When we check into hotels, we rarely think of the owners whose entrepreneurial spirit has created the luxurious accommodations we immerse ourselves in. And for Asian American hoteliers, bringing their visions to life often comes with a unique set of challenges.
"Being Chinese and an immigrant, I have to work harder to communicate my vision to contractors and vendors, and also ensure that clients ultimately appreciate the efforts I've made to create a welcoming and friction-free experience," Shannon Wu, who recently opened her first hotel, The Amelia in the Hudson Valley, tells Travel + Leisure. Her previous career at the World Bank Group kept her sheltered from any discrimination, but she says her view of race has changed since she left that international industry. "I realized racial inequality and discrimination are rampant, and things will never change if people do not stand up for themselves," she adds. "Asian Americans are branded as a 'model minority' because while we excel at many things, we try to stay out of 'trouble.' The recent anti-Asian hate crimes make it clear that this philosophy of keeping our heads down will not shield us from being victimized." Now, she's grateful for the open community in Hudson, and looks forward to sharing that welcoming energy with her guests.
Asian Americans make up a large chunk of hotel owners in the U.S., with members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), which was formed by Indian American hoteliers in 1989, accounting for one in two hotels in the country, California Hotel & Lodging Association (CHLA) chairman Bijal Patel, who has also held AAHOA leadership roles, tells T+L. That number represents a wide range of hotels, as well as hotel owners.
While nowadays, many are second and third generation, first-generation immigrants often bought properties in the 1970s when the oil embargo made it affordable. It was also a way to set up roots since family members could chip in and help with operations, while also having a place to live, he explains. "These Indian immigrants became 'accidental hoteliers' – people who came to America for a better life and just happened to become the pioneers of America's hotel industry," Patel, who is also the CEO and principal partner of Coast Redwood Hospitality, says. "For Indian Americans in America, hoteling has always been a family business. That's even more true now… We count on each other, and that makes our problems – whatever they may be – much smaller and more solvable."
It's that banding together that has made Asian American hoteliers such a powerful force – and that's the message they hope to pass along to their guests. "As Asian Americans, we should all make a concerted effort to help educate and spread that inclusive spirit wherever we travel," BJ Kobayashi of Kaimana Beach Hotel says.
Here are 13 of our favorite Asian American-owned hotels.
Flamingo Resort, Santa Rosa, California
After the birth of their third child, Rebecca Bunyasaranand, the daughter of a Thai physician father and Caucasian mother, and her husband, Stephen Yang, the son of Taiwanese scientists, decided to give up their New York City careers and go into the hotel business. Among their properties is the 170-room Flamingo Resort, which they acquired in January 2019, in California's Sonoma Valley. But entering the industry came with its share of hurdles. "The challenges are similar to those of any industry where we are, at times, looked upon as outsiders," Bunyasaranand tells T+L. "I recognize the barriers that my father faced as an immigrant, which can still be seen in more subtle stereotypes and disadvantages today."
That's driven her to curate an inclusive art collection at the hotel. Diamond Ring from artist Windy Chien uses rope to represent various eye paths, while Serge Gay, Jr.'s mural – commissioned during the height of the Black Lives Matter protest last summer – captures a "multi-ethnic, androgynous" face. "We have incorporated art composed by artists of different heritages in hopes of creating a space that gives AAPI and others a place that inspires our guests to define themselves and not be defined by others," Bunyasaranand says.
Blossom Houston Hotel, Houston, Texas
In February 2021 – just months before the Blossom Houston Hotel was set to open in the spring – owner Charlie Wang should have been completely focused on getting every detail of his 267-room, 16-floor property ready. But when he heard that some of his employees were dealing with broken pipelines in their homes because of the harsh winter weather, he hit the pause button. Instead, Wang, who also owns a construction business, spent $40,000 of his own money, sending teams out to purchase supplies and fix busted pipes in at least 120 homes in the area, KPRC Click2Houston reported.
It's that kind of warm spirit that Wang has infused into Blossom Houston, which opened this June. The property honors the city's notable aerospace and medical industries, as well as its Asian culture, with lunar-inspired decor, the Chinese and sushi restaurant Estrela, and translation services into Mandarin (plus Spanish and German). The 400,000 square feet of amenities also includes 13 event spaces, two other restaurants, a karaoke room, retail shopping, and a rooftop pool.
