With grand hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants in Singapore, Sydney, Shanghai and London, as well as Dublin, Wicklow, Kerry and Cork, the global hospitality portfolio that Singaporean entrepreneur Peng Loh presides over is high-end and luxurious. In Ireland, he and his business partner, Dr Stanley Quek, have a blue-chip portfolio that includes Trinity Townhouse hotel and Library Street restaurant in Dublin 2, along with Sheen Falls Lodge and the Ring of Kerry golf course in Kerry; Castlemartyr Resort and Terre restaurant in Cork, and Tulfarris Hotel and Golf Resort in Wicklow.
However, in the beginning, when Loh was a newcomer to hotel ownership, things were a little less salubrious. “I remember applying to get a hotel licence and I was turned down, because they assumed I was running a brothel,” Loh says of his first venture into hospitality, back in the early 2000s, when he acquired a budget hotel in a rundown area of Singapore. “I had to appeal and I had to give an undertaking we weren’t going to do hourly rates.”
As a young lawyer working in commercial litigation, he had spotted potential in a budget hotel in the city’s original Chinatown, which had become a seedy red light district. “In those days, the main work that I was doing was bankruptcy, because this was the tail end of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and as a young barrister, that was the only work going. I realised that there were a lot of properties that were, I wouldn’t say being given away, but they were selling at far below what, even a year or two ago, was perceived as their market value,” he says.
That first purchase was a shrewd investment, reopening in 2003 as Hotel 1929, one of the city’s first boutique, design-led hotels, into which he poured his love for interior design and collectables. “Before I got into hotels, I was dabbling a little bit, collecting furniture and things like that. At the time it was mostly mid century stuff, a lot of Eames, and the Danish designers. It was my own personal collection and I had it stored in warehouses. So when the hotels kicked off, was the first time I could unbox a lot of them.”
In time, the area around the hotel became more affluent, and thus began a career-defining skill for spotting up-and-coming areas in major cities, and buying ahead of the pack. Other similar projects followed, including the creation of The Old Clare Hotel from the bones of a historic brewery in Chippendale, which became one of Sydney’s hippest areas, and the creation of Town Hall Hotel in London’s Bethnal Green, which he describes as the most difficult restoration project he has undertaken.
“It was in very poor condition and it was in a deprived part of London. But what appealed to me was it was only five minutes from the City, and it was the next stop from Liverpool Street Station. At the time, it was a bit of a leap of faith. But it was a calculated leap of faith.”
The Unlisted Collection hospitality portfolio now comprises a mixture of seven hotels, four of them in Ireland, and more than 30 restaurants, some in hotels and some stand-alone. Several have Michelin stars – three stars in the case of Zen in Singapore and two stars at both Cloudstreet in Singapore and Da Terre in London. In March of this year, Terre at Castlemartyr Resort in Co Cork joined the firmament, earning one star in its debut in the prestigious restaurant guide.
The reason Ireland features so prominently in the Unlisted Collection is that Loh was born in Dublin, where his parents were studying medicine, and spent the first year of his life here. “I always love coming back,” he says. He returned to Ireland to attend St Columba’s College for his secondary school education, before doing a law degree and postgrad in the UK, and says he has lifelong friends from his boarding school years in Dublin. “I’m godfather to one of my friends’ children here. And I see them all the time, at least three, four times a year. I have a very good bunch of friends here.”
Dr Stanley Quek, Loh’s partner in Mayrange Hospitality, the Irish arm of the business, is a family friend of Loh and his parents. “He is someone who has a great love for Ireland. He was Ireland’s Honorary Consul in Singapore for many years. And so for him to invest here with me, we did it in a heartbeat, there was no hesitation.”
The duo’s first joint purchase in Ireland was Trinity Townhouse, a hotel in South Frederick Street in Dublin 2, bought sight unseen as neither could travel to view it before purchase. “I picked up the phone to Stanley and said, ‘There’s this property on South Frederick Street. Neither of us can get there on time. Do you want to just put in a bid?’” The bid was successful, “and it turned out to be a great buy for us”.
‘I started out with an Instagram account that was controlled by my staff. I didn’t have a clue what Instagram was. Now, I do it myself and it’s kind of fun’— Peng Loh
Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare, Co Kerry, and Castlemartyr Resort in Co Cork were next, and the most recent acquisition for Mayrange was Tulfarris Hotel and Golf Resort in Co Wicklow, which has recently undergone a €5 million renovation. “We are trying to link the properties together a little bit more coherently. We bought the Ring of Kerry golf club to add to the Sheen Falls offering. So all our resort hotels will have golf courses,” Loh says. But neither he nor Quek are fans of the game. “I tried learning it and I just found I didn’t have the time to practice.”
Instead of sport, Loh channels his off-duty time to his love of food and restaurants, a pursuit he records energetically in his Instagram social media account. “I started out with an Instagram account that was controlled by my staff. I didn’t have a clue what Instagram was. Now, I do it myself and it’s kind of fun.”
An enthusiastic eater – “Actually, I can’t think of a single cuisine. I don’t like” – he describes himself as something of an accidental restaurateur, having opened his first restaurant to fulfil a licensing requirement to serve a hotel breakfast. “My first love is probably still the hotels. But in terms of engagement, I think it’s probably 50:50 at this point, because the restaurants have become quite successful. So they pull a lot of your attention away. And restaurants and chefs require a lot of attention.
“Somehow I have gotten myself more into restaurants than I really intended to. I’m not so keen on the running of the restaurants, but I love the set-up. I love working with the chefs to conceptualise things. And I love the process of getting the restaurants open.”
‘The [online booking] systems are becoming much more sophisticated and much more easy to use. I don’t know whether the customer wants to know this, but they’re collecting a lot of sophisticated information… their eating habits, how much they spend’— Peng Loh
Looking to the future, Loh believes restaurant kitchens will need to harness technology in new ways to deal with labour shortages. “There’s going to be a lot more robotics in kitchens in the future. Are you going to have junior chefs peeling onions and potatoes, a lot of repetitive tasks that are fairly menial? A lot of that kind of work, I suspect, will disappear in the next 10 years.”
In the front-of-house area too, technological advances and AI in particular, are shaping the restaurant of the future, he believes. “The [online booking] systems are becoming much more sophisticated and much more easy to use. I don’t know whether the customer wants to know this, but they’re collecting a lot of sophisticated information… their eating habits, how much they spend. There’s obviously a lot of privacy concerns about it, but that horse has bolted, right?
“The investment going into these systems is considerable. And I think customers haven’t quite seen it yet in a very sophisticated form, but it’s definitely coming. I have seen a few demonstrations of these thing, and I’m like, oh, okay, I didn’t realise they had that much [customer information]. I do feel slightly uncomfortable about it. And that’s a wider debate – whether or not these AI systems are too smart. But they are out there and they are already doing it.”
As he travels constantly for business, Loh knows his way around a good hotel room as well as a restaurant. “A lot of people say that they like hotels to be like a home away from home. I’m the opposite, because when I travel, I want something that I wouldn’t get back home. So I tend to like boutique hotels, design-led, rather than something too traditional. I prefer the smaller properties, anything 100 keys and under, where there’s good food and beverage as well, because I am always very cautious of restaurants in hotels, generally. I think if a hotel can make a great effort with food and beverage, chances are it’s a really good hotel.”