Hotels & Resorts

Meet the Thirtysomething Hotelier Making Four-Stars Cool Again

Thailand’s storied luxury-hotels group Dusit Thani has launched a younger, hipper brand with Asai. We chat with the founder about next-generation travel.

By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Photographed by Cedric Arnold

Apr 30, 2021

WE WERE REALLY EXCITED when we first heard about Asai— what was billed to be the cooler, greener, younger sibling of Thailand’s oldest hotel chain, Dusit Thani. The brand planned to open affordably priced hotels in neighborhoods where real people lived, acting as a comfortable launchpad to immersive experiences for a generation of the digitally nimble travelers who prioritized good food, a nice bar and an inviting place to co-work from “home.”

Asai Bangkok Chinatown opened last September, unideal to say the least in a country whose borders have been fairly firmly shut since March 2020 to most except long-term, top-end travelers. But Thailand, once the world’s most visited country, actually pushed ahead with several splashy new openings, because tourists will return eventually and they’re going to need a place to stay — and in the case of Asai, “they” means a valuable, itching-to-fly segment of what we expect to be the future of the tourist market, namely, the stylish yet conscientious, slow-travel-minded nomad.   

Siradej “Champ” Donavanik’s grandmother founded the original Dusit Thani Hotel in 1948; the company now has hotels and resorts in 12 countries (read about their newest property, in Singapore, here). University of Exeter-educated, 35-year-old Champ is Dusit Hospitality’s vice president of operations focusing on business transformation, as well as interim managing director of Dusit Hospitality Education, one of the leading hospitality educators in Southeast Asia. He is also one of the original founding directors of Wonderfruit, Thailand’s annual sustainability obsessed, luxury-tilted music-wellness-food festival… so, yeah, he’s fun.

We talked to Champ about why he founded Asai, launching a hotel during Covid, how one of Bangkok’s grande dames is remaking herself for the new era, and his favorite places to drink in Chinatown.

T+L:  Where did the idea for Asai come from and what are your main goals for the brand?

Champ: We saw this is an area that’s missing in the market and especially for luxury Asian brands at the time, but we want it to be meaningful. Our challenge was to find a business model where profit and purpose go hand-in-hand. We started to look at the customer’s journey and how their experiences can be immersive, whether inside the hotel or to just use the hotel as a platform for exploration. I took a lot of inspiration from Wonderfruit on building up a framework for collaborations, being community focused, and creating a culture where sustainability becomes the norms.

T+L: You opened a hotel for explorers while borders were shut. How was that?  

Champ: It was incredibly tough, as everything we believe in lies in human connection and interaction.

So, now all our focus is on domestic tourism. Despite being in Bangkok, our first location in Chinatown is still not as well known as some other downtown areas, so we took it as an opportunity to introduce the area to the local market. We have built up a repository of information on local businesses – restaurants, bars, shops, attractions, etc — to help support and give them exposure, and started marketing them via our website. This has been an organic process and will be continuous.

We have also looked to creatively turn our lobby (which is very versatile) into an event space where we have hosted different activations from exhibitions and small gigs, to collaborations with Thailand’s most renowned chefs, wellness initiatives and creative workshops. [N.B.: Think nose-to-tail brunches and cacao ceremonies and you get the idea of the range.]

T+L: Your grandmother founded Dusit Thani. What does your family think of Asai?

Champ: They support what we’re doing, including our CEO. They want to see ASAI as an experiment platform for our business. As Dusit is Thailand’s oldest hotel chain, our management wants to see what new tools or processes we can bring in, as well as how best to move away from our older legacy in a more sustainable way, without losing the older values.

So to create something that is leaner, more agile, and can be just as impactful in terms of serving the needs of our customer segment while having net positive impact in our community is something that interests them, and should interest anyone — especially in a time of pandemic when our industry needs to change.

T+L: How do you think hospitality will be affected by the post-pandemic travel market?

Champ: We conceptualized ASAI to be a platform of experience and no doubt we all need that more when travel returns. I do think hospitality as an industry may need to adjust and reengineer ourselves: to put creativity and empowerment as part of our daily operations, not only standardization, hierarchy and rigor based on traditions. We need to allow future generations to bring in fresh ideas, to see how we can manage hospitality in a sustainable way.  

T+L: When is the new flagship Dusit Thani (re)opening? And what innovations can we look forward to there?

Champ: Dusit Thani Bangkok at the site of Dusit Central Park will be opened in late 2023 in the heart of Bangkok with direct underground access to the Lumpini Park. All 259 rooms will be park-facing.

We’re bringing back some of the elements of the old hotel and have been working with experts from Silpakorn University (the nation’s leading art institution) to preserve old artefacts such as the main pillars and murals that were hand painted by a late National Artist of Thailand, for example.

There will be a roof park and walking garden on top of the retail section for hotel guests that may look for something a little more private than Lumpini Park.

T+L: When and where are the next Asai openings planned?

Champ: ASAI Sathorn Bangkok, in a very cool and vibrant Sathorn 12, is opening Q4 this year. Our ASAI Yankin Yangon (in Myanmar) is expected to be delayed due to ongoing political instability, so it will be end of 2022. ASAI Oslob Cebu (in the Philippines) is slated to open end of 2022 as well, with two more projected to come up in Cebu following year. Finally, ASAI Shijo Kyoto is slated to open at the beginning of 2023.

T+L: Three local places in walking distance of Asai Chinatown people must try?

Champ: One, I love FV café in Songwat Road, a 10-minute walk from the hotel. It’s a beautiful Thai house that was reconstructed inside an old shophouse, offering seasonal fruits and vegetables (hence the name FV) made into snacks and drinks. A really cool art space.

Two, Baan Rim Nam in Talad Noi is a 200-year-old wooden warehouse that sits on the Chao Praya River and really gives a sense of old Bangkok as it once was, perfect for a sundown drink. So Heng Tai Mansion next to it is an old Chinese house with a lot of charm and a quirky scuba diving school in the pool right in the middle of the house, so you get two birds with one stone on such a visit.

Three, the bars in Soi Nana — Teens of Thailand, Asia Today, Ba Hao, Oneday Wallflowers, Pijiu or Tep, to name a few – make up the wonderful cluster of the most vibrant bar street in Bangkok.

T+L: Finally, any exciting plans you have at Asai for when tourists come back to Thailand?

Champ: Our restaurant at ASAI Sathorn Bangkok will be a collaboration with chefs Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones [of Michelin-starred bo.lan], bringing in organic and locally sourced ingredients and creating Thai street eats that are authentic, and paired with locally inspired cocktails and organic wines. We have not released any details on this to anyone yet, but here seems like a good place!

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