Evan Kwee Charts New Waters For Overseas Expansion For His Singapore Property Family
Pontiac Land’s Evan Kwee is pushing past the pandemic with a new resort development in the Maldives, as part of the Kwee family’s expansion out of Singapore and into the global high-end hospitality market.
Evan Kwee has long loved hotels. “I still remember peering over our balcony [at home in Singapore] every night watching them construct the Regent [hotel] as a young boy. Hotels are in my blood,” he once said in an interview. It’s a good love to have as he is part of the Kwee family, who owns one of Singapore’s largest property groups—including the Regent—that is chaired by his father Kwee Liong Tek.
Now the younger Kwee is helming one of the biggest hospitality projects ever undertaken by Pontiac Land—the Fari Islands development in the Maldives. At 88 hectares, this project is the largest by land size that Pontiac Land has done. The first phase of the development has cost to date about $400 million—more than the $345 million in revenues that the group had last year—and the entire project won’t be finished for another two years. Fari Islands is a major bet for the family, who rank No. 11 on Singapore’s 50 Richest list with a fortune of $5.4 billion.
With the pandemic, Kwee’s dual role as vice chairman of Capella Hotel Group and head of hospitality and design for Pontiac Land puts him in a crucial position. He’s optimistic: “We’ve received excellent feedback and strong interest since the opening.” Its two recently launched hotels are averaging about 30% occupancy, a rate that is typical during the current low season in the Maldives. One is a Ritz-Carlton, the chain’s first property in the Maldives, while the second is a Patina, an in-house sister brand of Capella. A third hotel, the Capella Maldives, is slated to open in 2023. Each of the three has its own manmade island, all located in an atoll and centered around a deep lagoon.
The 44-year-old Kwee takes a broad view. “I think the Covid lockdown has really perpetuated the fact that people love to travel. They just love to explore, they want to experience new things and see new cultures, new places,” he says by video call in a rare interview. “We already are seeing that the luxury leisure travel market will definitely return first [before business travel]. In some ways, it already is returning. Thankfully, our brands and our hotels are positioned in that segment of the market.”
The expected pressure to earn a return may mean Pontiac Land must move ahead with Fari Islands regardless of the pandemic. “Pontiac has way too much invested in the Maldives project not to proceed with opening if possible, and as it turned out, the Maldives is perhaps the only market in the region ex-China in some form of recovery,” says Robert Hecker, managing director for hotel consultancy Horwath HTL Pacific Asia, by email from Singapore.
Capella—which has been operating in Asia for 12 years—is a springboard to extend Pontiac Land’s reach worldwide, with planned expansion of the brand across the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East within the next four years. Yet with Covid-19, choppy waters lie ahead. Like elsewhere, bookings are mostly down across the hotels that Pontiac Land owns or operates, and many believe global travel may not recover to pre-pandemic levels before 2023.
Amid travel restrictions and lockdowns, Capella hotels in Bali, Bangkok and Hanoi have been struggling to fill rooms, Kwee says. The managed hotels in Shanghai and Sanya, China, he says, have seen an uptick in business, with up to 80% occupancy thanks to a domestic travel boom; before Covid-19, these hotels were logging rates around 60%.
Pontiac Land also pivoted from international to domestic tourism. “When it was clear that international travel would experience significant restrictions, our teams swiftly re-engineered all revenue-generating activities to cater to our domestic markets. These allowed us to see commercial success at our Singapore and China properties,” says Kwee. The family has also used the pandemic period for refurbishments and renovations, such as upgrading the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia.
“We already are seeing that the luxury leisure travel market will definitely return first.”
This year marks the company’s sixth decade—the privately held group was founded in 1961 by Evan’s grandfather, Henry Kwee, a wealthy Indonesian textile merchant who relocated to Singapore in 1958 (he died in 1988). Three generations of Kwees have grown Pontiac Land into one of the largest privately held family-owned property groups in Singapore. It now has over S$10 billion ($7.4 billion) in assets under management, comprising the group’s commercial, hotel, residential and retail holdings. It is known for its iconic mixed-use projects such as Millenia Singapore which includes the group-owned Ritz-Carlton and Conrad Centennial hotels.
The other iconic holding is the Capella Singapore, the brand’s flagship property. The resort gained fame for hosting the historic 2018 summit between then U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un. Working on the resort’s development and helping launch it in 2009 was also Kwee’s first major assignment after graduating from Babson College with a business degree in 2002.
Yet for most of its history, Pontiac Land had little international exposure. That started to change when the Kwees made a major step toward globalization in a partnership with legendary hotelier Horst Schulze in 2006, taking a 50% stake in a joint venture to bring Schulze’s Capella and its sister brand Solis to Asia. After a 12-year partnership, the Kwee family bought out Schulze for an undisclosed sum and took complete control.
