Aman at 31
In 1988, the hotel chain was prescient about emerging traveler preferences, emerging trends in luxury and emerging destinations. As a legacy brand in a crowded segment, it now faces critical choices regarding its DNA and identity.
Three levels of infinity pools rise above a beach on the Lombok Strait at the Amankila. (TW photo by Arnie Weissmann)
Three levels of infinity pools rise above a beach on the Lombok Strait at the Amankila. (TW photo by Arnie Weissmann)
While other hotel brands were seeking mere loyalty, Aman was creating junkies. Fans of the luxury flag planned their vacations around locations they knew had an Aman resort.
Such was the influence of Aman that when the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan relaxed its restrictive entry policies in the early 2000s and became more accessible, Aman defined the tourist circuit by building five resorts, one each in places that it felt had the most potential.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, more than any other brand, it had identified the components for a new breed of luxury resort that put a premium on location, design, a sense of place and service that blended informality with anticipation of guest needs. With the last of these, it nurtured in guests the expectation that service could be informal, correct and filled with small surprises.
In all these regards, it’s as good as ever. But others were watching its progress, notebook in hand. Today there are dozens of brands that show evidence of Aman inspiration in their service, architecture and attitude, sometimes showcasing it within a portfolio that reflects a more consistently contemporary flair.
Aman’s DNA around “compassionate hosting” is intact, but its collection of 31 properties includes some that are cresting the 30-year mark. While maintenance and updates have kept the properties from looking tired, some of the resorts are undergoing significant evolutions to keep up with changing traveler preferences.
Although wellness is front and center at all Aman resorts, some were built before a full-scale spa was de rigueur for luxury properties. As a result, some of the 1990s-era properties, including the Amanjiwo on Java and the Amankila on Bali, were conceived without a modern spa or fitness center and have since pulled suites from inventory to be retrofitted as small gyms, with massages offered in-room, in a “spa suite” (at Amanjiwo) or an outdoor pavilion (at Amankila).
A peek at the future of wellness, Aman-style, may be on display at the Amanpuri in Phuket, Thailand. It was the very first Aman resort to open, and it not only doubled its spa size recently but, to leapfrog the competition, opened an integrated medical services Holistic Wellness Center staffed by Western-trained medical doctors, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and ayurvedic physicians.
Among the services offered are everything from herbal remedies to genetic analysis to sports performance counseling.
The updated spa and wellness center at the Amanpuri was part of a six-month overhaul that also included installation of a Thai boxing ring, an Eco-Discovery Club for children and, in a nod to “alternative sport, music and digital-tech cultures,” a skateboard halfpipe, rock climbing wall and editing suites for film, music and GoPro video.
If spas were an omission in early properties, other early signature features appear to be reaching the end of their shelf life, sometimes literally: Generously sized libraries, packed with books on local culture, history and nature, were once the social hub of the resorts, but today’s guests appear to prefer either time alone with their phones or a social center that’s more lively.
Certainly, not all of the properties are facing an age-related identity crisis; the group has expanded at a fairly steady rate over three decades, and 10 properties haven’t yet reached their 10th birthday. Another three (Los Cabos, Mexico; Kyoto, Japan; and New York) are approaching their announced opening dates in 2019 and 2020. Eleven more properties are in the pipeline.
Nonetheless, 20 of its 31 resorts were built in 2005 or earlier, which brings a challenge to provide a consistent experience across the properties. Early Aman junkies knew exactly what to expect. Today, they can still rely on many legacy brand standards but also are likely to encounter more variables.
I visited three of Aman’s older properties in Indonesia within the past year: the Amandari, its second resort, which opened in 1989 outside Ubud, on Bali; the Amankila, the third, built in 1992 near Manggis in eastern Bali; and the Amanjiwo, the eighth, built in 1997 on the island of Java.
Amanjiwo — One thing all three have in common is that their original designs have not only withstood the test of time but remain exceptional. The architecture and setting of Amanjiwo still rank among the best in the world of hospitality.
Positioned on the slope of a mountain, it was designed so that the top of the ruins of Borobudur, a magnificent Buddhist temple two miles away, is framed perfectly in the opening to the lobby. The silhouette of the main building’s roof matches the temple’s profile, and the mirror imagery, seen from the driveway leading up to the property, signals to guests that they are entering a zone of unusually thoughtful design.
That design impresses again and again, in both the rooms and public spaces, all enhanced by the lighting and furnishings. The architect, Ed Tuttle, is a favorite of Aman’s, and walking into my suite, I felt both deja vu and dislocation. It reminded me of the layout of a villa in Amanjena, a Tuttle-designed property near Marrakech, Morocco. The footprint — similar, but not identical — serves both locations well, providing a platform for locally inspired decor.
