‘Our mantra is to create experiences’

Chander Baljee, Founder Chairman and MD, Royal Orchid Hotels Ltd, shares his mantra for staying relevant, what sets his brands apart and expansion strategy

THAT A stranger can lead you to become a successful businessman holds true in the life of Chander Baljee. The Founder Chairman and Managing Director of Royal Orchid Hotels Ltd had returned home after completing his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad in 1972 and joined his family’s business, the popular Baljee’s Restaurant on Shimla’s Mall Road. It was here that a customer, a senior official of the tourism department of Mysore, suggested Baljee visit Karnataka and start his own hotel business there. Against his family’s wishes, he agreed and travelled to the South Indian city to bid for a couple of hotels, which the state government was re-tendering. Though he lost them both, Baljee managed to lease out another property, Hotel Stay Longer, later named Hotel Harsha.  

Interestingly, those two re-tendered hotels, years later, became a part of the Royal Orchid Hotels portfolio. But unfortunately, the iconic Shimla restaurant which was once patronised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and state Chief Ministers Virbhadra Singh, Prem Kumar Dhumal and Jai Ram Thakur, had to shut its doors in July 2019 following a four-decade legal battle. 

After successfully running it for a few years, Baljee purchased Hotel Harsha in 1988 and in 2001, he launched the company’s flagship hotel, The Royal Orchid Hotel. “Back then, my ambition was to reach 10 hotels and then retire. Now, it’s going to be 100 hotels! Though it’s a difficult business, a people’s business with a large number of staff, customers and owners to satisfy, it’s been a very satisfying journey and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. One just has to take their aspirations and needs into account to fulfill them,” says the veteran hotelier. Today, one of the country’s foremost hotel chain brand, Royal Orchid and Regenta Hotels, successfully operates over 4,800 rooms and 150-plus restaurants in 75-plus hotels across 48-plus cities in the luxury, upper mid-scale and budget hotel category in the country. Plans are underway to reach the 100-hotel mark by end of 2023. 

On the difference between Royal Orchid and Regenta brand identities, Baljee says that both brands are the same and share the same SOPs. “The management took a decision to have one more brand in the crown and that’s how Regenta originated. It stands for rejuvenation, relaxation and has a more youth-oriented approach to give services as per market trends the younger segment prefers. It also has sub-segments like Regenta Resort, Regenta Central, Regenta Place, Regenta Suites and Regenta INN,” he explains. 

Changing with the times

A specialist in setting up and profitable running of hotels and a ‘go-to’ expert for owned, leased, managed and franchised hotel models, Baljee feels the pandemic experience will help us transform our lifestyles and there are some emerging trends in medium-to-long term. “A lot of it will change the way we run our hotels. With working from home becoming more acceptable and digital meetings being seen as a better way to manage time, a lot of people will socialise at home, backed by high-quality catering instead of going out. And here lie the opportunities: Emergence of restaurants with less seating, even in hotel space; extended operational hours in restaurants to cater to the increasing demand and finally, emergence of an entirely new category - shorter road travel and short haul destinations by flight,” he says. 

Guests, adds the veteran hotelier, will come to expect the deployment of more technology and automation within hotels. “The focus of travel will shift to personal wellbeing and environment. There will be transformative changes in the way we travel and holiday which will reflect in the hotels. There will be more emphasis on health and hygiene. Hotels will rationalise their supply chain and run far more efficiently,” says Baljee, who does a lot of philanthropy work under The Baljee Foundation, helping children of Royal Orchid Hotels’ employees with financial aid so that no child is left without basic education. The Foundation also contributes regularly to the Cancer Care Society, Shimla and Women Council for Shimla as well as empowering mentally challenged children with IT skills at Amba-CIIE, Bangalore.  

Role of Royal Orchid and Regenta Hotels in current market scenario 

The last two years were a dark phase but the hospitality industry has emerged from its shadow and taking the quick jump into the recovery phase to march steadily towards increased profitability and exponential growth, feels Baljee. “The last couple of months were proof that there is a lot of demand for leisure travel. We expect to see all inbound and outbound travel get into normal mode,” he says. 

With significant presence in India, South Asia and Africa, Baljee says, the Group works on an asset-light model wherein they typically manage and run the property by their brand name and SOPs on the owner’s behalf. “The operational expenses are to be borne by the owner and we charge a management fee from the top line and bottom line. In the franchise model, we just give our brand name, and SOPs with sales and marketing support while the operations are managed by the owners,” he explains. 

