Indian Essence

Most famous for dripping their customers in sumptuous luxury, The Leela Group are also conscientious environmentalists and showcase India’s rich cultural heritage through their opulent properties. Nidhi Kaushik checks in.

It is said that success is not measured by achievements alone, but by the distance travelled, and Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair has travelled far. He knows that every journey is fired by a dream and to dream the impossible and make it possible has been his life mission, be it as an environmentalist, an industrialist or hotelier.
Born in 1923 in Cannanore, Kerala, Capt. Nair emerged from a humble childhood to become a key player in the tourism, handloom and apparel industries. The burning desire to serve his nation propelled him to join the freedom movement, but Capt. Nair realised that economic prosperity was critical to lift India out of abject poverty, so he began to work towards the development of the handloom industry.

captain_nairCaptain Nair set about rebuilding the handloom sector. He helped set up The All India Handloom Board in 1954 and years later, was instrumental in instituting The Apparel Export Promotion Council. With a commitment to excellence and innovation, Leela Lace Ltd. grew to become a pioneer in introducing the popular bleeding Madras fabric and other handlooms like cheesecloth and gauze fabric to the fashion capitals of the west.

In the early 70’s, the company launched its ready-made garments unit, which today has become India’s premier export house. Since the 80’s, the client list of Leela Lace reads like the veritable who’s who of the American fashion industry: Gap, Liz Claiborne, Polo Jeans, Tommy Hilfiger, JC Penney, Macy’s, Van Heusen, Wal-Mart, and the list goes on.

Dinesh Nair, the present Managing Director of Leela Lace Ltd., took over from his father Capt. Nair, in the early 80’s. After consolidating the company’s position, he shifted his focus to the American woven sportswear market with a continuous emphasis on fast turnaround and big volumes. In 2000 and 2001 the company was honoured with the prestigious Golden Globe Award for highest exports in clothing.
It was his enthusiasm of handlooms that led him to his ultimate calling as a hotelier. In 1957 Capt. Nair visited Germany with a trade delegation and stayed in the world-class Kempinski Hotels. As the oldest hotel group in Europe, established in 1897, he was charmed by the history and his fascination with the hotel industry was sparked as he aspired to recreate similar old-age luxury in India.

It was 30 years later that his dream for world-class hotels in India was realised at the ripe age of 65. “I started and an age when most people retire,” he quips. In 1987 he tied up with Kempinski Hotels to introduce The Leela Palaces, Resorts and Hotels. Named after his wife, The Leela Group currently operates in Mumbai, Bangalore, Goa and Kovalam, employing over 25,000 people, with Kempinski operating as the group’s international marketing and distribution partner.

bengalore main room 

Every Leela Hotel is an eco-friendly oasis, but Capt. Nair’s concern for the environment extends beyond the confines of his luxury properties. He is responsible for converting acres of space into verdant havens and in the four cities where Leela hotels sit pretty he personally supervises the landscaping and plantation of exotic and rare plants. The strategic locations, individuality, architectural aesthetics, lush greens and the intrinsic Indian culture holds true for every Leela property and is reflected in their 'The Essence of India' slogan.

He is a true pioneer and his efforts have been recognised time and time again by national and international agencies. A particularly special award for Capt. Nair is the place on the Global 500 Laureate Roll of Honour of the United Nations Environment Programme, which he was given in 1999. He has also received The Green Hotelier Award by the International Hotel & Restaurant Association, Paris, and the Maharana Mewar Foundation National Award for “outstanding practical achievements in the protection and improvement of the environment” in 2002.

In 2001, Capt. Nair fulfilled his longstanding dream of constructing a palace hotel in the green garden city of Bangalore. The Leela Palace Kempinski, Bangalore is built in art deco style recreating the grandeur of The Mysore Maharaja’s Palace. It is set amidst 8-acres of carefully landscaped garden and waterfalls, with 254 opulent rooms.

Kenneth Hill, Corporate Director Sales and Marketing Bangalore, talks about their plans. “Our strategy is to do what we have done so far,” he explains. The customers are not interested in awards but are interested in service and that’s what we give them. The best service that they expect by providing a wonderful facility, comfort, warm, friendly and caring interaction in order for them to feel good and have a memorable experience.”

Achieving these levels of excellence has been the result of a three-pronged business strategy. ”Fundamental to our business is the all pervasive Indian tradition of hospitality,” explains Capt. Nair. “Secondly, we honour the cultural heritage of India and lastly, we operate on the basis of world-class technology, backed up fully by the commitment of the staff.”

At the core of Leela’s appeal is its personalised top quality service. As Capt. Nair says, “Although we are creating the finest hardware in the world, it needs the best software (human touch) to offer the highest standards of service, a crucial differentiator from our competitors.

“Our focused operating philosophy is personalised service and comprehensive logistic support. We ensure that our esteemed clients devote their time to the sole purpose of their stay - to conduct business and relax in the most conducive environment.”
He adds, “My mother used to say, as per the Indian Vedas, Atithi Devo Bhava’ meaning ‘Guest is God’ and I believe that is how guests should be treated in all our hotels.”

