Power List 2017, Rajiv Kaul, President, Leela Palaces Hotels and Resorts
I have to admit that, when I think of a quintessential hotelier, several names leap up almost simultaneously but the one image that sticks is that of Rajiv Kaul. In many ways, to me, he is the embodiment of hospitality. And I am not just ticking off all the boxes. Kaul personifies that – not just for the media, the owners or the guests but for a whole generation of hoteliers. He is an inspiration; even a legend.
However, suggest to Kaul that he is a legend or mention the idea of nominating him for a Lifetime Achievement Award as I once did much to my peril, and chances are that he will scoff right back. “I have miles to go,” he told me, with a disarming smile. “Lifetime is for those who have hung up their boots. I am very much at the batting crease – and look forward to scoring many more runs.”
He couldn’t be more right. Approaching 60, Kaul is living and breathing the part. Hardly surprising then that it is difficult to find anyone in the hospitality industry who is not in awe of him.
Loved and revered, he is the man who has taken Leela to dizzying heights and firmly established it as a luxury brand to reckon with – both within the country and outside. In much the same way as a doting father would share news of his child bagging a prize, with great pride he forwards news of Leela hotels becoming one of only two Indian luxury hotel brands to be listed among the top brands in the world or winning rare international recognition and the like. I can recount at least two instances this year alone.
Clearly, there is a sense of pride. And why not? The Leela today is a distinctive brand which has redefined the meaning of luxury hospitality.
The group, which was founded by the late Captain CP Krishnan Nair with just one property on the outskirts of Mumbai, has evolved into a prized portfolio of nine award-winning properties across India. Leela’s reputation has also travelled far and wide beyond Indian shores and plans are now afoot to expand overseas. Ask him what accounts for Leela’s success and pat comes his reply: “Based on our heritage, culture and traditions, we have a unique story to tell. Excellence is not an act but a habit. It is not just about personalised service, but the warmth and grace with which it is delivered, every time. As part of our DNA, we also have an innate ability to make guests from around the world feel at home and connect them to the inner richness of India.”
Talking of Leela’s future plans, Kaul says that the next cycle of growth will be through an asset light strategy with management contracts, going on to add that upcoming projects include, a Palace hotel in the historic city of Agra, where every room will have a sweeping vista of The Taj Mahal; a Palace resort in Jaipur; business hotels in Hyderabad and at Bhartiya City, Bengaluru. Internationally, he says, the company is poised to raise its flag in Maldives, Dubai and Vietnam.
With years of luxury hospitality leadership experience, including serving in top positions at the country’s finest luxury hotel chains, Kaul has made an unforgettable contribution towards proving that India can proudly stand among the ‘best of the best’ in luxury hospitality around the world. Not to mention, the army of hoteliers he has trained and mentored over the years, imparting his passion for creating immaculately memorable experiences to industry leaders of tomorrow. No small achievement that for someone who was admonished by his father when he turned his back on conventional career options and enrolled in the Oberoi Trainee Programme to become in his dad’s opinion, a “glorified doorman”. Today, nearly four decades later, Kaul may not admit it but he must be glad that he has proved his father wrong.
By Shafquat Ali