Leading the Way for Luxury to Flourish in India

Anuraag Bhatnagar’s offerings for the market are having a great effect on the hospitality scene in the country, here’s what the Multi-Property Vice President of Luxury India for Marriott International's, strategy was all about.

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IT’S IRONIC that Anuraag Bhatnagar does not always have the luxury to enjoy his hotels to the fullest. With a plate which is very full and getting fuller by the day, the Multi-Property Vice President of Luxury India for Marriott International, a job which has grown in scale after the recent Starwood Marriott merger, met BW Hotelier also in his avatar as the General Manager of the country’s first St Regis, a hotel which has had its share of controversies, though, to give them the benefit of any doubt, since St Regis arrives, things have become much smoother and of course, luxurious. Here is the excerpt of the interview which Bhatnagar gave BW Hotelier about what the St Regis means for Mumbai and about his other responsibilities as far as W and Ritz Carlton’s expansion plan in India was concerned.

Location, location, location. We have heard it all the time, but this is what Bhatnagar chose to begin, by saying that the biggest charm about the St Regis was that it has something for everyone. “As I often say, we are very strongly located, very close to the South Mumbai, to the Bandra Kurla Complex as well as right in the middle of the Lower Parel Area, which is the hub of the fun and commercial district. We are also close to some of the top hospitals, we are attracting a lot of segments which other suburban hotels or maybe the South Mumbai hotels would not attract,” he said.

The second USP of the hotel was the eclectic mix of fun dining and F&B, Bhatnagar added. “We have large banqueting and event space which makes us a MICE destination and gives us fantastic leverage in terms of destination weddings. We also have a wide repertoire of venues--11 F&B venues, 2 clubs, six speciality restaurants, all day dining as well as fun dining. All this makes it a viable proposition for not just short stay transit business but also for long extended stay. That is one of the reasons that over the last 18 months we attracted the best of class of every category in our hotel. Whether it’s Vin Diesel, Bollywood, Royal families, Heads of State, Business leaders, we have something for everyone, including non-residents,” he said.

One of the dangers of hotels is that they sometimes get associated with a cliché. “Maybe like this hotel is only for the young kids, or for the 40 and above. I jokingly tell people that from Monday to Thursday we are very appropriate, very on brand uber-luxury, very St Regis and we kind of become a W on the weekends. It’s a great mix for us, and it’s been the biggest contributor of how we ramped up so quickly and scaled up into the top three position in the city,” Bhatnagar explained.

What is common in all luxury hotels? “It’s our spirit to serve, service from the soul and ensuring that there is excruciating attention to every small detail. It’s like every hotel serves coffee, but how we roast our beans, which coffee beans we use and what kind of water and what temperature the coffee goes in are details that I think differentiates a luxury hotel from an upper upscale,” he went on to say.

When asked about the differentiation between his wards, Bhatnagar said, “each of our brands has some unique offerings. St Regis is all about legacy, heritage and rituals. We have a 104-year old history to live up to. As you know the John Jacob Aster family in New York had the first. We have a legendary connection, so all our service rituals, whether its afternoon high teas, the champagne sabreing the bespoke butler services, all add as a key differentiator and guests feel the uniqueness. W, on the other hand is very design, music and art led. As a guest, you see it’s funky, flirty and all the elements come up in the service.

“You can clearly differentiate a St Regis service from a W service from the way it’s presented. Getting the details right, getting what you need absolutely perfect, but the way the service is delivered is more quirky, flirty, more edgy. We use fun concepts like refuel and retox and detox, so people experience, they are not just fancy buzz words and jargon, but it becomes part of the service DNA, like the butler services here in St Regis,” he began by saying, going on to add that “for the Ritz Carlton, it’s simply about Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen, we grew up on that. In the previous organisation we used to quote the Ritz Carlton Service motto and they live it. It’s subtle, it’s silent, its unobtrusive luxury, yet very in synch with the demanding guest of today. They have this program called guardian angel, who are literally the guardian angels from your arrival to your departure. They are supposed to anticipate and over-anticipate your every need and serve you probably without being asked and they really have made a science out of it. This is something even I am learning now”.

When it came to India and luxury hospitality, Bhatnagar said, “as a proud Indian, I think in India, we have hospitality in our genes. We have that culture and value that we take care of our guests. Whenever someone comes to your house, you go all out. We are really geared up to offer services. That’s why all the international brands and international players are so successfully operating in India, because they have realised that the talent that we have is a natural. In many cultures, it’s difficult for them, they may get the processes and systems and technology. But to get the service from the soul is tougher. It’s very good in Thailand and many Asian countries and India”.

It’s not just the international brand which make the mark on the industry, stressed Bhatnagar, “Indian luxury hotels have set a new benchmark. When the Oberoi Vilas properties opened in India, they changed the playing field in the world. Nobody ever thought that India would become a destination driven market like Koh Samui and Bali. I think they’ve changed the game. What they also did for us, as in the international operators, to come in was set the benchmark for us and they brought awareness that India today is ready for uber luxury brands.

“Others promoters and partners have got excited that today there are destinations in India which can demand a four digit dollar ADR, that means a lot. Also, they trained such amazing manpower. They really ingrained the luxury quotient in you”.

He went on to say that “what we, as the international operators, bring are a platform, the processes, institutionalise the luxury without taking away the passion. With our size, scale, distribution and the number of properties, we are better prepositioned to reward, recognise and give exposure. For example, so many of our chefs, almost 11 people in middle management went abroad for training and exposure.

“There is huge cross-pollination between brands, concepts and geographies. We can promise them a career. Our ability to spot, train and retain the top talent is superior because of our scale. We can literally promise a fast track restaurant manager that in x number of years if you keep doing the right thing, in three moves you will become a general manager by the age of 35 or 37. You can literally promise”.

He went on to say that as a company, Marriott really went the extra distance to nurture and look after its associates since retaining talent was a very important part of the business especially since it was growing at such a furious pace. “We have things like a special butler service, similar to what our guests get at the St Regis for our associates, so that they can concentrate on their job and have someone else do the other chores,” he explained.

As for the future growth of the Luxury part of Marriott’s business, “as we speak, we have three signed contracts in various stages of project and construction. There is a Ritz Carlton slated to open in the second quarter of 2018 in Pune. There is a Ritz Carlton in Mumbai likely to open in the first quarter of 2018, which means that in the next three months of so, we will be putting in a management team. The W, which can be seen from St Regis is a three year project where ground breaking has just taken place. The focus of the company is North, where we know we need to establish one of our flagship brands,” he said.


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