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Interview: Amanpuri’s Nicolas Ilickovic on post-pandemic trends in luxury travel

As GM, Ilickovic has introduced sports retreats and the Amanpuri Villa Experience aimed at Middle East families

With two decades of hospitality experience under his belt, Amanpuri GM Nicolas Ilickovic is a seasoned hotelier. Though the challenges that the tourism industry has faced over the past two years have been unprecedented, Ilickovic has been able to identify and execute some unique opportunities during this time to make his property more attractive to GCC guests and stand out from its competitors. 

Connecting Travel: How did you start in hospitality?
Nicolas Ilickovic: I began my career in 1998 in the events department at the Ritz-Carlton in Sydney and spent almost a decade in Australia working for a number of leading luxury hotel brands. I first joined Aman in 2007 as senior assistant manager at Amanjena in Morocco. I subsequently helped lead the opening of three Aman resorts: Aman Summer Palace in Beijing; Amangiri in Utah; and Amandayan in Lijiang, China, where I took on the role of general manager in early 2015. Later that year, I returned to Amanjena in Morocco to oversee an extensive four-month renovation of the resort. I spent almost five years managing the daily operations of Amanjena before I was asked to take on the position of general manager at Amanpuri in Thailand in 2020, where I’ve been ever since.  

CT: Which experiences have made you a good hotelier?
NI: To me, successful hoteliers are a product of not only their professional experiences and choices along their career path, but also of their life experiences. From a young age I have travelled extensively due to my father’s diplomatic career. This fostered a curiosity and openness to different cultures, which has been invaluable throughout my Aman journey so far. These experiences also need to be complemented with a skill for communication. At Aman, the warm and welcoming nature appreciated by our loyal guests is an undeniable gift.

Communication comes in many forms, and this skill extends to the management of staff, who form a critical backbone to providing an exceptional guest experience 

CT: What are the USPs of Amanpuri ?
NI: Built over three decades ago, Amanpuri in Thailand was Aman’s first property. It claims an entire peninsula and one of Phuket’s finest white-sand beaches. Designed by architect Ed Tuttle to echo the architecture of ancient Ayutthaya, Amanpuri offers the space, peace and discretion of a private island with only 40 standalone guest pavilions and 40 multi-bedroom villas.

The Wellness Centre has hydrotherapy areas with steam rooms, traditional and infrared saunas, jacuzzis, cold plunge pools and a finishing salon for nails and hair. The fitness studio includes a Pilates studio, a Muay Thai boxing ring, yoga pavilions and a juice bar. 

Surrounded by the Andaman Sea, Amanpuri acts as a springboard for exploration of the area. The resort’s extensive water sports equipment includes speedboats, wakeboards, hydrofoils, water-skis, jet-skis, stand-up paddleboards, Schiller water bikes, seabobs and scuba diving equipment.

Amanpuri also offers a multitude of activities for all ages on land. The resort’s Eco-Beach Discovery Centre features its own nature museum and craft centre with daily programmes for younger children, including Thai cooking and dance classes. For teenagers and young adults, the Hot Spot features a rope-free bouldering wall, a skateboarding half-pipe, and a GoPro editing counter and screening room. 

CT: How do you attract and maintain good staff?
NI: It’s important we ensure every member of the property team feels looked after and nurtured at all times in a compassionate, respectful and collaborative manner. At Aman, we aim to provide the unassuming, warm hospitality of a gracious private home and this sense of belonging extends across our business, so our staff feel as if they are part of a wider ‘family’. 

From the brand’s conception, we have long held a deep connection with the destination where our properties are located and we’re fortunate to offer a high staff-to-guest ratio, which has enabled us to support nearby villages and towns by providing opportunities for employment.

Almost all of our staff – around 98% – are local

Amanpuri

CT: What is your strategy to increase occupancy and revenue?
NI: As a result of the global pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in small-group bookings with guests desiring to travel within the security of their own friends and family. Our one- to nine-bedroom villas at Amanpuri are perfectly positioned to cater to this trend. Each villa is discreetly secluded, cocooned within tropical flora, and offers expansive indoor and outdoor dining and living spaces and individual swimming pools. While villa guests enjoy full access to the resort’s facilities, everything they need is within the boundaries of their own private home. Each villa has its own Thai chef and dedicated housekeeper

We’ve also noticed a growing global interest in achieving optimal health, with wellbeing remaining at the forefront of every conversation today. With this in mind, we will continue to offer carefully curated multi-day Wellness Immersions at our Wellness Centre to allow our guests to recalibrate physically, mentally and emotionally.

