The High Five

In its new avatar, Hotelivate is reasserting itself as a formidable hospitality consultancy force

By Vinita Bhatia

Throughout his career, Manav Thadani has never shied away from taking up new challenges. After starting his consulting career at HVS’ New York office, he returned to India in August 1997 to set up the company’s base in the country. From a one-man unit, he expanded HVS Asia Pacific’s operations into multiple verticals, including asset management and executive search and the HICSA conference.

He was able to achieve these milestones with the help of a strong team that he handpicked along the way. This included the young Megha Tuli who chose HVS South Asia as the starting point in her career and grew through the ranks to become the youngest associate director of consulting and valuation. Natwar Nagar set up the executive search practice in India, while Achin Khanna extended his enviable consulting experience, which encompassed economic feasibility analyses, asset and large portfolio valuations, operator searches and management contract negotiations, master planning and strategic consulting assignments. Another strong member of Thadani’s team is Saurabh Gupta who took charge of investment advisory and asset management practices in the firm.

However, as the years progressed, there arose a difference of vision and opinion between HVS and the team in India on how the business should grow in the Asia Pacific region. “There were too many limitations on how the India office could expand beyond South Asia. Our team, while being the most stable and with the highest marketshare among all offices across all regions, was unable to break free,” Thadani recalled.

He felt that the new leadership in HVS did not understand Asian markets and how business functions here. A need for more transparent and updated financial models for consulting was felt, and after much deliberation, the senior team in India chose to part ways with HVS.

This was not an easy decision for Thadani, who had been associated with the company for two decades. But he maintained that in life one has to believe in the things one does, otherwise they are not worth doing. “The shelf life with HVS had expired and it was time to move on to more innovative things, explore new territories and cross new borders,” he pragamatically stated.

KEEPING PACE WITH CHANGE
Two decades ago, the hotel consulting business was highly fragmented with many independent hospitality consultants (mostly retired GMs) working alongside a few organised firms to help owners manage their assets. Some of the known brands were Tourism Futures, PKF and Horwath, but the role of consultants was often relegated to creating independent third-party reports required for project funding purposes.

Over the years, as the profile of investors became more sophisticated, primarily due to the advent of private equity firms, the clientele also diversified. People sought consultants for varied reasons – in-depth research, quality data on markets, to devise entry strategies, perform management contract negotiations and conduct transactions, among others.
“Our clients realised that apart from a law firm, they needed experts and professionals from the industry to help them make decisions on hospitality projects. Thus, our role as hospitality advisors became more holistic,” Thadani recalled. “We worked hard as a team to move up to the number one position in the country in terms of both completed assignments and revenues. What differentiated us from the rest was our emphasis on the quality of service, which in turn was only possible because we hired the right talent.”

THE DREAM TEAM

When Thadani discussed his plans for creating a customer-centric value-based consultancy organisation with his core team at HVS, he got enthusiastic buy-in from all of them. Recalling her discussions with him on the need for consulting businesses to evolve, Tuli said that she could not see any single firm doing so within the travel and tourism sector.
“Manav was also facing limitations on strategy and growth with the previous firm and I, having just exited from my first entrepreneurial venture, was eager to bring a real-world and forward-looking approach to consulting. It was the right time to build a firm that was agile, pertinent and unwilling to offer recommendations made in boardroom ‘black boxes’,” she said, while explaining her decision to come on board Hotelivate as partner and co-founder.

Nagar, who is currently managing partner, executive search, Hotelivate, was hired by Thadani 18 years ago and today, is more popular than anyone else in the team, “including myself,” Thadani ironically exclaimed. He apparently knows something about everyone in the industry in India; be it a hospitality CEO or a hotel HOD; they all have him on their rolodex!
Similarly, Khanna and Thadani go back a little over 10 years in their professional careers. Another favourite within his team, and a Superman buff, he brings similar superhero qualities to the job. He first worked with Thadani as a consulting associate at HVS in 2007, when he moved back to India after spending a decade with various hotel companies in the US.
“Over the past years, I had the opportunity to work on hundreds of feasibility studies and valuations across more than a dozen countries and over 100 towns and cities. From mega master-planning assignments to detailed portfolio valuations, from heated management contract negotiations to innovative hotel feasibility projects in remote destinations, it has been a pleasure to learn and grow with Thadani,” Khanna said.

Gupta started off as a search consultant at HVS, became a founding member of HICSA in 2005, and then a director in consulting before going back into operations and development only to return home to the larger team. Today, he heads two key verticals at Hotelivate – asset management and investment advisory.

In Gupta’s opinion, Hotelivate has the agility of a start-up with the delivery mechanism of a stalwart. “They say, in life, you don’t get to choose your colleagues. That’s not true in my case, where I have chosen some very fine people and thorough professionals as my partners. The spirit of entrepreneurship pushes us daily and this common sense of purpose within Hotelivate is what I truly cherish,” he happily stated.

