Art of leading from the front: An exclusive interview with Dr Jyotsna Suri, CMD, Bharat Hotels
Dr Suri talks about the challenges, the turning points, the future of hospitality, and her passion for creating environmentally sustainable hotels
You joined The LaLiT Hotels as the joint managing director in 1989. What has your journey from that point to now, as CMD of Bharat Hotels, been like?
My journey over the last three decades has been extremely eventful. I went through several ups and downs, learnt a lot, faced numerous difficulties and emotional upheavals. However, I overcame each one of those challenges and persevered my goals. I worked very closely with our founder chairman, Mr Lalit Suri, as the joint managing director of the company. I learnt fast, as I thoroughly enjoyed my work.
In October 2006, I took over as the group’s chairperson and managing director. It was the biggest emotional setback in my life. I took control of my emotions and immersed myself completely into my work. I had to take the legacy forward; besides, the responsibility of my 2,500+ workforce motivated me to move on. I went headlong into the development of the hotels. I was propelled with unusual energy, which resulted in us doubling our inventory. We grew from six hotels to 14, in record time.
I have taken some strong decisions in the last 12 years. However, the biggest decision was to rebrand our hotels as The Lalit. Both Lalit and I were not hoteliers. Our flagship hotel in Delhi was a franchisee of Holiday Inn. It then became the Hilton and finally the Intercontinental. Over the years, we had gained enough experience and I was confident we could stand on our own feet. We planned in detail for more than a year and at the stroke of midnight, November 18, 2008, we rebranded as The LaLiT, paying tribute to our Founder Chairman on his 62nd birthday. Several people in the industry thought I was making a big mistake by giving up an international brand and that I would suffer a huge loss of business. Intercontinental was contributing only 0.001 per cent to my business in return for a fat franchisee fee. Our brand was immediately accepted, the business grew, became more profitable, contrary to the speculation of my colleagues. Since then, we have not looked back.
In 2017, we opened The LaLiT London, marking our foray internationally. I am happy and proud to have established The Lalit as a successful brand. It has been a gratifying and rewarding journey.
What has your experience with the London market been like? Is this the right time for Indian hoteliers to explore European markets?
Many hotels in the US and London are owned by Indians; we are known for our hospitality. I think it is a big opportunity for Indian hospitality companies to foray into international markets. A lot of Indians like to book into a brand that is familiar to them. The LaLiT London is a luxury boutique hotel comprising of 70 keys. The hotel enjoys the patronage of Indians as well as an international clientele. Our pan-Indian dining destination, Baluchi is established as one of the best Indian fine dining restaurants in London.
The London hotel is an amalgamation of two great cultures—an incredible Victorian building, housing rich Indian art and artefacts. The furniture, chandeliers, decorative light fixtures, artworks, mirrors, intricate tapestries, marble and mother-of-pearl inlay have all been made in India.
There haven’t been too many challenges in the London market. It’s a mature market and we have hit the ground running. Post-Brexit, there will be major adjustments that the economy and policy will go through. Overall, the outlook remains favourable for the UK and despite short-term challenges, there are significant opportunities available to maintain and grow the UK’s hospitality industry.
So, what does The LaLiT add to the Indian hospitality segment as an indigenous brand?
Both traditionally and culturally, hospitality comes naturally to Indians. The uniqueness of greeting our guest with a ‘Namaskar’ and ‘service with a smile’ is the dynamics that drive the brand in the global hospitality environment. We believe in limitless hospitality and have designed ourselves to be a hotel chain based on our Founder Chairman’s vision. We define ourselves as traditionally modern, subtly luxurious and distinctly LaLiT. We introduced the ‘Namaskar’ as a way of greeting not just in our hotels in India, but even in our London hotel. I am happy to see that now everywhere, from hotels, hospitals to malls, we are greeted with a ‘Namaskar’. At the same time, we are modern in our approach. We have accepted and included members of the LGBTQ community, trans-genders and differently-abled people in our workforce. We endeavour to employ more women in our team. We have redefined luxury to be subtle and not in your face.
Our motto has always been to ‘Develop Destinations’ and not just hotels. We engage with the local community, drawing from their cuisine, handicraft and traditions, and integrating them into our hotels. We draw attention to the destination by engaging in events, thereby boosting tourism.
As someone with no formal training as a hotelier, what fresh perspective did you bring to the business?
Indians have hospitality ingrained in their DNA. Since I was not a professional hotelier, I decided to learn on the job. I worked through several different departments, from housekeeping, food and beverage, front office to marketing and communication, and sales. I got involved with projects, interacted with architects, interior designers, contractors, and mastered the craft of development. When your money is at stake you learn very quickly. The only aspect of the hotel that I did not delve into was finance, which was my husband’s forte. He was the face of the organization and as a parliamentarian, had built great relationships. We made a good team, sharing our responsibilities.
