Thai Real Estate Giant Bets Big On Tourism Rebound With $3.2 Billion Growth Plan
Flush with cash from one of Thailand’s biggest IPOs, Asset World Corp. CEO Wallapa Traisorat is building new hotels and refurbishing tourist landmarks in hopes of a post-pandemic boom.
With Covid-19 still keeping foreign tourists away from Thailand’s pristine beaches and bustling cities, leaving more than 80% of hotel rooms unoccupied, one would expect the CEO of one of the country’s largest developers of hospitality, retail and office properties to hunker down. Instead, Wallapa Traisorat, CEO of Asset World Corp. (AWC), has mapped out a 100 billion baht ($3.2 billion) five-year growth plan to position her company for a post-pandemic tourism boom. “It’s a short-term impact that we are facing right now,” she says. “We see huge potential growth and strength in Thai tourism.”
Wallapa’s optimism is backed by financial muscle and vision. For one, AWC is a family affair. The chairman is her father, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, who is No. 3 on this year’s Thailand’s 50 Richest, with a net worth of $12.7 billion. The rest of the board includes her mother, who is the vice chair, and her husband, who is a director. Together, family-controlled entities own the lion’s share of the company. Wallapa is also among a handful of women CEOs leading a major Thai company.
For another, AWC is cashed up, having done a $1.6 billion IPO in October 2019, just months before the pandemic struck. Spearheaded by Wallapa, it was the largest-ever listing by a real estate firm on Thailand’s stock exchange. The company now sports a market valuation of around 146 billion baht, with shares trading at roughly 4.5 baht, down from the offering price of 6 baht.
Since the IPO, Wallapa has further strengthened AWC’s funding, saying the firm has also secured 50 billion baht in credit lines from two Thai banks, including 30 billion baht from Siam Commercial Bank, to prepare for “growth and investment.” In its first quarter report, AWC had property valued at 72 billion baht, plus cash and receivables of nearly 1 billion baht, but just 44 billion baht in long-term debt.
Having sound financials helped AWC weather last year’s 83% plunge in tourist arrivals from an all-time high of about 40 million in 2019. Revenue slumped 54% in 2020 to 6.1 billion baht, pushing the company into the red, and fell a further 56% year-on-year in the first quarter, with a net loss of 594 million baht.
Yet those figures haven’t deterred Wallapa from planning four new hotels with 1,600 rooms, adding to AWC’s 17 hotels with nearly 5,000 rooms. In February, she also acquired the 287-room Sigma Jomtien Pattaya Hotel for 550 million baht.
However, AWC’s most ambitious projects reflect Wallapa’s background in architecture and land planning. About 30 billion baht will be spent to redevelop Bangkok’s historic Chinatown and riverfront areas as well as to make over Pattaya, a beach town of ill repute south of the Thai capital, as a destination for conferences and exhibitions.
“We see huge potential growth and strength in Thai tourism.”
“We are looking at building an integrated lifestyle real estate group, and Thailand is our focus,” Wallapa, 47, says in a rare interview by video call from her Bangkok office. “That is the strategy to prepare AWC for future growth.” Hotels generated 60% of the company’s revenue before the pandemic, and include seven properties in the Imperial Hotel Group that Charoen bought in 1994 as well as Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park, The Athenee Hotel and Okura Prestige in Bangkok.
Wallapa expects hospitality to remain a key growth driver and last October announced AWC’s plan to build four new properties, which will be operated by Marriott International, including a Ritz-Carlton Reserve and the first Autograph Collection hotel in Thailand.
“They are one of the behemoths in the [Thai] industry,” says Nikhom Jensiriratanakorn, a Bangkok-based director of hotel consultancy Horwath HTL. “They are expanding, using their size strategically, and with all their capital.”
In a May report, it anticipates Bangkok leading a rebound in the Thai hotel industry with a V-shaped recovery starting in the second half of 2022. Phuket will follow suit in 2023, once travel restrictions are fully lifted and reciprocal travel arrangements are in place with key markets such as China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
The second of five children, Wallapa would accompany her parents while growing up in Thailand on holidays that inevitably centered around tours of family businesses, which then mainly comprised breweries and distilleries (Charoen’s Thai Beverage is the maker of popular Chang beer).
She recalls her father buying properties without any imminent development plans, creating a massive land bank that Wallapa would work with decades later. These include a prime sea view site where Banyan Tree Krabi opened in October.