The Amelia, Hudson, New York
As soon as Shannon Wu saw the 19th-century Queen Anne-style home on Allen Street in Hudson, New York, she knew it had good feng shui. "It is very important for Chinese people to have as much light as possible throughout the day, especially southern light. This house is perfect in that sense," she tells T+L. So, Wu purchased the Hudson Valley property and transformed it into her first hotel, The Amelia, an eight-room boutique that welcomed its first guests in June 2021. "Coming from Beijing, where a lot of old houses were demolished, I feel strongly about preserving the history and character of old structures," she says. "At the same time, I much prefer modern simplicity and to keep the house airy and light."
The result is a classic turn-of-the-century home with lighter and brighter colors and a simpler, more modern vibe. "Every room in the house has large windows," Wu says. "We enlarged the south-facing windows to bring in more light and a grand view of the woods and the Catskill Mountains. We also changed the floor plans to reduce irregular corners and fragmented spaces to create a sense of flow. After the remodeling, each and every room in the house projects positive energy and makes you feel relaxed and happy."
Harbor View Hotel, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Bernard Chiu has overseen New England real estate and hospitality assets through his company, Upland Capital Corporation, since 1998, but it's the Harbor View Hotel in Martha's Vineyard, which he acquired in 2018, that has particularly special meaning. After all, the Hong Kong native, who has been an American citizen for more than three decades, lives in Edgartown himself. So, he felt a responsibility to preserve the property's legacy, with a $15 million renovation. The result is a luxurious experience that has landed the hotel on T+L's 2021 It List for Best New Hotels.
"Asia is known for warm and genuine hospitality. Therefore, it is only fitting that we shoot for perfection in order to make our guests' experiences memorable," he tells T+L. "Our management and all of our staff share the same vision. Many Asians live to eat, and the Bettini restaurant is a fine reflection of that culture, despite the contemporary American cuisine."
Kaimana Beach Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii
As Waikiki Beach's only boutique right on the sand, the Kaimana Beach Hotel was originally built in 1963 as a Japanese-designed and owned hotel, integrating touches of Asian influences. So, when it reopened this February, owner BJ Kobayashi, who long sought to bring the iconic property back into the hands of Hawaiians, was careful to honor those traditional odes, but also freshen them up into an Instagram-ready getaway. "When guests enter our lobby and see our beautiful views and the eclectic mix of colors, patterns, and art, we hope they will be inspired by the melting pot of Asian influences that is uniquely found in Hawaii," he tells T+L. Its Hau Tree restaurant now has Pan-Pacific items throughout the menu, and Henderson Design Group sourced the local art and furnishings, "many of which have Asian influences and represent Asian artists."
While he calls the rise in anti-Asian hate "extremely saddening," he's also hopeful that the state can lead the way. "Here in the Hawaii market, we have a long history of Asian Americans in leadership positions across the hospitality industry," Kobayashi says. "We all have a unique bond, as we have worked hard to preserve and protect the hospitality experience on the islands for all ethnicities to enjoy. I truly feel that there is a lot that people can learn from Hawaii and the inclusive environment we strive for here."
SaltLine Hotel, Seaside, Oregon
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States last spring, the SaltLine Hotel was still well under construction after breaking ground in September 2019. With nothing but uncertainty in the air, owner Masudur Khan forged full speed ahead. "We were really clear with our team on what our goal was and these are the benefits," he said on the blog of his company, Seaside Lodging LLC, which co-owns a dozen properties on the Oregon coast. "It was a difficult situation, but we overcame the challenge."
Sure enough, they opened in July 2020 – and the timing couldn't have been more perfect, since it gave SaltLine just enough time to establish itself as the city of Seaside, where it's located, celebrates its 100th birthday this year.
Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West Hotel, Plano, Texas
The "West of Zen" theme of the 304-room Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West Hotel infuses global culture into every bit of its ambience. "The public areas invigorate with Asian-themed artwork and design," Daniel Moon of the Sam Moon Group, which acquired the hotel in 2017, tells T+L. "Meeting spaces are named after major Asian cities. Crisp lines, a calm color palette, minimalist contemporary furniture, and expertly detailed workspaces and bathrooms promote the Asian sensibilities of rest, refresh, and reflect."
