Golden Dreams

Aron Harilela is a hotelier who’s all about going the extra mile

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A family gathering is a sufficient reason for celebration. But last week the Harilela clan came in unison for a hotel of symbolic significance. The Holiday Inn Golden Mile is revered in the Harilela family’s history as the soul of their hotel business.

In the crowd was Aron Harilela, chairman and chief executive of Harilela Hotels. The company owns or manages 17 properties across the globe, including the newly renovated four-star hotel on Nathan Road.

Aron Harilela is the only son of the late Hari Harilela, the patriarch of Hong Kong’s most prominent Indian family. He shares an almost umbilical link to the hotel that was opened in 1975. It was the first that Hari Harilela built.

“It feels like I am cutting the ribbon for a second time,” said the 46-year-old. “On the day the hotel opened, my grandmother passed away. So my father sent me, four years old at the time, over to cut the ribbon.”

Six years ago, Harilela acted on impulse at a momentous moment that led him to walk the golden mile. “I dropped down to my knees and proposed to my wife Laura in the lift of this hotel. There were two random guests in the same lift,” he recalled, with a smile.

Today, the name Harilela is synonymous with one of Hong Kong’s rags-to-riches tales. Hari, the son of an immigrant from Hyderabad, Sindh, founded his hotel empire after running a tailoring shop on the ground floor of the Imperial Hotel. The hotel owner later defaulted on his loan. To save his business, Hari bought the building in Tsim Sha Tsui.

That was how the family went into hotels.

In 1967, Hari and a group of shareholders bought the plot of land where the Holiday Inn Golden Mile is today. He and his wife met the Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson in the United States. They signed a deal to bring the three-star motel brand to Asia.

Hari had imagined transforming his property into a premium product, equipped with a pillarless ballroom, 24-hour room service and fine-dining restaurants.

On hindsight, it was a bold idea as Nathan Road was not a tourist area in those days.

His plan got off to a rocky start because of the riots that year. “The other shareholders were very nervous about Hong Kong’s future. They decided to sell their shares. Unfortunately, my father didn’t have that much money,” recalled Harilela. “So he went to see Michael Sandberg, then chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and asked for a HK$5 million loan. He had nothing to give as collateral. But the chairman approved the loan, taking my father’s word for it.”

The Holiday Inn Golden Mile has proven to be a successful bet. The hotel has generated enough proceeds for Hari to keep building up his hotel empire. And Aron Harilela joined the family business in 1994 after completing a doctoral degree in political philosophy.

Renovations and upgrades are a constant in the hotel industry. Harilela has recently finished renovating the 42-year-old hotel on 50 Nathan Road, removing the staircase to open up the lobby and creating a pod-like reception area to improve guest experience.

The renovation followed a slew of upgrades in two years before that, including redecorating all 621 guest rooms and expanding the executive lounge to 5,000 square feet. The hotel will restore its 7,600-square-feet ballroom in the next phase of renovations.

Harilela is building on his father’s legacy. Apart from a new hotel in New York, Joie De Vivre, which will open next month, he is starting the family’s first independent four-star hotel label called The Hari.

A prototype now exists in London after Harilela took over operations of The Belgraves and converted it in August. Construction on a second site in Wan Chai is underway with an expected launch date in 2020.

“The family has been here since the 1930s. Hong Kong has been really kind to us. And we have great faith in Hong Kong,” said Harilela.

The 210-room hotel on Lockhart Road will feature similar decor as in London but with some local touches. “For example, in London, we have an Italian restaurant that is just about to open. London has spectacular Italian food. In Hong Kong, we will certainly have dim sum.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 3, 2017.

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