My approach to hospitality was different from my colleagues in the industry. I did not believe that international brands could teach us hospitality and as I mentioned earlier, hospitality is ingrained in our DNA. I, therefore, plunged into developing our brand and in 2008, dedicated it to our Founder Chairman, Lalit Suri.
What are the transformations you have seen in the hospitality industry since the time you took over?
There are far more domestic travellers today. They are more demanding, aware and very different from travellers 30 years ago. With more spending power, the current generation is keen to explore newer destinations and enjoy unique experiences. However, they want value for money. As hoteliers, we have to evolve to keep up with their pace. Technology has changed the way people travel. Digitization has allowed instant access to information and through social media; every experience and opinion is in the public domain. At the same time, the definition of service and luxury has changed. A small example—service of water. A decade ago, the moment you had drunk some water, the glass would be refilled. Now, you ask the guest because you do not want to waste water.
How big competitors are brands such as OYO and AirBnB?
Platforms and brands such as OYO and AirBnB have a major online presence. Their offerings are very different and have changed the market dynamics by creating a new category of demand for travellers across the world. They do not occupy the space that we are in.
What are the segments that The LaLiT Hotels are operating in now?
Bharat Hotels Ltd is the parent company and all our hotels fly under ‘The Lalit’ flag. Right now, we operate 12 hotels under The Lalit brand and two mid-market segment hotels under The Lalit Traveller brand (in Jaipur and Khajuraho). We also have a luxury boutique hotel—The LaLiT London. We are the first hospitality chain to own and operate our food trucks. We also have an outdoor catering business and can cater for large gatherings and events with up to 5000 people.
Among your properties is a heritage hotel, The Lalit Great Eastern Kolkata, Asia’s first luxury heritage hotel. Tell us about the challenges of renovating and running the property.
The Lalit Great Eastern Kolkata is a 179-year-old heritage property and has a great history. We bought it from the government of West Bengal. Restoring it was an extremely difficult task not just because of its heritage value, but also because of the dilapidated condition it was in. It took me seven to eight years to restore it. We wanted to recreate the past with actual pieces of history. I retained and used everything that is of historic value—from the old teapots, silver water jugs, to the original Great Eastern crockery and furniture. The seven containers used for kneading the dough are now planters in different parts of the hotel, and the bread cans are being used for table decorations. The century-old piano has been restored to its glory and a section of the bakery has been retained in its original form to offer the guests a historical glimpse of the iconic building. We worked with Architects61 of Singapore, who had also restored The Raffles in Singapore.
We are still working on the restoration of Heritage Block 1, which houses 49 suites, two restaurants and meeting rooms. The restoration of this iconic hotel has been a labour of love, painful and time consuming, but extremely rewarding. Since the restoration was taking so long, I opened two wings of the hotel. It has been a challenge to run an incomplete hotel.
All your hotels have a strong Indian design aesthetics…
We do not have a copy-paste approach to the architecture and design of our hotels. We get inspired by the destination and create a hotel suited to it. The design has to combine luxury and comfort, and it should be reflective of the local heritage and culture.
What inspired you to use the rammed earth technology in your Mangar hotel? How important it is for you to work with sustainable design?
The Lalit Mangar is situated in the Aravallis, which are the oldest living plateau ranges of the world. We built a hotel to blend into the natural environment. We were the first in India to use a Canadian technology which combines raw materials such as earth, chalk and gravel in layers to create a unique structure of rammed Earth architecture. We then clad the building with the stone excavated from the site. It is extremely important for me to work with sustainable design as I am conscious about protecting our environment.
Could you tell us about your initiatives in protecting the environment through your hotels, particularly zero wastage in food, less energy consumption and radiation chips?
We use solar energy, LED lighting, and recycled treated water in all our hotels. As a group, we have planted more than five lakh trees in different parts of the country. We do not allow any wastage of food, so there are no bins in our staff cafeterias. We have partnered with Robinhood Army to distribute the extra food to the needy. Keeping the health of our guests in mind, we serve them organic food, which we grow in our farmlands. We also use paraben-free toiletries in our guestrooms. All our hotels are equipped with the latest Radiation Management Solutions. This makes us the first hotel chain in the country to provide a controlled radiation environment for our guests and employees because “We care”.
Please elaborate on the fabulous art collection in the LaLiT New Delhi. Do all your hotels feature art?
All our hotels have an exquisite art collection, spanning tribal, traditional and contemporary art. I use only Indian art forms—sculptures and paintings—to adorn the hotels. The lobby of The LaLiT New Delhi has priceless works of masters such as M.F. Hussain, Satish Gujral, Paresh Maity and Naresh Kapuria. We also have exquisite Chola bronzes behind the reception. Mumbai has a fabulous mural, Tripad Gaha or Three Way Road to Heaven, by the famous muralist Anil Bhaskar. There are several paintings inspired by Mumbai, by Sanjay Bhattacharya. There is also a fantastic bronze by Satish Gujaral called Turang. Goa, too, has a mural in the traditional Portuguese Azulejos-style, depicting the arrival of Vasco de Gama. I can go on and on, but let me simply say—every hotel has masterpieces done by Indian artists.
