GM Interview: Mehrnavaz Avari on Attracting Well-Heeled Travellers
Mehrnavaz Avari, General Manager, Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur, winner of the 2018 Hotelier India Award in the Luxury to Upper Upscale category, on the need for more government intervention in selling the many attractions of the destination to luxury travellers, and what the millennial guests want.
What is the Jodhpur market like for a hospitality group like Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace?
In Jodhpur, there is nothing in the segment occupied by Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, which has both its benefits and drawbacks. The biggest benefit is that that there is no competition, so you set the benchmark and deliver it. However, the extended competition comes from Jaipur and Udaipur. My challenge is to promote Jodhpur as a destination, and how these destinations can complement each other rather than compete, since we have palace hotels in all three cities.
The other challenge we face, as a market, is the stagnation in the international tourist arrivals to Jodhpur. The flow has not grown in the last four to five years. It has consistently been stuck at around 140,000 and that is abysmal when you compare it to other cities. On the other hand, domestic tourism has grown. But then domestic tourists come at very different price points.
Even then, if I were to talk about the mix of nationality at Umaid Bhawan Palace, in the last two to three years Indians have constituted about 50% of my hotel guests, and that is not counting the weddings. Also, Indians don’t mind coming in summers. Rajasthan, as a state, faces a perception challenge of the summer months being extremely warm. But in Jodhpur, while two months in the year are torrentially hot and temperatures rise to about 48 degrees, in months such as April or July to September, the city is like any other in India. In fact, it is not humid in summers, and by monsoons, it is lush green. My endeavor at conferences has been to raise awareness about these aspects of Jodhpur.
Most hoteliers complain about aggressive pricing and undercutting from competitors. As a palace hotel, what sort of issues do you face on this front?
We have different pricing for summers and winters, and since we do not have any immediate competition in the city, we more or less decide the price points. Those who come to the palace, do so for the experience. But in summers, we do need to fill the palace. I have two different strategies to attract guests during summer months. The regular pricing continues to be at a decent level. We want to maintain that luxury quotient and the brand image. But we have a beautiful package that Taj runs for all our palaces, which is so attractive that it brings in lots of interest.
What would the contribution of F&B be to the hotel’s bottomline?
It has grown exponentially. Most of our palace hotels don’t allow non-resident guests and are very low on banqueting, whereas for Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, events are a pre-dominant segment. While we host only 10 to 12 premium events a year, we do so at a level that [the business] becomes extremely critical for us.
Also, we now have a non-resident policy; but we insist on a minimum spend of Rs 6,500 plus taxes for non-resident guests in the winter months. We offer a little discount in the summer months. Within this amount, we offer some experiences such as the traditional Rathore welcome. The idea is to only attract guests who are serious, who want to enjoy the architecture or want to dine with us.
What have you been your biggest takeaways for the hospitality industry in 2018? What are the issues it is struggling with?
The GST regime has made a very big impact on the industry. Beyond that, what the industry is not looking at seriously is the change in the kind of guests we receive. One-third of our guests at Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace are millennials and by 2020, the segment may grow close to 50 %. This segment does have specific needs, the most important being their need for authentic experiences. We need to offer millennial guests a higher level of engagement as well as authentic experiences.
What sort of intervention would you like from the government as far as Jodhpur as a market is concerned?
In Jodhpur, we have the challenge of airport connectivity. We are only connected to Mumbai and Delhi by direct flights. In season, sometimes, we get ad-hoc flights. This year, we had a direct flight to Ahmedabad; last year, it was Surat and Goa. There is no way for us to plan our sales strategy. If the government lets us know in advance about the destinations that will open up every winter, we can target those markets more effectively.
Jodhpur, as a destination, has some very niche experiences to offer. At Umaid Bhawan Palace, we offer village experiences where guests are taken to a Bishnoi village to enjoy the wildlife and explore the life of the villagers. Jawai is just two hours away and we can organise a leopard safari. A little more specific advertising is important.
When I travel to trade fairs internationally, I often realise that people don’t know the difference between Jaipur and Jodhpur. I have to start with the map and explain India, the Golden Triangle and how vacations can be stretched to include Jodhpur. The development of local infrastructure is important. Tourists have a fascination for experiencing local rickshaws, but their count is too low in the city. Millennials want to be able to do things themselves.