While he's grateful that his hotel is managed by Marriott, which he says has been making "guests and staff feel welcome by allowing a safe space to speak out against any sort of racism," the recent events have been "emotionally devastating." He adds, "Asian Americans in the hospitality business should recognize the issues that are plaguing our country and encourage their colleagues, guests, and staff to speak out and help put a stop to anti-Asian hate crimes."
Hotel Zoso, Palm Springs, California
Developer Omar Lee and his wife, Christine Lee, recently acquired Palm Springs' Hotel Zoso, once the Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs. Sitting on Indian Canyon Drive, the convenient location is walkable to the downtown restaurants, shops, and cafes – and it's three blocks to the convention center and two miles to the airport.
A purple pyramid-shaped entrance lures guests to its rooms – all with patios or balconies to soap up the desert sun. Plus, there are poolside cabanas, happy hours at The Lobby Bar, and locally sourced classic dishes at The Kitchen restaurant.
The Kimpton Brice Hotel, Savannah, Georgia
Taiwanese American Theresa Cabilao is a power player in the hotel world. As senior vice president of hospitality at Crescent Real Estate, she manages more than $1.5 billion in hotel properties – and owns 10 Hei Hotels & Resorts across the country, from Georgia and Florida to Colorado and Maryland.
One of her standout properties is The Kimpton Brice, located inside a building dating back to the 1860s, right in the city's historic district near the Savannah River.
"In order to give the next generation the ability to excel, the entire society will need to learn how to communicate and work with each other, regardless of gender or race," she tells T+L. "If the current racism continues, the United States will lose its ability to compete."
Henry’s Fork Lodge, Island Park, Idaho
For more than 60 years, Nelson Ishiyama has been an avid fly fisherman, traveling to every corner of the world, including Argentina, Alaska, New Zealand, and Russia, to fish. But there's no place he enjoys his lifelong pastime more than at Henry's Fork of the Snake River. So, when he saw the property in the area more than 30 years ago, he left his law practice and opened the fishing lodge, Henry's Fork Lodge.
Having fished in the area every year for 50 years, Ishiyama ensures that his team makes the experience a top-notch one for fly fisherman who travel near and far to the lodge. This includes airport pickups, pairings with outfitters and guides, and even making sure your choice drink is waiting on the porch upon returning each day. Apart from the lodge, Ishiyama is also on the board of the Asian Pacific Fund.
Bann at Oak Knoll Napa, Napa, California
Chef Lalita Souksamlane is already well-established in San Francisco, with five restaurants, including Osha Thai and Lao Table, but she recently turned her focus to her first hotel project, Bann at Oak Knoll Napa, which opened at the end of last year.
Souksamlane, who grew up in northeastern Thailand, has long loved wine country and wanted to build a resort-style bed-and-breakfast that captures the luxurious side of her home nation, while providing a stay that features "indoor and outdoor living options nestled in between sprawling California vineyards," as described on the property's site. The design elements bring together three different Thai regions – north, northeast, and south – with each room named after the main provinces of the Kingdom of Siam. It all shines in a home-like stay – appropriate since baan means "home" in Thai.
Aurora Villa, Fairbanks, Alaska
While visitors may chase the northern lights to Fairbanks, the true spectacle just might be the seven-room Aurora Villa, which opened at the end of 2019. Haiyang Yang, a Utah businessman who originally hails from Beijing, owns the 10-acre property, located about a half an hour from the city center, but seemingly a world away.
"With the ups and downs of the mountains ahead, the concave and convex of each room are echoed with the mountains ahead," he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "The large ﬂoor-to-ceiling windows meet the needs of guests to lie down and see the aurora."
The Roundtree, Amagansett, New York
As one of the best new hotels on T+L's 2021 It List, The Roundtree, Amagansett is everything a Hamptons experience should be: fresh, open, airy spaces and chic details top to bottom. Yet it's also nothing like any other property, with just 15 rooms that include both stand-alone cottages and accommodations in a former barn on its two acres, as well as refreshments throughout the day in the pantry.
Owned by Sylvia Wong, a former lawyer who then worked at IBM before joining the board of directors of investment and financing firm WTI, Inc., the boutique getaway – which has Airthereal HEPA-filtration devices and UV sterilizer boxes in every room – was "practically built for social distancing," as T+L editor in chief Jacqui Gifford said in the October 2020 print issue.
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