Few expats have made a bigger impact in Pattaya in recent years than Rony Fineman, the popular and charismatic owner of the Nova Group - the award winning property developer, with ten hotels, several condominiums and serviced apartments in its portfolio.
For almost 40 years, he has lived and breathed the resort’s special atmosphere, experiencing both the good and bad times here. Change, brought on mostly by Covid-19, has forced Rony to rethink his goals and even his place of residence. He now sees a future in the UK.
Born and raised in Israel to an Irish father and Israeli mother, Rony arrived in Thailand in 1986 as part of an Asian tour. He liked what he saw and decided to stay on a permanent basis. With his background in hotels and hospitality in Jerusalem, it seemed an easy fit. “I also liked the weather and, with Pattaya being so small at that time and offering very little in terms of western taste, almost any business you opened would be a first for the resort.”
He adds tellingly: “Before moving to Thailand it was my dream to own a hotel”.
But hotels weren’t Rony’s first business. And the success he now enjoys at 63 eluded him in his early days here.
“Business was very difficult back then, with little success on the many ventures I opened in Thailand. My first business was renting large motorcycles to foreigners, which started well, but after a couple of these expensive bikes were stolen, I decided to move on to my next venture - renting jet skis on the beach. Again, business was booming but many accidents forced me to sell the business.”
Undeterred, he went on to run a bar he knew in Soi Post Office after the owner had a heart attack and asked Rony to help out.
“The owner said he wanted to see me in hospital and basically gave me the bar free of charge, along with his pet monkey. I did this for a few months but didn’t like the bar business, so eventually I got a job as a hotel manager for the Weekender Hotel in North Pattaya, which was good for a couple of years.
In 1994, Rony was approached by a Chinese company looking to buy a hotel in Pattaya. “After showing them a few properties they made an offer for a hotel called Nipa Lodge. However, the owning family had many internal issues so instead of selling it they offered to lease the hotel. The Chinese company wasn’t interested. Anyway, I had done my calculations and it seemed a viable project so I leased the hotel myself and changed the name to Nova Lodge.
“The name Nova came from a motorcycle, the Honda Nova. Also, after finding out that the word nova means a new star, I decided to keep the name - and it is with me to this day.
“The hotel was just OK, not making any money in the first two years and I almost gave up the lease. Then the Asian financial crisis started and the Thai baht was devalued by over 50% making Thailand a very cheap destination. Tourism boomed and we were able to double room rates in Thai baht, and as my rent was in the local currency, the hotel became very profitable.
“After a couple of extremely successful years I bought a piece of land – a rice field – near Pattaya’s ‘Second Road.’ With a bank loan I built my first serviced apartment called Nova Park. This was also very successful, 100% full for over seven years
“Then I bought a big piece of land in Wong Amat and planned to build five houses with a central swimming pool. I would live in one of the houses and rent the others till my two sons, Eli and Beni, were old enough for both of them to have a house of their own.
“However, I met by accident an American developer who suggested that I build a condominium instead. He joined me and that was my first real estate project. We called it Nova Mirage and it had three buildings with 240 units, all of which were sold in less than three months.
“From then on, we never looked back and started building project after project, including the Palm Wong Amat, Amari Residence in Cosy Beach and many more projects that won property awards over the next few years.
“With the profits from these projects I started building hotels mostly in central Pattaya under the Nova brand. These were managed by local hotel chains but in the last couple of years we have built hotels for international hotel chains, such as Holiday Inn Express Soi Bukao and Courtyard Marriott in North Pattaya.
“The pandemic was a very tough time. Luckily I had stopped developing projects a year before Covid so I wasn’t affected on that side of the business, but all of my 10 hotels were closed for over two years with no support from the government. I had to sell many properties I owned in the UK and borrow from friends and banks to get through it. We finally managed to open all the hotels in March 2022, and slowly but surely they are filling up. We hope to be back to pre-Covid levels by 2024. It was a very tough period and we are not out of the woods yet.
“In 2020 I moved back to London where I had lived before moving to Thailand and liked the vibes, so I made London my permanent base but coming often to Thailand for work and to visit my sons who still live here and take care of the business.”
Rony is the first to admit that Pattaya has been good to him and he’s been loyal to the resort. That said, a few years back, he almost invested in Phuket but it never materialised. “Actually I wish it had because Phuket enjoyed a few great years after that.”
Looking ahead, Rony sees a new role for Pattaya. “It’s always been a great tourist city, particularly for the single man, but this has changed a lot in the last few years with many family entertainment venues opening.
“The Thai market didn’t amount to much in the past but now they’re coming here in increasing numbers, and with fast train service opening soon, I think Pattaya’s future is very bright - especially because it’s near Bangkok and has its own airport at Utapao.”
He also applauds the local authorities for improving Pattaya’s infrastructure. “They’ve done a great job with motorways and highways connecting Pattaya to Bangkok, and also with the beach which has been extended. But drainage is still an issue and flooding is also a huge problem when it rains.”
Rony says he learned a hard lesson during Covid and as a consequence will try and sell a few of his hotels in Pattaya. “I want to buy a few country hotels in the UK under the Nova brand in order to spread the risks while keeping my passion for hotels.”