Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur, Chairman, HRH Group of Hotels, one of the pioneers in the heritage hotel space in India speaks about the growth of the segment and challenges.
1. Heritage hotels have been the mainstay for India’s heritage tourism. How would you explain its contribution to tourism growth?
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur: Not just in India, the world over heritage hospitality has been a major segment of the industry. Living in palaces, forts or castles has the romance of living in a historic past. The lifestyle, F&B, adventures of the past all contribute to the mystique of holiday where Royalty once lived or entertained. In India, heritage hotels especially from Rajasthan have become a part of the international tourism map. It was my respected father, His late Highness Maharana Bhagwat Singh who pioneered heritage hospitality when he 'converted' our summer palace Jag Niwas into the Lake Palace Hotel in the early 1960s. The rest, as they say, is history...Lake Palace Hotel remains the jewel in the crown of the Taj Group. As Udaipur came into the international map of tourism, other heritage cities of Rajasthan also followed the path shown. Today Udaipur is ranked, time and again, as one of 'the best cities in the world to visit'. It is a matter of great pride and honour for us.
2. One of the main positives of Heritage hotels are the conservation of heritage properties: forts, palaces and havelis. However, it remained limited to certain states and pockets. How can we make it pan India phenomena? What challenges are hindering the growth of heritage hotels expansion on pan India level?
Yes, the conservation of the palaces and forts is a tangible outcome and the effort needed to achieve a degree of success needs to be lauded. The former Royal Families of Udaipur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner did a phenomenal job and which is why Rajasthan's tourism is identified with heritage hospitality. It is not so in other states of India.
Though I must say that Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala are also offering such tourism products. To make it into a pan-India movement needs a pan-Indian champion! The private hotel chains have done their bit but the way ahead is long and tedious. To create new tourism products is the need of the hour. The government will have to work with the private hotel chains to make this happen. It can be done. It really requires to be nurtured for at least a decade or two.
3. What is the main USPs of your properties? How do you maintain the originality and authenticity?
HRH Group of Hotels, Udaipur, is India’s largest and only chain of heritage palace-hotels and resorts under private ownership. Our guests 'Experience the Original in the Abode of Kings'. It is our USP and our brand-identity. Our palace-hotels and sanctuary-resorts are spread across across Rajasthan.
We offer regal experiences in island-palaces, desert safaris and wildlife sanctuaries. Shiv Niwas Palace and Fateh Prakash Palace in Udaipur are classified Grand Heritage Palaces; Jagmandir Island Palace and and Gajner Palace, Gajner (near Bikaner) are 'heritage' hotels which have become iconic. Shikarbadi Hotel, Udaipur; Garden Hotel, Udaipur; The Aodhi, Kumbhalgarh; Fateh Bagh, Ranakpur; Gorbandh Palace, Jaisalmer; Karni Bhawan Palace in Bikaner are 'royal retreats' of our HRH Group. Our hospitality is distinct, warm and personal. We want every guest to feel they are guests of the Royal Family. Yes, to maintain the originality and authenticity is a big challenge: as we refurbish, renovate our properties we are very conscious to retain the spirit of the historic past.
4. Traditionally, inbound tourists were driving the businesses of heritage hotels. Now, domestic market is coming stronger. What is your take on this? What is the percentage of foreign V/s domestic guests at your property?
Undoubtedly the domestic market is growing, and growing vibrantly! Today, there is an equal number of foreign to domestic guests at HRH Group. If you look at our Regal Weddings, the number of Indian families preferring such regal experiences is growing exponentially. Since 1999-2000, we have pioneered Regal Weddings in Udaipur and across Rajasthan. Destination weddings, thus, have become synonymous with Udaipur and its iconic Jagmandir Island Palace, Shiv Niwas Palace and Fateh Prakash Palace. Each of these palaces has also won innumerable Ministry of Tourism Awards instituted by the Government of India; as destinations for 'regal weddings', they remain incomparable and unique. We want our guests to make memories in Udaipur, memories that stay for a lifetime. And what better way than the most meticulously and lovingly planned 'regal wedding' celebrations that may last for days and remain etched in the memories of families and friends forever and ever.
5. How has the occupancy and ARRs been for your hotels?
We are a closely-held Group and our occupancy and ARR numbers have been growing steadily. Our sales and marketing teams have been at the forefront of major global and Indian travel marts and expos. The results are showing and we look ahead to interesting times.
6. Of late, heritage hotels are also getting MICE and wedding business. What is the contribution of MICE and weddings at your properties?
Fateh Prakash Palace Convention Centre was created to successfully cater to the growing MICE market. And I am happy that it has been well appreciated. Conferences and ceremonial events are regularly organised at the Centre.
Our pioneering efforts to transform Udaipur into a wedding-destination have borne fruit over the decades. Better air and road connectivity have made it possible for the heritage-city to host high-profile weddings. Few would believe that the airport of Udaipur, on several occasions during 2005 or 2007, did not have adequate parking bay-areas for private aircrafts that had landed for such events! Bollywood, and the media, have also played a significant role in underscoring Udaipur as a unique wedding destination. What Subhash Ghai’s film Yaadein did in 2001, ‘Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’ achieved once again in 2013: the blockbuster films were scripted around Udaipur and its stunning venues and locations. Now the concept of ‘regal weddings’ had come home.
7. A lot of new hotels also claim to be a heritage hotel. Isn’t it diluting the brand? How can we maintain heritage in true sense?
It is a matter of regulation and the role of a regulatory authority. I am sure governmental agencies will act in due course of time to ensure that a 'heritage palace' is truly one which is preserving its heritage and was not constructed last month.
8. What is the impact of your property on the local economy and community?
Tremendous! Our palace-hotels and resorts are an integral part of the local economy and community. Through direct and indirect employment, we have positively impacted the lives of thousands of families. Udaipur, Kumbhalgarh, Gajner, Jaisalmer have been reliant on tourism and it shows.
9. Do you have a strong focus on environmental sustainability? What measures do you take towards this?
To answer this would require an entire feature in itself! We have safeguarded our eco-heritage through the decades. Be it in terms of water-recycling, air and road anti-pollution measures, we have been setting the trends. Solar power has been harnessed; we had the first solar-powered boats on Lake Pichola way back in the 1990s! Similarly, our water treatment plant at The City Palace, Udaipur, was operational decades ago. Our environmental heritage is equally significant as our built heritage of palaces, forts and temples. That's how our living heritage grows and develops.