Friday, September 23, 2011

At India's Le Cirque-- A conversation beyond food.

Checking into Chanakyapuri

Vishakha Talreja

Financial Express

Posted online: 2011-09-21 02:42:20+05:30

Leela Hotels’ vice-chairman tells Vishakha Talreja that room rates in India are higher than in Southeast Asia because we have a shortage of rooms. We’ll need to fix this to meet the 10m foreign tourists by 2015 target—as compared to 5.8m now With incessant rains and a bomb blast at the Delhi High Court, it’s a gloomy day when I meet Leela Hotels’ vice-chairman and managing director Vivek Nair at the new hip address of south Delhi, The Leela Palace, Chanakyapuri. But a businessman’s optimism and passion can perk up even the most dull of days. The optimistic hotelier points out that notwithstanding the Euro crisis or the fear of a US recession or a bomb blast in our country’s capital, his outlook for the Indian hotel and travel industry is quite positive. “We are, in fact, expecting a 13-15% increase in bookings from Europe and the UK the coming season,” he says.

I meet Nair at the newly launched and highly anticipated restaurant on the 10th floor of his Delhi hotel. Le Cirque, a popular US-based restaurant, serves Italian food in French style. Interestingly, we are accompanied by Mauro Maccioni, son of restaurateur and founder of Le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni, who dazzled New York with his fine dining restaurant. Mauro is visiting India for the restaurant’s official launch. It’s past lunchtime, so all of us settle for tea, coffee and cookies, though Nair mentions his favourite dish at the restaurant is the classic lobster risotto.

The opening of the highly rated Le Cirque, Nair says, is already creating ripples, especially among bureaucrats and the diplomatic circles of Delhi, thanks to its location. It is a joyous moment for him and, therefore, he is not really in a mood to talk about the issues (read burgeoning debt) the hotel chain is facing. But then candid and media-friendly is how Nair is, so he says that this year they will cut the hotel group’s R3,800-crore debt (as of fiscal ending March 2011) by R750 crore. The group recently sold its Kovalam property to NRI industrialist Ravi Pillai for R500 crore, though the hotel will continue being managed by the Leela Group as part of its asset-light strategy. Another R250 crore will come from the sale of Chennai Business Park, which is a non-core asset.

Perplexed by the debt discussion, Maccioni finally says the only numbers he understands are the numbers of wine or scotch bottles in the restaurant bar. We laugh and the discussion returns to food and the restaurant business. The clanking of plates in the background, as the restaurant is getting ready for dinner time, makes for perfect background music. When asked if Le Cirque will allow only residents or will welcome guests as well, Nair says promptly, “Of course, we are in the business of making money. We want guests from outside to come and experience our restaurants too—unlike our friendly neighbours in Udaipur who don’t allow walk-in guests and let go off the food and beverage (F&B) revenue that they can generate.” (The Oberoi’s celebrated Udaivilas doesn’t serve F&B to non-guests.) Nair adds that 45% of a hotel’s revenues comes from F&B.

Nair is confident that Le Cirque will do well and not be adversely impacted by inflation or the slowing stock markets. Maccioni tells us that during the slowdown of 2008-09, his Las Vegas restaurant was impacted more as compared to the New York one, adding that 2010 has thankfully been a resilient year. When I ask how expensive it is to eat at the Le Cirque, Nair does his maths and says the average cost per person at the restaurant is R4,200, excluding alcohol! Regarding the arrangement between Le Cirque and Leela, Nair tells us that they will be paying the US brand a royalty on turnover.

The word ‘cost’ reminds me that the the land alone for the Leela Chanakyapuri property costs more than R600 crore, and I ask about the business prospects of this hotel in particular. Nair maintains that it’s still early days for the hotel, but they expect it to clock the highest RevPAR (revenue per room) in the NCR, just like their property in Bangalore which clocks the highest RevPAR in that city. The Bangalore property, in fact, registered the highest average room rate (ARR) in India in the heydays of 2007-08, commanding an ARR of R25,000.

