Independent or boutique hotels are increasingly sought after. Some of the leading lights in the segment tell us why?

The hotels are known for their general attention to detail, evident at every experience and service they provide—from themed meals, which could range from literary soirees to (luxury!) halwai breakfasts, spanning a whole range in between, to exclusive outings—where privacy, the sheer stunningness of the locale and the experience leaves a guest feeling that this is possibly the best moment of their life.

Independent Boutique Hotels, Boutique hotels, Narendra Bhawan, Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra, Kovalam, Niraamaya Retreats Cardamom Club, Thekkady, The Tree House Resort

In a sector heavily led by image and perception, you will not see an advertisement for Suryagarh or Narendra Bhawan, amongst India’s most-admired hotels. Yet, as guest after guest has testified, they are unlikely to ever forget the level of solicitous care they received during their stay. The hotels are known for their general attention to detail, evident at every experience and service they provide—from themed meals, which could range from literary soirees to (luxury!) halwai breakfasts, spanning a whole range in between, to exclusive outings—where privacy, the sheer stunningness of the locale and the experience leaves a guest feeling that this is possibly the best moment of their life. Experiences that seem tailor-made for them. Moments that become lifelong memories.

The hotels, belonging to the MRS Group, choose guests to be their brand ambassadors instead of advertising. People are looking for experiential travel, says Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, MD, MRS Group, which runs Suryagarh and Narendra Bhawan. “The whole parameter of what luxury means today has changed. Luxury used to aspirational—thread count and crystal chandeliers. Today, it is more experiential, more honest. People want hyperlocal, though not vernacular. Hotels that are contextual, tell unique stories, are the ones people prefer.”

Indeed, such is the global desire for exclusive vacation destinations that bring out the best of local elements and traditions, that boutique hotels are a global trend. Big chains, taking on the challenge, have tried to replicate the model with sub-brands of their own that tend to be soft brands, and preferably hyperlocal. Witness Tribute Portfolio, a brand started by Starwood just before its acquisition by Marriott, the largest hotel brand in the world, an umbrella which hosts hotels that are unique and contextualised to their locale. It’s not easy to do and independent hotels have a runaway lead here.

Properties from the Malabar Escapes Group put art at the fulcrum of their design.

In Europe, independent hotels are not just big in terms of employment, tourism and contribution to local economies, but also in room inventory or the collective number of rooms they represent. The rest of the planet is catching up fast. Yes, independent hotels may not have the heft of a big chain, but they have inherent advantages that are well-suited for the independentminded traveller looking for meaningful stays. They do not want to be confused with a ‘chain hotel’. “An independent hotel has the advantages of being unique in its design aspect and is not shackled by a cookie-cutter design criterion of a brand. Hence, it is able to bring about local elements and personalise experiences which are unique to the destination,” says Stephen Beale, Senior Vice President, Operations, Zuri Group Global.

"Unlike branded hotels that have limited flexibility on pricing, distribution and marketing strategy, independent hotels can create great value for clients by bundling offers, allowing guests the flexibility of choosing and building their own respective experience.”

With focus shifting towards sustainability and local experiences, these weaknesses of the past have become the strength of independent hotels, points out Jayant Singh, Managing Partner, Treehouse Hotels. “These, by default, employ local talents who are subsequently trained by passionate owners and managers as opposed to doing pedagogic and pedigree hospitality professionals of chain hotels. This has its own set of pros and cons.”

Evolve Back Resorts has carved a niche for itself with its stress on local heritage. “We believe in venturing into relatively untapped destinations where we see the potential for growth,” says Jose Ramapuram, Marketing Director, Evolve Back Resorts. “We prefer to be the first player in our segment to enter these destinations. We also believe in providing ‘true-to-the-land-of-origin’ experiences. We call this our ‘Spirit of the land’ philosophy. Every aspect—architecture, food, experiences—of each individual resort needs to be true to its land of origin. This takes a lot of study and research to get right, but it becomes easier as we are not part of a bigger group.”

Transformed after the death of the last Maharaja of Bikaner, Narendra Bhawan retains its regal airs and architectural graces while bringing contemporary luxury to the fore.

For Joerg Drechsel and Txuku Iriarte Solana, Founder-Directors of Malabar Escapes Group, which owns The Malabar House, Kochi, personalisation is key—curating a holiday based on guest requirements, including culinary and destination experiences, uniquely designed immersive culture reflecting in the guest products and amenities. “In short, a much more engaged experience with the destination and the team.”

According to Manu Rishi Guptha, CEO – Niraamaya Wellness Retreats, indie hotels like theirs offer bespoke services and itineraries, which the large chains find impossible to offer. “As a brand, we work. We are very proud of the wellness solutions that we provide. We believe that a leisure holiday is no longer a holiday if people are looking at an excess of partying or eating or drinking. People are looking to slow down their brain frequency, their overactive metabolism, and their blood pressure and that is possible through the various unique initiative of mind-body-soul and gastronomy that we provide and offer.”

A luxury boutique hotel has to offer a clearly differentiated product to a targeted audience and not just assume the product will be a success with all, says Akanksha Lamba - Senior Vice President Operations, The Postcard Hotel. “Our hotels are crafted to merge into local spaces, rather than causing any disruption.” For Shoba Mohan, Founder, RARE India, a platform for boutique getaways, or a “community of conscious luxury hotels”, selecting the right hotels for the portfolio has been crucial. The potential for personalisation, unique destination-oriented experiences that can include myriad interests such as cuisine, art, craft, culture, nature, etc, the relatability with people-owners, or the community and the character that is unique and creates a RARE experience like no other in a standalone hotel, are what she looks out for.

