Women Now

“When I was 14, I said ‘papa, I’ll pay for my school fees’,” says capsule hotel CUBE's co-founder

Sonia Anya Tay might not have gone to university but she’s now one half of the husband-and-wife duo running homegrown capsule hotel CUBE in Chinatown and Kampong Glam
 

Photo: In CUBE, there are women-only rooms for extra privacy and comfort

Sonia Anya Tay, co-founder and chief operating officer of the RB Hospitality Pte Ltd acknowledges that her travel habits are unorthodox. “When we travel, we decide on the nicest looking hotel that we want to experience a stay at first, then explore the area around it,” she says. This is unlike most of us who are more likely to plot our must-see destinations (landmarks and what have you) before settling on a hotel.

The “we” she is referring to includes her husband - RB Hospitality Pte Ltd co-founder and chief executive officer Benedict Choa, 43, whom she says gravitates towards 5-star luxury hotels.

Avid travelers before becoming parents, they would travel to neighbouring countries as often as once a week. They noticed that the local high-end hotel and boutique hostel market might've been growing saturated but there remained potential among capsule hotels. Originating from Japan in the 70s, capsule hotels offer inexpensive sleeping pods that are compact. It's a convenient means of accommodation if you're the sort to go out and about rather than dwell in your room for long. “We wanted to marry the affordability with the luxury that we enjoyed from our trips,” she says.

 

Photo: The price for a stay per night starts from $50. Not only are the capsules sound proofed from the hustle and bustle outside, but there is proper ventilation in place. Sounds like a good night's rest is in order. 

In 2016, they renovated conservation shophouses and opened CUBE in Chinatown, followed by a second outlet in Kampong Glam this year. The latter’s just a stone throw away from vibrant Haji Lane, the Sultan Mosque and the Malay Heritage Centre. The point is to open doors in heritage enclaves brimming with culture. But starting out in Chinatown was tricky business. As it turned out, new licenses weren’t even being released anymore. “We had to give operators money in exchange for their businesses,” Sonia recalls.

But having the audacity to go for what you want isn't a first for the 32-year-old. Her gung-ho nature was apparent even during her younger years. When she was 10, her neighbourhood primary school shut down. “It wasn’t really an issue because students would be transferred to the nearest one by default,” she explains. But Sonia wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about the move. Rather than sit idly by, she rounded up her friends and three of them sought an alternative - Marymount Convent School. “My Chinese-speaking parents didn’t even know what we were doing. We walked into the principal’s office and asked to be accepted,” she says. 

It worked. But with a bigger student body and different teaching methods, the transition was far from smooth. “It was so stressful! I went from being top of my class to the bottom of my cohort,” admits Sonia. She trudged on and by the end of the year, managed to turn things around with vast improvements to her academic score.

 

Photo: Sonia and Ben have thought of everything. Each capsule is built to reduce ambient noise and is equipped with a vanity mirror, bedside light, universal electrical outlet and a locker drawer. Just stow away your shoes in the compartments outside, please.

Asked what keeps her going these days, Sonia frankly responds with a laugh - “the sales numbers”.  A business woman through and through, she started out in the beauty industry when she was 14. “My dad was a mechanic who was cheated out of his workshop by his brother and nephew. I saw how tough it was for him to make ends meet and said ‘papa, I’ll pay for my school fees’,” says the youngest of five. Her father wasn’t well-versed in English and trusted that his brother would handle the paperwork so he didn’t put down his name as co-owner and lost out.

Showing sparks of pro-activeness, Sonia walked into a HDB mamashop selling beauty products to seek a part-time job. She was hired on the spot. “The aunty just said, if anyone asks, say you are my niece,” says Sonia. “I started as a cashier and it was a super busy store. Every day, there would be three cashiers and every two hours, an aunty would come around to collect the $5,000 of cash.” The high-pressured environment meant that the turnover rate was through the roof, so Sonia found herself taking the lead and training others.

“Because these shops buy things in bulk, there would be a lot of dead stock,” she says. But she would stand out front until she sold every last bottle of shampoo and body wash. The shop was eventually bought over by a FMCG company. She grew alongside it by taking on a role in procurement after graduating from polytechnic. The $1,900 pay was modest but she was hungry to learn and opportunities included business trips overseas.

After 10 years, she moved on to retail group Dairy Farm, crunching numbers and reporting to the directors of supermarket giants like Cold Storage and Guardian. A stint in Unilever followed suit before she decided to dabble in the property scene, working for Ben. “Because he was my then boyfriend, I said I didn't want a salary from him! It was my ego. I wanted to learn about property and make it on my own,” she says. It was a leap from her cushy $7,500 salary and she got nothing for four months. That is until she finally sealed a deal that scored a quarter million in profit. It was a whole new ballgame.

 

Photo: A Singapore Visitor Centre in the lobby is open 24/7 to share insider tips on what to do and eat in the vicinity. 

When Ben and I first met, I was convinced that he had been stalking me, says Sonia jokingly. The two first saw each other at a restaurant before crossing paths over and over again the same evening. Now parents to three young children, they’ve grown from strength to strength. While some couples might steer clear of working together, Sonia says it works if you can communicate well. “You also need to have a lot of patience and be able to view success in the same manner,” she explains.

Operating CUBE Hotel and other real estate properties under RB Hospitality Pte Ltd, Sonia says shoptalk is like breathing to them. “It’s not difficult. There’s a part of us that wants to grow CUBE,” she says, attributing it to passion.

Growing from a two-person team to one with 25 staff, Sonia now has her eyes set on global expansion. A third building is slated to open doors in Chinatown before year-end. It'll involve a different concept but she's keeping her lips sealed for now. Watch this space for the update. 

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