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GIC among backers of S Korean firm that reinvented 'love hotels'

Seoul

YANOLJA'S gentrification of South Korean love hotels has brought the company a valuation of more than US$1 billion from investors keen to capitalise on the globalisation of a novel approach to short-stay accommodation, its chief executive officer said.

The budget hotel and online booking platform operator reached the valuation having secured US$180 million from US peer Booking Holdings and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte Ltd, Yanolja confirmed on Tuesday.

It aims to conduct an initial public offering (IPO) as early as next year, CEO Kim Jong-yoon said in an earlier interview. "I can proudly say we transformed the industry," he said.

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Yanolja's emergence coincides with a time of flux among hoteliers, as legislators are at loggerheads with market disruptors such as Airbnb - through which private home owners can let rooms for short-term stay - while a government campaign to reduce working hours promises to free up more leisure time for short breaks.

Love hotels have occupied a peculiar space in the broader market, offering privacy for as little as a few hours at minimal cost for, for instance, young couples living with their parents.

Popular association with extramarital affairs, prostitution and hidden cameras, however, has sullied their reputation, exacerbated by their often garish decor and low-key lighting.

Yanolja - meaning "Hey, let's play" - sought to dispel any stigma with its bright, modern franchised love hotels, targeting not only millennial couples but also budget tourists seeking short-term accommodation.

"Previously, many people were not able to go to love hotels out of embarrassment," Mr Kim said. "But we've drawn in guests even for travel. That's the biggest change."

The firm, which began as an online search portal for love hotels, also lists hotel, pension and guest house rooms on its website at prices ranging from 50,000 won (S$58) a night at budget hotel Ben-Hur to 200,000 won at the five-star Hyatt.

It has entered into a strategic partnership with Booking Holdings whereby the latter's Agoda brand can list Yanolja accommodation, while Yanolja customers will be able to book worldwide through Agoda and other Booking brands, Yanolja said in its statement on Tuesday.

Both Booking and GIC were not immediately available for comment.

"It is a unique example which breaks away from the traditional notion of motels," said Lee Hoon, a tourism professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. "But the domestic market is not big enough. Yanolja can survive only if it goes global and scales up."

Yanolja aims to expand in hotels in South-east Asia where it invested US$15 million in ZEN Rooms last year, bringing it into competition with Indian budget hotel operator Oyo, backed by Airbnb and Japan's SoftBank Group.

"We are very keen to go global," said Mr Kim.

Yanolja was founded in 2005 by former love hotel housekeeper and valet Lee Su-jin, whose search portal evolved into an advertising platform for love hotel operators seeking to replace customers lost after the 2004 passing of an anti-prostitution law.

A decade later, Yanolja claimed to be the first company to offer a reservation platform for mobile phones for its own and others' love hotels, a major shift in an industry which relied on walk-in customers.

The platform allowed it to expand its target guests to shoe-string travellers from home and abroad, in a country where Airbnb-type options are limited to foreign guests.

Listings later ballooned as hoteliers turned to Yanolja to fill rooms after a political dispute caused a drop in Chinese demand.

South Korea's online travel sales nearly doubled in five years through 2018 to US$21.8 billion, according to data by Euromonitor. Sales by mobile phones made up nearly half of the total, the third-biggest proportion globally. REUTERS