‘We put India on the luxury map’

The Oberoi Group’s vice-president of sales, Vivek Govil, tells SHALU CHANDRAN the company is now promoting India as a luxury destination. Excerpts from an interview:
The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur has been named the best hotel in the world

With summer here, you are currently promoting your Indian properties. How are you selling them?
One error we made in the past while promoting summers in India is doing it on a price-driven platform.

What we are finding now is that we are putting out far more positive message as to why you must come to India during the summer, whether you are coming there for the wildlife, to visit the forests of the Himalayas or to visit India for its culture and festivals, such as Ganesh Chathurthi in Mumbai. So those are our messages, and it’s working: our last report showed an increase of 45 per cent over last year. We’ve seen growth from every region. Perceptions of India as a destination have changed over the last few years as they have come to recognise the quality of hotels that we have today, and the fact that we tend to do it in a safe and luxurious fashion. From here, it is still an undeveloped destination, but we see plenty of scope to grow.

What are your expansion plans of your luxury hotels in India and internationally?
In India we have projects in Goa and Rajgarh – which will be a completely leisure hotel. We also have Oberoi coming up in Gurgaon, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Outside India, we have the UAE; we are also opening a property in Cambodia and we are also launching this October the The Oberoi Zahra, Luxury Nile Cruiser – which will take cruising on the Nile to a completely different level.
And then there is the luxury train which will cover Delhi and Rajasthan. Most of the key agreements with the railway authorities have been signed, so we should see that starting work soon to be ready late 2009, early 2010. There are a few operational in India currently, but I don’t think there of them are truly luxury products, like ours will be, with fully customised coaches and a spa and the Oberoi service.
The group will be putting in its own investment in hotels like the ones in Rajgarh in Madhya Pradesh, in Goa as well as in Bandra Kurla in Mumbai. We are looking at an investment of about Rs9 billion ($233.7 million) by 2011 to develop these three properties in India besides entering into management contracts abroad.

What are your plans in the UAE?
We have already signed a management contract for a hotel in the Business Bay, this will be open by 2009. The property will be located in the Business bay, and will therefore be pretty much a city hotel. And, because of its location, the hotel will cater predominantly to the corporate guests, but because you will get the service and facilities that one would expect from a high end leisure hotel. In Abu Dhabi, there will be a property in the Al Raha development and there are plans for a 40-acre resort on the Yas Island.

What are your plans for the rest of the region?
The rest of the region will see a couple of projects too. Most of them are still under initial discussions, but we have probably been in this business long enough to know that till it happens, nothing has been signed and announced. Oman is certainly a market we are looking at right now.

Are the Arabs changing their travel trends, with them choosing to travel to India instead of Europe?
The world over, people have become more adventurous about travel. There’s more ways to travel and travel even to slightly strange, but safe and luxurious places. India over the years have got a lot of positive press, the number of business travellers who would visit India and say, hang  on this is really nice, I would like come back here with my family. And on the shopping front, there was time when you had only Europe to shop for brands. India has some unique shopping experiences it can boast of – things I can get and talk to my friends about– like the fabrics, the jewellery, the handicrafts etc.
India is still a very familiar culture for the Arabs and Indians; you don’t stand out in a crowd like the Europeans.

How do you cater to Arab travellers?
Arab nationals always have a very clear understanding of what they expect from a Oberoi city hotel or Oberoi resort. And I would say 100 per cent their expectations are met. Whether it is a city hotel or the resort in Bali or Mauritius, their expectations in terms of luxury and quality service are always met. In the luxury market this is where Oberoi stands out, the reputation that we have been able to maintain.
For the Arabs, their definition of luxury has also changed, years ago their definition was very ostentatious which has changed – today it’s the level of service and the facilities available in the hotel and personalised service. And this is something that comes hand in hand with all out properties.

How much does the Oberoi contribute to tourism in India, to destinations like Rajasthan?
Until we built the Oberoi Rajvilas 10 years ago, India was a cheap and nasty destination. It was a backpacking destination where you went and stayed in $50 hotels and you came prepared to fall ill and that was part of the experience and adventure. In a sense we created the luxury market in India. So, I think in a sense we put India on the luxury travel map. Since then, we have grown our own chain and other people now, seeing the opportunities in India have followed our steps and have created more of these little islands of good quality hotels across the country.
So, yes, we have made a huge contribution if it’s not necessarily all in terms of direct investment. And we’ve done more develop, the summer months which was traditionally a lean period for the entire industry.