As we enter 2022, India’s oldest hotel company is updating its legacy

IHCL MD and CEO Puneet Chhatwal talks about a new segment in luxury travel – the millennial Indian who now travels with family and is ready to spend big

It’s a bustling London morning, a smoggy Delhi noon, and clear azure skies in Udaipur, when Puneet Chhatwal, Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar and I meet up — online, logging in from three different cities for a tete-a-tete that has been long pending.

At first, the idea had been to meet over a meal. Perhaps at the sparklingly redone The Chambers at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi to talk about everything that IHCL (the Taj group’s parent company and South Asia’s largest hospitality company) has been up to lately — posting a decent recovery after the initial months of the pandemic, strategising cogently to cut down debt, upping its revenues a whopping 132% (in Q2 FY 2021-22 over the same period last fiscal), but above all, expanding furiously, signing up not just newer hotels but interesting ones: an all-women managed luxury residence (the Taj wellington Mews in Chennai), a 100-year-old house by the Ganga, in a town not known for either leisure or luxury (Pilibhit House, Haridwar), a hotel in the heart of the Makaibari tea estate (the Taj Chia Kutir, offering a deep dive into plantation lifestyle with permaculture and sustainability built in), and a Taj Exotica at the Palm in Dubai early next year (with a marquee Indian restaurant opening).

Puneet Chhatwal, and (right) Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar 

But first, London. It’s early morning still when Chhatwal, MD and CEO IHCL, logs on, and we begin chatting about the Indian food scene in that metropolis. “Indian restaurants are buzzing,” he says, but confesses to not having checked out any save the Taj-owned Quilon “because if I am in Europe after all this while, I don’t want to eat Indian food”, he says candidly. Then again, Sriram Aylur serves some of the best South Indian coastal food in the world, and the restaurant also retained its Michelin Star for the 14th year consecutively earlier this year.

Also read | IHCL’s Taj rated strongest hotel brand in the world

We are still talking food, when Singh, the 77th custodian of the 1,500-year-old house of Mewar, India’s oldest royal dynasty, joins in with a cultured namaskar to all. “So, Lakshyarajji, you have been jogging?” Chhatwal quips about the former’s fitness routine.

The camaraderie between my two guests is immediately apparent. IHCL completes 50 years of operating the iconic Lake Palace in Udaipur, a home and a hotel whose visitors’ book contains messages from some of the most famous people in the world, including Queen Elizabeth II; where Octopussy, the James Bond movie famously featuring Vijay Amritraj and Roger Moore was filmed; and which was built (it opened in 1746) well before the US became a nation. “That is what I tell people… that you are in a place that existed before your country,” says Singh, more practical hotelier than insouciant prince, “otherwise who remembers history?”

Taj Lakefront in Bhopal 

Planning for the millennial Indian

They talk about keeping in touch with the needs of the contemporary traveller, even while retaining old values, and how the pandemic has thrown up a new segment in luxury travel — of the millennial Indian, with his family, ready to pay higher than before (while still looking for value); and one whose patronage will be important going forward, even when dollar-paying high-fliers return.

“The domestic leisure market is not going away anywhere,” says Chhatwal, “People have been travelling with their parents and families, and this behaviour will stay on.” When it comes to luxury experiences, the Indian traveller is steadily evolving in terms of exposure “and if helped by policy decisions like reducing taxes on quality wines”, this market will come of age.

Pilibhit House, Haridwar | Photo Credit: @narresh

Cognisant of this new demand, global luxury hospitality chains such as Six Senses and Raffles as well as the Indian ITC hotels (with its new brand Mementos) have all launched/signed new hotels — managed properties offering luxe experiences. While the new Six Senses Fort Barwana near Ranthambore has been in the news for the super-private wedding of actors Katrina Kaif and Vicky Kaushal, Raffles in Udaipur has been talked about for experiences customised to the Indian context, including dining that delves not just into Rajput royal kitchens but “culinary masterpiece(s) made especially for you, with an amalgamation of your horoscope, individual dosha and health”, according to its website.

