‘We expect normal business trends to return soon’

With holiday season fast approaching, Vibhas Prasad, Director, Leisure Hotels, anticipates the demand to be robust

For over three decades plus, Leisure Hotels Group has been successfully creating guest experiences at their resort destinations. It has remained their forte, centric to their customer demographic. The experience has been built around activities, entertainment, dining experience and local flavours, keeping them in sync with the ambience and locale. The experiential luxury resort chain in north India and the largest across Uttarakhand, the Group’s portfolio of 29 properties includes smart business hotels, boutique resorts, bespoke villas and luxury camps offering leisure, adventure, wilderness, wellness and spiritual experiences. 

Throwing light on their business model as the Group has both, owned and managed assets, Vibhas Prasad, Director, Leisure Hotels, shares, “The business model initially was to build and operate for ourselves. Over the last two decades, the Group has been trying for an ‘asset right’ model wherein we have built and leased hotels and resorts for Mahindra Group in Naukuchiatal and Corbett National Park, built and given a resort on management basis to the Taj Hotels in Corbett National Park and Haridwar. We are building another one in Nainital.”

The Naini Retreat, Nainital

It was around 20 years back that he joined the hospitality vertical of family business as a second generation businessman with two properties in Uttarakhand. “We soon realised that there is immense opportunity to expand the hospitality vertical in the state as it was just carved out of UP and had close proximity with Delhi-NCR. A lot of tourism circuits here had not yet been explored so I, along with my family, started a quest to put Uttarakhand on the world tourism map. We brought in Club Mahindra and Taj Hotels into Uttarakhand to become the largest hospitality company in the state. We continue to spread our wings across north India with an ‘asset light strategy’ as a house of boutique resort brands across all categories in the value chain,” he says. 

The Group, informs Prasad, has been focussing on leisure destinations in Uttarakhand, Goa and Himachal Pradesh across bespoke villas, boutique resorts, luxury camps and smart business hotels. “For other hotels the company does not own, it is expanding through the management route by taking third party properties on management contracts. This hybrid strategy is helping us with its expansion plans. We are the pioneers in offering hospitality at Char Dham. With Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi, we are looking at more assets across spiritual destinations and circuits,” says Prasad. The most recent addition to Leisure Hotel fold has been The Hideaway Bedzzz, an asset light model where the company aims to tie-up with developers or franchisees under the ‘youthstel’ vertical. “We have a two-pronged approach towards business development. One is through building our own hotels and another is through management contracts of third party properties in strategic locations,” he says.

As Leisure Hotels offers a varied range of exciting venues away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, how does the Group find the leisure travel market developing, especially after the pandemic, Prasad informs that two years back, with the onset of global pandemic in March 2020, the Central Government enforced a lockdown till early June which meant the hospitality industry was shut for three months. “While we were allowed to open the properties in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh from June 2020 onwards, there were restrictions to enter the state whereby tourists needed an RT-PCR test to cross the border. Due to these onerous conditions, there was virtually no travel till September 2020. Hence, H1 2020 was an absolute washout. Business started to revive in October 2020 and there was a surge in ‘leisure travel’. We had robust bookings and firming up of rates across almost all our leisure destinations. We ended the financial year with only a 40 per cent erosion in top lines in spite of being shut for six months,” he observes. 

Prasad adds that similar trends are being seen now as were when everyone was caught unaware by the second wave. “We lost crucial two months (April-May 2021) of the first quarter of summer travel due to Covid19. After the decline of the second wave, we restarted business from a low base all over again. But in January, we saw the third wave devastate the hospitality business for a couple of weeks. Witnessing the current trends, it seems that travellers are putting ‘leisure travel’ on priority list. We have seen the latest business trends to be 1.5x of pre-Covid19 business trends. With the holiday season approaching and the vaccination campaign in full gear, we anticipate that demand will be robust in the following months as well,” says Prasad optimistically. e adds the guests have not lost their inhibitions, rather hotels have geared up to provide a stress-free holiday by implementing strict appropriate measures. 

Aloha On The Ganges, Rishikesh

To capitalise on the emerging trends of experiential holidays, many global and domestic hospitality chains have added homestays to their brand portfolios. Sharing his views on plans to increase the Group’s market share, Prasad says, “We have an alternate accommodation vertical called ‘The Bungalows’ for a decade now. We have expanded our offerings in some experiential markets with 3/4/5 bedroom serviced villas. Having said that, our focus remains on larger format resorts and hotels. In some markets, we continue to focus on villa offerings but multiple in larger gated communities serving as a vacation offering for second home owners.”

After the debacle for the hospitality industry in the last two years due to the ongoing pandemic and the strong revival in the leisure segment, Prasad expects the pandemic to fade away and the industry to start firing on all cylinders in all the segments. “While social banqueting and wedding segments have been on the rise after the pandemic waves, MICE and inbound/ outbound segments have been completely off the grid as has been business travel which has been non-existent too. We expect these segments to restart before the end of this year, causing relief to all stakeholders. The travel industry will eventually come back on a strong wicket on the back of the growing Indian economy with disposal incomes and the ‘experience economy’,” he says.

The Riverview Retreat, Corbett National Park

Expressing his views on how he sees IHCL as an operating partner for some of the properties as also the owner-operator relationship, Prasad shares, “We started our partnership with IHCL in 2014 wherein we handed over the management of The Corbett Hideaway in Uttarakhand to them. Since then we have partnered with them for three other properties: Pilibhit House (Haridwar) an IHCL SeleQtions; a Ginger Hotel in Greater Noida and The Naini Retreat, an IHCL SeleQtions in Nainital to be completed in 2023. In addition, we are talking to them for other properties in Uttarakhand wherein we have existing Greenfield or Brownfield sites.”

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'MARCH-APRIL 2022 F&B SPECIAL'

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