The property abuts working rice paddies and agricultural fields, even adjacent to the pool. I took two excursions with an Aman guide, Lindarso (he has no second name), who brought me hiking to the top of the mountain rising above the hotel and also on a visit to Borobudur. Fluent in English and a born historian, naturalist and storyteller, he enhanced both visits immensely. And he offered an excellent tip: Although a sunrise visit to the temple is recommended in almost all literature, the views, he said, are absolutely as good at sunset, when there are no crowds.
The connection between the resort and its locale appears to be deeply felt by the staff and management. Six pages of the guest directory are dedicated to interpreting the meaning of the culture and nearby sites. They come off more as encouragement to explore the region than a sales pitch for the options to see it (on foot, bicycle, horseback or horse and buggy).
Other excursions seem exceptionally personal and reflective of management’s relationships with nearby communities: Dinner at a local resident’s home, opportunities to see religious ceremonies and dances at nearby villages or a visit with a retired doctor who has the world’s most extensive private collection of Javanese art.
One Aman signature that I will miss if it is “updated” out of existence is the library. At the Amanjiwo, a lecturer presented a talk on Prambanan, a Hindu temple in Yogyakarta, the gateway where most visitors to the resort arrive and depart. It inspired me to get up early to explore it on my way to the airport the morning I was leaving. And once the library lecture ended, I spent an hour or so looking at the collection of books on the shelves.
But the fact that I was the only one at the lecture — and then the only one in the library that evening — suggests the room might be on its way to being repurposed.
Amandari — It’s not surprising that a stretch of the Ayung River Valley just outside Ubud was chosen as the site for the second Aman resort. The Amandari was among the first upscale hotels to perch above this beautiful, steep valley, opening a year before the Four Seasons (downriver) and beating the Ritz-Carlton (upriver) by 13 years.
Although it doesn’t have the dramatic sense of arrival that the Amanjiwo presents — it seems at first as if the driver is making a wrong turn into an alley off a busy two-lane highway — once you’re at the gate, the property measures up to expectations.
More than the other two Indonesian properties I visited, the Amandari has physically incorporated “a sense of place” into its design. Gorgeous as the Amanjiwo is, it does not seem consistently reflective of Javanese architecture. At the Amandari, the stonework, statuary and layout feel very much in tune with the region.
One could believe the property is much older than its 30 years, and I say that in an entirely positive way. The grounds are lush with vegetation, carvings are lovingly tended with offerings and flowers, and the view out the windows from my free-standing pool suite was appropriately jungle green.
The property has a standalone spa and large fitness center, and its wellness options go far beyond massage.
Overlapping my stay, a guest “joy coach” promised that one session with her could change my whole life “beyond anything you can imagine.” Among the options offered in the guest directory was a visit to the home of a Balinese spiritual healer who can “channel the spirit world” and help guests to “align the multifaceted layers of self, from the visible to the invisible.”
On-site management has unapologetically embraced its 30th anniversary. Several activities this year were designed to commemorate the milestone. A party will be held on the 30th of every month. On nights of full moons, guests can descend a staircase at the rear of the property to a seventh-century shrine and join a blessing ceremony, followed by a 90-minute moonlit walk. At the conclusion of the hike, there’s a picnic accompanied by traditional music.
The Amandari’s Swiss-born manager, Jann Hess, trained at the Business and Hotel Management School in Lucerne but seems to revel in an environment that is nothing like his homeland. As for his role as custodian of the second-oldest Aman, Hess is proud.
“The property is aging beautifully,” he said. “It has the look and feel of a Balinese temple, with moss-covered walls. The [traditional] landscaping was very revolutionary [for a luxury hotel] when it opened. This is pure Balinese architecture and design, built on a village concept. Timeless.”
Reinforcing the village feel, the resort sponsors a traditional dance school for children, and the on-property dance lessons each afternoon have become part of the “village” backdrop. Hess also brings in traditional performances that are not otherwise accessible by visitors.
“Amandari is a thoroughly cultural resort,” he said. “Many of our activities are handcrafted by our own Balinese guides, not third-party operators. Others, like the Four Seasons, have a more international look and feel. Our positioning is cultural.”
Amankila — The third Aman property to open, the Amankila is in eastern Bali, far from the popular beach resort areas near Kuta and the gridlocked streets (and, increasingly, sidewalks) of Ubud.
