadily over the past 18 years and now includes 30 properties in 20 countries. The majority are in Asia, located in Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. But it has a growing presence in other international regions, with properties in the Dominican Republic, Turks & Caicos and the US, and also in France, Greece, Italy, Montenegro, Morocco and Turkey.

Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element
Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element
Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element
Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element
Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element
Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element
Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element
Set in stunning locations, Aman destinations aspire to offer transformative experiences and spa has always been a core element

Katie Barnes is the editor of Spa Business magazine

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @SpaBusinessKB

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