Minor Hotels founder William Heinecke has had quite the entrepreneurial journey. As an American expat, he started his entire empire of businesses in Thailand from the age of 17. Here he shares thoughts about the state of hospitality, luxury, and embedding social good into the core of his properties.
Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality.
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William Heinecke, 69, is an American-born billionaire who has been operating businesses in Thailand since 1963. After founding his first business at age 17, Heinecke’s since worked in or built businesses in almost every conceivable category, including fast food, retail, publishing, and office cleaning, creating a wide-ranging empire.
Central to his interests is hospitality and lifestyle businesses. Minor International, the holding company, owns and operates multiple companies focused on three primary businesses, including restaurants, hotels and lifestyle brands. Currently Minor International operates more than 2,100 restaurants, 300 retail trading outlets, 160 hotels, and 60 spas across 40 countries from Australia to Brazil. The brand is also growing through strategic investments, most recently with a 44 percent investment in Spanish Hotel Brand NH after some competitive clashing with Hyatt.
A Thai citizen since 1991 and fluent Thai speaker, he also founded the Heinecke Foundation, which supports underprivileged children’s education in Thailand. Heineke has other projects, too, such as launching the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. He authored The Entrepreneur, which has been translated into numerous languages.
Skift caught up with him to discuss his evolution as a hotelier, his views on luxury, and how brands like his Anantara Hotels are trying to differentiate themselves from the experience-centric marketing of many hospitality brands today.
Skift: Tell me about your entrepreneurial journey and also getting started with business in Asia. What was it like being an upstart businessman in Bangkok?
William Heinecke: I arrived in Thailand when I was 14 and never left. Thailand’s economy is very advanced now compared to when I started out in the 1960s. From the start, my mantra has always been, find a gap and fill it. Whether you are starting a restaurant, an office-cleaning company or a hotel, the key is to start small and above all else, you have to be passionate about what you do. Minor International is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year so we’ve come a long way.
In the hotel side of the business, we started with the equivalent of a motel and then grew from there. I surrounded myself with fine hotels which over the years helped me to understand things better. It gave us the opportunity to see these hotels at work and then see whether we could build a better hotel. One of my proudest achievements so far has been creating our first homegrown brand, Anantara, which turned 17 earlier this year. We saw a gap in the market for resorts in exotic destinations offering authentic experiences. Although everyone talks about experiences these days, I am very proud that we were the pioneers of this development in the hospitality industry.
Skfit: For those not familiar with Anantara, can you talk about the brand and vision?
Heinecke: With Anantara, life is a journey — a never-ending adventure of exploration. Derived from the Sanskrit word meaning “without end,” the word Anantara embraces the excitement of discovery and the vibrant energy of new locations. Anantara Hotels and Resorts can be found in some of the world’s most exotic destinations.
The concept of a true destination experience is a signature hallmark of Anantara. This value is reflected in a commitment to harmoniously blend in with the character and landscape of each location, from the lush jungles of Northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle and unspoiled tropical beauty of the Maldives, to the towering red sand dunes of the Liwa Desert in Abu Dhabi and “the smoke that thunders,” , namely the Victoria Falls in Zambia. Tailored to each guest’s needs, Anantara properties around the world offer a range of signature discovery experiences.
Currently Anantara has almost 40 properties in 13 countries and in the coming couple of years will launch in new parts of the world such as Brazil, which will be our first property in the Americas, Tunisia and Morocco in North Africa, plus Malaysia, Zanzibar and some fabulous new properties in countries where we are already present such as Vietnam, Bali and the UAE.
Skift: The travel industry is talking about experiences over materialism/ownership as a trend? How does Anantara create something unique in the world?
Heinecke: Certainly, experiences and experiential travel are the new buzzwords in the industry and many hotel brands are jumping on the bandwagon. As I already mentioned, when we launched Anantara in 2001 the experiential element was integral to the brand’s DNA, hence we’ve been focusing on experiences for many years.
Skift: Tell me about conservation efforts for the brand?
Heinecke: We have two in-house conservation foundations — the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation which helps captive and wild elephants in Thailand, and Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation which focusses on keeping beaches in southern Thailand safe for turtles. Where those foundations do not reach we have set up international partnerships, such as with the IUCN in Sri Lanka to protect 90km of beaches where turtles nest and Coral Reef CPR in the Maldives to develop a holistic approach to reef protection.
Building on the success of these approaches we have formally written into our five-year plan that every non-city property will support at least one scientifically viable conservation effort by 2022. We also further protect nature through projects like our newly opened not-for-profit Cardamom Tented Camp on 18,000 hectares of standing forest that we have been protecting in Cambodia for the past four years.
Skift: Tell me about the launch of the elephant camp and why it is unique in the world?
Heinecke: Our elephant camp in the forest surrounding Anantara & Four Seasons Tented Camp in the Golden Triangle was originally set up to provide a home for Thailand’s street begging elephants and remains unique in terms of accommodation in elephant forest. As the situation in Thailand has developed the camp has also developed and now works with international scientists to develop best practices for looking after elephants, to learn more about elephants’ characters and intelligence as well as direct experiments to help agencies manage situations where wild elephants and humans come into conflict.
We are also the only camp in Asia that raises money to directly help save wild elephants and their forests as well as working in the traditional mahouts home villages and with Governments to ensure that all captive elephants in Asia will have a better future.
Skift: You have a hotel perched overlooking the Green Mountains in Oman, as well as in an Elephant Sanctuary in the Golden Triangle and an oasis in the Emirati Desert. What are your criteria regarding community, social good, and creating memorable experiences with the properties you open?
Heinecke: In all the locations where Anantara is present we aim to bring benefits to the local community, including providing jobs, sourcing local produce and working with local schools to help with children’s education. Being able to improve the lives of those in the local communities in our hotels is paramount to the ethos of our brand. Also at the core of the Anantara brand is creating destination experiences for our guests and enabling them to have stories to take home with them that will last a lifetime.
Skift: What would you tell an American traveler about Anantara to entice them to stay at a property?
Heinecke: I’m very happy to say that U.S. visitors frequent our properties all over the world and they really value the opportunity to immerse in a destination and experience something unique about where they are staying. They also appreciate Anantara being quite different to some of the brands they would be more used to at home – not so cookie-cutter. We talk about our hotels offering heartfelt hospitality, which I also think is very important to U.S. guests.
Skift: How is luxury evolving?
Heinecke: Luxury has become accessible to so many more people and, of course, it depends how you define luxury. Looking ahead, for some luxury will mean accessing the finest things in life — like the finest hotels and residences, cars, private jets etc. For others, it will mean reconnecting with the things that really matter and finding the time to be able to do so.
A key change is that it’s not just about the things money can buy, it is also about all the things that you can’t put a price on. It’s about creating opportunities and experiences for people which allow them to take a step back from their incredibly busy lives and simply savor the moment.
At Anantara we delight in being able to help facilitate some of these special moments, such as swimming with manta rays in the Maldives, walking with a street rescued elephant in the Golden Triangle in Thailand or watching the sunset over the red dunes of the vast Empty Quarter with a glass of bubbles.
Photo credit: William Heinecke, the CEO of the Minor Hotels Group, lounging at one of the hotel chain's properties. Minor Hotels