My battered recorder, a relic of the 1980s, is not exactly the kind of accessory I should be carrying to this chic, Terence Conran-designed hotel—The Park, New Delhi.
I am here to meet Priya Paul, chairperson of the Apeejay Surrendra Group, which owns The Park Hotels. She bustles in, just a few minutes late, jet-lagged and elegantly dishevelled. As peppermint tea (for her, “a recent addiction”) and watermelon juice arrive, she asks, “Have you been around, seen the place, what do you think?”
Grand design: Paul’s plan was simple — stand out.
It is easy to understand her satisfaction. Post makeover, the once rather drab building is a lush mix of colours and textures with a distinctly hip feel.
The reinventing of The Park, Kolkata (currently undergoing a complete refurbishment) and Vizag, and the creation of Bangalore (where Conran was called in for the first time) and Chennai (by Hirsch Bedner Associates, Los Angeles) were already complete when the New Delhi hotel went under the covers. “I was waiting to get started on this one,” she says. “I always felt it had so much potential, especially given its unique location,” (opposite the 18th century Jantar Mantar on Parliament Street). Recent additions to the chain have been one in Navi Mumbai (earlier this year) and Hyderabad (“the only one I’ve started from scratch.”), scheduled to open at the end of 2008.
Paul says she had decided when she was 10 that she would join the family business (steel, shipping, tea, real estate, retail, hospitality and financial services with a current turnover of more than Rs4,500 crore) after college.
After she graduated from Wellesley College in the US, Paul was almost headed for the financial services division, but her father suggested otherwise. So in 1988, Paul joined as marketing manager at The Park, New Delhi. “I had to get to know the nuts and bolts of the business and reported to my father. In about two years, I became the de facto general manager of the hotel.”
By 1990, everything changed. The family lost a young son in a car accident in 1989, and nine months later, Surrendra Paul, then just 54, was killed in a terrorist attack in Assam. “That was the most difficult time in our lives. My sister Priti went to London and took charge of the shipping division (she now handles real estate and retail), my brother Karan (now chairman of the group) was still in college, and I had to take over the hotels when the industry was going through a recession.”
The 24-year-old coped with personal loss and learnt the ropes of a new business at the same time. “We had to gather ourselves together, as a family and as a company, consolidate what my father had built, set new standards, streamline operating procedures and hire the right professionals,” she recalls.
So what prompted her to reposition the hotels in the now popular ‘boutique’ category?
In the mid to late 1980s, the script of the story of pre-liberalized India read very differently. All Paul knew was that her hotels needed to stand out and be noticed, and that is when the boutique hotel concept took shape in her mind.
“In 1988, when I started working at The Park, New Delhi, occupancy was just 10%. Now it is difficult to get a room. My father had told me then, ‘the fact that you’ve joined the industry when it’s down will be your biggest learning. Recessions don’t last forever, and neither do booms’.”
In the 1990s, hotels were still formal places, and Paul says she tried to make them hip by opening lounge bars, discos (Someplace Else, the club-pub-disco at The Park, New Delhi and Kolkata, tried to be just that), innovative restaurants (some of which did not succeed and had to be closed down) and by sponsoring fashion and art shows, which companies did not really do in those days. Many of the top designers today—such as Manish Arora and Rina Dhaka— had some of their earliest shows at The Park.
Paul’s decision to rope in UK-based designer Terence Conran to redesign the Bangalore hotel was key. It opened in 2001, and its unusual design was a novelty for India at the time: “As the city itself was going through a transition, it was easy for us to break new ground there and then move on”.
Long-time friend and Coimbatore-based industrialist Rajshree Pathy speaks of the “zing factor” that sets Paul apart. “What I most admire is how she constantly challenges herself and succeeds each time. She’s driven and determined and her eclectic sensibilities have created these great hotels—each one is so different from the other. The Park, Chennai, for instance, has changed the face of that conservative city.”
What of the future? “There’s a whole new breed of Indian designers now who can give us the same kind of results that I would have earlier got only from the likes of Conran,” says Paul. The hotels division has raised $55 million (approx. Rs215 crore) for its expansion plan, both in India and abroad, through a recent private equity deal with Credit Suisse.
On the personal front, Paul has managed to strike the perfect balance in her marriage to Sethu Vaidyanathan, a Chennai-based businessman whom she met when she was working on The Park, Chennai. They married in 2004 (“life decisions taken later than usual help put things in a balanced perspective”) and have a son, Surya Vir. The couple travel between Chennai and New Delhi, and try not to work on weekends. “I have so much family support in both cities, it makes my demanding job that much easier,” she says. They holiday often in Goa, where Paul’s mother has a house, and in Kerala.
Paul’s office, on a quiet road off the busy Parliament Street, where we met again for a quick wrap up, is no testament to the kind of design her hotels are known for. It is a warm and cluttered room, full of books on design, Post-its and scribble pads. Here, she is more wife and mother than successful hotelier, cancelling a dinner engagement and poring over the next day’s itinerary so she can spend the evening with her family.
Born:: 30 April 1966 (Kolkata)
Education: BA (Economics), Wellesley College, USA
Work Profile: Chairperson of Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels in India since April 2003
Currently Reading: ‘Spy Princess: Noor Inayat Khan’ by Shrabani Basu
Hobbies: Reading, art, food and history