Entrepreneur Ashish Manchharam on His Passion for Rejuvenating Singapore's Heritage Buildings
Over the past few months, many of Singapore’s hotels have reopened following the end of the two-month circuit breaker period in June and have been offering staycations to travel-starved locals. But popular boutique hotels KeSa House and Ann Siang House, which are located in vibrant heritage enclaves close to Singapore’s central business district, have remained closed.
Even in October, when we met Ashish Manchharam, the man behind these two properties, for a photoshoot at KeSa House on Keong Saik Road, the hotel was still not up and running. In the few areas that we had access to, beds were wrapped in protective plastic, and utensils and kitchen equipment remained covered up.
But this is not a sign that things have taken a turn for the worse. Rather, Manchharam, the founder and managing director of 8M Real Estate, says he has been busy implementing plans for the future. Since Singapore’s circuit breaker measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 was lifted, the two hotels, which are located in heritage shophouses, have been undergoing improvements that he had long been meaning to implement.
“Occupancy has been great since their launches, but there were certain things we could not fix while there were guests. So having the closures gave us the window of opportunity to make some refurbishments to the spaces,” he says. “We are optimistic that when things open up further, Singapore will be well-positioned for recovery given that we have been better at managing the pandemic than most places.”
Both hotels, together with the recently revamped Wanderlust hotel, are slated to finally reopen this month.
A NEW WAY OF LIVING
Soon, Manchharam will find out if the company’s concept of “flexible living” will resonate in this new world of social distancing and global travel restrictions. In recent years, with the rise of digital nomads and millennials who value experiences over material luxuries, this hospitality trend—where the focus is on longer-term stays, unique amenities such as interesting F&B options and access to a community of like-minded individuals—has been in the ascendant.
At 8M’s portfolio of hotels, this concept is literally built into the rooms. Manchharam points to how a raised shelf at the open-concept wardrobe is installed high enough to roll a suitcase underneath, and the cubbyholes built into the bed frame double as extra storage space. The room where we conducted the interview in even opens out to a private patio that is large enough to unroll a yoga mat (or two) for a private exercise session.
“Our designs offer you the option to stay for a night, a week or a month, depending on what suits you best. It’s not just about being creative with small spaces, but making it really liveable and cosier than a hotel room, so that it feels a bit more like your own,” he says.
With travel restrictions still in place, the hotels will have to rely on the local market for the demand. With his characteristic frankness, Manchharam acknowledges that staycations are but a stopgap measure for Singapore’s hospitality industry. “With low visitor arrivals, it is hard to fill rooms. The staycation market is not big enough for everyone,” he states.
Some hotels have tried to make up for the shortfall by renting out rooms for “workcations” or pivoting their public spaces into co-working spaces for those who need a break from working from home. What Manchharam is banking on is that there will be a demand for longer-term stays among those who are seeking out a change in environment away from their homes during these times.
“We see some demand for alternate spaces to live in. For example, people who share an apartment or live with their families may wish to get a space just for themselves for a couple of months,” he observes.
His hotels also offer options for those who may still not be convinced about sharing communal spaces. While there are some common facilities such as a kitchen and laundry room, there are also rooms that come with a personal kitchenette for those who prefer cooking in private. “It is about having your own space the way you choose it, so you could pick a room that allows you to be more isolated. But at the same time, you would be living in a very culturally vibrant and historically significant location that you can draw inspiration from,” he points out.
(Related: The Best Work-From-Hotel Packages in Singapore That Offer Privacy, Comfort and Convenience)
Our entire portfolio is focused on bringing new energy and life to these locations by curating lifestyle destinations within the city. We realised that by curating these clusters, we were also developing the community in these different areas.
How he began his career
Indeed, establishing these dynamic communities are exactly what Manchharam has set out to achieve from the get-go. His affinity for old buildings runs deep—the Singaporean grew up in the Kampong Glam area where his family was involved in textile trading and conducted business in the retail shophouses in the neighbourhood. In the early 2000s after he graduated from college, he pitched in to help the family enhance its real estate portfolio by acquiring shophouses in the vibrant enclaves of Haji Lane and Arab Street.
