Jason Cohen is a founding shareholder and executive director of the Cé La Vi Group, an owner’s representative for The Fleming hotel and CEO of Representasia.
How did you get into hotel and restaurant marketing?
I grew up in Hong Kong and my family travelled a lot when I was a kid. My parents had a lot of friends in the hospitality business – GMs of hotels or in the restaurant business. From a very young age I grew up with a deep interest in the hospitality business and it was all basically through travel.
When I moved back to Hong Kong from Australia – where I went to boarding school for two years and then university in Melbourne – I was trying to decide what to do. I was a little bit lost and unsure. My uncle worked for the Grand Hyatt hotels and I’d done an internship at the Hyatt before. He asked me if I wanted to work there. I worked at the Hyatt for a few years and then I went on to manage a small boutique hotel, which was the first hotel in Asia by (renowned architect and designer) Philippe Starck. I found that moving from hotels to food and beverage and then on to nightclubs was a natural sort of gravitation, which is how I ended up where I am today.
How has the market changed in Hong Kong since you’ve been here?
I moved back to Hong Kong in 2000 so the handover had already happened. I don’t think we saw a quick change in anything at that time. But now, 20 years on there has been a massive change. At the moment, Hong Kong is going through a little depression so it’s been tough for hospitality. Hotels are down. Restaurants and nightclubs are down. The market has changed in the sense that in the last few years we have significantly fewer Chinese mainland tourists, who I think have been good for Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong is still a great place to have a business and a great place to live, which is why I had no problem moving back here from Australia. Melbourne was like a backwater compared to Hong Kong and I couldn’t wait to move back here. I was always going to move back once I’d finished what I was doing in Australia.
You work with The Fleming hotel. What’s your role there?
The Fleming hotel is owned by the Hui family. My childhood friend John Hui and I basically started it 10 years ago. We took this rundown property in Wan Chai and converted it into a boutique hotel. Because of my experience in the hotel industry the family asked me to help with the project.
It’s a very exciting time because we closed it last summer to carry out renovations and we are reopening it in August/September this year as a brand-new property. Everything is different, from branding and the interiors to the food and beverage offering. It’s a small boutique hotel with 66 rooms and it has a chance to stand on its own in the market. We are not competing at a star rating because we are a boutique hotel. The Fleming can also offer connections to the local market and curate an experience to each traveller, which I think big hotels struggle with.
What’s your role with Cé La Vi?
My partners and I started Cé La Vi in 2010. The first one opened in Singapore on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands. Since then we’ve opened branches in Bangkok, Hong Kong and we have a beach club in St Tropez. We are opening a Cé La Vi in Kuala Lumpur in October/November this year. We have plans to open one in Taipei and Dubai. We always try to choose iconic locations for whatever city we plan to open a Cé La Vi in.
In 2014, we sold a stake to a private equity fund run by LVMH called L Capital. Now I’m responsible for the Hong Kong business with the general manager and I’m focused on expanding the business into Asia and greater China.
“My working life has been success mixed with failures along with investing in some things that have worked and some things that haven’t worked.”
You travel a lot with work. What are your favourite countries?
I travel a lot to Singapore because the head office is in Singapore. Recently I’ve been travelling a lot for work into China. I was in Taipei recently. From a personal perspective, though, I love Japan. From Tokyo to the mountains of Niseko. I started snowboarding a few years ago and I’m completely obsessed by that.
What’s a typical day for you?
At the moment The Fleming is under renovation, so I’m working more out of the Cé La Vi office. I start and spend my day there. Four days out of five I’ll have lunch at the venue and hold meetings in and around Cé La Vi.
I always try to find an hour to go to the gym in the afternoon and head home to have dinner with my daughter around 5:30pm. I then shower and change and head back to Cé La Vi – depending on the event it could be an early or late night.
How do you unwind after work?
I try to go to the gym for an hour every day and that really helps. On the nights I am home I try to eat a healthy meal. And we are obsessed with watching TV shows. I also enjoy a good cigar every now and then.
What other restaurants in Hong Kong do you like?
I’m a huge fan of all the Black Sheep restaurants. Recently the restaurant I thought had some of the best western food in Hong Kong was Belon on Elgin street. I’m a huge fan of Ho Lee Fook and Mott 32. We also eat a lot of traditional sushi.
How important is family to you?
Family is pretty much everything. I’m very lucky because my wife grew up in Hong Kong. My daughter is now here too. Both of our mothers are in Hong Kong and we see them regularly. We have a tight family unit and a good network of friends due to me growing up here.
What’s your proudest moment?
It would be the day my daughter was born from a personal perspective. From a work perspective, it was the day we inked the deal with L Capital.
I don’t come from a financial background or legal background so being involved in a big private equity deal was a huge learning experience. It took two years to get to that point and once we signed the deal it was a huge sense of accomplishment.
My working life has been a gradual process: Success mixed with failures along with investing in some things that have worked and some things that haven’t worked, but you have to keep moving forward. That’s how I look at life.
Text: Andrew Scott