Executive Vice President, South & South East Asia, Middle East, Africa, and Australasia—for Preferred Hotels & Resorts, and a member of our A-List, Saurabh Rai is a globetrotter with a finger on the hospitality pulse at all times. He tells us about the changing landscape of India’s outbound travel. By Sumeet Keswani
When did you decide to enter hospitality? What’s the best and the worst thing about it?
As a child, I harboured aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot; I wanted to be a football player while I was growing up in Europe; my father was a banker, and I was always financially attuned—those were some of my early career evaluations. I was first exposed to hospitality in the final years of my schooling: a family member was a career hotelier in operations. But I didn’t walk in through the front door and got sold on the glamour; I was fortunate enough to come through the back door and see the back-end engineering. That was the single biggest influence that led me to hotel schooling with Taj.
This industry is a lifestyle choice. That’s the best and the worst part. The lines between who you are and what you do are diffused. If you aren’t passionate, it’s not a mask you can wear from 9 am to 6 pm.
Share some memorable guest encounters with us.
Some of our guests travel incognito―they book under a pseudonym, and at the last minute, the hotel is told who the real guest is. One of those was my favourite singer. I’m a big fan of Sting. When Gordon Sumner first came to Delhi, around 2003, we hosted him at The Imperial New Delhi. This is one of the gifts of the industry. One day, you’re seeing Sting on TV in the lobby, the next day, the man walks in with his entire family on holiday!
Another one was from the United Nations. We handled a lot of UN accounts back when I was in operations. Once, they made a booking at The Imperial for Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General. Four hours ahead of his arrival, we were informed that it was not Annan, but, in fact, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Soon, people of the hotel made a beeline to meet them. But I was the account manager for the pseudonym, so I said it was my show! (laughs)
What are the differences you’ve noted between Indian and international hotels?
The hospitality space saw an early evolution in India. We may not have had the best airports or the best road connectivity back in the day, but we had some of the world’s leading hotels. Homegrown brands like Oberoi, Taj, Leela, and ITC made some incredible progress in bringing forward world-class luxury hospitality. And the genuine warm service that India is known for, led by the Atithi Devo Bhava philosophy, outshines most of the other service cultures. The third strength—Indian hotels have always been terrific value for money. However, the last five to seven years have been the slowest in terms of evolution of design, F&B, etc. We’re not pushing the envelope enough. For instance, service has been India’s strength. But the incoming traffic has evolved from a baby boomer-heavy segment to a multi-generation one. We’re servicing three different generations, but our service culture is still pegged to baby boomers.
Myths about hospitality that Indian guests tend to have?
I’d like to flip this over to how the international hotel fraternity and destinations see Indian travellers. From the early phase of tour groups and package travel, hotel groups are now developing an appreciation for the evolved Indian traveller. Whether it’s food and wine, spa and wellness, or art and history, there’s so much of niche travel out of India now. We still have a long tail of travel agent-booked package tours. But brands need to consider that segment almost as a different country.
Your preferred destinations for solo travel?
I enjoy fast-paced US cities like NYC and LA on business.
First travel memory?
I didn’t have the fortune of spending too much time with my father. But I do remember a trip to Kashmir with him when I was nine. We went from Pahalgam to Gulmarg, and skied on the slopes. That’s the fondest and the earliest travel memory I have.
Best business hotels you’ve checked into?
The Leela Palace Bengaluru, The Leela Palace New Delhi, The Imperial New Delhi, and outside India, The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore.