Photo: Corey Sleap
Property developers? Pah! If they’re not tearing down community centres to build condos they’re buying off whole councils and, and, I dunno, answering back to their mums and not separating their rubbish. Heartless, money-grabbing bastards… the lot of them!
Hotels, on the other hand, are built on hospitality – that curious urge a select few have to make total strangers blissfully happy.
So what on God’s green earth makes a property developer think he can run a hotel chain?!
I’m not sure, let’s ask one.
William Deague hails from the right stock. He’s the scion of a fifth-generation property development family. The business, Asian Pacific Building Corporation, has fingers in all the right property development pies: commercial offices, car parking, serviced apartments… buying, building, managing, selling. And, from all reports, the Deagues have done very well for themselves — hundreds of employees are gainfully employed and their blue chip cup runneth over.
The other thing to know about Will Deague’s folks is: they love art. Not in a ‘manage your own super, buy some art, bubble wrap it and pop it into your garage’ type of way; more of a ‘sponsor a posse of artists to go to Lake Eyre and then launch a book and exhibition’ type of way (which is exactly what they did).
So, here we have a family who is genuinely passionate about Australian fine art.
With this potted bio you can begin to see how the Deagues thought it a bright idea to combine their passion (art) and their business (real estate) to establish a new boutique hotel chain — the Art Series Hotel Group — with Will Deague installed as CEO.
But just how good an idea is it?
Will Deague comes from a family that could just as easily have the words ‘go hard or go home’ inscribed on its coat of arms. Its brief and dissatisfying dalliance with The Storrier hotel in King Cross brought a couple of truths home to Will about the hotel game: The Storrier was too far away from home base to be the first Art Series Hotel; it was too small to be successful as the first and only hotel; and the commercial relationship with the artist, in this case Tim Storrier, needed to be better formulated. Quest Apartments made APBC an offer ‘they couldn’t refuse’ and The Storrier became just another balance sheet item.
But as I say, going in half-arsed is not the Deagues way and a proper assault on the hotels market was soon devised. Properties around Melbourne’s inner South East were acquired, all identified as perfect spots for boutique, design-led hotels. They also happen to be all within sight of the same mobile phone tower — the South Yarra, St Kilda Rd, Windsor and Prahran properties are almost all on the same Melways spread. That’s four hotels slated, all to be built and opened within 18 months – Dubai excepted, that’s an unprecedented broadside.
“We’re passionate about the area; we live and work in the area; and we see potential for the area.” Will Deague isn’t what you’d call ‘unapologetic’ about the Art Series’ colonisation of Melbourne’s leafy hub of shoe shopping and posh schools, in fact, he realises it seems odd to most observers. But this isn’t Accor or Starwood here, picking out whether Shanghai is a bigger priority over Capetown, this is a startup hotel chain. And, Will Deague has given the four sites the classic property developer test: What is the net worth of each room? What are the costs? Based on that, what’s the land worth? And if the sums stack up, whether you’re building a hotel or a skating rink, either it’s viable or it’s not. “There aren’t many existing hotels in the area and the ones there are looking tired,” noted Deague. “But there’s so much activity in the area — commercial and residential activity — due to town planning rules opening up somewhat. Saying that, we have expansion plans. We’ve done a hotel in Sydney and we’d like to do another. We’d like to do one in Brisbane and we’ve purchased a site in Adelaide to launch a hotel there.”
So, there you have it, four new hotels coming right up, with more to follow shortly.
There are plenty of ‘arty’ hotels out there, but the Art Series Hotel Group is the only one branded as such. Giving each hotel an artist’s identity is a very neat idea. It means the property is suffused with the personality of the artist — it’s far more than popping a few posters on the wall. Take the case of the recently launched Olsen. It’s the flagship hotel of the group; an elegant 16-storey, 241-room, $90m edifice designed by Rothelowman overlooking the Yarra, the MCG and Flinders Park. Fittingly, Will Deague determined that arguably Australia’s greatest living artist, John Olsen, should put his name to the group’s jewel in the crown. In response, the octogenarian Olsen has gone to considerable lengths to inject his personality into the hotel, most notably a six-metre-wide mural painted exclusively for the foyer.
“Getting the artists involved is a huge part of what we’re doing,” said Deague. “And it’s just as satisfying dealing with the up and coming artists as it is the established artists. All the artists we’ve engaged have been right into it. Take John Olsen. You don’t get more established than John Olsen and he’s been incredible about the whole thing. He’s been asking how else he can assist… designing the menus? The room service cards?”
So, far more than convenient marketing spin, the links with the art world run deep. Each hotel has a curator, and tours of the original artworks are encouraged. “Even the housekeepers have been given lessons so they feel able to answer any questions about the in-room art,” noted Deague.