Native South African general manager Ernst Ludick said, “Our individuality sets us apart. We’re right on a private beach, have access to a well-preserved part of Bali, and we’re not just one out of a strip of luxury hotels.”
Despite the virtues of these attributes, the Amankila is in transition. The property was closed for two weeks in February to complete renovations to public areas and pools, replace cladding of walls and pathways and begin work on three new infinity pools attached to suites.
A cliff-top platform for sunset drinks, special dinners, afternoon teas and private events has been constructed, and custom-designed furniture, cushions and mats are expected to be delivered in a month. A retractable fabric roof is being prepared.
The spot with the best views on the property — a 360-degree sweep of the Lombok Strait, Mount Agung, the Buitan Valley rice fields and the hotel grounds — had been used as a helipad. It has been reimagined as Tamansari (“Holy Garden”), and a platform has been built for sunrise breakfasts and evening satays.
The library, with newly sanded floors, will migrate into a lecture/movie hall by the end of the year.
This month, iPads will replace the printed directories and menus in rooms, every suite will get new espresso machines with reusable coffee capsules and high-end local coffee and a rolling conversion of toilets to higher-end models will be complete. Upgraded minibars have been ordered and will be installed throughout the year.
A new teak table has been set up for cooking classes, and the activities menu, as well as the restaurant’s menu, is being overhauled.
But these are mere tweaks compared with phase two: A spa and wellness center, the property’s first, will open next year, if all goes according to plan.
After that, five two-bedroom residences will be built and sold on adjacent land but will also be part of the room inventory when the owners are away.
This before-and-after seems representative of the evolution from Aman 1.0 to 2.0. I asked Ludick what, beyond physical features, stays the same yet continues to differentiate Aman? After all, great service is table stakes for a luxury resort, high-end wellness programs are proliferating, and “authentic” activities are claimed by all.
He thought for a moment.
“Speaking first for Amankila, we’re not very hotel-like,” he said. “You won’t see signage. All the staff knows all the guests’ names, and it takes excellent internal communications to achieve that.”
‘We’re not very hotel-like. You won’t see signage. All the staff knows all the guests’ names.’
He continued: “Amans are typically small — under 40 rooms — so we can focus on a sense of intimacy and attention to detail. Aman means ‘peace,’ and, for instance, you’ll never see staff running. Our ethos of hospitality is not just Asian but open and big-hearted. It’s not as easy as you may think to copy this. There are lots of subtle elements, which, if well executed, come together to create a feeling that is Aman.”
He confirmed the brand’s focus on wellness going forward. (“We’ve spent millions on it.”) Some elements, such as its new line of Aman Skincare products, go companywide, but he also said wellness programs will be tailored to specific properties.
“Amandari may focus on the spiritual and mental,” he said. “Here, we may look at physical well-being and the outdoors. Not silent retreats, but guests working in consultation with experts in conditioning and nutrition.”
The focus on wellness is not strategic, he said, but “more an evolution, a case of staying relevant. The properties are timeless. I wouldn’t call all these changes ‘improvements.’ I like the word ‘enhancements.’ Aman’s beauty is never about being trendy but about being timeless.”
Wellness goes experiential
In 2016, at Phuket’s Amanpuri, the company launched the concept of Wellness Immersions, minimum three-day, individualized programs tailored to guests. After the opening of the Holistic Wellness Center, the brand added Intensive Wellness Immersions, with a minimum commitment of five days.
Perhaps as it ages and expands its global footprint, Aman is seeking a binding attribute that would enable individual properties to continue to focus on their cultural attachments yet share a grand theme. The trend toward wellness appears to have legs and is surprisingly elastic.
Last month the brand launched “Journey to Peace,” a retreat concept designed around a specific program but which will move through four of the company’s Indochina properties. A Tibetan monk will guide guests on an “emotional journey” toward achieving an enlightened state.
Participants can choose a six-night retreat at one resort, combine two or more resorts or enlist for the full 24-night program, moving from the Amanoi in southern Vietnam (Oct. 22 to 28) to the Amanpuri in Phuket (Nov. 2 to 8) to the Amansara in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat (Nov. 12 to 18) and finishing at Amantaka in Luang Prabang, Laos (Nov. 22 to 28).
There is one other new direction the brand is exploring: urban settings. Among the three announced openings are the Aman New York and the Aman Kyoto. These resorts’ names, simply “Aman” and the location city, reflect another small but interesting aspect of the flag’s evolution. Perhaps Amangotham would simply have been a bridge too far on the brand’s journey forward.