Call of the jungle

/ The Edge Property
January 13, 2017 10:00 AM SGT
On Jan 6, Federico Asaro was up at the crack of dawn and at his new hotel, Villa Samadhi Singapore, by 5.30am. “Since it’s the first day of business, I wanted to make sure the new staff arrived on time because the shift starts at 6am,” says the 48-year-old Italian founder and CEO of hospitality group Samadhi Retreats. “And I also wanted to make sure that breakfast was set up properly. We don’t want the guests to wake up and find no one around.”
The 20-room boutique hotel is designed as a hideaway, perched on a hillslope in the heart of Labrador Park, which is part of the bigger Labrador Nature Reserve. It is only accessible via Labrador Villa Road, named after Labrador Villa, the residence of prominent ship chandler George John Mansfield and built in 1881.
The property that Villa Samadhi Singapore now occupies was built in the 1920s and served as the quarters of the artillery garrison of the British Army, which was based at Labrador Park then. Subsequently, the Pasir Panjang Boys’ Hostel occupied the premises. It was then turned into a halfway house called Breakthrough Missions. However, for more than a decade, the property was in disuse.
Villa Samadhi Singapore was once the quarters of an artillery garrison of the British Army, and later the Pasir Panjang Boys’ Home and then a halfway house for children
Asaro had the opportunity to take over the site after the previous owner, Singapore Explorer, was wound up by the High Court in 2010. Singapore Explorer was supposed to operate the Villa Raintree Resort and Spa at the site, but it failed to take off. Samadhi Resorts therefore stepped in and took over conservation of the bungalows in 2011. It was a novation, says Asaro, with Samadhi Retreats signing a three-year lease with National Parks Board, with the option for another 3+3 years.
Asaro converted one of the two colonial bungalows (the former Labrador Villa) into his signature Tamarind Hill restaurant, which opened five years ago. The restoration of the second property into Villa Samadhi was more extensive and took much longer than expected — “the better part of three years and at a cost of about $5 million” — because of regulatory requirements that had to be met as the property sits within the Labrador Park conservation area and also because the property was dilapidated, he adds.
Asaro: All our properties were abandoned or derelict properties which we then brought back to life
Funding the Singapore project came entirely from Asaro’s operations in Kuala Lumpur, where he has three restaurants (Tamarind Hill, Tamarind Springs and Neo Tamarind) and a Villa Samadhi with 21 rooms.
The 30% downslide of the ringgit against the Singapore dollar over the past year has made things more challenging. “We were lucky because the bulk of the construction work was done four years ago when the ringgit was still in the range of RM2.30 to RM2.40 against the Sing dollar,” he says.
In Malaysia, he also operates Japamala, a resort on Tioman Island with villas built on treetops, perched on ancient boulders or set within the jungle and overlooking a private bay. “The entire resort was built without cutting any trees,” he adds.
Asaro started Samadhi Retreats in 1999, with his first Tamarind Hill restaurant opening in November that year in an abandoned colonial bungalow in the middle of a jungle in Kuala Lumpur. The restaurant had only six tables. Tamarind Springs, also set within a jungle, opened in 2002. He opened Villa Samadhi Kuala Lumpur in 2011. The hotel at Persiaran Madge, off Jalan U-Thant, is located on a formerly vacated property that was once carved into apartments for rent before he took it over and transformed it into Villa Samadhi Kuala Lumpur. “It was a great template for me to create a unique property,” says Asaro.
Even though Villa Samadhi Kuala Lumpur commands one of the highest room rates in the city — over RM700 a night — it enjoys an average occupancy rate of 70%, says Asaro. Japamala, which opened in 2004, also commands one of the highest room rates in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, he adds. He has just completed his 14th villa at Japamala and intends to build a total of 20 eventually.
For well over a decade, Asaro had been opening a new property every one to two years. However, when he took on the Villa Samadhi project in Singapore, he put all his other expansion plans on hold for the past five years. He and his wife, Malaysian dancer, choreographer and model Maple Loo, even moved from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. He has also moved his corporate headquarters here, where his office is now in one of the converted buildings at Labrador Park, a short walk from his two properties there.
The swimming pool of the Villa Samadhi in Kuala Lumpur
The jacuzzi area of one of the Luxe Crib rooms at Villa Samadhi in Kuala Lumpur
Draw of conservation properties
When it came to conserving the property which has now been transformed into Villa Samadhi Singapore, Asaro kept as much of the original structure as possible. Even when it came to the original timber flooring, window frames and staircases, he only replaced those that had rotted or been damaged.
He personally sourced the materials needed, something he enjoys doing. “In Malaysia, I bought wooden kampung [village] houses and shoplots which were at least 60 to 80 years old,” Asaro says. “We have a workshop in Malaysia, where we restored the wood and then sent them to Singapore for this property.”