The Tree House Resort presents a seamless fusion of undeniable luxury with the raw charm of nature.

Design, design, design

Design is a major determinant in distinguishing a standalone hotel, which is unique and distinct in both its character and style, points out Vijay Wanchoo — Senior EVP & GM, The Imperial New Delhi, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts - Legend Collection. “For instance, as a family-owned property, The Imperial is etched with the legacy of the owners and is dotted with historic art. This legacy sets it apart from other contemporary or chain hotels.”

For Mohan, design and architecture are crucial in defining the physical attributes of a property—the lay of the land, sensitive use of land, land-to-keys ratio, adherence to vernacular architecture and repurposing heritage buildings. “Sustainable architecture that sensitively manages resources is an idea that stands out and creates a differentiation, which is quite unlike the modern chic, chrome and steel buildings.”

We are a design-driven company, points out Ramapuram. “Because of our philosophy, our resorts, which are located in geographically different regions, are inspired by their particular locations, reflecting this diversity in their identities.” “Design is an intuitive understanding and reflection of what we stand for, and also what our guests’ travel aspirations are,” says Lamba. “Our hotels do not overwhelm the local environment. This lends itself to a minimalist aesthetic that is inspired by local history and heritage." Guptha contends that Niraamaya Retreats are trying to find grace and class in minimalism, without the excesses of architecture and art.

Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra, Kovalam, is a stunning blend of Kerala-inspired architecture and minimal, but lush, aesthetics.

Challenges: Dare to be different

While indie hotels are above average on the charm and comfort index, maintaining the quality levels come with a considerable, often unique set of challenges. “It is challenging to operate independent boutique hotel but not impossible. Gupta stresses, “People are fed up with big-box hotels and chains, so they are looking for hotels with a soul, hotels that have a much smaller density of rooms, hotels which are healing in nature, hotels which slow you down, and hotels which rejuvenate and rejoice you.”

Input costs are always higher for boutique hotels owing to the small scale and lack of bargaining power with vendors of products and services, admits Singh. “But the overheads are lower, too, for boutique hotels in terms of corporate structure and human resources, with fewer people doubling up on designations.Also, by employing locals who can be trained well, the HR costs per head is reduced, even while the hotels maintain a higher staff-to-room ratio.”

Purchase used to be important, you needed the scale to get the best, points out Shekhawat. “When you are buying things like software—because the meta-narrative has changed, most of the things that are a big part of the variable cost are all local. Guests at our hotels want more local stuff—from food to cosmetics. That gap has also substantially been bridged.”

The Spice Route at The Imperial Delhi is an art haven, with its vibrant paintings, carved stone walls and polished wooden columns.

Independent hotels can and need to be more malleable to ensure they remain profitable, points out Lamba. “A luxury boutique hotel, to be sustainable, also needs to have a strong, set vision —one that differentiates it in the market. The Postcard Hotel generally operates at an operating profit level of 40% consistently because of the way it is designed and the premium that it enjoys." Ramapuram says the biggest challenge has been in ensuring that each Evolve Back resort is truly unique and synonymous with their location, with a common unifying thread of responsible luxury.

“It would have been very simple to go for a uniform cookie-cutter template but we chose to build resorts with very distinct personalities. Another challenge was to identify, create and develop markets for such a diverse portfolio. Each resort has its underlying theme and leveraging each was a very challenging task.” For Mohan, the main challenges lie in the operational costs of independent and boutique hotels that are often not on an oft-repeated circuit; taxation which is not uniquely charged, based on the value and keys of the hotel; and marketing the hotel as a luxury experience. “The right customer fit, managing expectations and appreciation of the guest is a tall order. Another major area is that price competition does not auger well with independent hotels and they lose out to lower quality hotels, as they are unable to offer high discounts that the internet demands.”

For Wanchoo, one of the challenges that the independent hotel space is facing is of a shrinking market, as most of the renowned brands are sprouting across tier 2 and tier 3 cities, making their services and experiences available across the country. “The need of the hour is to create value in the minds of the guests and bundle services for them to distinguish your establishment from the rest in the industry.” Shared services are a sore point. The challenges an independent hotel faces are in the areas of shared services of technical expertise that brands bring to the table in technology enhancement and culinary experiences, where they can share resources across properties, points out Beale. “The loyalty programmes run by the large chain hotels, which, in the past, have been a key driver in customer acquisition, is also a major challenge for smaller hotels. However, now guests are looking at instant gratification and more personalized experiences, which is a huge opportunity for standalone hotels.”

 

The Postcard Dewa, Bhutan, is a mountain hideout on the outskirts of the capital city, Thimphu.

For The Malabar Escapes founders, creating small wow factors for the guest, based on their request and needs, by proactively reaching out to every arrival and understanding their requirements for the holiday is important. “Bringing in global cooking styles, working with local produce, sharing the innovative culinary story of the unit, making new seasonal coolers and local snacks to give a sense of destination experience during the arrival and stay are some of the experiences,” says Drechsel. “Departure gifts to take a small memory back of their holiday when they leave is also important.”

Most indie hoteliers agree that they need to conduct regular audits and mock drills with the team, create new menus for the season and work with seasonal products round the year, constantly innovate and plan to ensure a high level of product and service. As Guptha says, “Boutique hotels or smaller hotels are nimble-footed. They can quickly change strategy, they can quickly take dynamic rate decisions and now, are the preferred choice for the discerning travellers.”

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