 It’s different! 

On what sets their brands apart from competition in their space and how did he manage to develop a distinct identity for the Group, Baljee shares, “We are a proud Indian brand serving hundreds of guests every day. To distinctly identify us in terms of profession, we implemented cutting-edge technology that helped drive efficiency and offer best-in-class service to guests. The emphasis put on staff training through Management Development Programme (MDP) and multiskilling equipped our teams and individuals to take on challenges. With all these steps, we were able to pivot the group in the right direction. As a result, we grew exponentially.”  

Not this alone, he adds, the Group stayed focussed, adopted trends and accepted market conditions. “We always accept what is happening in the market. We can’t just predict the things that are relatable and not good for business. In the last two years, even in the pandemic, we stood strong in terms of managing properties and also employees, we went through the dark phase in this stage while also managing to open 18 new hotels the in last two years,” he says. 

The Founder Chairman and Managing Director of Royal Orchid Hotels Ltd feels the consumers today are far less loyal to a brand than they were 30 years ago. And this means working harder to earn their trust and keep them coming back for more. “Our mantra to stay relevant and ahead is simply keeping pace with the customers, tuning in to their needs, customising offerings based on demands and analysing competitors. We need to add personal touch with our clients, focussing more on customer service, giving a memorable experience to customers and empowering the employees to create experiences,” he avers. 

Royal Orchid and Regenta brands have Wanderlust, the premier guest loyalty programme that links around four lakh active members to Royal Orchid and Regenta’s Pan-India portfolio of brands. “Wanderlust provides benefits for our members helping them turn their hotel stays and purchases into travel experiences worth sharing with family and friends,” Baljee shares. 

Significance of weddings and MICE 

The demand across the sector soared during Q2 2022, primarily driven by weddings followed by MICE and business travel, he says, adding, “Furthermore, corporate MICE demand witnessed a recovery in the form of corporate off-sites, team meetings, training and so on. Domestic leisure continued to be an important segment during this period, driven by pent-up demand of travellers who had not experienced a summer vacation for the past two years. The next two quarters are expected to remain busy on the back of domestic leisure amidst long weekends and festivals. Business travel will continue to grow and remain the main demand driver for the sector,” says Baljee.  

While wedding and social function demand will continue to be an important driver, MICE demand is expected to witness an uptick in the coming months with many corporate meetings and large-format conferences being planned. “Business contribution ratio is 60 per cent room and 40 per cent F&B (out of this 40 per cent, MICE and weddings comprise 20 per cent),” he shares. 

New opportunities 

At present, the market is growing at the right momentum and the Group, says Baljee, has witnessed good Q1 results for FY-2022-23. “On a positive note, the hospitality sector has seen a surge in occupancy and a rise in RevPAR. Q2 witnessed an influx of demand from across the country as it presents an opportune time for consumers to head out for short-budget travel. According to a JLL report, the RevPAR witnessed an exponential growth of 339.3 per cent year-on-year (YoY) in Q2 of 2022 as against the same period in the corresponding year. Starting in September, the hospitality sector is expected to witness a new peak in business which will be driven largely by the festive season and other social functions,” says the hotelier, adding that with business travel and corporate off-sites gaining momentum, holidays offer a further impetus to the overall demand resulting in renewed confidence in the sector. “We expect this momentum to continue over the next few quarters on the back of long weekends, festivals, weddings, events, and business travel evenly contributing to this growth,” adds Baljee who established the Presidency College of Hotel Management in 1994, after having identified and understanding the increasing need for trained and skilled labour in the hospitality sector.  

Expansion plans  

The Group, shares Baljee, is planning to open 25-plus hotels across India, targetting midscale and upscale market in the next year. “We are now investing in luxury, wildlife, spiritual and leisure destinations while continuing our expansion in Tier I and Tier II cities. Our expansion strategy is rooted in the fact that people today wish to travel further, more often, and to off-beat locations. Considering the present-day guest needs, we’ve also started revamping our offerings through curated and personalised experiences for our more discerning guests,” he shares.  

Sharing his advice to the new generation starting careers in the industry, Baljee says, “Take time to talk to every member of the staff. Getting to know your team is very important. If you want to provide great leadership, not only do you need to understand your team well, but you also need to ensure everything runs smoothly.”

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'BW HOTELIER - THE WEDDINGS & MICE SPECIAL'


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