But it’s not just his own hotel chain Nair talks about, or worries about, for that matter. Nair has always been at the helm of industry body meetings and lobby groups addressing various issues. He strongly feels that there is still a demand-supply mismatch of hotels in the country, and the hotel industry needs some sops. Nair, who is also chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council, India Initiative (WTTCII), and vice-president of the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Association of India (FHRAI), says they have appealed to the government to include hotels in the central banks’ infrastructure lending list. He is hopeful that easier lending norms and an increased outlay in the 12th Plan for the tourism sector will help the hotel industry, which is grappling with various issues. “We are often asked why room rates are so exorbitant in India, as compared to Southeast Asian countries. Well, that’s because there is a shortage of hotel rooms and we clearly need more sops for the industry to fast-track growth. And that’s how our target of getting 10 million foreign tourists to India by 2015 as compared to just 5.8 million as of now will be met,” he explains.

We are seated near a window and the view from the tenth floor of the hotel is mesmerising. The restaurant is divided into five parts, and there is a boardroom too, where long drab corporate meetings can turn out to be a culinary delight, with food being served from the restaurant. It’s, of course, for big ‘close-door’ meetings, and we are already guessing that many future deals and treaties will be signed over risotto and wine here. The restaurant walls are adorned with exclusive pictures of various celebrities—like Paris Hilton and other bigwigs being hosted by Maccioni at their US restaurants. Looking at those pictures, one feels how the two families—the Nairs and the

Maccionis—are similar in their values, traditions and business sense, and were meant to come together. Nair, of course, seconds that. When he sees Mauro and Sirio Maccioni interacting, it reminds him of his father Captain Nair and how they do business together.

On a gloomy day, not a bad idea to let the debt be.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What pictures say? (Philippines)

Drive in an ATV to the Mt Luho Viewpoint.

Boracay View

Pristine Private Beach of Shangri La , Cebu

Food served in Business Class of the Philippine Airlines Delhi-Manila flight


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Thousand Island Blessing-- Philippines

Seven thousand islands nestled together in what seems to be an eastern extension of South East Asia on the world map, is the Filipino land, or simply, Philippines. Probably the first thought that hits anyone when you hear Philippines or rather Filipino, is the Black Eyed Peas chart-buster, Bebot. But as I was to discover, the archipelago of 7,000-plus islands goes beyond whatever you might have heard, seen or read about it. Gratifying and heady, Philippines has everything in its concoction for it to be a hot destination for us Indians, who want to look beyond the oh-so-done-to-death 'popular' South East Asian destinations.

It was a smooth six-and-a-half hour Philippine Airline’s flight from Delhi to Manila. The ample leg space in business class is always comforting, but it was the cordial flight attendants, Hindi-movie on-board and the hospitality that gave an idea of what was in store during the impending week long Manila-Cebu-Boracay trip. The sea has a certain way of calling you, with a knot in stomach here and serenity and calmness sprinkled there. The view from the flights were inviting, exciting and seductive, especially for me, ever a beach person. But we'll get to the beaches later.

More than being about luxury and panache, hospitality is more about an attitude, a culture, and a state of mind. So, be it at the hotels, restaurants or malls, Filipinos will charm you no end. An erstwhile US colony, the faint traces of Americanism are quite hard to miss. What the US occupation primarily did to Philippines was the apportion of the English language, so when interacting with the locals, language or accent is hardly a barrier. And for an Indian globe-trotter, that’s really the job half done.

When we first arrived in Manila, the torrential rains in the city gave me a feeling that this trip might just be a washout, with roads flooded and visibility poor. But it was everything, but a washout. The evening was memorable as we watched the Andrew Lloyd Webber Show at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Yes, I never imagined I would get to see the cult musical in Manila of all the places! The show attended by Philippines own posh and chic page-three crowd, transported me to another world, and well, this was just the beginning of many a memorable evenings in this country.

A visit to Manila is certainly incomplete without experiencing the nightlife. I spent last day in Manila partying hard at the hip night club Republiq, at the Resorts World, owned by TV host and eventologist Tim Yap. There are entertainers, there are party hosts, there are club owners and then there is Tim Yap, who knows how to make his people groove. If you are not the party types sipping a cocktail in the spacious lounge area is a good idea and the chances are you will bump into the glitterati, twitterati, celebs, actors of Philippines and if you are lucky enough you might just bump into the president!