All competition is good’

Does this competition faze my guests today, both with considerable interests in Rajasthan that seems to be at the epicentre of the new hospitality tug-o-war? Chhatwal smiles, “You should not be alone at the top”, and elaborates, “all competition is good in the long run because different brands bring different customer sets, whose cost of acquisition may otherwise have been too high. This helps us because new customers get a chance to see your brand”. He proceeds to highlight the Tata legacy: “Just see the iconic properties we have… Lake Palace, Falaknuma [Hyderabad], 51 Buckingham Gate [in London, where he is staying as we speak], who can match these?”

Amã Stays & Trails – Cardozo House, Goa | Photo Credit: Elmer D’Souza

As the new India story unfolds, IHCL’s relationship with the Udaipur royal dynasty that owns HRH hotels (the only chain of palace-hotels in India under private ownership) is significant. “It is not a marriage, marriages can be complicated, this one is not,” says Singh of the 50-year-old ties between the two legacy businesses. “Through the pandemic, the Tatas have stood firmly behind us; I only had to pick up the phone and there was immediate help instead of being told to refer to page xyz of the contract,” he adds. It is a relationship built on shared values, but as Chhatwal adds drily, “every relationship must have investment too, both emotional and capital”.

Also read | How luxury hotels are adapting to guests’ needs with specially-trained butlers

For IHCL, it not only means better access to a pool of premium prestigious properties but also leverage when it comes to other aristocratic owners who may look up to the Udaipur royals. For HRH, growth and modernisation with the heft of such a large chain is an obvious advantage. Hospitality insiders have been talking about IHCL signing on HRH-owned Gorbandh Palace in Jaisalmer recently and Fateh Prakash Palace in Udaipur last year, two interesting heritage spaces.

Busy pandemic years at IHCL

  • Through the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, IHCL has been on a journey of expansion even while streamlining its businesses. As the sector recovers, here’s how the numbers tell the story:
  • In FY 2020-21
  • · 17 new hotel signings
  • · 7 new hotel openings, including The Connaught, New Delhi and Taj Chia Kutir Resort & Spa, Darjeeling
  • In FY 2021-22
  • · More than 11 key hotel openings including Pilibhit House, Haridwar – IHCL SeleQtions, Taj Lakefront, Bhopal, Vivanta Sikkim, Pakyong. Upcoming hotels in the rest of this financial year include Taj Wellington Mews, Chennai, Vivanta Navi Mumbai Turbhe, Raajkutir – IHCL SeleQtions and Taj Exotica Resort and Spa, The Palm Dubai
  • · Ama Stays & Trails, promising “untouched experiential escapes” ranging from homestays to unique trails, grows to over 50 bungalows
  • · Plans to buy balance stake in Roots Corp which runs the Ginger brand
  • · To raise ₹4,000 crore by selling shares to existing investors and financial institutions to fund capital expenditure and cut debt

Unique food experiences also play a big role in the hoteliering journey forward, says Chhatwal. Singh, meanwhile, assures me that “of course you should have laal maans while at Lake Palace [a recipe his gourmet father, Arvind Singh Mewar, specialises in] but there are other dishes too”. His favourite “hand to my heart” is the unlikely spaghetti Bolognese which he vouches is as good as in Italy!

100 Taj hotels coming up

Chhatwal ponders the “paradox of life” where time has stood still at some places, as it should, but where modern tastes and needs must be attended to nevertheless. “That is the tightrope you have been walking everywhere,” I muse, remembering breakfast at the refurbished Machan in Delhi, a beloved coffee shop, now stripped of its striped carpet and old air. It is lighter, brighter and with options like a Japanese ‘trail’ menu, Delhi’s pop street dishes like chole bhature, served alongside a scoop of old Bull’s Eye (cake and ice cream dessert, that Delhiites from 1990s are still nostalgic about), and old-style Taj service.

The mention of Machan brings forth nostalgia from Chhatwal too, who is moved to exclaim, “That is the reason I became a hotelier!” He tells us how he would sit at the coffee shop watching people for hours as a young hospitality student — over the single cup of coffee he could afford then. Now, however, his eyes are firmly on the future. Chhatwal, who played cricket in his younger days, is looking forward to a fresh century: 100 Taj hotels in the next three years (the tally is 85 currently), a feat that would make it one of the top three luxury hotel chains in the world.

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