In the fifth session of #TnlOutreach series of webinars hosted by Travel + Leisure India & SA, seven creators and curators of luxury boutique travel experiences in India discuss new possibilities on the horizon.
Ironically enough, a microorganism has downsized things in general. The number of people at your dining table, in your car, at the office, at a birthday party, at a friend’s wedding—now it’s all about keeping it small. In the context of travel and hospitality too, it’s not more the merrier anymore. All things boutique—stays, experiences, holidays—seem to have the upper hand. To really gauge the extent, Travel+Leisure India & South Asia’s Editor-in-Chief Aindrila Mitra speaks to an esteemed panel of seven game changers.
Land to Keys Ratio
The factors that set boutique properties apart from mainstream chain hotels are manifold. But the room to property ratio (land to key ratio in colloquial terms), which is generally higher among boutique establishments, is the most significant distinguisher. With the Tree of Life resorts, for instance, the smallest property has 11 rooms (in Binsar) and the biggest 18 (in Varanasi). “When the first Tree of Life [property] was launched in Jaipur, I had four non-negotiables in mind,” shares founder Himmat Anand. It’s fair to say that 10 years down the line too, his core philosophy hasn’t changed. All eight of his properties are away from the city centres, are small (in size per unit), have no buffets, and are pet-friendly.
“What is supposedly in fashion in times of Covid is, I believe, in the DNA of all of us sitting here. We are easily slipping into the current goal that big properties are grappling with,” adds Anand with the confidence that they (boutique hotels) will be the first takers for any traveller. Playing on either side of the fence, with one property in the city (Jodhpur) and three in remote locations across Rajasthan, Avijit Singh, Owner, House of Rohet, agrees. He says “Each of our properties was built to isolate you from the outside world. Our strengths are open wide spaces ideal for isolation, low number of keys, fewer people to serve, and a more hands-on approach.”
Nikhilendra Singh, Founder & MD, RAAS Hotels suggests that since it’s a constantly evolving situation, being smaller gives the advantage to manoeuvre quickly. “There’s ample [outdoor] space at all our properties. We cater to no more than 80 guests at a time, and now it’ll be even fewer,” points Singh.
It is no news that the word luxury has long been misinterpreted in this industry. Its connotation has been associated with glitz and hardware, which Anand thinks is untrue. Similarly, he rejects the idea that a city tour in a hotel car qualifies as an ‘experience’. He’s rather of the opinion that offbeat locations that boutique properties occupy let you truly immerse in the surroundings. “I think that is what people want now; immersive travel is the buzzword,” Anand remarks.
Shoba Mohan, Founder of Rare India, sees this interim as an opportunity to influence and change traveller mindset. “Wouldn’t you would want to think about why you want to travel and who the final beneficiary is?” reckons Mohan. She also feels that the onus is on tour operators to help travellers think out of the box.
Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, Managing Director, MRS Group that owns Suryagarh Jaisalmer & Narendra Bhawan Bikaner as well as the Mary Budden Estate, adds that while bringing about a change, one must maintain the trust factor. He thinks, “The hallmark of a boutique property is guest safety, comfort, and experience. So, it ultimately comes down to the trust your patrons have in you.”
Further along the lines of reimagining travel, the focus of these hoteliers is now shifting from inbound customers to domestic travellers. Anand observes that the domestic traveller has really evolved in the last two to four years. The interest and demand for countryside experiences is gradually on the rise. Yeshwant Rao Holkar, Founding Partner, Ahilya Experiences, is of the idea that there’s a huge space to rebuild travel. Holkar and his brand deeply care about the local communities around each of their properties, and argues that the tragedy is substantially affecting them. Every guest at Ahilya Fort experiences a visit to an NGO that sells handicrafts and supports local textiles. Similarly, Ahilya By The Sea in Goa closely works with the local fishermen. “People need to come back to these communities now more than ever before,” explains Holkar.
The Price War
Luxurious boutique experiences often come at a premium. Catering to the concerns of the consumer, the panellists talk about the question of money, and if altering prices would be a good idea to attract travellers. Jaisal Singh, Founder & CEO of SUJÁN, states that there’s unlikely to be a price war. He shares, “None of the global industry leaders are planning on slashing rates. Customers are not even asking for it. They are looking at what your sustainability credentials are.” Well-versed with the demands of the travel consumer, Mohan stresses that it is not a good time to fall back on pricing. “Value-adds in terms of experiences, and flexible booking policies are things to be rather looked at,” says Mohan. Holkar is of the idea that price war is meant for hotel chains, and that it is another factor that helps distinguish them: “We do not just sell our rooms, we offer unique experiences. Our approach will be: remaining mindful of people’s economic reality, while offering them the best at our priced value.”
Sustainability In A Germophobic World
Unsurprisingly, all the panellists agree that boutique experiences have an edge after COVID-19, but they almost reject the idea of becoming mainstream. “The inclination towards boutique hotels and experiences had already begun. The pandemic will only fast-track it,” believes Nikhilendra Singh. Jaisal Singh simply hopes that the boom is a responsible one. He adds, “People might be willing to pay more for meaningful experiences that help give back to the local communities.” For Avijit Singh, security and sustainability work hand in hand. Mohan agrees and adds that people must be really cognizant when they put their safety protocols together. She says, “How much careful can you be for a virus that only needs water and soap [for prevention]. We don’t want another pandemic with use and throw masks and gloves. We need to be extremely careful of how we address sustainability in a germophobic world.”