PALETTE OF FINISHES
If it wasn’t for the heavy art focus, the Art Series Hotels could just as easily fall into the ‘designer boutique hotel’ category. There’s little that’s off the peg, as the architects try to pin down the character of the artists in their designs. For example, Jackson Clement Burrows’ work on The Cullen is suitably cheeky, locking step with Adam Cullen’s reputation as the Australian art scene’s enfant terrible.
“I get pretty excited about the development and the building side of things — creating something and leaving a legacy,” said Deague. “We’ve tried to engage a different architect for each hotel and think about how they gel with the artist whose name is on the side of the building. We also get heavily involved with the interiors.”
In line with the ‘boutique’ ethos, most rooms aren’t palatial but are bristling with the nifty and the unexpected.
“There’s so much emphasis on the design of the room: the fitout and the furniture,” continues Deague. “Every hotel room is different. It’s not like a big chain where the rooms are identical. And we like quirky surprises. The frosted glass dividing wall to the bathroom with a rendering of the artist’s work, for example.”
DEDICATION TO THE ART
With the close proximity of the four launch hotels, Will’s morning ‘milk run’ is very manageable. I met with Will at 9:30am and already he’d dropped by the Olsen and the Cullen for a coffee with the hotel managers and inspected the site of the Blackman on St Kilda Rd. Will realises that after the grand opening his role transforms into one of hard-hat enforcer to that of glad-handing mien host.
“As I say, I like the design and creation aspects and seeing the hotel launch successfully,” says Deague. “As for day-to-day operations? We have experienced managers and an area manager for that. I don’t have to get too down ‘n’ dirty with the day-to-day operations. Bear in mind, we’ve decided to lease out onsite food and beverage, which removes quite a few headaches. And although we’re serious about our conferencing, it’s not pivotal to our success. We’re principally about filling beds. And in that regard the numbers have to stack up… we’re not doing it for fun.”
STRIKING A CHORD
If part of the initial concern was squeezing out enough media oxygen to get the message across from the ‘burbs, then they needn’t have worried. The media love the story. Will Deague and his PR team have done wonders and the crowds have followed. Pitching at a 4.5-star price for a 5-star room, the Cullen and the Olsen have both enjoyed strong occupancy rates in their short lives thus far. And there’s plenty of the right people as well… people who don’t mind the notoriety. The US national polo team never had so much publicity as when White House gatecrasher Tareq Salahi arrived as its captain — the views from atop The Cullen in the ensuing newspaper articles were great PR. Will Deague picks up on the theme:
“I read in the Herald Sun the other day how an actor [that’d be Matthew Newton then?] trashed a room at The Cullen. Which was absolute bullshit… completely wrong. But great PR! And we’ve been on a number of holiday programs like Postcards. We’ve done some clever marketing and we get good media — it’s a good story to tell.”
It becomes evident that Will Deague doesn’t believe he’s joining a battle against some very established competitors… he’s kinda sneaking in under the radar. His hotels have their postcodes largely to themselves, a good distance from the ultra-competitive five-star CBD market. Saying all that, it’s nonsense to believe that spending hundreds of millions of dollars won’t attract the attention of the incumbents. What do they think of Will Deague?
“I don’t know and I don’t really care,” says Deague with disarming charm and a Brad Pitt grin. “I would have thought the Como — which has been around forever and is directly opposite us at the Olsen in Chapel St — would be concerned. The day we opened, we had a number of guests wandering over to have a look and then return with their bags. We’re not in the city market yet. And we’re an independent boutique brand so we don’t need to get too tied up in hotel turf wars. As an owner I’m often asked what our budgets are and whether we’re meeting those budgets? The truth is, we’re not that interested in budgets, we just focus on being as full as we possibly can and giving guests a great experience.”
STATE OF THE ART
Many industry pundits will look on the Art Series Hotels with a certain amount of suspicion. If the luxury hotel market could be compared to a football team then some will see Will Deague as the CEO of a high-profile start-up franchise like the Melbourne Heart or the Gold Coast AFL team. On paper the new footy team is a collection of boxes that need ticking — competent coach, a good list, good facilities — but there’s a certain something that glues it all together that can’t be checklisted… a philosophy, an ethos, a commitment from the top down to the unflagging pursuit of excellence that is notoriously hard to manufacture. Only time will tell as to how quickly the Art Series Hotel Group engenders this. Will Deague is the key.
Will Deague gets things done. He comes from a long line of powerful blokes who are accustomed to success and achieving their goals. The flipside of that is Will Deague is, I suspect, bluffly oblivious to the nuances of hotel management. Which, paradoxically, may be the key to his success. The Art Series Hotels look great, occupancies are high, and are on target to provide the right return on investment… I mean, who cares if he doesn’t have the slick ID of a W, or the brand recognition of a Hilton, or the Gallic savoir faire of a Sofitel — Will Deague is kicking goals. Mission accomplished? — Christopher Holder