From Manila it was a quick flight to Cebu, and Philippines Airlines offers not just good international but efficient domestic services as well. In Cebu, I soaked in the culture and did the touristy stuff. First we quickly visited Casa Gorordo, an ancient house built in the mid-19th century. Its a typical wooden Spanish house preserved as a museum and thankfully its not about bland history, but an experience that will take you back in time as you slowly stroll the living room adorned with ancient showpieces, climb up the wooden staircase to reach the dining hall with a well laid table... and then there's a bedroom with king-size beds and a wishing well in the garden too. After the peek-a-boo of the Spanish Era, that lasted in Philippines before the Americans took over, we visited the Heritage of Cebu Monument- a montage representing the events in the history of Cebu. But Cebu is not just a page of a history textbook. The flea markets at Cebu offer exquisite souvenirs, hats, wooden guitars of various sizes and other nick-knacks.
Breaking away from tranquil cultural hotspots, we went for a dose of adrenaline to Crowne Regency, the tallest Cebu hotel. On the dizzying 38th floor I went in a tilted coaster around the edge of the building! Really it is something not for the faint-hearted―the Cebu landscape looked truly breathtaking from 130 meters above the ground but it literally took my breath away. Post that I dint have the nerves to try zip-line or other sky adventures that the tower offered such as Sky Walk. Thankfully, the less adventurous evening slipped by getting a taste of local authentic food and trying luck at the slot machines and roulette tables at the Waterfront Cebu Hotel’s casino, that was abuzz with activity even post midnight, though locals at the casino easily outnumbered the tourists.

The best of the trip was still to come. The next stop was Boracay, which this year was adjudged by TripAdvisor as the second best beach destination in the world. But what a random Filipino told me was that Boracay is a place for lovers-- the picturesque white sandy beaches, lanes dotted with boutique shops and pubs with live bands playing in the evening, does make Boracay for a romantic getaway. The ferry ride from Caticlan Airport to Boracay, was seductive enough. Once there, the beaches looked inviting and sun not too harsh, so you can just lie under the palm tress, enjoying both at the same time-- the serenity of nature and hustle-bustle of a holiday destination . In Boracay, you can just enjoy watching the waves and the sunset and the salty sands, or you can stroll the bazaars picking up pearl jewellery, sarongs, beachwear or fresh fish for your meal.

But the best of Boracay lies in something else. If its sports that's your idea of a fun-filled holiday, and you are not scared of heights, deep water or the quintessential sun tan, then there's ample that Boracay waters can offer. Snorkel the pristine coral reef or go diving at the many dive sites around Boracay, for beginners as well as experienced divers. Or for or a fun-filled day just spend time mountain biking or driving an ATV vehicle hopping from one sight-seeing spot to another. But the experience that will remain etched in my memory for long is para-sailing above the crystal clear blue sea, soaking in the view of the mountains. Up in the air, it was just sea and me. The sea, vast and unending, deep and reassuring. It's calmness was infectious, and so was the adrenaline pumping excitement of being up in the air, over the deep blue sea. Of course, one must indulge in all water-sports available here, and there is a vast list of options to choose from. skimboarding, windsurfing and kitesurfing, waterskiing, Banana Boat, Glass Bottom Boat and parasailing, all of these are easily available, and provide an exhilerating experience. Of course they do leave you a bit tired, but in the name of adventure and the sea, they are good enough reasons to be tired, yet rejuvenated.

And of course no holiday is complete without experimenting with food. There were days when we had a lavish meal with variety of fresh seafood and Filipino dishes like adobo (chicken or pork dish), kare-kare (oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce) and crispy pata (deep fired pigs legs) on other occasions it was a quick meal at the local fast food chains like Jollibee or Shakeys. For drinks, I flirted with tangy green mango shakes, refreshing lemongrass tea, calamansi juice, the local beer and of course the king size coconuts―so all of these are highly recommended. Well the icing on the cake is, that whether you go to a fancy restaurant or a shack, the bill amount will always look smaller than what you expect.

