‘India to remain a major source market for the Maldives’

Salil Panigrahi, Managing Director, Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts, has now stepped out to carve a niche for the brand in his Motherland soon

An enterprising entrepreneur in his own space, he has carved a niche for himself and done his Motherland India proud. A successful hotelier, he always tells me, ‘Don’t use the word empire’. But Salil Panigrahi, Managing Director, Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts, has surely carved an empire in the hospitality space. An understated, calm, cool and silent operator which ideally are not the qualities one would associate with a successful hotelier or an aggressive one who is out to make his presence felt in the industry, Panigrahi prefers to stay away from limelight.  

“I’m a shy person and prefer doing my job quietly,” says Panigrahi, quickly adding, “I carry the Indian values of being humble, hardworking and honest as also be a true inspiration for my Atmosphere Hotels’ family. I don’t talk much about myself because our brand speaks for itself, created from the contribution of over 2,000 people’s hard work. Most of the credit goes to them for where we are today. I’m an Indian by nationality and a Maldivian by passion.”

Odisha-born Panigrahi is not only the first hotelier but also the first entrepreneur in his family. A Chartered Accountant by qualification, he stepped into the hospitality with The Oberoi Group and has never looked back ever since. Panigrahi literally landed on the Maldivian waters during his tenure with the Six Senses Group. Little did he know then that the archipelagic country was to become his turf for life.

The Maldives as a destination, Panigrahi opines, is synonymous all over the world for its tranquil beach holidays. “The luxury of the Maldives is the Nature of the Maldives. You can’t find or recreate this beauty and that is its luxury,” says Panigrahi who arrived in the Maldives in 1995-96. “It was very different then. A lot of credit for the change goes to the pioneers of the nation who kick-started tourism here. Jurisdiction was hard and logistics difficult but they were resilient and did a fantastic job. I arrived at a time when the opportunity was right. Basically, the base of the cake was made and I just garnished it a little,” he avers.  

Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts, as a hospitality brand, was launched in 2012. Sharing his views on the decade long journey, inspired by the philosophy of ‘Joy of Giving’ and the changes the industry has witnessed, Panigrahi shares, “We seriously practice our tagline: Joy of Giving. I’m a firm believer in Newton’s Third Law of Motion which states that ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. I bring that to life because I believe if you give, you get. It’s an incredible feeling to see the satisfaction of guests and colleagues. We cherish and believe in it. It has been our forte for growth.”

At present, Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts operates eight resorts in the Maldives. Explaining in detail, Panigrahi shares, “Atmosphere is the mother ship and there are white labels – the Atmosphere Hotels which are entry level five-star hotels where we have dry management contracts. OZEN is a lifestyle luxury brand and OBLU has got two segments – both four-star and five-star – but they are design-oriented. OBLU SELECT Lobigili is design-oriented entry level five-star hotel while Helengeli is OBLU NATURE and we have tried to keep it simple. It’s four-star and the coral reefs are beautiful and the trees old. It’s a very old island. Then we have got Ailafushi – OBLU XPERIENCE. It is more millennial, more colourful, more activity-oriented and more fun. With that, we created another OBLU SELECT called Lobigili which is a word we have inherited from the Maldivian dictionary meaning ‘Island of Love’ which could be more of a honeymoon destination for couples who just want to find themselves.”

India and Sri Lanka presence 

Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts, across brands, is all set to expand into India and Sri Lanka along with Bhutan and Nepal. “Human beings are incubators for manifestations. We all have ideas and thought processes but one needs to be progressive. I’m not ambitious but progressive. India is close to my heart and has always been a part of the plans. We are making progress there and hopefully, we will carve our niche within that big market soon,” he says.  

Though the present-day economic condition in Sri Lanka is not conducive for tourism activities, Panigrahi feels their projects in the island nation will not get affected. “Opportunities never get lost. They are always there. Sri Lanka and our OZEN project in Tangalle is still in pipeline. We have private land with a 300 m beach and coral reefs,” he shares, adding Atmosphere Hospitality was started as an Indian Ocean brand for India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. “The water, the culture and the people have similar habits. It will be natural for us to grow there. I’m confident we will,” says Panigrahi.

Existing source markets 

Panigrahi says they are always on the lookout for newer markets. “When we started Atmosphere Hotels, we targetted countries where the Maldives flag had not reached. Over the last one decade, they have become traditional markets for the Maldives,” shares Panigrahi, adding the top five source markets are the Britons, Germans, Indians, Russians and Chinese but Covid19 changed it all. We’re hopeful they will be back soon and the situation gets normal soon,” he says, adding, “We also get guests from the USA, Colombia and Argentina. I think everyone wants to experience the Maldives.”  

“The industry is evolving worldwide. There is no fixed formula to match the expectations of owners or destinations. You have to mutate with the situation, the country and the owners. But you have to be dynamic as it is a part of the process for growth. We’ll be open to different models at different places, evaluating what is right for the destinations, the owners, us and our colleagues,” opines Panigrahi.

Sustainability initiatives  

Talking about sustainability initiatives in an ocean-locked island, Panigrahi explains, “Logistics are difficult here. Our biggest drainer is energy in terms of carbon. We had diesel-powered generators but in the last five years, we installed solar panels. We have completed close to 5 MW solar installation all over our group. By year-end, we will be producing close to 30 per cent of our energy needs from solar energy. During construction, we focus a lot on how to conserve energy. For example, the glass is double glazed to let lesser heat transmit so that air conditioning load is less and all lights are LEDs so the wattage is less. We take care of a certain amount of carbon footprint. We are trying to reduce the amount of plastic coming into the island as we have our own bottling plant to eliminate the need for bringing in plastic bottles.”

Panigrahi informs they have just started the bio-digester. “The first project is being completed in OBLU SELECT Sangeli and it will move on to other hotels. We will produce our own biogas for fuelling staff canteens and producing manure. We won’t have to discharge the garbage to the garbage island,” he says.

Changes in consumer demand   

The Managing Director, Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts, Maldives feels there has been no change in the consumption pattern of the guests – they are eating and drinking similar things. “However, what has changed is that they have decided to take more breaks and holidays. I believe holiday hotels will do better going forward because people have realised the value of their time and life. They will now take a break every few months to recharge and find themselves,” he avers.

Significance of Indian hospitality market  

“Indian economy is growing and we will be touching the US$ 5 trillion mark in a year or two. Per capita has increased, middle-class has grown substantially with disposable income. Even if an insignificant percentage of that middle-class comes to the Maldives, it is going to be a huge number. More importantly, the awareness about the country is increasing in India and it has and will remain a major source market for us,” says Panigarhi.  

Future of hospitality industry  

On how the hospitality industry will pan out in near future, he says, “It has suffered a lot with the pandemic. We have been lucky in the Maldives because we got back on our feet quickly. But countries like Thailand and even India have yet to recover completely. But we’ll bounce back. People will still go back to hotels, eat at restaurants and drink at the bars. It has not ended yet. It is just a pause. I see a better future with people enjoying their lives.”  

On Souvagya Mohapatra

“We, as a company, don’t have a hiring policy. We have a joining policy. We have been lucky that Souvagya could join our family as Managing Director (India, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka operations). He’s a friend from the same town. His in-depth knowledge of Indian hospitality is incredible and his associations speak volumes about his dynamism. We are a niche operator and don’t want hotels in every corner. We’ll be choosy but at the same time, we’ll create good hotels. I’m sure Souvagya will bring some great results to the company,” opines Panigrahi.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'BW HOTELIER MAY-JUNE 2022'


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