An interview with Saurabh Rai, Executive Vice President, (South Asia, South-East Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australasia), Preferred Hotels & Resorts
According to him, the differentiator lies in the service, people and the software offered by hotels
Recent surveys show Indian travellers are looking at accommodation that expresses their individuality. They want to make a statement through a holiday that is unique in every way. With home-stays and boutique bed-and-breakfast options across the globe catering to this aspiration, Lounge spoke to Saurabh Rai, executive vice-president (South Asia, South-East Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australasia), Preferred Hotels & Resorts, which has a diverse portfolio of independent hotels, resorts and residences, about how luxury hotels are rising to this challenge. Edited excerpts:
According to a survey by travel fare aggregator Booking.com, 65% of Indian travellers prefer to stay in home-type accommodation and unconventional spaces. How is this affecting the luxury hotel segment?
Outbound travel from India is still a lot about hotels, but there is a small but fast-growing segment of shared space accommodation space as well. The trend of multigenerational travel—grandparents, parents and kids travelling together—is backing it up. The sense of space that you get in a shared accommodation is a relevant factor. The second aspect is that urban Indians have a very mature travel palette. They have a sense of adventure and want to try different things, away from the tried and tested in the hotels space. Having said that, ever since we set up office in India in 2007-08, we have never seen a set of consecutive years when our numbers dipped.
The market is humongous, and the bounty is endless, right from primary cities such as Delhi, to secondary cities and tertiary ones like Indore. I am glad to confirm that across segments, India outbound has been solid. One is seeing growth in shorter-haul destinations such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai. The interesting change, however, is that travel is no longer about going to primary gateway cities such as Paris, but about staying in Lyon, Strasbourg or Rhône Valley.
You have spoken earlier about the underwhelming numbers of international leisure inbound travel. What can hotels do to fix that?
Last I heard, the city of Dubai has a larger formally registered hotel room inventory—with close to 118,000 keys across three-, four- and five-star hotels—than India as a country. In destinations that have managed to do well in the international leisure segment, hotels have become the window to the place itself. It is not just about offering a great experience while being in the confines of the hotel, but it is the overall sense of the destination that the traveller takes back. Whilst in India, we have been the front runners in providing global standard accommodation, yet the moment you step out, the blast on your face is so intense that it makes you forget about that lap of luxury very quickly. How do you bring a sense of consistency to the experience? Not for a moment am I saying that this needs to be a consistently luxurious experience, which compromises the authenticity of it all. But can you curate an experience that is seamless, secure and inspiring? Can there be a partnership between hotels, travel and advisory, and the ground service community, to offer an authentic orchestrated experience? Unless we bring a completeness of experience, there will be a sense of fatigue around the destination.
What are the differentiators that hotels can offer to counter experiences curated by boutique B&Bs?
The differentiator lies in the service, people and software. Some of the most memorable guest experiences have always have had to do with people, and almost never with the product. It’s the human touch that matters.
Hotels bring a sense of curation. If you are going to a destination and are interested in art, you might need to flip a coin and hope that the host at the boutique B&B is artsy. But hotels, especially independent ones, have started paying attention to this. You can go to a concierge at a hotel such as The Leela Palace, New Delhi, and they will be able to draw up a trail based on your interests, whether those are food, theatre, zoology or politics.
Preferred Hotels works with 750 independent hotels, residences and unique hotel groups across 85 countries. How do you achieve a balance between immersive local experiences and global standards?
We have a two-pronged approach—of reaching out to the market and the market reaching out to us. We have had several long-standing partnerships, such as with The Imperial, which is in its 17th year. For these to be sustainable, we need to be sure about our potential to contribute to a property. We usually sit with a map of the region, and drop pins on all the hard shop business locations. Then, we look at subdivisions of cities and scope each out in terms of its micro potential. Let’s say, we have identified a clear opportunity in Hyderabad, where we have one hotel in Hitec City but none in Jubilee or Banjara Hills. So, we are looking out for spaces there.
When it comes to leisure hot spots, we look at itineraries, and being mindful of our existing portfolio, we identify gaps of opportunities across cities. It doesn’t make sense to just make one hotel in Udaipur. It would be better if we are able to provide an immersive experience of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur. Right now, Hampi, north and central Goa and Jodhpur hold a lot of interest for us. We have also been watching the coffee plantations and the tea estates in the east. We are in a space where we either work with independent hotels or independent-minded owners. It doesn’t work if neither of the two boxes is ticked.