To most travelers, The term ‘luxury hostel’ seems like an oxymoron; traditional dormitory-style accommodation is commonly perceived as being a compromise of amenities for cost. Adler Poh pioneered Singapore’s first posh hostel, and is the market leader in Singapore’s burgeoning luxury hostel industry. Here’s how he did it, in his own words.
Name: Adler Poh
Industry: Hospitality, Hostels
Role model: Steve Jobs
ON THE RIGOURS OF HOSPITALITY
My dad’s mom was a maid with a rich colonial family in the old days. A housekeeper who took care of laundry. My dad was with Singapore Airlines and my mum was working for our extended family’s restaurant in the Netherlands so then if you go back to my grandmother’s era it’s a whole list of restaurants in the Netherlands.
Old school service, like Raffles Hotel, is very, very military. It’s a long tradition, everything has to be about precision, even in terms of language that you use. For example, if someone asks: “Can you get me a cup of coke please?” Now you say: “Yeah, can.” But with traditional hospitality, you’d say “certainly.”
I grew up learning the old school hospitality, which is quite challenging for us [Adler Hostels] to implement. In this day and age hospitality is getting quite more…quick service culture, as compared to the old traditional standard of full blown service.
We figured with old school hospitality it’s very stuffy in that sense, very procedure-based. Very butler-like, very structured, you can’t move around.
As a young entrepreneur with a young business, you have to keep abreast of what’s the demand and what’s the feedback. We don’t want to be too stuffy, because we’re still a hostel, so we toned it back down. if you want to deliver that kind of service they’re like ‘huh?’, because you’re only paying 50 bucks.
Since my dad works with the airline, I’ve always had the opportunity to travel with him: A lot of the hotels we stayed in were five star hotels around the world. That was the sort of travel I’ve always known. So when it was time for me to travel on my own, all those benefits got stripped away: No feather down pillows.
But eventually I did my own travels, used Couchsurfing etcetera, so all the luxuries were stripped away. Back then Couchsurfing was still emerging, and I loved it. During the ending of my trip in Europe I started to do hostels, because certain destinations just don’t have couchsurfing hosts.
During the last leg of my trip, I stayed in a hostel in Lisbon, and it was literally the World’s number 1 hostel. Because they were full, I got transferred to an even more boutique hostel, and that was when I was like…oh my god: This staff is really giving the five-star treatment, she takes good care of you, the bed was so extremely soft. You felt like you were in a hotel, but it is a hostel.
I thought: Why not I do this thing in Singapore? Why not merge my experience of living in a five star hotel with a hostel? Let’s put all these aspects together, bring something different into this target segment. Only recently, the poshtel market started to explode in Europe, but we have literally been living and breathing this since 2012.
I don’t believe in starting a business that’s easily replicated. I don’t like something that’s the norm. You’re not going to get publicity; if I do something special, immediately people like something, they want to talk about it.
We definitely had an anxiety about funding when we first started out. When you’re in this sector, the capital outlay is exhaustive, and back then we were starting a 40 bed hostel which was a already very expensive, it was about 500,000 dollars just to start it up.
You have to think about how you want to choose your investors. I almost lost a friend because of it, y’know? Financing… it’s something worth talking about, because a lot of startups would definitely touch friends.
For me I was a bit naïve. I put an emotional play into it: “You should understand me, blah blah blah. I’m not trying to run away from you”.You have to understand that all of this cannot be brought into it, you have to have it well sorted out: That possibility of “what if you cannot pay?” What’s the follow up to that?
At the end of the day we managed to build a proper [work] relationship, and thank god she wasn’t too sour about it. But y’know the worst thing that could happen is you lose a friend.
ON EMOTIONAL MANAGEMENT
My father is constantly interfering with the business. If I need something drastic to be changed, that’s where you cannot bypass me as a boss, if not it really compromises the hierarchy.
Emotions play a very big part in most organizations, where the quality of work depends on how you relate to your staff. Not a lot of people know but I’m quite an introverted person. I don’t like too much fanfare and stuff. But no matter how bad your day might be, you have to put your full front forward all the time.
You’re always being judged…it could be a random time when you’re just relaxing, but maybe a potential investor comes into your place. You really have to take care of your front.
ON EXPANSION AND COMPETITION
We’re in a very competitive environment, since our existence we have, 3-4 new competitors coming in right, and the true fact is that the market demand is only that much: It’s such a new concept that people are still trying to learn about…Customers are still trying to learn about it.
In fact, in our day and age, there are already so many new disruptions in the travel industry: Airbnb, Couchsurfing, boutique hostels, posh hostels, regular hostels.
A lot of sub-subcategories. Good for them if they want to come into the market, but the true fact is that I have market leadership already, and we are constantly reinventing ourselves, so that puts us at such a big advantage.
The capital outlay for our hostel is so high, and the competition makes it so there’s no point to keep expanding. It’s better to chill, sit back, focus on your product, wait for the right opportunity to arise and then take it.
The hostel industry is very different from the hotel industry. The hotel industry you literally take years to build up your brand. But with a hostel you can build up a brand really, really fast.
Anyone can create a product, but what is going to make your product different from any other product? It’s your individualization.
A lot of times, I’ve had people ask me: “don’t you think anyone can rip off your idea? Anyone can also do a hostel.”
But you’ll never get the ‘Adler sign-off’, where your staff is being trained to such details, where your lounge area is heavily curated, to make sure that every item is in place. Who is going to put in that kind of time and effort?
It was Steve Job’s philosophy towards his product, the amount of attention to detail he put into it. Like the feel of the phone in your hands. It’s like Steve Jobs take on it; if you don’t understand it, don’t bother.We’re extremely snobbish in that sense, I have no regrets.
I am brick-and-mortar hospitality, where every single piece of furniture was picked by me, fragrance was chosen by me, lighting were all done to fit the ease of the eyes. But some people just prefer a cookie cutter kind of hospitality experience, and that’s fine.
ON INDUSTRY TRENDS
The industry’s moving towards a very exciting era. We have Couchsurfing, AirBNB, the hotels are getting more and more budget conscious. Hostels are also starting to become more lux y’know? Travel is getting more and more exciting.
But one thing we have to take note of is that in this day and age, people are looking for experience, they’re not looking to check-in and then check-out; they’re looking for something they can participate in. That’s why Airbnb is doing so well: The whole ‘be part of the city’ allure. But of course, some of the airBNB hosts are commercially drive.
I love Airbnb’s concept: It’s like an old Bed and Breakfast operation, just being modernized through this digital platform. But are all the owners like that? No. More than 50% of their owners are like ‘I’ll rent this place, and then I’ll rent it out to these AirBnb people’ people.
If you want to be a luxury hostel then you have to really be premium. I’ll give you the example of SQ. I used to love SQ: When you stepped on board you felt like a million bucks. Unfortunately, their brand has become so commercialised that they forego their core existence.Now you feel like cattle going into an aircraft and then being shipped somewhere.
If they had maintained that small boutique size and only serviced the richest clientele, the SQ girl would still be the most sort-after job up until now. perhaps they would also be able to compete head-on with the Middle Eastern carriers.