The latest addition, The Leela Kovalam is Kerala’s largest resort certainly adopts this philosophy. Built on a rock face between two wide sweeping beaches, it offers divine views of the breathtaking Kovalam coastline. The guarantee of exceptional service led to The Leela Palaces and Resorts developing a strategic partnership with Kumarakom Lake Resort of Kerala, which promises a range of benefits to travel planners and consumers. This alliance will help market Kovalam and Kumarakom together as an integrated Ayurveda, beach and backwater experience.

With tourism booming and the shortage of hotel rooms making headlines, The Leela Group is in expansion mode. Speaking about the group's outlook, Kenneth stressed how the focus is on growth, as they prepare to build five new properties over the next three years. Maybe it’s Capt. Nair’s patriotism, which led him to become a freedom fighter, or perhaps its just clever marketing tactics, but the group are incorporating facets of the respective city’s historic culture and bright future into their hotels.

For instance, Hotel Leelaventure Limited has signed a management agreement with Ambience Hotels and Resorts Limited to manage a five-star deluxe hotel with 319 guestrooms and suites and 90 serviced residences, which are under construction at Gurgaon. This hotel, which is set to open in the summer 2008, will include a premium shopping centre spread over 15,000 sq m, to help satisfy the Capitol city’s increasing demand for luxury retail outlets.

Hotel LeelaVenture Limited has also successfully bought one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in India, at a whopping Rs. 611 crores (approximately  $152m). The three-acre plot of land is in a prime location in the diplomatic enclave in south Delhi. The group is planning to have the luxurious, 211-room hotel operational just in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games being held in Delhi.

Meanwhile guests will be treated like royalty when the grand $20m Leela Palace Kempinski Udaipur opens in winter 2008. Strikingly located beside Pichola Lake, this four-storey palace hotel will provide 80 deluxe rooms and junior suites, including royal suites that bring alive the life and times of India’s affluent royal past. Each suite will feature a panoramic view of the lake and the architecture will mirror the rich, natural detailing of traditional Indian palaces.

A holistic state-of-the-art spa will offer ancient remedies to relieve modern day stresses.  Traditional Ayurvedic massages, exotic milk baths and mud body polishes will all be on offer to rejuvenate and realign body, mind and soul the Indian way. There will also be a stunning infinity pool facing the lake. The target clientele of this hotel will include the crème-de-la-crème of India and wealthy international tourists. There will also be an emphasis on conference facilities and amenities, with a fully equipped business centre to cater to the MICE market and corporate sector.

The group will then target Chennai and Hyderabad in 2009 and Pune in 2010. In the harbour city of Chennai a 15-storey palace hotel is being constructed and will open by 2009. This will not only be the largest and the first beachfront business hotel in the city, but it’s 1600 sq m Convention Centre, will be the most contemporary and well laid-out meeting area in Chennai. The Leela Palaces and Resorts is investing $75m in this new premium development, which will be sprawled across seven acres of pristine beachfront.

The Chennai project will coincide with a further investment of $70m towards a luxury hotel in Hyderabad’s Deccan plains. The Leela Group is cleverly targeting Pune as it is India’s new IT hub and the fastest growing second tier city. An investment of $30m is going into building a 250-room luxury palace and resort hotel on a 5-acre plot close to the airport, as well as a state-of-the-art business park.

Existing hotels are also being treated to touch ups. The Leela Kempinski Mumbai, has completed a $25m renovation to contemporise each of its 400 rooms, while Kovalam property has also been renovated. The Leela Palace Kempinski in Bangalore has added a further 105 rooms, which were nominated in the Best Rooms category in the Conde Nast Gold List 2008 and the Goa hotel hopes to follow suit after the installation of its own additional rooms.

Leela’s appetite for growth is driving the group to explore operating management contracts in source markets like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is also strengthening its international marketing and distribution infrastructure in UK, Middle East and North America by opening up offices in London, Dubai and New York.

In fact, Kempinski held its first-ever global sales and strategy conference outside Europe at Leela hotels in Mumbai, Bangalore and Kovalam.
The Kempinski association was enhanced a year ago, to cover international marketing and distribution support for The Leela’s existing and upcoming five hotels. Earlier, the Leela Palaces, Hotels, Resorts, along with Kempinski Hotels, announced the extension of its exclusive business partnership in India. According to Peter J. Leitgeb, President, Leela Palaces, Hotels, Resorts, the new agreement offers Kempinski a great business opportunity to spread its footprints in a dynamic and rapidly growing market like India.

The Leela Group is all set to broaden its international market reach by joining the Global Hotel Alliance (GHA), the world’s largest alliance of independent luxury hotel brands. Formed in 2004, the GHA comprises 190 upscale, luxury hotels and resorts, each brand a key player in their region of operation.

“This is a great opportunity for The Leela brand to expand its customer network by working with our GHA partners in markets otherwise difficult to penetrate,” Mr. Leitgeb explains. “In today’s global economy, the frequency of international travel continues to grow, elevating the importance of exposing our brand and assisting our customers in other parts of the world.”

The Leela Group intends to increase its brand awareness among international travelers and enjoy the benefits of global scale by leveraging GHA partner sales network, sales road shows, frequent flyer program partnerships, trade shows, consortia contracting strengths, PR and advertising campaigns and preferred partnerships.

As tourism to India flourishes, so does The Leela Group and with five more hotels to look forward to, its future couldn’t be brighter.

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