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www.expresshospitality.com FORTNIGHTLY INSIGHT FOR THE HOSPITALITY TRADE
16 - 31 March 2006  
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Home - Hospitality Life - Article

Hot Seat

The First Lady of boutique

Priya Paul, chairperson, Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, India, epitomises all that a scion of royalty represents, except she enlivens the role in the domain of boutique hotels. Neeti Mehra steps into the world of baroque boutiques in all their regal splendour and finds a multi-faceted personality behind the brand

Everyone aspires to live free, and to live a fulfilling life during ones life span, and leave a legacy behind which spread over aeons. But there is always a gap between reality and aspirations, and this is minimised by clarity of purpose, and the diligence to achieve it. The voice on the other end of the line is crisp and clear, and Priya Paul cuts off my niceties firmly yet politely, as we meet as strangers over Bell's revolutionary invention. An interlude between countless meetings, we get straight down to the brass tacks of conducting business, a journey through her life. "My philosophy is to enjoy each day of my life, by working and playing hard," she says.

At the age of ten she was clear that eventually she would be an entrepreneur, but her entry into hoteliering was a decision made by the family, a fortuitous selection out of their portfolio of shipping, tea, real estate and construction, hospitality and financial services; a decision, she says in hindsight is creatively fulfilling. The lady dived headlong into the business, joining the Park Hotel, Delhi, after completing her BA in Economics at Wellesley College, in 1988. "Though in absolute terms there are none, but at that time the greatest challenge faced in my career at a young age, I had to take over the management of three Park Hotels, after my father's untimely death," she reminisces when I question her of the same. The moniker - The Park is drawn from the first hotel, which opened on November 1, 1967 with 150 rooms on the fashionable Park Street in Kolkatta. Today the group has its presence with boutique hotels in Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkatta, New Delhi and Visakhapatnam and a 240- room hotel in Hyderabad which is scheduled to be ready by end 2008.

Turning point

During 1990, she had already articulated a vision for the Park brand, and thus pioneered the concept of boutique hotels in India, with a keen eye on international trends. "Hotels in India were quite dull and uninspiring, and I felt that hotels should be conceptualised creatively and be an interesting place to be in." Thus the Park Hotels ideology was born - hotels in downtown locations, close to financial districts, attracting both the corporate and leisure traveller. This led to envisaging interesting and intimate spaces for customers, rather than being locked in accepted norms. "Guests and staff should enjoy and enmesh themselves in the space we provide, and that is our general philosophy." At that time customers were not aware of the concept of architecturally unique, contemporary hotels with sophisticated interior designs and decorative themes, weaving in a whole gamut of the experiential and the eclectic. "We are focussed on city centred hotels and are the natural choice for anyone looking for a luxurious downtown location with easy access to key commercial and leisure districts." Speaking about how the Indian traveller has evolved and embraced the ideology of a boutique hotel since their inception, she feels there is a sea change. "At that point of time we had started educating and articulating journalists and guests, and also our staff. Today, recognition of a niche segment is easier because people are open minded." They had ramped up their marketing efforts with trade fair participation, advertising, and membership of independent marketing consortiums, first the small luxury hotels of the world, and now the Design Group of which the Bangalore, New Delhi, Kolkatta and Chennai are members of. "The Design Group is more in sync with the essence of our hotels, to provide modern travellers with an alternative to the optimised norm, bringing in creativity, style and individuality into the experience as each of our hotels distinguishes itself through innovation and creativity," she enthuses.

Designs on design

During the 39 years of the brand, the attempt has been to keep the hotels contemporary by bringing in fresh concepts and supporting them by edgy design ideas executed by renowned architects, designers and artists such as Conran & Partners, Prakash Mankar, Michael Aram, Chandrasekhar Kanetkar, Carl Ettensperger and artist Hemi Bawa, amongst others. But design, she feels should go beyond the visually arresting and imbibe within it, longevity and durability. But how relevant are frequent design changes in boutique hotels, in which a guest builds a connect with memories only to find the hotel has undergone a facelift, albeit not a required one? She feels they are necessary. "Every hotel goes into a renovation phase after approximately seven years and this also attracts a new basket of clients." She states that six to seven years is the minimum limit to renovate each property, but this can go up to nine or 10 years, in certain cases. Anticipating trends, translating them into acceptable models, without diluting its functionality and integrating it with the service philosophy is the key for smooth transition. This has been ingrained in her collection of boutique hotels. Ask her how much of Priya Paul can be seen in each of the Park properties and she breaks out into peals of laughter. "There is a lot of me which you can see in the hotels. Right from the involvement in every art piece and the overall concept to design approvals." This includes involvement in the nitty-gritty's of the service and the training plan. The group has evolved a style which is younger and more friendly, resonant with the ethos of Park Hotels. "We tell our staff to build a relationship with our customers, and provide such training and it works," she enthuses. Though, she maintains, there is a thin professional line that lays down the limits for the same.

Multi faceted, single focussed

Her involvement in hotels is not restricted to her own brethren. She has embraced a multitude of roles from a businesswoman, a mother, a wife, a feminist and an active industry supporter as evinced by her interests. She is the President, Hotel Association of India (HAI), a member, National Tourism Advisory Council, Government of India, the founder member, World Travel Tourism Council - India Initiative (WTTC), a member, board of trustees, South Asia Women's Fund and a member of the Advisory Board of Directors, Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, apart from others. "Hospitality is definitely on an upswing and our role in HAI is to address and bring about deeper understanding of problems faced by the industry. There is an urgent need to make land available at decent rates to make hotels viable. The freeing up of airlines and other changes will increase the income multiplier effect of tourism and generate employment." The group has taken the responsibility for the conservation, preservation, maintenance, upgradation and beautification of Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

On the anvil, apart from the property in Hyderabad, is a four-star hotel property in Navi Mumbai, and a hotel management school on the same premises. The strategy is to roll out a prototype and once the property is showcased, look for partners in bringing out a chain of such hotels. "Navi Mumbai has great potential and we had the property for twenty years. The property is centrally located and once we have finalised the prototype, we will have a better idea of the costs, and then will take this project to another level." Approximately 20 crores will be invested in this 100 room property which will open by the year end, and she adds, a cliché that can well be discounted going by Park's precedent, that it will be a hotel with a difference. But she is not looking to dilute the Park name with a brand extension to this property, and the name is under discussion. Eventually, the group will look for a management and marketing tie up for the new brand. "I feel there is a segment in secondary cities, which we want to enter, but with partners." The group is looking to expand the Park brand and is scouting for land in Mumbai and new hotels in Bangalore, Delhi and Kochi, as well as in Rajasthan, plus is eyeing the segment for setting up standalone restaurants and bars, and has earmarked approximately Rs 100 crore for expansion.

Bend in the road

" I sum up my life till now as exciting. It has been a challenge to juggle so many roles and I have fun in what I'm doing, as essentially I'm a creative person and gregarious," she says. She finds yoga and meditation relaxing, and her wanderlust and love for nature has taken her on many voyages of discovery. In India, Goa is her favourite holiday destination. She draws inspiration from each place she visits and tries to capture that sensibility in one facet of her memory, to be drawn out later in conceptualising spaces.

"Inspiration is everywhere. I went to the Gwalior fort recently and it was inspiring in terms of concept." Her favourite hotel is Park Bangalore, which was rated by the Tatler Travel Guide 2003 as one of the 101 best hotels of the world. In conclusion, she feels that the key to success in this industry is hard work, creativity and ability to see things differently. "Find the right opportunity, and listen and react to customers in a proper manner," she says. And the First Lady will always have the proverbial last word.

 


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