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Published on: Sept. 6, 2021, 4:09 p.m.
Reimagine, redesign, reset
  • The Leela Palace Jaipur was converted into a branded Leela Palace in less than six months

By Suman Tarafdar

It is a history-making year for The Leela, the 35-year-old hospitality group, and a byword for luxury in the Indian hospitality space since its launch. It has opened two hotels this year – in Jaipur and Gandhinagar, and is set to launch a third in Bengaluru in September. Its last opening was nine years ago. Yes, it’s a record number of openings in a single year for the group. 

 Launched by C P Krishnan Nair in 1986, the group has been plagued by financial issues, and was acquired by Canada based Brookfield Asset Management in 2019. Given that the pandemic and its impact hit from early 2020, it has not been an easy time. With a new owner, the group is striving to regain its exalted position once more. 

“As the world opens up, we must all prepare for the coming recovery and ready ourselves to take advantage of opportunities that will gradually but undoubtedly arise,” says Anuraag Bhatnagar, Chief Operating Officer, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts. “In the last year and a half, the world around us has changed rapidly. We know that the ‘normal’ we are returning to will not be the ‘normal’ we knew. And that the trends and behaviours that were predicted at the start of the decade are no longer applicable.”

The shape of the normal for the sector is still a work in progress. “At The Leela, our focus has been to Reimagine, Redesign and Reset,” stresses Bhatnagar. “As a leader, I focus on keeping abreast with the evolved expectations of our guests and ensure we not only meet but exceed them; keeping this in mind, we remain true to the values of our brand and continue to deliver a true luxury experience. I also want to ensure that as a business, we remain agile, to be able to quickly adapt to an ever-evolving tomorrow. We know that hospitality has been amongst the worst hit and the road to recovery will be slow and bumpy. But we remain cautiously optimistic that demand will return sooner than we expect. Our resorts are already seeing a lot of traction, reaching and, in some cases, exceeding pre-pandemic levels.”

In a report, industry consultant Hotelivate predicted an occupancy rate of 33.8 per cent (65.4 per cent in 2020) for the sector in 2021. For the luxury space, which Leela’s hotels occupy, the prediction is 29.2 per cent. The RevPAR (revenue per available room) is expected to be down by 67 per cent in this segment, while occupancy in the luxury category is predicted to fall by 53 per cent. The outlook for 2022 points to a significant recovery, though. 

Reimagining the future 

Hospitality companies have spent the last few months thinking creatively about their operations and reimagine the guest experience, says Bhatnagar. “They are now figuring out how to offer experiences instead of services in the post lockdown environment.” 

Leela is known for its big box business hotels in major gateway cities, the hospitality category perhaps most impacted by the pandemic. The process of recovery had to be calibrated carefully. “Leela’s approach has been a two-pronged approach; the first is to rebuild consumer confidence and trust and reassure guests of our commitment towards ensuring that our hotels continue to remain safe environments for them,” says Bhatnagar. “The second is to generate demand through offers that are enticing, yet meaningful.” Along with placing safety and hygiene front and centre, the hotel industry has also ramped up its vaccination drives.

Rethinks have been inevitable. “The Leela also took this opportunity to rationalise our costs and bring in synergies across the portfolio rather than cut back,” Bhatnagar explains. “Operational efficiencies, rightsizing of manpower and cost synergies have been the focus in order to get permanent savings.”  

The launch pipeline was also impacted. “The lockdown has definitely impacted the opening of our newer properties and we experienced a great deal of uncertainty,” says Bhatnagar. “We have been one of the few brands which launched new properties amidst the pandemic. We opened two new hotels, The Leela Gandhinagar and The Leela Palace Jaipur and are now gearing up to open The Leela Bhartiya City Bengaluru in mid-September. Our big win was The Leela Palace Jaipur, which we not only signed during the pandemic but also converted into a branded Leela Palace in less than six months, which speaks volumes about our agility to be able to quickly and efficiently convert hotels from another brand.” 

Some categories may be permanently altered. “I think the shape and format of events, meetings and conferences has changed forever,” he stresses. “We will see a lot more small and intimate meetings and an increased use of technology. The shape and format of weddings may also change but the need for them being special and memorable will not.” 

Reassure, attract 

“At The Leela, we have always focused on providing guests a unique ‘Indian luxury’ experience that is at par with global standards, and I think this is a huge advantage for us to attract domestic travellers,” says Bhatnagar. “Launching thoughtfully curated meaningful offers that cater to a specific demand for staycations, Work From Hotel or rather Work From Anywhere, food delivery, or Dine at Home experiences have become popular and we have focused on curating offers that are experiential but still speak to this demand.” 

“To build consumer confidence, we launched SURAKSHA, our heightened safety and hygiene protocols in partnership with Bureau Veritas India,” says Bhatnagar. “We also ensured our associates are 100 per cent vaccinated and were amongst the first hotel companies to do so. From contactless check-in to mobile keys to e-butlers to e-menus, we have seamlessly integrated technology as an enabler of experiences allowing the choice for guests to interact as much as they are comfortable doing.” 

The moves are beginning to work. “Recent behaviour signals a spike in adoption as customers have become more comfortable with the behaviour and reconsider who and what they come into physical contact with,” points out Bhatnagar. “For travellers and guests, mobile usage will increase throughout the travel journey, from passports and boarding passes to keyless hotel entry and digital checkout at hotels.” A safe if not brave new normal for the sector that The Leela hopes it is well placed to cash in on.

Setting a new trend

A hotel atop a railway concourse – The Leela Gandhinagar is a pioneering project for the country. With meeting spaces spread across 30,000 sq ft, the 318-key hotel is designed to be a convention hotel, adjacent to the Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition Centre, also managed by The Leela. Located 30 minutes from the Ahmedabad airport, it is close to business hubs as well. Its versatile indoor and outdoor meeting spaces are well-equipped to host small as well as large-scale business and social events alike.

Built 22 metres above ground, atop the Gandhinagar railway station, it is now the tallest building in the city with a height of 76.99 metres. The hotel’s lavish interiors draw influence from the rich archaeological and architectural antiquity of Gujarat. The flooring is inspired by the Adlaj stepwell and features elements like the famous Tree of Life at Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, traditional glass beadwork, textile craftsmanship of bandhej, ajrakh and batik, among various other art inspirations embellishing the complex.

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