After getting a degree in architecture from Silpakorn University in Bangkok, Wallapa headed to the U.K. where she did her master’s in regional and urban planning at the London School of Economics and then a Master of Philosophy in land economy from University of Cambridge. She began her career as a financial analyst with Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong in 1999, and married her high school sweetheart Soammaphat Traisorat the following year.
She joined her father’s diversified TCC Group in 2001 to focus on its property-related businesses, the pick of which were pooled to form AWC in 2018. The Traisorats have five children and Soammaphat, the former CEO of TCC’s erstwhile joint venture with Singapore’s CapitaLand, is a director on AWC’s board.
“It’s an interesting transition,” says Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks, a Thailand-based hotel consultancy, noting that Wallapa is highly regarded for assembling a professional team and focusing on working with a select group of partners. “She builds strong relationships. It’s a clear strategy,” he says.
Unlike some major hotel owners in Thailand who have built their own hospitality brands at home and expanded overseas—like Italthai Group’s Onyx and Amari hotels and Central Group’s Centara—AWC’s singular focus is on Thailand where its properties are operated by well-known regional and global hotel chains. “This is much more like big international hotel investment companies,” says Nikhom from Horwath HTL. “AWC tries to create an ecosystem where everyone profits.”
Following recent deals with Marriott and Hyatt Hotels, Wallapa is planning new developments with the Singapore-based Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts. While Banyan Tree has its own Thai resorts, it operates AWC properties in Krabi and Koh Samui. “Asset World has gone through a lot of transformation,” says Ho Kwon Ping, founder and executive chairman of Banyan Tree, who has known the family for decades. “They want to be well known, not by guests but the investment community.”
Having put AWC’s hotel division in order and refurbished much of its retail holdings, Wallapa is focused on three big-ticket urban redevelopment projects: a 16.5 billion baht mixed-use development for Bangkok’s Chinatown, an 8.1 billion baht bet on reimagining Pattaya, and a 5.8 billion baht expansion of its sprawling open-air mall in Bangkok called Asiatique The Riverfront.
Bangkok’s colorful Chinatown, which dates back to the 18th century, has long been a tourist magnet and is patronized by locals for its street food. Yet, it lacks adequate parking, subway lines and tourism infrastructure, making it among the most congested parts of the city. Wallapa plans to change that by developing an InterContinental Hotel along with a “very chic” Chinese boutique hotel, shopping outlets in restored heritage buildings, Bangkok’s biggest underground retail mall, parking and storage facilities and a festival market.
While the project—named Woeng Nakhon Kasem after a traditional Chinese market that once stood there—has faced criticism for excessive commercialization, Wallapa says: “We believe we can enrich the community, enhance the culture and history of how Bangkok started. The project is going to be the flagship and become the center of Chinatown.”
Transforming Pattaya—a former recreational playground for U.S. servicemen during the Vietnam War with a sleazy reputation as a sex tourism destination—seems like a high-stakes gamble. But Wallappa doesn’t think so, saying she believes that a new international airport proposed to be built by 2023 and planned rail links connecting Pattaya to Bangkok’s two airports, plus a monorail that will run right by the AWC Center, could turn it into a global getaway like Phuket.
“Pattaya has a lot of image problems,” says Jeremy O’Sullivan, head of research at real estate consultancy Savills in Thailand. “But they are one of the only companies that could pull something like this off.” Nikhom from Horwath HTL agrees, noting that while AWC has the money and could pull in the right partners to revamp Pattaya, success will largely depend on how quickly public infrastructure develops. Thailand, after all, is known for delays.
AWC’s third big project is to further expand its sprawling 12-acre Asiatique development. Wallapa plans to add a high-end Marriott hotel and residences along with Bangkok’s tallest skyscraper. On board is legendary architect Adrian Smith—whose work includes Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—who she says has designed an iconic 100-story riverfront tower.
While real estate professionals like O’Sullivan wonder whether the pandemic will cause Thailand to repeat the property fire sale seen during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Wallapa remains cautious.
Though AWC’s cash pile and deep pockets have attracted many offers for potential deals, prices haven’t dropped to levels she considers attractive. “We’ve had nearly 200 projects offered to us,” says Wallapa, adding that most sellers’ expectations aren’t grounded in reality. “It’s hard to find the right opportunity,” she says. “It’s still an uncertain time.”