Offering authentic experiences, quality, and secure services
Heritage and culture have always been one of the main drivers of the tourism globally. Tourism, in return, contributes greatly to cultural development and conservation of heritage. According to UNWTO, 37 per cent of international tourism is culturally motivated, and demand is estimated to grow 15 per cent annually. Within the heritage tourism, heritage hotels have been playing a major role globally in wooing tourists.
In India, heritage hotels have been the growth driver of Indian tourism and remain the mainstays. These hotels, typically housed in historic palaces, forts or mansions, offer visitors a unique and authentic experience of India’s rich cultural and architectural heritage. Spread pan India, the role of heritage hotels in tourism in India is multi-faceted. In addition to providing accommodations for travelers, heritage hotels promote cultural tourism and contribute to the preservation and maintenance of historical structures.
Tourism is a significant contributor to India’s economy, and heritage hotels play an important role in promoting it. These hotels help create jobs for locals, preserve cultural heritage sites and attract tourists to less-visited parts of the country. Heritage hotels are popular among both domestic and international tourists who are interested in experiencing India’s history and culture.
Heritage hotels also have a positive effect on the preservation of historical buildings. Many of these buildings were in a state of disrepair before they were converted into hotels.
The performance of heritage hotels in India got adversely affected due to the pandemic. However, with the gradual easing of restrictions and resumption of domestic travel, the situation seems to be improving. Travelers are also showing increased interest in heritage hotels post-COVID as they offer a unique experience of India’s rich cultural heritage, along with the added advantage of being less crowded and more secluded than mainstream hotels.
Overall, while the pandemic has had a significant impact on the performance of heritage hotels in India, the industry is slowly but surely bouncing back and adapting to the new normal.
Heritage hotels focus on creating memorable and personalized experiences for each of the guest. “We believe that every guest is unique and has their own set of preferences and requirements, and we strive to cater to them to the best of our abilities. To enrich the experience of each of our guests, we start by ensuring that they are greeted warmly and made to feel at home from the moment they step into our properties. We provide them with personalized services and amenities that cater to their individual needs and preferences. We also offer a range of activities and experiences that allow our guests to immerse themselves in the local culture and heritage of the region. These could include guided tours of local attractions, cultural performances, and workshops that showcase traditional arts and crafts. Our hotels are known for their unique architecture and design, which showcase the rich cultural heritage of the region. Overall, our goal is to provide our guests with a truly immersive and memorable experience that they will cherish for a lifetime,” said HH Gaj Singh, Maharaja of Jodhpur, President, Indian Heritage Hotels Association.
Singh, who owns Umaid Bhawan Palace – a heritage building classified as 5 star deluxe and run by IHCL, also spoke on behalf Umaid Bhavan Palace. “The team at the Palace is constantly innovating and personalizing guest experiences. Guests are able to indulge in unique dining experiences crafted specially for occasions or create memories and awareness through its various curated tours and experiences steeped in the history and traditions of the Palace and the local culture of Marwar,” Singh adds.
Neemrana Hotels has also beenconstantly working on improving food and beverage offerings and organizing weekly dance performances at their 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,” says Sonavi Kaicker, CEO, Neemrana Hotels.
Ensuring Security & Quality
As heritage hotels are capable of providing bigger space, they also assure offering secure services post pandemic to instill a sense of security to the guests.
Speaking on behalf of IHHA, Singh outlines several advantages that businesses can gain as travelers are looking for space and secure services. These are improved customer satisfaction, increased sales, better brand image, reduced liability, and improved employee morale.
“By offering more spacious and secure services, businesses can enhance their customers’ experience, leading to higher customer satisfaction rates. Also, customers are more likely to purchase products and services from businesses that provide spacious and secure environments. This can result in higher sales and revenue for the business. Moreover, a business that prioritizes its customers’ safety and comfort can build a strong and positive brand image, which can help attract new customers and retain existing ones. By ensuring a secure and safe environment, businesses can reduce their liability risks and avoid potential legal issues that may arise from accidents or security breaches. And employees who work in a secure and spacious environment are likely to feel more motivated and comfortable, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction. Overall, providing space and secure services can bring multiple benefits to businesses, including increased customer satisfaction, higher sales, improved brand image, reduced liability risks, and improved employee morale,” Singh adds.
As Covid-19 changed the world forever, Neemrana adapted immediately to the situation and introduced various measures such as digital check-in services, limited housekeeping, 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,” Kaicker says.
Singh opines that it’s the people who create the differentiation. “The attention to details and the level of personalization are the unique differentiators. Guest requirements have evolved over time, and it is important for our industry to recognize and address these needs. For instance, the need to stay always connected, access to personalized content viewed over multiple platforms, digitization of information, environmental awareness and the impact of our operations on it, have now become basic factors that the well-heeled traveler looks forward to. It is important that we understand the amount of “contemporary” necessary to enhance the “traditional” without taking away from the original experience,” Singh adds.
