Amber Asher is used to getting things done. Over the past 10 years, she served first as executive vice president and general counsel of The Standard, and since 2017 till last September was president and general counsel of Standard International after leading the sale of a majority stake in the brand. She has negotiated all development contracts, handled the legal matters, played a pivotal role in 2015 acquisition of a majority stake in Austin, Texas-based The Bunkhouse Group, as well as the 2017 capitalization of the company by Bangkok-based developer Sansiri, which today is the majority stakeholder.
So, when she stepped into the role of CEO last September, replacing now executive chairman Amar Lalvani, Asher was incredibly well prepared to become the face of the brand – it’s something she is seemingly adapting to with ease. “It’s been great,” she told HOTELS of the new role. “I’ve been able to meet a lot of our developers, and not just in the deal-negotiation setting.”
Asher continues to work closely with Lalvani, who remains involved in key strategic projects, brand innovation initiatives and capital and developer relationships, and has hit the ground running in this new chapter of her career.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she said, especially considering the growth curve the brand has been on – even during a pandemic, with teams being nimbler, more creative and making big personal sacrifices to get properties open or ready for openings.
The Standard, Hua Hin, the brand’s first resort in Thailand, opened last December with the new 155-room Bangkok flagship due this summer. It recently opened in Ibiza, as well, and has a series of 10 additional projects under development in markets ranging from Singapore, Melbourne and Lisbon, to Dublin, Brussels and Las Vegas.
Standard International also launched branded residences in Miami and will do the same at its Lisbon property. Before the most recent openings, Standard had seven hotels in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, most recently London and the Maldives.
“Bigger picture for us – it’s been global growth. That’s been our mission,” Asher said, adding that she expects the group to double its 20-hotel footprint within five years. “The financial market has been challenging and the pandemic still lingers. But I do feel for the most part that’s behind us.”
In fact, Standard International closed 12 hotel deals during COVID and opened seven. “Small but mighty,” Asher added, both Bunkhouse and Standard brands were profitable in 2021.
At the same time, Sansiri’s commitment has been unwavering, according to Asher. “They have been huge proponents of our global growth. They see huge potential with the company and want to continue to grow and invest both in our assets and infrastructure as a company.”
What’s ahead, said Asher, is desired expansion in key U.S. markets and elsewhere in North America for both Standard and Bunkhouse brands via conversion and even new development. It helps Standard International to have the expertise and capital of Sansiri behind it.
“There have been a lot of cities that have really grown through COVID where a Standard would be perfect – like Austin, Nashville or Detroit,” Asher said. “And then there are places like Mexico City. We are also working on a project in Toronto.”
Some of the growth will come through acquisition with equity partners and Asher said Lalvani has been leading the charge on that with the investor group. “It’s been a real focus and we’re well equipped to do that,” she added.
The fact that Standard does everything in-house, successfully operates its own food and beverage, and has a lot of experience negotiating deals acts as a differentiator, according to Asher. “I’ve negotiated every single deal for this company over the last 11 years,” she said. “It allows me to know where we can give things, where we can be flexible, and where we can’t… But a lot of my confidence comes from knowing the actual business underlying the deal, and then by surrounding myself with amazing creative people that bring these properties to life.”
Asher added that Standard would love to have another project in Los Angeles, the brand’s birthplace, as well as another deal in Miami.
In Europe, Standard International is under development in Lisbon, Dublin and Brussels and has designs on Rome, Milan, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris and other key gateway markets. Additionally, Asher said the firm would love to add Tel Aviv and is working on projects in Dubai.
Standard is opening in Singapore and Melbourne next year, and Asher said Sydney has been a big focus and remains a big target. Bali is on their radar and, with its parent company based in Thailand, Standard’s home turf is undoubtedly an ongoing opportunity for growth, including Phuket and Koh Samui. “We have a great infrastructure and an entire team in Thailand, as well as an investor group, great connections and collaborators,” Asher added. “So, we’d love to really do more in Thailand… We’re actually comfortable developing ground-up in Thailand.”
Standard International also has a down market brand called Peri, which costs quite a bit less to develop than Standard and is focused on family-owned or individually owned properties, particularly in Asia Pacific and perhaps later in Europe.
It has already converted properties to Peri in Hau Hin and Khao Yai in Thailand. It is also working on a new build in Bangkok, which wasn’t part of the original plan, but shows the flexibility in Standard’s processes, Asher said. “We could see Peri in Vietnam, Bali and Singapore, especially where we already have a Standard, because then we are creating economies of scale,” she said.
For the predominantly North American-focused hipster Bunkhouse brand, 10 hotels are open, three of which opened during COVID. “That little brand is actually on fire,” Asher said, adding that it feels like a high-touch experience but actually has a lower-cost labor model.
Another advantage, according to Asher, is that Standard International can develop multiple Bunkhouse projects in a single market, positioning them differently to avoid cannibalizing and generate economies of scale.
She said certain developers are creating multiple Bunkhouse properties and openings next year are scheduled for Houston, Louisville’s Nulu district and in Mexico City, Mexico. A second property is also coming to the resort destination of Todos Santos in Mexico, and projects are underway in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Fort Worth, Texas. “There are so many great cities where a Bunkhouse can really become the kind of place where the communities go and really create the whole environment,” Asher said.
Among the bigger challenges for Standard, Asher said, has been the financial markets, especially the softening of the debt market for construction loans. Add supply chain woes, inflation, the cost of raw material and development can’t help but slow down or simply be delayed. With Sansiri’s resources, Standard can help source debt or equity.
Asher is also seeing developers first sell condominiums with a project to subsidize a hotel development where there is no debt market. “We’re flexible on that, too,” she said. “We’re comfortable in that arena if it makes sense for the project and location.”
Not surprisingly, staffing is the other big challenge facing Standard International as it ramps up growth.
“Wages are going up, which they should. However, going after a certain person for a role is a lot more challenging than it used to be,” Asher said. “There are bidding wars on individuals. So, growing a team, developing a team and mentoring the team to grow from within has been a big focus for me.”
Standard International is also gaining a reputation as having a female-driven leadership team. While Bunkhouse has a 100% female leadership team which was completely organically driven, according to Asher, the Standard International team is probably only 50% women, which still says a lot in comparison to its comp set.
She calls the Bunkhouse team “a force.” “They’re very effective and great working with our owners and developer, as well as operations and design. They move mountains very quickly and collaboratively,” Asher said.
Having that diverse set of voices at the table is what matters most for Asher. “Our guests are diverse. So, we need to have a team that reflects that. Otherwise, we’re not serving the people that keep us going every day.”
Success is all about “team,” Asher concluded. “Teams that we have at our properties, at our corporate offices, that take care of our guests – we need to take care of them, and they’ll take care of our guests. And I’m certainly not the first person to say that. But I think we saw that really come to life during COVID. So, we need to develop people from within… Recruit, train and show them that hospitality is a wonderful business to be in.”