New this year, Aman has curated a series of Extreme Sports Retreats that draw on the dramatic landscapes that surround each resort

Testing the limits of each participant’s mental and physical stamina, these sports retreats also harness the healing powers of nature. At Amanpuri, the five-night Laguna Phuket Triathlon Retreat took place last month from 18 to 23 November, helping guests competing in Asia’s longest-running triathlon to achieve peak physical health ahead of the event. 

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CT: What are your key source markets?
NI: During the pandemic, while international travel restrictions remained in place, we were delighted to see an upturn in bookings from our local market. We expect that domestic travel will continue to prevail. Prior to the pandemic, we were very fortunate to receive visitors from all over the world, with many arriving from the USA, China, Europe and the Middle East. The GCC is one of Amanpuri’s top markets. With Phuket reopening its borders, we expect to see more guests from international markets in the coming months.  

CT: How do you attract and cater to guests from the GCC?
NI: Several major airlines from the GCC region operate direct flights into Phuket, including Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates. We’ve noticed that many of our bookings from this part of the world comprise multi-generational groups desiring a private escape within the company of friends and family.

In response to this demand, we launched a new Amanpuri Villa Experience this year for stays of three or six nights. Guests who book one of the resort’s one- to nine-bedroom villas under this exclusive offer will also receive airport transfers, a 24-hour butler service and personal Thai chef, welcome champagne, daily breakfast and a daily two-course lunch and three-course dinner. In addition, guests will also enjoy a sunset cocktail one evening and a 60-minute holistic massage for two, per bedroom. The six-night package includes a complimentary night.  

In recent years, we’ve also seen an increase in demand for wellness-focused stays from the GCC market with guests enjoying access to our Wellness Centre. In particular, our Detox and Cleansing Wellness Immersion has received very positive feedback from GCC guests, with many enjoying the healthy cuisine and daily juices.

Amanpuri’s fitness sessions are popular with GCC guests, too, especially our Muay Thai boxing classes, which take place in our professional ring.

Participants can learn basic self-defence while practicing Thailand’s national sport and challenging their own physical and mental stamina

CT: How are you meeting the requirements of post-pandemic travel?
NI: Our approach to design and operations at every property focuses on space. We have large free-standing pavilions and villas, many with their own living and dining areas and individual swimming pools. In creating such environments, we have been able to cater to the changed desires of the current traveller amid this pandemic.

At Amanpuri, we remain in constant contact with our local authorities and officials to ensure we’re implementing all the necessary new health and safety protocols now required.

Furthermore, we’ve recently seen a growing trend in travellers booking very last-minute holidays, which has required our team to remain reactive and flexible. In light of ever-changing travel regulations, we’ve established flexible booking policies to enable guests to postpone or cancel their trip should they be unable to travel.   

Amanpuri (2)

CT: Have there been any new developments at Amanpuri during the pandemic?
NI: This year, we opened a Sunset Terrace where guests are able to sample delicious cocktails inspired by Thai myths, legends and folk stories and enjoy panoramic views of the turquoise Andaman Sea.

The resort was also pleased to present a new Gastronomy Series, with Michelin-starred chefs invited to Amanpuri’s restaurant kitchens on select dates throughout 2021.

CT: And, finally, were there any unexpected benefits from the pandemic?
NI: It has been heartwarming to see the industry come together to help others. For example, at Amanpuri, we formed a partnership with the nearby Surin Childcare Centre, which looks after more than 60 children. Our team now regularly assist in improving the centre through lending help fixing air conditioning units, painting walls, erecting fences and cleaning the outdoor areas. In addition, during our annual short closure in May this year, our culinary team prepared ready-to-eat boxes from leftover ingredients that were then delivered to health workers, officers and volunteers in the Thalang district. And our gardening team recently visited an animal rescue shelter that has around 150 dogs to help remove coconuts and branches that had fallen around the building and threatened to cause harm to others.  

For more information, visit www.aman.com

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