A novel of sex, stealth and soul
By Yeoh Siew Hoon - thetransitcafe.com
Saturday, 26th May 2007
Is the Per Aquum story a bestseller in the making?

From just one resort three years ago, Per Aquum is making waves in the the luxury space. Actually the Universal Enterprises-owned group, which made its fame on Huvafen Fushi, Maldives, calls it "stealth luxury".

It opened the Desert Palm Dubai this year and will soon be in Grenada, Seychelles, India, Oman and Morocco.

On top of this, its CEO Tom McLoughlin was named by GQ Travel as one of 15 most powerful men in travel in its launch issue in February. Keeping company with personalities such as Ryanair's Michael O' Leary, Boeing's James McNerney, Virgin's Richard Branson, Sol Kerzner and others, McLoughlin was placed among the ranks of "travel trailblazers" who are "redrawing the map".

Underwater spa treatment room at Huvafen Fushi

McLoughlin, it said, started as an operator of chichi resorts; now he is developing resorts, spas and residences from the ground up, aiming them squarely at wealthy Gen X and Gen Y-ers who want relaxed private fun with their tropical luxury.

"The Per Aquum philosophy is to be anti-corporate: resorts are small, staff are local, materials used are natural, spa suits can be outdoors or underwater and the general feel is of private jet-set stealth luxury, 21st century style."

McLoughlin's bedroom philosophy is "We create our villas so you can feel free to be naked and have sex in every part of them."

When I met Mark Carson (left), the group's director of marketing and communications, I didn't have sex on my mind. Neither did he, I am sure.

I wanted to know about a company I had heard mumblings about on the hotel circuit – you know, the kind of ripples you just know is going to lead somewhere.

So how did it all start?

Tom was general manager of the Hilton Maldives. He'd travelled the world and he realized there was a niche to be filled. There was a lot of great stuff out there but the secret was to bring it all together.

Bring what all together?

Space, luxury, time, quality product, service that is not contrived or controlled, the natural way. In the Maldives, 75% of our staff are locals – that's critical to the Maldivian experience. You don't want to go to Maldives to be shown to your room by Helga.

It's about personal service, getting to know the customer – what smells, what films, what music, what books? "If your favourite author is Jeffrey Archer, then would you like to try this author?"

Like Amazon does with its book recommendations?

Yes. Except we do it personally.

Your resorts look like they come out of a design art book.

We stress iconic design and innovation. We have the only underwater spa treatment rooms at Huvafen Fushi. People told Tom, you can't do this. He is stubborn, Tom. He did. It took us three weeks to sink the capsule in. We have an underground wine cellar, the biggest in the Indian Ocean, with 8,000 bottles. Tom's passionate about wines, actually we are all functioning alcoholics.

The Fortress, Sri Lanka: Pool and lobby at night

So it's all about glamour, glitz and celebrities?

No, eccentric maybe. Our customers are creative people – photographers, architects.

But what really differentiates us, I think, is our team. That makes things special.

What kind of people do you look for?

People who think out of the box, are passionate, creative, professional, who can bring a particular talent to the table. It's like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle – when they fit, they fit perfectly.

We have a young, dynamic team looking to make a difference in a very competitive field. By the way, there's only six of us in HQ.

What Tom wants to is create a novel of properties, with each property its own chapter.

You have 10 chapters in the making. What new chapters are you planning?

We will launch our spa brand, Lime. Our next big project is Per Aquum Yachts – 65m super yachts to be sold on timeshare. Eight owners, five weeks a year per person. We plan to have them in Maldives, Dubai, Seychelles, Australia, Caribbean.

We will open our first carbon-neutral resort in Zanzibar. We are looking at Mozambique, Brazil, Greece – destinations that fit into our ethos – quirky, curious, irreverent but not gimmicky.

So nothing in South-east Asia then?

There's so much good stuff out there we would have to pick the right time at the right price. We won't be going into matured destinations like Hong Kong, Singapore or Thailand.

Travel is about the insider information – the inner sanctum. We don't advertise, we rely only on editorial coverage.

I believe Sonu (Shivdasani) of Six Senses said that too? Are you a Six Senses wanna-be?

We have huge respect for Sonu and what he's doing. We're too good and too passionate for that – to be a wanna-be. We know we're making a difference.

We try to be different in everything we do. We are launching a new book called "Soul", a Per Aquum dictionary of language. We have a CD by DJ Ravin who came to Huvafen Fushi and said he wanted to mix a CD for us. We have a "Dream Calendar" of events for each hotel. We launched PURE, our own magazine. I came from publishing, I was with Conde Nast. I am cynical about hotel magazines but ours is slightly different, quirky.

Some people could call your brand snooty – stealth, insider, eccentric?

Not snooty. Confidence, maybe. Not arrogance. Just passion for travel.

What about profits?

We are profitable. Huvafen Fushi has the highest yield per room in Maldives, average rate of US$973. We're in it to make money as well for us and our main investor, Universal.

So if Per Aquum is a novel, and Tom the author, I presume, what will the ending be like?

It's a story with no ending.

Photos courtesy of Per Aquum

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com . Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.
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