For Villa Samadhi Singapore, he kept to the 1920s British colonial theme and added French colonial touches. Some of the accessories and furniture are genuine antiques handpicked by Asaro for the property — such as the teak side tables at the reception area — while others are reproduction of antiques fashioned from recycled teak, balal or chengal wood, designed and manufactured at his workshop in Malaysia. They are all one-off pieces, he says.
He also works with indigenous groups (the Orang Asli) in Malaysia and northern Thailand to source materials and create handcrafted items and fabrics, from roof thatching to bamboo blinds, rattan furniture, woven baskets and cushion covers.
The verandah of the black-and-white colonial bungalow
The corridor that leads to the rooms on the first level of the building
‘In the middle of nowhere’
Room rates at Villa Samadhi Singapore are from $395 to $975 a night. The highest rate is for a private chamber called the “Luxe Sarang”, located in a separate building with its own courtyard and plunge pool.
Asaro’s ambition is for Samadhi Retreats to be in the same league as Aman resorts, Six Senses and Soneva, the upscale niche hospitality brands synonymous with barefoot luxury. “But we have our own DNA,” he says. “All our properties were once abandoned or derelict, which we then brought back to life and transformed into luxury boutique hotels or upscale restaurants. We use only recycled or salvaged wood and sustainable materials, and we have a strong green-building and conservation ethic.”
Therefore, he does not see much competition in the space he is operating in. “A lot of people would not be interested in a property like this because it’s hard to do business in such a setting if you don’t know how,” he says. “We have been able to grow the brand as we’re able to demonstrate that we can open hotels in the middle of nowhere and fill them up.”
The outdoor area that leads to the private chamber, called the ‘Luxe Sarang’
Joint ventures and partnerships
But Asaro is open to joint ventures and partnerships in order to pursue his ambitious expansion plans. “Growing one property at a time every few years is a very slow process and will literally take a whole lifetime,” he says.
He is now in talks with various parties in Thailand about developing a resort in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he has already secured a site. It is set amid paddy fields along a river and has a direct view of the mountains. Unlike his previous projects, this one will be a newbuild development. It will have a 20-key hotel and 20 villas for sale. “It’s a real estate play and easy for investors to understand,” he says.
Asaro also intends to introduce a Samadhian members’ programme under which the villa owners will get 20 nights’ free stay in a year. For the rest of the year when they are not using their property, the hotel will have the right to lease it out and offer the owner a rental yield. The free stay can also be used as credit for stays in other Samadhi Retreats around the region, or for use at any of the Tamarind restaurants. He reckons these three-bedroom villas in Chiang Mai which will be sold on a 30-year lease could be priced at about $1 million each.
At Japamala on Tioman Island, guests had expressed interest in buying the villas. However, as the property is on Malay reserved land, which Asaro secured on a 35-year lease, he is not able to offer the villas for sale.
In the pipeline is a second resort on Tioman Island, also situated on a Bumiputra lot that has a 35-year lease. Asaro wants to launch a new top-tier brand for the property, called The Samadhi. It will also have about 20 keys and will be targeted at a younger clientele. “It will have less of a rustic feel and sport cleaner lines, but still carry the same Samadhi DNA,” he says. “It will still be unique, but will appeal to a broader audience.”
The walkway leading from Villa Samadhi to Tamarind Hill
Growth through hotel management contracts
Asaro has been looking to expand through securing hotel management contracts. His first managed property was the Blue Mansion in Penang. Formerly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the property was originally run as a bed-and-breakfast. Asaro convinced the owners to let him operate it as a luxury boutique hotel, which he then rebranded Blue Mansion.
He is no longer managing the property. His next project in the island will be on Penang Hill, he says.
In the meantime, Asaro will be busy in Sri Lanka, with the opening of Kandoola Villas slated for the first quarter of this year. The villas are part of a complex of six, but he only picked two to manage. Each villa contains five rooms, so they will be managed as a 10-room boutique hotel.
‘Luxury tented camp’
On the cards is what Asaro calls a “luxury tented camp” to be located within the Royal Belum State Park in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. It is part of the even bigger Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, which is shared with Thailand.
He is building his luxury tented camp on the Malaysian side of the park, next to a river. The tents will be 45m in size and use teakwood poles and canvas. Inside, there will be bathtubs, plunge pools and Jacuzzis. “It’s like living in a super luxurious tent in the middle of a jungle safari, [where you can] embrace a wildlife experience,” he says.
Asaro does not possess the vocabulary of a typical property developer. Never once does he talk about price per square foot. Instead, when it comes to his choice of sites for his properties, he says, “It has to have the right feel; it has to have a soul.”
This article appeared in The Edge Property Pullout, Issue 762 (Jan 16, 2017) of The Edge Singapore.