What do you think are the strong revenue streams for the hospitality industry in general, and The LaLiT in particular? Is it leisure, or would it be MICE or weddings?
Hotels chains should tap all segments—MICE, business, leisure, weddings, domestic movement and international travel. Right now, the hospitality industry is not in the best of shape. While the business hotels in metros such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur and Kolkata are doing reasonably well, the leisure hotels are struggling. Our Delhi and Mumbai hotels are the best revenue generators. Goa, which was considered a leisure destination, is doing very well with weddings and MICE. Trends in travel continue to evolve and we have to tap every segment for revenue.
It was a very brave decision to open a hotel in Srinagar. What are the challenges the market poses for you? What has your experience been?
When we entered Srinagar, there was no tourism in the Valley. Gulab Bhawan—the erstwhile palace of the maharajas was managed by The Oberoi Group. They abandoned it in 1988 when the unrest began. It remained abandoned for 10 years till we bought it from Dr Karan Singh in 1998, at the height of the insurgency. We restored the palace to its grandeur and opened the hotel in 2001. Over the last two decades, we have continued to invest money in it and have not closed it, even for a single day, despite poor occupancy and prevailing conditions.
We did good business for a couple of years, but now we are again dealing with tumultuous circumstances. I enjoyed restoring the hotel and undoubtedly, it is the jewel in our crown. We are hopeful that peace will prevail in the Valley and this hotel will be overflowing with guests once again.
What are the big trends in the hospitality industry of the future?
The trend is moving towards affordable luxury with guests wanting value for money. Guests are using online bookings and expect seamless check-in and check-out. They want good WiFi connections, internet speed and mobile connectivity. Therefore, instead of investing in high aesthetics we should invest in technology. The future of hospitality lies in the mid-segment, which is our focus going forward. We already have two hotels in this category under the brand—The Lalit Traveller, and will further develop in this segment.
You have said earlier on in this interview that the Indian hospitality industry is going through a tough time. What is the reason for that?
India is experiencing a sluggish economy, which is affecting business in the hospitality industry. The development cost for hotels in India is very high because of the cost of land, the high power tariffs, and most importantly, the capital cost. Hotels attract a GST of 28 per cent in the luxury segment. Operational costs in India are also steep and the process of operations is extremely complicated with more than a hundred licenses to be obtained. Hotels in our neighbouring countries attract a tax of 0-12 per cent. Many Indians are travelling overseas because they find it more lucrative, as can be seen by the growing outbound movement. The government needs to review its policies on tourism, to give a boost to the sector, which has a great potential to grow, provide jobs and contribute to the GDP. We also need to improve our infrastructure, particularly connectivity. Safety and security continue to be a challenge.
As a hotelier, are there any failures that you would like to talk about?
I am sure all of us have had failures and I am no different. By and large, I have achieved success in what I had set out to do. My disappointments have been in tackling a complicated system, facing multi-levels of bureaucracy during the development and operations of my hotels.
Why do you think there are not enough women owners or women in the CEO position in the hospitality industry?
Hospitality is a difficult industry. You have to deal with several different challenges every day. Traditionally, the hospitality industry has been a male bastion and I am trying to change that. While many women are working in housekeeping, services, front office and marketing & communications, there are not many occupying the top leadership roles. We are grooming women to take charge as general managers. We have women executive chefs, and women in leadership roles in spa, loyalty, HR and learning & development functions. Hoteliers work 24/7, 365 days-a-year and the work-life balance at times becomes difficult for women to achieve.
What is your advice to women joining the hospitality industry?
My advice to women is: Believe in yourself and do the best you can. Do not get bogged down by challenges, which exist in every profession or business. If you desire to be a hotelier, approach your work with dedication and passion. Be patient and persevere your goal, despite the roadblocks and at the end of it, you will achieve success.
Who are the people that have inspired you the most?
Within the family, my inspiration has been my parents and my husband. Mahatma Gandhi took a huge challenge and changed the face of Indian history. His grit, perseverance and belief in himself are inspirational. In my industry, I look up to Mr M. S. Oberoi. He had no training, learnt on the job, and went on to build a fantastic empire.
What is that one thing you would like to change about the hospitality industry?
I would like to make the development and operation of a hotel much simpler as it is very complicated right now.
What are your expansion plans for The LaLiT?
I have a beautiful property coming up on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. I am also working on The Lalit Suri Hospitality School in Faridabad, which will provide skilled resources for the industry. I do have some land banks for the mid-market segment, however, my current focus is on consolidation.
What do you hope to achieve with this school?
One of the biggest challenges our industry deals with is a skilled workforce. The full strength of the school is 600+ students, though currently, we are sitting at about 400. Our school aims to provide young hoteliers with a high level of operational skills, combined with the right values.