Dr Vithal Venkatesh Kamat, Chairman, Kamat Hotels India, which operates Fort Jadhavgadh, one of the few Maratha Heritage Fort Hotels, also believes in understanding the needs of guests and providing them before they are demanded. “This creates a comfortable experience that guests will remember and want to come back to. It’s not just about the guests, we also ensure that our staff is well-trained and equipped to maintain high-quality standards. Our training programs involve everyone, including the local community. This way, we involve everyone from the start and ensure that the standards are implemented at every level,” Kamat says.
Speaking for IHHA, Singh says that the performance of IHHA member hotels has been steady in terms of ARRs, occupancy, and RevPar for the year 2022. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, IHHA hotels maintained a good occupancy rate throughout the year, and ARRs and RevPar remained consistent with the previous year. “Looking ahead to 2023, we expect to see an increase in demand for heritage hotels as travel restrictions ease and tourists are eager to explore new destinations. We also anticipate a surge in domestic travel, which could help offset any potential drop in international visitors. In terms of ARRs, we expect a slight increase as the demand for heritage experiences continues to grow. Similarly, we anticipate an uptick in occupancy rates and RevPar as more travelers seek out authentic Indian hospitality experiences,” Singh says.
For Neemrana, the performance of the hotels has been heart-warming throughout 2022-2023. “We have seen a steady rise in both ARR, occupancy, and RevPar across the Neemrana chain. We successfully held 90 weddings at various locations. 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,” Kaicker reveals.
For Umaid Bhavan Palace, the past year has been very good for ADRs and RevPars and the hotel has been able to yield rates commensurate with the product and the services offered. “While occupancies have remained stable, the rates have seen an increase of over 20% from the previous fiscal and are marginally higher than pre-pandemic levels. The last quarter of the previous year saw a small resurgence in travelers from our key source markets and the interest in India and particularly Rajasthan, seems to be strong once again,” Singh says.
The occupancy of Kamat hotels has also been good as they have performed well as per the industry standards in terms of occupancies and ARRs.
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,” opines Kaicker.
Kamat agrees that there are a lot of hotels that claim to be heritage hotels but don’t really meet the criteria of being one. “I think the industry needs to come up with a certification process to ensure authenticity. This certification can be awarded only to hotels that meet certain criteria like the age of the property, the historical significance of the property, and the level of restoration that has been done. This way, customers will know that the hotel they are staying at is a true heritage property and has a genuine story behind it,” Kamat says.
Singh says that IHHA has taken various steps, including standardization, certification, education and awareness and collaboration. “We have a certification process in place to verify that a property meets the criteria to be classified as a heritage hotel. This certification is granted after a thorough evaluation process that includes an inspection of the property and an assessment of its historical and cultural significance. Only thereafter, is a property officially classified as a Heritage Hotel by the Department of Tourism (DoT). We believe that education and awareness are crucial in ensuring that consumers are able to distinguish between authentic heritage hotels and newer properties that may not have the same historical or cultural significance. To this end, we conduct workshops and training sessions for hoteliers and travel professionals to raise awareness about the importance of heritage hotels and how to identify them. Moreover, we work closely with local and national tourism authorities to ensure that the heritage hotels are protected and promoted. We also collaborate with other heritage hotel associations around the world to share best practices and develop a global standard for heritage hotels. Overall, we are committed to ensuring the authenticity of heritage hotels and preserving the cultural heritage of our properties for future generations,” Singh adds.
While heritage hotels have been performing well, the response from the industry on conversion of old forts, havelis and buildings into heritage hotels are not encouraging from the market. Singh enumerates high investment costs, limited market, regulatory issues, lack of infrastructure and lack of marketing and promotion as reasons for lukewarm response from the market.
Kaicker says that 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,” Kaicker says.
Kamat feels that that the main reasons for the lack of response from players in this space is the high cost of converting a heritage building into a hotel.
“Heritage buildings require a lot of restoration work, and this can be very expensive. Additionally, the rules and regulations surrounding the restoration of heritage buildings can be very strict, which can make the process even more challenging. Another reason could be the lack of awareness about the potential of heritage hotels. Many players in the industry may not be aware of the benefits of converting a heritage property into a hotel, such as the unique guest experiences it can provide and the opportunity to preserve history and culture,” Kamat adds.
In conclusion, the role of heritage hotels in tourism in India cannot be overstated. They provide a unique opportunity for visitors to experience India’s rich cultural heritage, while also contributing to the country’s economy and the preservation of historical structures.