by Bikramjit Ray
The granddaughter of Leela Hotels and Palaces founder CP Krishnan Nair, Amruda Nair could easily follow her father into the main family business. Instead, she decided to go forth and set up a brand new hotel company, Aiana Hotels and Resorts, with a partner from the Middle East.
AMRUDA NAIR has the entrepreneurial spirit flowing through her veins. The granddaughter of Leela Hotels and Palaces founder CP Krishnan Nair, or Captain Nair as he was popularly known, Nair could easily follow her father into the main family business. Instead, she decided to go forth and set up a brand new hotel company, Aiana Hotels and Resorts, with a partner from the Middle East. The 18 month old company is now getting ready to enter India.
With a cool head on her shoulder, Nair explained her corporate policy as well as how she and why she decided to set up her own company. Before her leap to entrepreneurship, worked in Mandarin Oriental, New York and Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels (JLLH) in Singapore, as a full-time analyst on the hospitality brokerage team and was involved in investment sales mandates across the region including Indonesia, Japan, China, India and Thailand. Nair is looking forward to her foray into India, though she is very certain that whatever deals she makes, whatever hotel she would like to get involved in, will be totally at her own discretion. As someone who is a third generation hotelier, this is something she is certain about. BW Hotelier spoke exclusively to Nair. This is an excerpt from the interview.
BW Hotelier: Being part of a famous Leela Hotels family, why did you then decide to do something independent of the family business?
Amruda Nair: Because someone let me. I’m the third generation in this business, and I feel that at the end of the day you want to create and add value. I felt that it was a good time for me to explore what else I could do out there. It was completely opportunity led. I wasn’t looking for something, but looking at where the Indian hospitality market was going, the upper upscale in lifestyle space is something that hadn’t been tapped into. More than the fighting for a niche within the country, the basic premise that I had was that I wanted to follow the Indian as they went abroad. All the luxury players are fighting for those 5.5 million people coming into the country. Those foreign tourists are not even spending as much as they used to. What I was seeing was the 18 million, that is going to 30 million in five years time, of Indians travelling out. The Middle East was the perfect place, because its as good as a domestic flight for most. Dubai is two and a half hours from Mumbai and you have 950,000 Indians travelling there in 2015. It’s supposed to cross the one million mark between 2015 and 2017. The luxury players have tapped into Dubai as a market, but they haven’t looked at Qatar and Saudi and that’s where I thought with the right local partner I could move into a space that hadn’t been explored as yet. We are the first Indian brand to enter Qatar as well as Mecca. it’s been challenging, but opportunity led. If my grandfather could enter the hotel space at the age of 65, I could begin a new brand at 30.
BWH: What do you guys have now and what is the way forward for the group?
AN: We launched the brand in March 2015 and currently have eight hotels. 18 months, eight hotels under management and about 1300 rooms under construction. We are only going the management way. With a new brand that was entering the market like the Middle East, it makes sense to go with owners who know the landscape. Trying to something from scratch and go into projects is not something that I would venture into. My family has bandwidth to build and develop in India. I had to recognise the fact that I didn’t have the capability. Luckily for me my JV partner, Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani, had assets within his portfolio that fit our brand and he brought in the first two. In that sense it was an easy start for the brand to get a launching pad. We have a 180 key serviced apartment in the financial district of Qatar and we have a 614 room four star property in Mecca. In India, we have six hotels under management. The India focus was to look at the leisure space, because I feel there is potential. We focused so far on Kerala and Karnataka, starting with a 33 villa 23 acre property in Munnar. I want to do a hub and spoke model in India, with Kochi as the hub. I’d now like to do backwater and sanctuary property as well. We have a 50 acre plot with a five acre lake in Hassan, in Karnataka. India, the play is completely strategy. Our hotels are in the five star space, but at the entry level. We’re calling it accessible luxury. It’s all about experience and local.
BWH: What is the key differentiator between you and your competitors?
AN: The key differentiator as a management company is the fact that we speak the same language as the owners. Sheikh Faisal owns something like 30 hotels. I come from a hotel ownership background. At the end of the day, what’s worked for us as a new brand is that the people behind it know what it feels like to be in their shoes and that’s really given me a foot in the door because you have a lot of professional international brands out there. The other thing about this company is that both my partner and myself are in it for the long term. It’s also a private investment. I won’t come into India and say I will open a 100 hotels. We don’t need to scale unless we feel that it works for the brand. Owners appreciate the fact that we take our time and get it right. We take on properties that match what our brand spec is and find partners that share our values as well. The traditional way was that you have a design and construct model and you build these boxes and wherever you go, it will look the same. In Aiana’s case we want every property to be unique to that destination.
BWH: As a management company, service is very important, hat can you tell me about Aiana’s service standards?
AN: The consistency is from the Indian service ethos. It’s Indian hospitality, but at the same time, we are a Doha based Middle East born company. Development, Sales, Finance, Ops are all based in Doha. Our training manuals is being developed at the moment. My Head of Operations Murli (Murlidhar Rao) comes from a stellar background. From a service perspective I feel like I have a custodian for the brand who understands my legacy but at the same time knows his international standards and has worked. I think he has created something special. The other thing that we’ve done from a hospitality 2.0 perspective is that we have everything digitised. Our 300 page construct manual, our brand standards guides, all our building specifications, training manuals, is all catalogued and digitized. We have taken it to the next level. We are looking to compete in India and the Middle East where it’s all about appealing to a very difficult customer set, but its a challenge we have accepted. We want to do everything that makes Indian hospitality different–the warmth, the engagement, the intuitiveness, the adaptive quality. The one consistent factor in our brand is the underlying service ethos we want across our hotels.