Neemrana Hotels, known for restoring ruins and converting them into heritage hotels, has been witnessing a strong performance on all fronts. The Group witnessed the best performance in the Financial Year 2022-23 since its inception in 1993 by maintaining a steady growth in ARR, occupancy, and Rev Par for all its properties and confident of continuing with the growth momentum in FY 2023-24.
Sonavi Kaicker, Chief Executive Officer, Neemrana Hotels shares her perspective on a range of issues such as current and emerging scenario of heritage hotels in India, performance and experiential offerings of Neemrana Hotels, sustainability, offering authentic and memorable experiences and giving back to community.
How do you see the future of heritage hotels post pandemic?
The heritage hotels have an even brighter future post the pandemic. Indian travellers are looking inwards and spending more than ever before. The domestic traveller has thus become an extremely important segment if not the most important segment for the Indian hospitality and tourism sector.
Heritage hotels are like good wine. They will continue to stay in vogue as they offer a rare combination of experiences: waking up in a historical structure and experiencing traditional hospitality which includes local cuisine, art, personalised service, and exclusive experiences along with modern facilities. How many hotels can offer magical sunsets, exotic swimming pools amongst heritage, delicious food and cooling beverages, and mesmerising, traditional dance performances?
What is your current operational profile and what is your expansion plan?
Neemrana Hotels operates 17 properties spread across 12 locations. We shall be expanding our footprint in Goa, U.P, Uttarakhand, and Madhya Pradesh too. However, we are very selective about taking on new projects as they have to be a destination that we must fall in love with for its historical significance!
How has been the performance of your hotels in terms of ARRs, occupancy, RevPar for 2022 and what is your expectation from 2023?
The performance of the hotels has been heart-warming throughout 2022-2023. We have seen a steady rise in both ARR, Occupancy, and Rev Par across the Neemrana chain. We successfully held 90 weddings at various locations which included Neemrana Fort-Palace: Tijara Fort-Palace, Hill Fort – Kesroli, The Baradari Palace, Patiala, and Deo Bagh, Gwalior. This has been the best year financially for the Company since its inception in 1993 and we hope to see a steady growth in 2023-2024 too as India is hosting the prestigious G20 events and the Government has been working round the clock to improve India’s infrastructure too which is the need of the hour.
In the changed scenario, customers are looking for space and secure services. How do you perceive its advantages?
Covid-19 changed the world forever. Neemrana adapted immediately to the situation and introduced various measures such as digital check-in services (prior to arrival), limited housekeeping (on request), frequent sanitising of high touch points, and room service with biodegradable cutlery and crockery too. Over the last two years we have seen a huge decline in the above as nothing can replace the warmth of a human being and human interaction.
However, we capitalised on the existing features of our hospitality – heritage buildings in offbeat locations with no centralised air-conditioning, natural ventilation, and plenty of outdoor spaces with jharokhas, verandahs, and breathtaking views and gardens. Most of our properties are situated in the countryside which itself has a natural advantage of social distancing. All the Neemrana structures blend seamlessly with their surroundings and retain their original character which is a treat for the eyes and the soul.
You are known for creating unique ‘experiences’ for your guests. How do you enrich the experience of each one of your guests at your property?
We are constantly working on improving our food and beverage offerings and organise weekly dance performances at our hotels in Rajasthan to promote the local art and culture of our country. For 30 years we’ve maintained a prestigious, weekly cultural calendar of dance. These include folk and classical dance performances followed by a gala dinner where guests can interact with the artistes too.
Off late, we’ve seen a huge demand for special dinners, so we customised tents and exclusive venues for our discerning travellers that are always looking for something different. Now, guests can enjoy a magical evening under the stars at Tijara Fort-Palace, Neemrana Fort-Palace, and The Baradari Palace, Patiala.
Lastly, we are one of the few hotel chains that has been holding a complimentary yoga session at our flagship property for the last three decades as we realised the benefits of yoga long ago. We organise yoga sessions for guests on prior booking at all our locations across the country. We tailor-make itineraries for conferences, intimate offsites, and groups that are looking at an offbeat destination to meet, brainstorm, bond, and spend quality time.
How do you ensure that your high-quality standards are implemented all the way down the chain of command?
Our ‘high-quality’ is very India-oriented and we are not trying to emulate the Western chains. We have a very dynamic and young team at both the unit and corporate level. The executive team regularly visits the hotels to ensure our standards. Since we are all very hands on with both hotel operations and heritage structures, it is a great combination as we are quick with our decision making. One hotelier once had lauded us and said “Neemrana is a unique heritage hotel chain as it has a very modern way of functioning behind the scene”.
