Nair’s grandfather, CP Krishnan Nair, started Leela Group of Hotels at the age of 65. That’s where the family legacy comes in, she says, because they have never shied away from taking risks. She says that while staying within the industry made sense to her, she did not want to stick to the brick-and-mortar, traditional hospitality offering. “It was important for me to create an identity of my own while building a business that I could scale and bring a unique element to.” It’s not often that one gets a chance to create a brand from scratch, and Nair made the most of the whole process, “I’ve enjoyed everything – whether it’s putting the brand standards together or looking at design and construction manuals and guidelines. Also, because this brand is completely asset light, it allows us to invest in people and in technology.”
An asset-light property
Technology, Nair says, plays a huge role in what they do. While the pandemic accelerated automation, contactless service, personalisation, and leveraging technology to customise, those elements were already in play before Covid. As she notes, “Whether it’s people willing to pay a premium for hotels that are a bit more environmentally conscious, whether it’s looking for room amenities that are paraben-free and sulphate-free, all those things were already in play. I think the pandemic just made people realise that they need to make more conscious decisions, and we just happened to build the brand around the values that are relevant to our audience today. So, we were lucky to get the timing right.”
It was much more than just the right timing. Having started her career in the US, Nair moved to Singapore, and then to the Middle East, and she has been leveraging that wealth of experience in creating an asset-light entity, which is a departure from the structure of her family business.
Creating the perfect synergy
For Nair, setting up a hotel management company that caters to the needs of Indian owners who are new to the business or for whom it is a secondary business, is a story of perfect synergy. She explains, “I can approach things from an owner’s perspective, but as a new brand, as an operator, I know where the struggles are, and we’re able to then sort of overcome that. There’s a lot of synergy that we bring as a hotel management company, but my experience as a hotel owner helps in that whole equation. Because I know where the pain points are.”
The all-important aspect- Location
And when she’s not busy identifying pain points, the process that Nair enjoys the most is going out and discovering new sites. “I have great memories of doing this with my father, Vivek Nair, who was instrumental in growing the Leela brand. And that’s something that we used to enjoy doing together – the whole development aspect of it. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”
In terms of the actual process, scouting for a location is something that she looks forward to: “Location itself is sort of like the primary criteria, and then that would possibly be followed by accessibility – connectivity to the destination. And then you take it one step further and find out how is this location is unique to that destination in terms of how it is strategically placed, so that the guests can get access to the closest beach or the waterfront. So, it’s location first, accessibility, connectivity, and then that uniqueness in terms of the placement of that property – it’s a combination of those elements.”
From why Palampur to why not Palampur
And true to that principle of selection, Nair’s first property Araiya Palampur sits at a height, away from the local town, and boasts of a great view and natural light. “One of the things that we are particular about is how we build. So, for example, if there’s a natural slope to the landscape, you want to build along it so that you’re not destroying the land. We believe in working with the contours, so that one can use the undulation to provide easy access and be conscious of what the land offers.”
Nair loves challenges. It is what prompted her to choose Palampur for her debut Araiya property. “The interesting thing about Palampur is that it allowed us to be the first branded player there, it allowed us to create a destination and build that awareness. We were able to get traction very quickly. Going back to the family legacy, the idea really was that you build something unique and people will come. And in this case, we got our service elements right and were able to leverage all the uniqueness around it. So, whether it was the outdoors, the local cuisine, the Himachali culture – that’s the sort of theme that we’re going with in general with Araiya. The idea is to create destinations and tap into the untapped location because that’s where it allows you to do things that are a little more different. So, the idea is also to create experiences within the property and then make it a base to explore what’s around you.”
Not a cookie-cutter property
Offering a product this unique, Nair knows it is essential to identify and understand her audience. “The audience we are catering to is also a little bit more exploratory. They’ve checked all the boxes when it comes to the known destinations, they’re now looking to go to a place where they can learn something new, discover something, in terms of a new destination. So, in that sense, it just so happened that everything that we were looking to do three years ago, when we when we created this brand, is exactly what is relevant to the audience today.”
Araiya Palampur has been extremely well received, more so because it’s not what many expect. This is proof of the fact that people today are looking for a more authentic experience, something above and beyond what is offered at cookie-cutter properties where one knows what to expect.