What's more? Indulge in a beachside massage for as cheap as Rs 350 or just shop till you drop at a host of malls. Of course Greenhills Shopping Centre, SM Mall of Asia and Makati City in Manila are a must on every shoppers list. Philippines is a value-for-money destination and can easily give Thailand a run for its money.

That's Philippines for you, a blend of serene moments and modern hoopla. They say, “ You never really leave a place or person you love, part of them you take with you, leaving a part of yourself behind.” I am still wondering if I have left something behind, but a part of Philippines will always remain etched in my memory and their greeting ‘Mabuhay’ will resonate in my mind for long. It's no longer a group of islands in that one corner of the map, neither is Bebot the only recollection of its name in popular culture. Philippines is an experience, an experience that satisfied the wanderlust in me.

(A part of this Travelogue was published in The Financial Express )

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lemon Tree Hotels Founder Patu Keswani's Interview

He gave up the suits
Vishakha Talreja
Posted online: 2011-02-16 22:14:21+05:30

The man gave new dynamics to the ‘affordable’ hotels segment when he launched Lemon Tree Hotels. And meeting hotel entrepreneur Patu Keswani for a cup of coffee or lunch is always an exhilarating experience. When I catch up with him this time, he is on the brink of rolling out yet another ‘affordable’ product—housing, in this case. The Lemon Tree Residencies will be launched in partnership with private equity firm Warburg Pincus. While the first set will come up in Gurgaon, Keswani is looking at NCR, north Bombay and Hyderabad for developing his projects.

On a clear afternoon, the weather is perfect for sitting outside. We choose a table in the lawns of coffee shop Blooms at the Intercontinental Eros. A fitness freak, Keswani avoids luncheons, but settles for a single shot of espresso in a large cup to keep him going. If it had been for a meal, then the choice would definitely have been mutton, as “that is what a true Sindhi relishes”, he says.

As we move on to his latest interest, Keswani says, “It’s a 51:49 joint venture, where I am the majority stakeholder. The investment in the real estate company will be around $100 million to begin with. At a later stage, Warburg will invest another $100-200 million in the asset management company”. Warburg Pincus has also invested in Lemon Tree Hotels.

The terms ‘budget’ or ‘affordable’ seem to be a constant in Keswani’s business ventures. First it was mid-market hotel company Lemon Tree. This was followed by budget hotels called Red Fox and now here are the affordable housing projects. However, he underlines that the residential project will be affordable and not low-cost, with the units priced above Rs 10 lakh. He passionately dwells on the issues of transparency in real estate, with developers charging for add-ons like parking and preferential location. He is sure that his pricing for the housing units will not be opaque.

He looks dapper in a blue collared shirt, pullover and jeans—unusual for a hotelier, most of whom don expensive suits. But he confesses how suits were the first thing he gave up when he started working for himself. The statement-making ponytail with a lemon-coloured bow has also gone, but his quirkiness remains. Keswani loves playing bridge and just when I label him flamboyant, he says that if he were to describe his company in one word, it would be ‘middle-class’. He builds budget hotels and all the people he recruits have similar middle-class values, he insists. Interestingly, he claims that at Lemon Tree at least a 100 people have made a crore plus, thanks to the Esops. “That’s my way of thanking them,” he says.

Talking about entrepreneurship, he lets out a wisecrack from his kitty. There are three types of people. The first type wonder what happened, a second category is of those who watch it happen and a third category is of those who make it happen. “Entrepreneurship is when you make it happen.” As soon as he finishes that statement, he adds, “Though when it comes to 2G, most of us wonder what happened!” He borrows his next one from Warren Buffet, saying how it’s all about winning that ‘ovarian lottery’—the luck of the draw that decides where one is born. “If one is born as Mrs Gandhi’s child, he or she has won the ovarian lottery to become the next prime minister. Similarly, someone who is born into the Ambani family is also lucky,” he chuckles. Of course, entrepreneurship bluffs the rule of the ovarian lottery, with many making it big irrespective of where and how they are born.

