Nothing annoys Girish Jhunjhnuwala like an overpriced minibar. The idea of charging $6 for a pack of in-room M&Ms gets him steamed up. "Why does it have to be like you're staying in a convenience store? It's so unfriendly," he says. "If you're paying for the room, everything in the room should be yours."
Other hotel fails also get him worked up. Take power points. "You want to charge your phone next to the bed, but there is no plug point there. The plug point is behind the night stand, and is being [used] by the lamp. You need the lamp, but you also want to charge your phone," he says, exasperation in his voice.
Many of us share the same complaints; unlike us, however, Jhunjhnuwala has done something about it. In 2009, the Hong Kong-based businessman decided to switch from serviced apartments to hotels, launching his first Ovolo Hotel in Hong Kong. Since then, the hotel group dedicated to "effortless living" has boomed. In less than a decade it has opened nine properties, including five hotels in Australia, with more to come. The secret to the brand's success? "It's probably the free minibar," says Jhunjhnuwala, laughing.
The minibar is just one of a range of trademark Ovolo freebies. Book a room – depending on the property, rates start anywhere between $260 and $350 – and you can enjoy free snacks, free high-speed Wi-Fi, in-house laundry facilities, free happy hour and free breakfast. When I stay at the brand's newest outlet, the Ovolo Inchcolm in Brisbane, the yoga mats in the cupboard have a label encouraging guests to take the mats home with them.
Since Ovolo Laneways opened in Melbourne in 2013, Ovolo has purchased a number of existing hotels, including two Sydney outlets, one in Woolloomooloo and one in Darling Harbour. Two more properties opened this year: Ovolo Inchcolm and Ovolo Nishi in Canberra, previously known as Hotel Hotel. The company is refurbishing another Brisbane property, the former Emporium Hotel, which will relaunch as Ovolo Valley this year.
The brand is now bigger in Australia than it is in its hometown of Hong Kong. When I sit down with Jhunjhnuwala in a meeting room at Ovolo Woolloomooloo, I ask him about the company's love-affair with Australia. "Perhaps the question is why is it that Australia loves us so much?" Jhunjhnuwala counters.
"[Things have] worked very well for us here," he says , explaining that Ovolo moved into the Australian market after realising that almost a quarter of the guests in its Hong Kong properties were Australians. "That figure still holds today, so we must be something right," he says.
Part of Ovolo's appeal is its fresh, fun approach to design. There is no such thing as an Ovolo rulebook: each property has its own feel, from the bright pops of colour that contrast with the reclaimed ironbark beams and period windows at Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour to the art deco touches and sumptuous fabrics of Ovolo Inchcolm. As Hassell Studio's Shelley Gabriel, who worked on the Inchcolm refurbishment, explains, it is a place-centred approach to design.
"Everything has to be right for the location, which is different to the way older brands do it," she says. "They tend to focus on their brand elements and then add on the local context."
Gabriel says she enjoyed working with Jhunjhnuwala – "He is always researching what is new and what is out there" – and that the design for Ovolo Inchcolm blended old and new elements. Take, for example, the custom print commissioned from Sydney artist Kerrie Brown, used on bedheads, on lounge cushions and behind the bar. "We started with the idea of an 1880s floral wallpaper, but asked her to add some graffiti and bright colours as an overlay," Gabriel says.
Ovolo's inventive approach extends beyond design elements. Ovolo Woolloomooloo recently took the unusual decision to open what is billed as a "plant-based" (read: vegan) restaurant under the aegis of US-based chef, Matthew Kenney. It is a bold step for any hotel.
"I wanted to do something left-field with the food, and plant-based food is very on-trend," says the hotel's general manager, David Sude. "It fits with Ovolo's environmentally conscious approach. And because we have all the other restaurants sharing our building, we can get away with it."
While Sude got plenty of support from the top – "Girish is vegetarian, so it was right up his alley" – not everyone embraced the idea. "The day we told the team, three-quarters of the kitchen brigade resigned," Sude says. However, the restaurant has proven surprisingly popular, thanks to elegantly constructed, flavour-packed dishes such as kimchi dumplings with ginger foam, sea kelp noodles, and a killer banana coconut cream pie. (Non-vegan guests will be relieved to learn the rules are bent at breakfast, where you can have milk with your coffee.)
Other Ovolo trademarks include contemporary art (sourced from Jhunjhnuwala's personal collection), eclectic soundtracks (also chosen by Jhunjhnuwala, and available on Spotify), and plenty of technology (Apple TV and Alexa are standard in the hotel rooms). Jhunjhnuwala says his job is to keep up with his customers.
"The customer is changing, and it is important to move along with them," he says. "Just today we were talking about having a gym with no equipment. Instead, you'd just have screens where you can download one of thousands of programs – abs workouts, full body workouts, that sort of thing. Instead of just having cross trainers and cycles, we want to try do something different."
Jhunjhnuwala has plenty of other plans, too. In addition to taking Ovolo into new markets – "we get a lot of customer comments saying when can you open in LA, or London" – he has already launched a second brand. Mojo Nomad, which recently debuted in Hong Kong and may be heading to Australia, offers a high-style, low-cost accommodation designed to appeal to backpackers and budget travellers.
You may even see an Ovolo Resort opening sometime soon. "Resorts also need shaking up," Jhunjhnuwala says, with a gleam in his eye. "We just need to find the right property." See ovolohotels.com
Ute Junker was a guest of Ovolo Inchcolm.