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To many, Aman is the best luxury resort brand you’ve never heard of. Founded in 1988 by Czech-Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha, today it features a portfolio of 32 locations across 20 countries, built on the premise of discreet beauty and restrained ultra-luxury.
Despite frequently playing host to A-list celebrities and business leaders, Aman has nowhere near the brand recognition of luxury hotel chains like the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons – a status which it actively cultivates, having never advertised itself since its founding. Aman remains, for all intents and purposes, known only to an ‘in-crowd’ of globalist high-flyers, and thus an object of fascination for the mystique that it has built through the exclusivity of its resorts.
Having visited two of its locations, the all-encompassing effect of staying in an Aman resort becomes readily apparent, no matter if you’re in the alpine mountainscape of Bhutan or in the Mediterranean-like climes of Vietnam’s central coast. The transportive experience is a result of many factors flawlessly working together in unison, honed through commitment to a clear vision of a brand that has only become more compelling through the years.
Aman also sets itself apart from competitors for its cerebral approach to branding, with undertones of ancient Asian philosophy informing its many guest programmes. Thus, guests at Aman often view themselves as valuing substance over superficial symbols of wealth, and wellbeing over novelty.
Here, we take a look at what has made the Aman brand so singular in the world of travel and hospitality.
The name Aman is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘peace’, and this tenet is so central to the brand philosophy that the name of each resort begins with Aman, followed by another word specific to the local culture. This, along with ‘uniqueness’ and ‘family’, form the three essential components to the Aman philosophy.
The philosophy was conceived in service to creating the best possible guest experience, and one outcome is the unmatched attentiveness of the staff. With staff-to-guest ratios as high as 6:1, guests find a helping hand wherever they go in the resort grounds, while staff are trained to be present yet non-intrusive. The staff training process minimises the use of manuals or written materials to discourage canned responses, while emphasizing roleplaying to help employees respond to guests in a more individualised manner. The effect becomes that staff interact with guests as individual personalities rather than representatives of a corporation, facilitating closer relationships and a sense of belonging for both staff and guests.
The rule of thumb in the hotel industry is that location trumps all – a principle which Aman has perfected. While its portfolio has the rare urban resort in cities like Tokyo, Beijing and Kyoto, the vast majority of its 32 locations are located in far-flung “pieces of paradise” – from French Polynesia to the canyons of Utah – that uncover little-known corners of the world outside of mainstream travel hotspots. For many years, Zecha alone was responsible for selecting each site for a future resort.
Regardless of whether they are urban or rural, Aman’s locations all have some degree of historical importance. Take, for example, Aman Venice, which is housed in a storied palazzo on the banks of the Grand Canal and swathed in period frescoes and sumptuous Rococo gilding; Amangalla, situated in the 17th-century Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Sri Lankan port city of Galle; and, most impressively, Amanyangyun just outside of Shanghai, which comprises a complex of 26 historic Ming and Qing dynasty-era mansions that were painstakingly moved brick by brick, along with the surrounding camphor forest, 400 miles from Fuzhou where they were at risk of being submerged under water due to the construction of a nearby dam.
Given Aman’s predisposition for places rich in culture and history, it follows that the local character heavily influences what form each resort takes – from design and hospitality, to food and wellness. Each resort spends significant time and effort in creating relationships with the surrounding community, from hiring from nearby towns and villages, to sourcing produce, room amenities and furniture from local farmers and craftsmen.
Amankora, which comprises five lodges across the breadth of the secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, encapsulates this ethos well. While the country’s cultural preservation and tourism laws are especially strict – for example, tourists must be accompanied by a tour guide whenever they are outside of their accommodation – Amankora is typical of an Aman resort in that it is thoroughly dyed with the local customs and flavours of Bhutan. The staff retain the national dress of the gira, and authentic local cuisine is regularly served alongside more international options; while artisans and artists from the community are often invited to share their traditions with guests within the resort grounds, whether that be making prayer flags or performing ancient dances. Guided tours to areas surrounding the resorts further steep the guests in the sense of place that Aman so expertly crafts. And, in 2009, staff at Amankora’s Gangtey lodge in central Bhutan spent over 1,000 hours building a small monastery near the property for use by local farmers and monks.
This deftness in melding with the culture of each locale creates experiences that are singular to each Aman resort, meaning that no resort is like the other. Each visit to a different Aman will yield a novel sense of discovery, even within the same country.
Despite their unique characters, Aman’s resorts are instantly recognisable as being part of the same brand in a way that more corporate luxury hotel chains fail to replicate. This is in large part due to the consistent design DNA of minimalism that informs each location, which is accomplished by the brand’s long-standing partnerships with three core architects: Kerry Hill, Jean-Michel Gathy, and Ed Tuttle. According to Gathy, the Aman look is “balanced, aesthetically peaceful, pleasant, understated, and dramatic, even though it’s understated—a succession of drama and intimacy.”
The resorts are low-density and often take the shape of private guest bungalows arranged around a central clubhouse. Each guesthouse is a self-contained residence, which helps the properties blend into the environment, maintain a high degree of privacy and cultivate a pervading sense of peace. Accordingly, the interior aesthetic is free of unnecessary ornamentation, veering towards abstracted expressions of local design motifs as a nod to the visual traditions of the host country.
Aman is not a resort brand for the mass public and, since its inception, has never touted itself as such – this much is evident from its aversion to advertising, relying instead on word-of-mouth to retain a certain affluent customer base. While the 87-year-old Zecha is no longer actively involved with the brand, he would, with each new opening, spread the word by inviting an exclusive list of close friends to experience the resort, where the news would then spread organically through the customer base, and ultimately to travel publications like Conde Nast Traveller and Travel + Leisure.
Ultimately, Aman embodies a well-traveled and design-savvy lifestyle that is self-selecting in its pursuit of spirit and substance. In some ways, the Aman lifestyle is a direct rebuke of the modern consumerist mentality. Discretion is key to the Aman brand, and whereas other hospitality brands might publicly boast about the pedigree of its clientele, celebrity guests of Aman can rest assured in the protection of their privacy, helped in large part by the oftentimes remote locations of its resorts and unwavering professionalism of the staff.
It’s no surprise, then, that Aman has cultivated a cult-like following of self-proclaimed “Amanjunkies” whose loyalty to the brand leads them to routinely stay at different Aman resorts in a pilgrimage of sorts. As COO Roland Fasel describes: “Staying with Aman is akin to being a guest at the incredible private home of a wonderful friend. It’s a state of uncomplicated serenity.”
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