Anthony Lark is now much more than a hotelier. With a storied career that includes becoming the general manager for Adrian Zecha’s first Aman resort, Amanpuri, in Phuket, Thailand, the native Australian has so many stories about opening three Amans, running the legendary Strand Hotel in Myanmar, and partnering to help design, develop and manage Trisara in Phuket for the past 20 years. In fact, he just wrote a book about his career, tentatively entitled “A Lark in The Lobby.” Today, however, Lark is, perhaps, playing his most important role yet as the executive who oversees the Shinta Mani Foundation, which aids the less fortunate in Cambodian communities where eco-conscious Shinta Mani Hotels are located. “Our footprint should be small; our sense of community should be huge,” he said.
More precisely, Lark is the recently installed executive director overseeing operations and management for HMD Asia, the owning and management company for Shinta Mani Hotels (SMH), co-owned by renown designer Bill Bensley and Sokoun Chanpreda, the founder of SMH and the foundation, which is hugely important to both and is at the heart of everything done at SMH.
Among other things, Lark is focused on reawakening the SMH properties as business returns from its COVID-induced slumber. At the same time, he is involved in a very exciting 29-room Shinta Mani-branded project in Nepal with the high-profile Sherpa family and its Sherpa Hospitality Group called Shinta Mani Mustang Resort, which should open in October.
Lark said there is a modest pipeline for new-build and conversion opportunities with developers regularly approaching Lark, Bensely and Sokoun about creating Shinta Manis. But any opportunity must tick all the Shinta Mani boxes to be considered and Lark says there is no rush to build out the brand. “The brand value is in Asia and the close Pacific area,” Lark added. “We’re not going to build in Fiji and I don’t want to travel to Chile to open a Shinta Mani.”
But when Lark takes another breath to reflect, he can’t help but first think about his work with the foundation, which among other things provides interest-free loans to people in villages surrounding Shinta Mani hotels to help them start businesses.
A loan might be used to buy a weaving machine for someone to start a craft business, as well as receive help from the foundation to help place them in markets to sell their wares. “I walked into a home two weeks ago where a woman abandoned by her husband with seven children and no support had received help from the Shinta Mani Foundation to get her back on her feet. She got on the floor and starting crying [with gratitude]. I felt like Nelson Mandela arriving in some village. It was incredible. What we’re doing to transform people’s lives is so amazing.”
In fact, Lark said the foundation has some 700 loans out in its communities right now – “and not once has anyone not paid us back.”
All funds collected by the foundation – many coming from its guests and more recently from a wildly successful art exhibition and sale by Shinta Mani co-founder Bill Bensley – goes directly to the causes and not a penny to its administration.
Another example: 16 dentists are arriving from the United States and Canada to provide free dental care in the poor villages surrounding Shinta Mani hotels where many have never seen a dentist.
Taking charge at SMH
Of course, Lark has also been hired to run a business and as SMH grows he said it needs a little more organizational structure, especially in finance, purchasing and HR, but without creating the proverbial standards and practices manual as training remains very hands-on and bespoke.
Among his first remits as the pandemic slowed was to rehire staff at Shinta Mani Wild and Shinta Mani Angkor, reconnect with the group’s travel partners and to continually engage with the foundation’s hospitality training program, bringing back teachers and students who eventually help staff the properties.
Lark is also helping Sokoun develop another 4-star, family-focused hotel [maybe a new brand] on a nearby island that is not part of the Shinta Mani brand and set to open next year.
At the property level, Lark is repositioning the Siem Reap property to better align the main lodge with the Bensley-branded pool villas. He is also better aligning marketing and branding initiatives across the portfolio to do a better job with storytelling, a prominent tool based on property locations and programming. “Management is taking it more toward surprising and delighting guests,” Lark added, “so that word of mouth rather than Facebook and Instagram selfies does the job of spreading word.”
Bigger picture, Lark said business has been slow to come back to the portfolio due to reliance on feeder markets like Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. But there is emerging light as April delivered a profit to the portfolio for the first time since the pandemic emerged.
The true meaning
Profits aside, Lark continues to consider how to reshape the business in light of the dramatic shifts in approach to hotelkeeping brought on by the pandemic. “It threw us all into a place that we were never trained to be,” he said. “We’re now emerging out of that, hopefully wiser and a little bit more sensitive to the core values that gave birth to hospitality in its earliest days.”
Lark said the impact of the pandemic has really made him think about what the industry can do to stand out that would improve its reputation and bring back the true meaning of what it means to be hospitable. “How can we innovate and be sincere? How can we improve the way that we manage relationships, starting with the booking process and then all the ways we interact, including digital, to be more personal and less cookie cutter?”
The positive steps he sees is the increased focus on sustainability and wellness, which helps reawaken the “inner niceness of people. I think there’s a responsibility for that.”
Yes, like more hoteliers are starting to maintain, Lark agrees being good is good for business. As opposed to being laser-focused on driving market share, he said more attention should be paid to employing and buying local, for example.
“It is difficult for the general manager or owner who has no imagination,” Lark suggested. “Sometimes it’s going to cost you a little bit more to have that coffee made locally than it would using an espresso pod. But I’m also going to save a lot of money in housekeeping by using locally woven bags by the mum down the road who needs some extra dollars than if I bought them from the laundry bag shop in Phnom Penh, which is probably coming from China.”
The problem Lark finds with these thoughtful initiatives is that the vast majority of middle managers in hotels don’t share the same passion on these topics and find excuses to avoid change. “Don’t be lazy; give people an incentive to follow you,” Lark said. “And be enthusiastic because boring managers aren’t very inspiring. If you employ a manager who’s not inspired, I guarantee you the fish stinks at the head.”
In the meantime, Lark relishes in his new role and ongoing trip down hospitality’s yellow brick road that all started when Zecha plucked him from out of nowhere to run the first Aman. “After years at Aman and Trisara, coming in to run the Shinta Mani branded hotels and having a chance to support the goals of Sokoun and Bill Bensley in nurturing and enhancing the principles and culture they created is a privilege,” he said. “This is truly one of the very rare hospitality companies where people and community are the very core of the DNA, and purpose comes before profit.”