The challenge for the industry is to continuously offer new initiatives and meeting the changing demands of guests. How do you address this issue?
We are extremely flexible in our approach and adapt to the requirements of guests without compromising on our USP. For instance, weddings guests have all kinds of requirements and demands depending on their rituals and regional customs. We always look at things from their perspective and try our best to ensure that they can hold their dream wedding at a Neemrana property. Our vendors tailor-make the décor to suit our buildings.
Both Mr. Aman Nath and I constantly travel to different locations apart from the Neemrana properties. We are not complacent and are constantly working on new ideas and initiatives to improve the Neemrana experience for our guests.
A lot of new hotels, claiming to be heritage hotels, diluting the brand of heritage hotel in true sense. How can industry ensure the authenticity?
The Ministry of Tourism has introduced various guidelines for heritage hotels. When a hotel is classified by the Ministry of Tourism it has already been able to implement these guidelines. The Ministry of Tourism must implement punitive measures to ensure that these classifications are followed and not taken lightly because the ‘authenticity’ of Indian tourism is at stake.
Many states have put their heritage buildings/forts on the offer to convert it into the heritage hotel. But the response is not good from the players. What, according to you, are the reasons?
When there is a PPP project, the government must realise that only a few of the private players are the ones that have the expertise and the knowledge and the ability to transform these into heritage buildings and sustain them. Therefore, the terms and conditions that they propose must be realistic and attractive. They must carefully analyse the pre-bid queries received from the private sector and must try their best to adjust and incorporate solutions in the final bid terms and conditions. The technical requirements to qualify for the same must also be more nuanced and stringent. Sometimes there are private players with no expertise that end up bidding for projects that they can completely ruin and cannot do justice to as they lack the expertise.
How are you giving back to society/local community?
We give back to the local community daily as we have revived more than 30 heritage structures in the last three decades that had fallen into ruin. We are in touch with our teams across India daily and help our team members just as we would help our own family members. Neemrana offers interest-free loans to help its team members along with various benefits too. We have generated employment in the nearby surroundings that we operate in for the last three decades and helped prevent the migration from the rural countryside to urban slums.
When we host events and weddings at the various Neemrana properties we generate work in the local community in the form of generating work for third party vendors.
We regularly organise free medical check-up camps at Neemrana where anyone can visit from the village and avail of the benefit of the health camp which includes eye-care, blood pressure, etc. We have equipped state of the art centres with learning material, toys, and swings and child friendly furniture in Neemrana, and the upgradation of 6 aanganwadi centres in Neemrana and Tijara. Our CSR activity looks into education where UNESCO has commended our work. We have assisted 6 schools with upgrading their infrastructure in the region surrounding Tijara Fort-Palace.
Similarly, we have organised a tobacco-free Alwar camp with the health department of Alwar to focus on oral health and prevention of tobacco use. In conjunction with the ICDS department in Neemrana we helped introduce 6 Bal chetna centres and organised a program on the holistic development of children which includes training Aangadnwadi workers in both Neemrana and Tijara.
What is your sustainability roadmap?
For the last few years, we have been focusing on sustainability and use the off-season to implement new measures.
To cite a few relevant examples, we have successfully installed a compost machine at our flagship and are gradually working on implementing the same at various regions. We have rainwater harvesting tanks at locations that already have a dearth of water and are evaluating the same for the other locations.
We were probably one of the first heritage hotels in India to have installed an EV charger at Tijara Fort-Palace last year and use battery-operated vehicles for our guests. We introduced our own bio-degradable amenities pre-Covid, and these have been well received. We try our best to use natural materials wherever possible to reduce our carbon footprint.
Similarly, Neemrana Hotels regularly organises tree plantation drives across the properties, and we have been working on promoting our own organic vegetables for fresh ‘farm to fork’ joys for more than a decade now.
Anything you would like to add from your side…
Apart from focusing on our day-to-day tasks, in the year ahead we shall be focusing on bridging the gap further by generating employment for deserving women candidates. We shall also be focusing on additional employee benefits and welfare programs. We shall continue to work on making our properties more child-friendly and family friendly. Neemrana Hotels will be creating unique wellness programs for our guests as there is a huge demand for the same and combining heritage tourism with wellness is a great opportunity.
Further, after the success of Jahaan-e-Khusrau and Neemrana’s dance festival held at Tijara Fort-Palace last year, Neemrana Hotels shall be creating various pop-up events and dance festivals for our guests through the season ahead.
Lastly, we would like to take this opportunity to thank all our valued guests, patrons, travel trade partners and all our stakeholders for their continued support.