The story of the acrimonious battle over Aman Resorts has been well told, including in DEPARTURES’ November/December 2014 story “A Line in the Sand.” That was the year Aman’s visionary founder, Adrian Zecha, made an abrupt departure from the company after being caught in the legal crossfire between its two new owners.
But this hardly slowed him down. Zecha has quietly been working on his own hospitality projects, and last February opened Azerai Luang Prabang, in Laos. It’s part of a new brand, Azerai Hotels, which just opened another location in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. In this exclusive interview—the first he’s given at length in a decade—Zecha fills us in on Azerai, how to bring hotel-style service to super yachts, and his future plans.
What was the inspiration for Azerai Hotels?
It goes back about 17 years. I was wondering if it would be possible to do a hotel with an Aman sensibility but more affordable. In 1992 we launched the Serai, in Bali. It was successful, but at the time we had so much going on, we sold it.
Where does “Azerai” come from?
The genesis was serai, but that name was taken. So I replaced the S of serai with my initials, AZ.
Why right now?
I had time on my hands. The thing that people don’t realize is that I didn’t sell Aman recently. I sold 100 percent of Aman in 2007 to the biggest property company in India, DLF. Part of the sale was that I was tied to the mast for ten years. I continued to run it as chairman and CEO. In 2011, they wanted to sell their noncore assets. I waited almost two years, but there was no buyer at the right price, so that’s when I helped the sale. Sadly, I did sell it for a very high price, but the two buyers, Vladislav Doronin and Omar Amanat, fell out. The Russian partner prevailed, and that’s when I left, about three years ago. Then I thought, well, why don’t I do the Azerai?
What a passion project.
I just spent my 84th birthday at Azerai in February. I’m not a young chicken.
Not many 84-year-olds are launching new hotel brands.
I don’t believe that retirement is an option. If you’re still healthy and have the energy, why would you sit down and do nothing?
What made you choose Laos?
When I did the Aman in Luang Prabang ten years ago, I saw this wonderful old house, which was halfway to ruins. I leased it. It took me two years to restore it, and then it was my vacation house. I thought, “this is the first Azerai”. It’s slightly larger than an Aman, with 53 rooms. It’s in one of the busiest parts of the city, but we kept the old trees, so it feels like a little oasis.
You’re launching Maha Yacht Club, which bridges the gap between super yacht ownership and charter. How did that come about?
My friend Stephen White, a professional super-yachtsman—he’s in the business of maintaining and crewing them—brought to my attention something very obvious. The problem with super yachts is service. It’s never the same as a hotel or a villa because there’s no career path. He said, “Could you bring that to super yachts?”
How does it work?
When you own a super yacht, your yearly maintenance cost is about 10 percent of what you paid for the yacht. When you join Maha Yacht Club, you basically have ownership of a Feadship yacht without any further cost for ten years. You pay $3.7 million and can use it one month per year.
Any other projects you’re currently working on?
We’re helping a very wealthy Chinese owner with a big project in Napa Valley. It’s going through the usual permitting this year. I’m also busy curating a wonderful private club in Miami for my friend Shahab Karmely, the developer behind two 60-story residential towers called One River Point.
You sound very busy!
If you do what you love to do, that’s not a day of work. It’s pleasure.