Interview With Arthur Kiong, CEO Far East Hospitality

SINGAPORE | When The City Lane was invited to visit Singapore by Far East Hospitality, I did some research in order to learn more about the brand. I learned a lot about the company’s philosophy, corporate structure and all that jazz, but something I wasn’t expecting to be so interested by CEO Arthur Kiong. To say that this radio DJ turned hotel executive’s ideas are unconventional is an understatement. I was keen to chat to Arthur while I was in Singapore and, while I was staying at the Village Hotel Albert Court, I was afforded this opportunity.

Asking Arthur about how he got to where he was today involved going back to the start. In Arthur’s case this was his position as a platoon commander for the Singaporean Army while doing his national service. Anyone who has worked in large corporations knows that there are many parallels that can be made between the army and a corporation. Rigid structures, inflexibility, chain of command are common elements in both so it’s understandable that many of the skills that one learns in the army can be transferred to the corporate world. Arthur told me that they way he thinks about strategic matters has been very much moulded by his time in the army.

After his military service, Arthur chose to take on a vocation. He went to a local radio station in Singapore to get a job doing some stage work and due to some miscommunication at the station’s end Arthur found himself doing a voice test. The next thing you know, he was working as a radio announcer. At that time, the role of the radio announcer in Singaporean radio was very much a literal one – announce what’s been and what’s coming up between songs and ad breaks. Arthur had other ideas though, and having been inspired by radio DJs like Rick Dees that he admired from the USA, he started to act like a proper radio DJ, despite protests from his conservative employers. The gamble worked, and he became quite successful. However due to the rigidity of Singaporean society and pay scales, he was still earning a lowly radio announcer wage. He therefore decided to break out of the industry and move into hospitality.

I’ll fast forward now and move to a very interesting part of Arthur’s career that he discussed with me. By the late 1990s Arthur had become a successful hotel executive, specialising in marketing and communications and made the decision to move to New York City when he was offered a role with Ritz Carlton, who had left NYC several years earlier and were in the process of building a new hotel. They wanted to announce their return to New York and Arthur saw this as a big challenge. The analogy he used was that he had reached a position in his career where he was “Superman on Earth” and that this move would be like “going to Krypton”. Obviously on Krypton, Superman isn’t that special.

While at the Ritz Carlton, Arthur had a bold and creative idea about the advertising campaign. Throwing aside the traditional, stale marketing that was currently being used – think generic people doing generic things, Arthur had the idea of using the Statue of Liberty, but with raised arms in a “we’re back!” kind of gesture. A lot of people in the organisation thought that this was too left field for the brand and wanted to kill the idea. Arthur put his career on the line and went above their heads to the CEO of the company and, after a lot of back and forth, and a lot of burnt bridges, the ad was approved and printed for release in several publications on… 11 September 2001. Arthur thought it was all over, and the ad was pulled but not before it had already been printed in several publications. What happened next though, was very unexpected. The ad was a success, with people seeing the image as a sign of defiance in the face of tragedy – it went on to win several awards. The moral of the story? Timing and luck account for a lot more than you could imagine!

This line between compliance and innovation is something that Arthur mentioned several times during our chat, and it’s something that he continued to practice when he moved to Far East Hospitality. This was an opportunity to create something with a relatively unknown, Singaporean brand which was quite a different challenge compared to brands like the Ritz Carlton, Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental where he’d worked previously. One of the first things Arthur did was to remove all star ratings from the properties. There’s no consistent definition of what each star in a given hotel means, and people aren’t loyal to brands any more so what’s the point? Why not let the product be the brand?

In the case of Far East Hospitality, it’s about conveying the best parts of the Singaporean mindset in each of the hotels. Comfort without excess, aesthetics without ostentation and attention without pretension. The Far East Hospitality hotels sit in the mid-tier segment and all aim to offer a something a little different depending on the banner. The Quincy hotels are urban chic, Oasia hotels are for road warriors, Village Hotels are for urban explorers and Rendezvous Hotels are about business. If people don’t choose hotels based on brands, which is especially so in the mid-range market, then why not make the hotels appeal to aspects of each customer’s personality and travel style? It’s an interesting idea and one that I can certainly appreciate.

When I choose a hotel I’m very much looking for something that’s reasonably priced, and in a good location close to all of the things that I like to do. I don’t spend too much time in the hotel – for me it’s all about location, a comfy bed to crash on each night, and a good shower. The brand is ultimately irrelevant – it’s the product that’s important.

I really enjoyed listening to Arthur speak about his career and his plans for Far East Hospitality. He’s an interesting guy, and certainly has the courage and resilience to go against the grain and trying new things. As someone who doesn’t work well with arbitrary rules, conventions and preconceptions, I found it inspiring to meet someone who has made a success of himself by doing things differently.



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