NEW POSSIBILITIES

Thadani, with his band of trusty team mates, formed Hotelivate in December 2017 with an aim to offer customised, curated solutions to hospitality and tourism customers in Asia Pacific. This is a pretty ambitious task, but Thadani is undaunted. His conviction is rooted in his credo of spending quality time with clients rather than submitting template reports, which simply do not work anymore.

“When people think of Hotelivate, we want them to stop seeing us as a mere feasibility and valuation firm. After all, we are the team that helped deliver nearly 500 hotels in South Asia and played a strategic role in different phases of the assets’ lifecycle – be it feasibility, valuation, executive search, marketing communications or asset management,” Thadani emphatically stated.

While others talk about client satisfaction, Hotelivate has drawn up a plan to put talk into action. And it knows that following this action plan, for every 10 assignments it signs on, it will probably tell at least two to three owners not to develop the hotel. The core team is banking on this group of clients to become their best patrons, as they have probably saved them huge capital investments in projects that simply did not have the right characteristics.
“While we may shatter dreams and sometimes egos, we do it in a manner that allows us to retain strong friendships and relationships in the industry. Our referral business is actually highest from this group of clients, as they truly see us as their trusted advisors,” Thadani said.

WALKING THE TALK
Currently, Hotelivate is positioning itself as a one-stop consultancy for a range of industry stakeholders, providing thorough services across all phases of hospitality lifecycle consulting. This involves advising client right from the inception of a project to its opening, and eventually its divestment. This eliminates the need to engage different advisors for a single project or even multiple ones.

“Hotelivate offers a spectrum of core services encompassing strategic advisory (feasibility studies, operator search and contract negotiations, master planning, and valuation); project execution, planning and advisory; executive search; investment advisory; asset management; professional skills development; and revenue management, in addition to F&B consulting and marketing communications through our strategic alliances. Moreover, unlike generic and asset-agnostic consulting firms with cookie-cutter deliverables, we offer empathetic, customised and tangible solutions for each assignment that we undertake,” Thadani elaborated.

GETTING DOWN TO BRASS TACKS
Hotelivate’s team has a clear focus – cultivate the firm into a total service provider with process-led solutions. Tuli elaborated that the most important change for them is greater flexibility in their delivery models. Hence, they are emphasising on two key areas, digital adaptation and producing interdependent advisory solutions.

“We are investing in, and using, digital resources and platforms to develop new, flexible delivery models on the back of better (and big) data and insight. Internally too, we are using technology to supplement front-end needs with back-end knowledge and simplify workflows, data structures and systems,” she added.

Additionally, although most industries are moving towards modularisation of products and services, consultants straddle multiple areas within hospitality and create deliverables that are hard to duplicate. This positions Hotelivate with a unique understanding of the client’s business and ability to solve symbiotic problems faced by the client.

When it comes to executive search, Hotelivate is presently working on setting new benchmarks for the restaurant industry and collaborating with some established brands in this space. This division also serves the real estate, education and manufacturing sectors as well.

“We are piloting initiatives using technology such as video profiling of candidates, thereby, making the recruitment process faster and more efficient. We are also in advance talks to develop an online competency and assessment process to enable the internal and external stakeholders make quick decisions and improve database management,” Nagar pointed out. In his opinion, in the new world every assignment will be complex and will have different solutions. Thus, by adopting this approach at Hotelivate, the team can spend more time with its clients to understand their unique needs and offer customised solutions.
At the core of every successful hotel project is a well-researched, analysed, and quantitatively as well as qualitatively assessed feasibility or valuation report. The hotel business, unlike most other asset classes, is extremely dynamic and subject to a plethora of external influences. With an aim to make ROI the primary driver to advisory, Hotelivate’s solutions are tailored to the many needs of our varied clients – hotel owners and developers, hotel brands and management companies, private equity funds and institutional capital as well as both public and private sector lenders.

Khanna said that his team has, therefore, created a far more detailed and dynamic proprietary financial model for Hotelivate Strategic Advisory. “This enables us to offer a more robust and in-depth analysis of hotel markets, thereby, benefitting our clients with their consulting needs,” he added.

Also, the division is conducting brand valuations in addition to asset and portfolio appraisals. Valuing a brand requires a very different skill set and its utility could be extended to other service-oriented sectors such as fine dining restaurants, QSRs, retail etc. “We are now able to offer concept-led consulting and strategic consulting, as our clients don’t just need a financial forecast. Often, their need is ‘problem discovery’ that goes beyond number crunching. Global strategic consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain, BCG etc. are the model to emulate. As Hotelivate, we shall explore the unique nuances of our clients’ businesses and our eventual goal-seek is to create opportunities for growth,” Khanna triumphantly added.
Given their strong understanding of the hospitality business landscape, Thadani and team have put together a well-formulated strategy for Hotelivate. They seem all set to seize the moment, with their eyes firmly on the growing their clientele, bit by bit.

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