But that’s not all, there is more to Keswani’s HR policies. As he sips his espresso, looking dreamily at the garden, he tells me how around two-three years back he started recruiting mute people for his hotel company. The fact that he has worked for the Tata Group for more than 10 years at its flagship hotel brand, Taj, has instilled some strong business values in him. “I recruited them as gardeners, kitchen assistants, house keepers and laundry assistants and found out that they were good, but the regular staff was not able to complement their work style. So we trained our managers in sign language, so that they could communicate better with these differently-able employees.” With around 100 deaf and dumb staffers on the payroll of the company now, and regular training modules for them in place, he himself has picked up sign language and demonstrates “How are you?” in sign language. He even teaches me a thing or two. While initially he recruited the deaf and dumb as back-end staff, he now has them as waiters too. Therefore, the food menu at his hotels is numbered, making it easy for the differently-able waiters to understand the order. Keswani points out that around 1% of India’s population is mute and with India Inc high on CSR initiatives, there are many companies that want to hire differently-able people. He admits it’s both nation building and a business opportunity. He takes a smoke break, lighting his Benson & Hedges cigarette; I finish my salad.

So what’s next in line for the man who believes in making a difference in his own small way? After hotels and the residential sector, he will invest in education and has already started his pilot project for imparting vocational training to school pass-outs, increasing their chances of employability. On the hotel front, next year is when he wants to make his company public, when the company’s room inventory will touch 3,000, up from 2,000 rooms at present.

He says since it’s a mid-market hotel brand and not five star, it will be interesting to see the kind of valuation it gets. Initially, the plan was to go for an IPO this year, but with the 2008-09 recession (well, slowdown in India) looming large on the travel sector, the internal accruals slowed down. “Active development of many hotels was also hindered,” he admits.

In recent years, the hotel sector has seen too many announcements, not just from home-grown companies, but from foreign brands too. Everyone wants a piece of the burgeoning Indian hotel market. He points out that though many foreign hotel companies are foraying into India, making announcements (read headlines) almost every day, they are not really investing and are just tying up with local developers. For them, there isn’t any risk involved. “It’s Accor that is investing in hotels with its joint venture with the InterGlobe Group. So that’s one hotel company to watch out for,” he says. Accor has economy hotel brand Ibis in India, and as per Keswani’s math, InterGlobe and Accor together make up 5% of branded hotel rooms in the country.

Though Keswani, who is a sibling of actors Lillete and Lushin Dubey, doesn’t watch many Hindi movies, he feels investing in the media and entertainment business makes sense. Another business practice that has caught Keswani’s fancy is the philanthropic acts of Azim Premji and veterans such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. “That’s how it should be,” he says, adding that he is already mulling donating his wealth to a Trust. He points out how business heads of the industry can shell out from their personal wealth for society, but are not doing enough. Meanwhile, for wannabe entrepreneurs, people like him will remain a source of inspiration, especially for those who haven’t won the ovarian lottery.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Planning your summer holiday trip? Travel savvy or on to get some travel tips. From pet friendly to family friendly holidays, from cool discounts to exciting deals online...research can go a long way in realising your holiday dream.

Summer travellers set for experiential trips
Vishakha Talreja
Posted online: 2011-03-13 00:05:51+05:30

Whether it's self-drive holidays, spa and wellness getaways, customised luxury tours, castle/ villa stays, adventure, and wildlife trips or gastronomic tours, experiential travel is the flavour this summer.

Outlining the growing trend, COO (outbound division) of Kuoni India Kashmira Commissariat says, “Now, the individual traveller refrains from following a planned schedule and prefers freedom of exploring the destination at his own pace.”

It’s not just ‘how’, but ‘where’ that is as important. Even though, affordable Asian destinations like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia top the charts, travel experts point to the increasing popularity of Europe. As takers for regional tours are galore, Thomas Cook is offering Gujaratis, Maharashtrians and Tamilians special tours to Europe. Interestingly, a lot of travellers are opting for Canada and the US. Back home, it’s the cooler climes in the lap of hills that are luring travellers. Surprisingly, Goa is a favourite even in the scorching Indian summer.

