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A Tale of Two Openings: Hotel Nine and The Willow

By: Charley Bolding-Smith Posted: March-24-2011 in
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Charley Bolding-Smith

What are the odds of two Australians, both from Brisbane, who vaguely know each other (well, they’re Aussies, after all), suddenly discovering that each is opening a boutique hotel on the same day, less than a decent six-hit from each other? This being Phnom Penh, pretty high I’d say; but that’s what happened to Mark at Hotel Nine, and Eliza at The Willow. I met them to find out their stories, and learn how to open a hotel in Cambodia.

The process itself seems easy enough – as the operators tell it. First, you find a suitable property, and then negotiate the lease. You might want to register a company to hold the lease (this will slow things down a bit). You’ve probably already found the architect and builder. Oh, and a good commercial lawyer too. Get cracking on the renovation as soon as the lease is signed (both buildings have been ‘turned round’ in an impressively short length of time). Next, apply for a licence to operate a business in the Hospitality industry. There are sanitation, fire and electrical certificates involved too, but as this involves the Khmer bureaucracy we know and love, it is possible to have these issued before the work is complete. One may question the ultimate efficiency (and safety) of such a system, but there was mutual agreement that it made for ‘flexibility’. Not that this should suggest any complacency; “Part of the problem is that we want to do it properly” says Mark.

Does it help if you’ve had previous industry or entrepreneurial experience? Perhaps in Eliza’s case – she’s the owner of the popular gourmet sandwich eatery The Lunch Box, which has been open at No. 14, Street 282 for two years. But her first taste of the hospitality industry in Phnom Penh had a more bohemian flavour. “It was in our front garden by the Lakeside – we just opened a bar for backpackers, and had a bit of fun”. Would she have done it in Australia? “I’ve always had the idea…maybe a bed and breakfast in the mountains”. For Mark and Lou at Hotel Nine, this is a first business venture, but the professionalism evident in the facelift surprised me when I learnt this.

The operators are utilising the wonderfully diverse building types available here in Phnom Penh. Both buildings are handsome to the eye. That now housing Hotel Nine was originally built for the UN peace commission at the beginning of the Nineties, before being turned into a local guesthouse. Rooms are standard size, although well appointed, but give onto generous patios. There is a smallish pool. The Willow, on the other hand, has no pool, but rooms and windows with proportions to die for (the Modernist building is believed to date from the 1960’s). What’s Eliza’s thinking? “If you’re only in Phnom Penh for two or three nights, I don’t think you necessarily worry about a pool” she answered, entirely plausibly in my view.

Both owners have business plans which are centred around a coffee and bakery concept during the day, and relaxed drinks and food later. In the case of The Willow, the Lunch Box business will move to the hotel, and wear a Dodin Bouffant in the evenings, serving sophisticated cuisine. It must be a great help to have an established catering business to take on this essential function. What’s in a name? Hotel Nine has identified itself with other boutique hotels in Phnom Penh (Circa 51, and the newly opened Eighty8 being but two examples) by taking the street number as the main identifier in the business’ identity. It seems to be the rage these days. It obviously provides an important locator of the Hotel’s whereabouts, but perhaps sacrifices a little separate identity. The Willow, however, seeks to express individuality, and the natural greens of its colour scheme, in their selection of moniker.

How would Mark and Eliza sum up their entrepreneurial experience so far? “Confusing” vexes Mark, with a smile on his face. “No problems – just stress!” says Eliza. Whilst I reflect upon the non sequitur contained in her reply, it’s good to know that these energetic Aussie entrepreneurs can still laugh about their on-going leisure industry experiences. Both Hotel Nine and The Willow look to be impressive venues that any major city would be pleased to have easy access to. EAS will be reporting more on their openings next month.

Hotel Nine, 48 Street 9, Phnom Penh (Formerly L'Oasis Little Hotel)
The Willow Boutique Hotel, 1 Street 21, Phnom Penh

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