January 29, 2022

Bet big on the boutique: the revolutionary Indian hotelier

It’s hard to judge what Priya Paul loves most: proving people wrong or having fun.

The president of The Park Hotels, an Indian boutique hotel group, recalls the advice she received before opening a hotel in the conservative city of Chennai, in southern India, in 2002. Colleagues and friends said locals wouldn’t like his brand of urban and colorful design. concentrated hotel.

“I said, look, I’m going to make a hotel that I love to do and that I’m happy to do – and that’s what we did. We opened this bar, ”explains the 52-year-old entrepreneur, with a broad smile.

It refers to the Leather Bar, a lively meeting place in Park Chennai. Today, most of the customers are international business travelers, as well as affluent city dwellers who come for the nightlife.

Ms. Paul’s business, which has 22 hotels and more than 42,000 employees across India, is part of a family-owned conglomerate that spans from tea plantations and shipping to logistics and immovable. She sits on the board of directors of the shipping company Apeejay Shipping, but her main focus is The Park, which she has run as chairman since 1990. Shortly after taking the role, her father was murdered in a visit to a company tea plantation. in Assam.

“It wasn’t just an emotional challenge but also a business challenge because you suddenly had this type of aggressive act in one of the companies,” she says, her gaze turning to the rooftops visible from the office. London company. The answer, she said, was to focus on “a very solid business plan, achieving the goals we wanted to achieve.”

Ms Paul praises her mother, who took over the management of the company just 10 days after the murder. But Mrs Paul had already proved to her father that she was capable of managing his hotels.

Priya Paul took the risk of making hotels differently, opening the first hotels in India to adopt the boutique style © Suzanne Plunkett

The Apeejay Surrendra group was founded by her grandfather in 1910 and is still run by Mrs. Paul and her two siblings, a brother and a sister. The first hotel opened in 1967 in Calcutta, now Kolkata, with – unusual for the time in India – a nightclub.

Growing up alongside the company in Kolkata, Ms Paul studied economics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts before her father appointed her to a marketing position at the company’s recently opened hotel in New Delhi. It was the group’s second hotel after Calcutta, and Ms. Paul took care of everything from sales calls to fixing plumbing issues.

At that time, she says, the Indian market was tough and bureaucracy ruled. Hotel owners had to contact the Ministry of Tourism if they wanted to change their room rates. “There was really nothing of this fantastic growth and power that India has become,” she says.

Much of The Park’s growth has been driven by the liberalization of the Indian economy which has been spurred by changes in economic policy imposed as part of the loans India received from the World Bank and the IMF in 1991.

The park has grown as the Indian middle classes and their purchasing power have increased. Today, Indians make more than 1.6 billion national tourist trips, according to the Indian Ministry of Tourism. Roads are improving and air travel is cheap. Yet until the early 1990s, there was little nightlife in the country’s largest cities or color in its hotels.

It was 1989 when Ms. Paul stayed at a New York hotel designed by Ian Schrager, co-founder of New York nightclub Studio 54, and realized she could do hotels differently. But changing the brief for the designers of The Park would be a risk – the “biggest risk I’ve taken”.

His hospitality revolution worked. The hotels were the first in India to adopt a boutique style: colorful and carefully designed, with international cuisine and modern music.

In 2010, it had expanded the portfolio from two to seven hotels. There are now 11 Park hotels as well as 11 properties under the company’s Four Star Zone brand. All feature works of art chosen by Ms. Paul from her collection of some 4,000 works.

Gesturing as she adjusts her vermilion salwar kameez, she says she could never understand why hotels were decorated with cheap “paint by numbers” pieces. She has loved art since her childhood. “We could get my parents to participate in art exhibitions,” she says.

She also has a casual disregard for the starchy favorite of some upscale hoteliers. Staff, while required to wear a uniform, are encouraged to show their individuality. “If they want to have an earring or a tattoo, we don’t mind,” she says, although she draws the line on shaggy beards, for “food safety” reasons.

In 1997, Ms. Paul resumed her studies to do an Executive MBA at Harvard Business School. This gave her the time and confidence to reassess and assess how she was running the business.

“It is also important to continue to be educated. The field keeps changing. This is really how you keep growing, ”she says. Two new Park hotels are expected to open in 2020, while the group has several Zone properties in development.

Ms. Paul is frequently on the move, across India and abroad. She travels around India from her home in Delhi every week or so to visit the group’s hotels or her headquarters in Kolkata.

Wherever she is, she takes the time to check out the company’s WhatsApp chats, where employees suggest new ideas for the company.

A recent suggestion was to start offering guests shots – alcoholic and non-alcoholic – upon arrival. Mrs. Paul loves it. “Why not start the party earlier?” ” she laughs.

Campaign: “A long journey”

Ms Paul praises her father for never treating her any differently from her brother, even in the more conservative India of the 1970s, and says she is shocked by the declining participation of Indian women in the labor market.

One of the reasons, she suggests, is the lack of good child care and the breakdown of support systems for families.

“There’s a bit of this Indian tradition that only a man has to work for, and if your wife is working, you can see you can’t provide it,” she says.

Ms. Paul is an advocate for a greater role for women in business and public life. The Indian women’s cricket team, currently ranked second in the world, could be an inspiration, she said.

She also sits on the board of directors of Breakthrough, a women’s rights organization that focuses on gender discrimination and violence against women.

“It’s important for women to have female mentors,” she says. “It’s a long journey to success. Hope people will understand this.

This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Ms. Paul’s siblings are a brother and sister.

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