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He founded 8M Real Estate in 2014 to focus exclusively on revitalising historic buildings located close to the CBD by establishing new concepts in F&B and hospitality within their premises. Its properties include stretches of shophouses along Amoy Street, Gemmill Lane, Boat Quay and Circular Road. Last December, the company acquired four adjoining conservation shophouses on South Bridge Road and another three along Tanjong Pagar Road for $70.35 million.
Manchharam says, “Our entire portfolio is focused on bringing new energy and life to these locations by curating lifestyle destinations within the city. We realised that by curating these clusters, we were also developing the community in these different areas.”
For example, the F&B outlets at Ann Siang House include the cool basement pizza joint Blue Label, while Michelin Bib Gourmand eatery The Coconut Club is located around the corner. At Hong Kong Street, the company operates Base Residences apartments in an art deco building, which also houses Gully, a dine-in eatery and Vios, a cloud kitchen, both by Greek restaurant Blu Kouzina, as well as a boutique office space. He quips that he is carefully considering options for the eatery on the ground floor of his office space on Amoy Street, since it will be one that he and his team will patronise frequently.
Up next, the company will reopen Wanderlust, the edgy boutique hotel in Little India, which 8M Real Estate acquired from hotelier Loh Lik Peng in 2018. It has been reimagined as a flexi-living alternative to co-living or serviced apartments. The space will also house Kotuwa, the new Sri Lankan restaurant by renowned chef Rishi Naleendra. “This is more ‘extreme’ than what we have done to date as Wanderlust is in a more up-and-coming location as compared to our other destinations, which are already more established,” he says. “We thought through what would work in this space on top of having a beautiful building you can come in to see and experience—and the idea is to have Sri Lankan food in Little India.”
(Related: Why Kotuwa Has Much More To Offer Than Authentic Sri Lankan Cuisine)
Overcoming Covid-19 together
It is this focus on introducing unique F&B concepts that has kept many of 8M’s tenants—and by extension the real estate company as well—afloat through the recent tough times. Part of this is due to the range of like-minded partners that Manchharam has cultivated.
“It is a combination of having a great relationship with the operator and being able to understand their needs so that we can suss out a space that works for them,” he says. These forward-thinking restaurateurs include the SJS Group, which launched New York cocktail bar Employees Only on Amoy Street and Bar Milano at KeSa House, and chef Travis Masiero’s group of restaurants, which include Luke’s Oyster Bar and Chop House, and Blue Label, as well as a soon-to-open taqueria.
The company also extended help to tenants facing cash-flow issues especially during the circuit breaker months, such as by negotiating more flexible repayment terms. “There are no real winners, but you have to try to create a win-win situation by empathising and trying to understand how you can help them get their business back on track,” Manchharam says.
Thankfully, now that restaurants have reopened, business has “picked up quickly”. “We are conscious that this is location-specific and that tourist locations are suffering. But the kind of F&B that we are in is more experiential and we have created destinations that people want to visit,” he observes.
For instance, at KeSa House, the establishments lining the ground floor of the property include Italian eatery Pasta Bar, Spanish restaurant Olivia and French kitchen Mag’s, all of which complement each other by serving different types of cuisine. And as any foodie worth their salt will know, reservations are now strongly recommended as walk-in tables are hard to come by.
Manchharam is not surprised by the restaurants’ popularity. “If you can’t travel, then the next best thing is to go and have a meal in an Italian or a Mediterranean restaurant, and we have seen that demand is strong,” he says. “It is also a testament to how we have brought life to these older spaces and building a community around that.”
(Related: How The Buffet Experience In Singapore Has Changed To Cope With Coronavirus)
- Photography Eric Seow/Beacon Pictures
- Styling Joey Tan
- Grooming Delanie Wong-Bonnefoy using Keune Hair cosmetics and Laura Mercier