Kuoni’s Holiday report highlights the fact that cost is generally an important consideration when choosing their get-away for most Indians, which is why they demand a detailed cost break-up and minutely inspect every detail of the itinerary. So, a closer look at the costs this year will reveal that while the launch of many new hotels has kept hotel room rates stable, the climbing crude oil prices have led to increase in airfares. “Amid the forecasts that crude oil price is likely to rise, we expect a further increase of around 15-20% in air fares,” says Neelu Singh, COO of travel portal Ezeego1.

With the slowdown well behind us and economy looking much better, the ‘April to June’ peak holiday months will be even busier this year. Travel agents hint at a 30% increase in bookings this season as compared to last season. Sabina Chopra, co-founder of, points out how travellers are booking their holidays much in advance this year. “We have not only started getting queries in advance, but there are even travellers who paid in January for their trips in May,” she says. Well, that’s a clear sign that it’s going to be full house this season. So, the sooner you book your holiday, the better it is.

Booking in advance gives you better bargaining power, too with both tour operators and hotels. “One key tip is to plan your travel at least three months in advance to get the best deals on airfare and hotels. Also, avoid last minute visa troubles in case you’re travelling to a foreign destination in the peak season,” says TripAdvisor India MD Sharat Dhall.

If an international holiday is on your mind, then this piece of information from Thomas Cook’s report will come handy. A higher discount can be negotiated for a trip to the US and Europe in comparison with other destinations where occupancies have bounced back post-recession.

Noshir Marfatia, general manager-sales and marketing-of the Park Group of Hotels, points out that a lot of rate options are being offered by hotels such as advance purchase, discount rate option (for booking ten days in advance), best buy rate option (for booking two to three days in advance) and special long-stay rates.

Since most travellers avail a week-long holiday during summers (as against a short weekend get-away trip), the long-stay rates can help in budgeting your trip right. Sample this: The Park Hotels offers value add-ons like free breakfast and internet, discounts on food and spa packages, complimentary drinks, and early check-in/late check-out facility on availing a minimum five-night package .

And if you are looking for an acommodation for your family, then checking-in at a service apartment is a good idea as they have flexible room policies, says TripAdvisor. Another option worth exploring is the bed and breakfast establishments as home-stays do not have strict room policies like many hotels. While most hotels do not allow your dog to accompany you, many home-stay accommodations give you that luxury.

“Home-stay gives one a convenience of home-like environment and at least 50% of homes that we have in our inventory allow pets. Home-stays are an ideal option for those who are travelling with infants or kids as they can access the kitchen for preparing baby food. Of course, home cooked food is another added advantage,” says Vimla Dorairaju, business head, Mahindra Homestays. Mahindra Homestays has around 300 homes with 800 rooms. The price for renting a bed and breakfast accommodation, which offers services equivalent to a three-star hotel, varies from R 1,500 to R 5,000.

If you belong to the old school, you might want to sit with your neighbourhood travel consultant to decide on the nitty-gritty of the holiday package, while many just want to access everything at a click of a button.

There’s a third category, too, for binge travellers. They are the usual targets of bargain sites. Recently, there has been a surge in the number of ‘group buying’ websites such as Deals and You, and Snap Deal, which offer restaurant vouchers, spa massages and other services on hefty discounts.

Seeing the traction such travel products garner, these websites, now have limited period of discount travel deals. In fact, looking at the demand for discount travel products, India’s first group buying travel website was recently launched. However, while booking on these websites, do read the fine-print as these are mostly limited validity deals.

And if you are directly booking a hotel, do check out if some activities are on offer. Hotels during this season have quite a bit on offer these days from photography workshops to culinary lessons. Picking up a skill while on a holiday is not a bad idea.

Also, many hotels have a kids play-area and a nanny facility. So make sure to check if it’s a family friendly hotel. But if you think you have missed the bus, or don’t have time to design or negotiate your holiday, picking up a readymade holiday package that is available off the shelf at retail outlets is a good idea.

A good holiday can be as good or as bad as its planning. Some effort can definitely help you to get that perfect plan, and indeed, that perfect holiday. Bon voyage!