Pontiac Land has had some projects outside Singapore, such as New York’s 53 West 53, an 82-story luxury residential tower adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art that launched in 2018. In Sydney, the group clinched a 103-year lease in 2015 on two historic sandstone buildings, which are being renovated for a luxury development that will include a Capella hotel, slated to open next year.
With the Capella acquisition, the family now has a brand that will allow Pontiac Land to expand significantly outside Singapore into the global high-end hospitality market. After the purchase, the Kwees moved Capella’s headquarters to Singapore from the U.S. and moved away from the lower-tier Solis brand. Schulze, who remained as chairman emeritus for two years, left the company last year.
The Kwees have added eco-conscious brand Patina Hotels & Resorts to its hotel portfolio. Within Capella, Kwee has a formidable team of hospitality heavyweights such as CEO Nicholas Matthew Clayton and chief operating officer Cristiano Rinaldi, both of whom have decades of global hospitality experience for brands such as Bulgari, Four Seasons and Jumeirah.
“It’s not a one-man show, not in any way in terms of execution and not in terms of overall strategy and direction,” Kwee says. “There are many wiser people who are there advising me and the management team. But in terms of my overall vision of where I want to take it, I think that they are supportive of that, and my dad is definitely supportive of that.”
Two of Capella’s five operated hotels opened over the past year amid the pandemic—a riverside hotel in Thailand last October and a boutique hotel in Vietnam in April; since 2017 Capella has built a regional portfolio that also includes two hotels in China and one in Indonesia with 1,058 keys under management. “Bangkok opened at the end of last year and then Hanoi opened at the beginning of this year, all during Covid periods. But we had to open, people were employed, we didn’t want to let them go,” says Kwee.
Another 10 Capella-operated hotels are on track to open in China, Japan, the Middle East and Southeast Asia over the next four years as well as Pontiac Land’s A$300 million ($223 million) redevelopment in Sydney. “Opening in 2023-plus for most markets should be good timing when it comes to pandemic recovery pace,” says Horwath HTL’s Hecker. “Pontiac Land would certainly like to see Capella continue to grow globally.” While the main growth is expected to come from its third-party management contracts, the group is also pushing ahead with development projects such as the Maldives.
The Kwees had been eyeing the Maldives, a favorite family holiday destination, for investment for about a decade before securing the current site in 2016. “We had taken part in certain tenders and talked to different individuals. But nothing really came our way. The islands were either too big, too small or too expensive,” says Kwee.
The site has a lagoon that is naturally deep. “[It’s] perfect for a private marina and to host superyachts,” Kwee says. Importantly, it’s a 45-minute speedboat ride from the country’s international airport in the capital Male. A year of environmental impact studies followed then the group began land reclamation works to create the four islands. In May and June, Kwee launched the first phase of the integrated resort development—the two hotels, a marina village and a separate island for staff quarters.
Entering the Maldives makes sense for Pontiac Land, says Govinda Singh, an executive director and hotel specialist at real estate services firm Colliers. “If you think in terms of the growth strategy. . . . you’ve got to look at destinations where Capella guests or Patina guests will want to stay in the future,” he says.
A handful of other Singaporean hospitality tycoons have also found their way to the Maldives. In April, hotelier Ong Beng Seng, through his Hotel Properties Limited, snapped up the Kanuhura, an 80-villa island resort. HPL also owns the luxury resort Gili Lankanfushi. Under the COMO Hotels & Resorts, Ong’s wife Christina owns two resorts in the Maldives. Others include Banyan Tree Holdings founder Ho Kwon Ping and City Developments executive chairman Kwek Leng Beng.
“It’s not a one-man show, not in any way in terms of execution and not in terms of overall strategy and direction.”
There are signs of a recovery in the Maldives tourist market. Shreya Sharma, a Bangalore-based Euromonitor research analyst, expects a twofold increase in arrivals to 1.2 million visitors this year, following a 65% decrease in 2020. While there is still “a long way” to pre-Covid days, the Maldives is moving in the right direction, she says.
Kwee is upbeat about future growth, and says Capella is evaluating several iconic properties in Europe and the Americas. Singh cautions, however, that Capella will need to demonstrate its brand value to owners as it competes against more established hotels, especially outside of Asia. “It will also need to ramp up its operations, especially in terms of its sales and marketing presence globally, together with back-office support,” he adds.
Kwee has some ideas to build Capella’s brand value that he’d like to try out in the Fari Islands. “We’ll have visiting DJs and visiting artists, musicians, who will give recitals on the beach,” says Kwee. “That’s what the future of hospitality is going to be. It’s about content, it’s about programming,” he adds. “It’s not just about a pretty room or good service anymore.”