Allan Zeman on his luxury resorts

Allan Zeman built his Thai hospitality business out of an almost neighbourly curiosity. He tells Zaneta Cheng about his passion for design and how his collection of luxury resorts was borne from building his own holiday home

The serene Thai-meets-modern interiors at Aquella.

Allan Zeman’s five-star hospitality businesses were built in Thailand roughly 25 years ago, all thanks to a particularly bad bout of pneumonia. It was Chinese New Year and, usually, the father of Lan Kwai Fong would venture to the snow-capped mountains of Canada’s Whistler. But because “it was really, really, really tough – I mean, I’ve never felt like that but I felt like I was really dying – I said to my wife, ‘Let’s go somewhere warm instead. Let’s go somewhere close – Phuket.’” And so off to Phuket the Zemans went.

Once there, Zeman, not really one for downtime, decided to take a look at the property market because “everything was full because it was Chinese New Year so we stayed down south. Normally I would stay around the Amanpuri area and I started thinking, well, you know my style – I’m not someone to just sit in the sun and relax, so I said let’s go out and see what’s available. “My wife said, ‘No no, we’re not even interested in Phuket,’ and I told her, ‘We’re just looking because we have nothing else to do,’ so we got an agent and the guy was showing us around.”

Allan Zeman

Given the business magnate’s knack for spotting potential in land, he was swift to get into gear. Most places were passed over until Zeman visited a piece of land one bay over from Amanpuri. “It was all grass, you know – all trees and forestry, but it was right on the water. And the agent told me that it was for sale, that it belonged to his friend in Bangkok and I said, ‘Okay, let’s make him an offer because I thought I’d build a house for myself first,” he recalls. “My wife was going, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ and I said, ‘I’m just doing it.’ But to be honest I had no idea what the land was even like. The next thing I know, I made an offer to the guy – he owned a Grand Hyatt hotel at the time. He said, ‘No, my wife and my brothers and my sisters, we’re keeping it for our children.’ I said I was sorry because I had thought it was for sale. He refused some more but then I asked him if the land was for sale, what would the price be? He told me a price so then I knew he was in play.

Paradise found at Andara.

“I figured I’d come back with another offer but lower it a bit and just do Chinese-style. He wasn’t budging – no discount, take it or leave it. At the end of the day, I thought, let’s just do it. So I bought the land and I asked one of my friends who was an architect to help. Then he, my wife and I sat down and started planning. It was a beautiful piece of land and we built this 80,000 sqft mansion.

“I didn’t even know what I was doing but we just kept designing and building it and it was just beautiful, right on the water. We called it Chandara because it’s the name of a movie. It’s a love story, with the sun and the moon, and it sounded good. It became the biggest house in Phuket at the time.”

Zeman still has Chandara and, once it was built, he added Andara across the bay. He used the office he had set up in Phuket while building Chandara and kept the staff by building the now five-star resort and villa property Andara. From there, he built Aquella, which boasts one of the best golf courses in Phuket alongside 2.5km of white- sand beaches. Next is Sudara, where a hotel will be built alongside condos near the beach.

The pool at Aquella.

The thread runs through Zeman’s perennially successful hospitality projects in Thailand is the commitment to delivering a lifestyle that unites luxury service with design and local culture. “Thai people in general are very nice, soft people and so you really want to build elements of the culture in so that people who stay get a sense of it,” Zeman says. “A lot of the architecture is also very Thai-centric, with modern elements of course. And then the spa and massages. There needs to be a trademark, something to associate with the brand. The design of the resorts is also very important. We don’t just have rooms, we have residences and dedicated around-the-clock staff that look after the guests from the moment they arrive. Restaurants too – great restaurants are extremely important.”

An aerial view of Andara’s luxurious villas.

It makes perfect sense given Zeman’s legendary ability to transform an entire area in Hong Kong’s central business district into the city’s centre of nightlife that he would be able to transform otherwise possibly snake- filled plots of land into some of Phuket’s most prestigious holiday destinations.

“It’s a whole ecosystem of creating a certain level of class and ambience to make guests feel so wonderful that they want to come back. We have many families that return year after year,” he says. And while Hong Kong will always be Zeman’s favourite place on Earth, “If I go somewhere else, my second favourite place is” – you guessed it – “Phuket.”

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