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The Leela, India’s fastest growing luxury luxury hospitality chain – an exclusive interview with President, Rajiv Kaul

Rajiv Kaul, President, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts

The mission statement of The Leela Group highlights ‘The Essence of India’ as part of your company’s DNA. How is Indian heritage reflected in your company business philosophy and what differentiates The Leela from its direct competitors?
The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts which is celebrating its’ 25th anniversary this year has always been dedicated to incorporating local and regional design aesthetics into all hotels.  The properties are a celebration of India and location plays in a key role in how we create world-class guest experiences.

For example, The Leela Palace New Delhi which opened last year perfectly exemplifies the magnificent architecture, grace and elegance of Lutyens’ Delhi. Located at the heart of the prestigious Diplomatic Enclave area, the hotel is in proximity to the Presidential Palace, the Prime Minister’s office, a number of embassies, the central business district and a host of historical monuments. At the hotel, you can experience the luxury of 260 wide-spaced guestrooms and suites each spanning over 550 sq. ft. and a Presidential Suite sprawling over 4,300 sq. ft. A royal Indian dining experience is offered at ‘Jamavar’, modern global dining at ‘The Qube’, an exclusive Japanese culinary experience at ‘Megu’, a gastronomically entertaining evening at ‘Le Cirque’. The Leela Palace New Delhi combines state-of-the-art functionality with traditional warmth to ensure guests the highest levels of Indian hospitality at a global standard.

The Leela Palace Chennai, opening later this summer, is the first seafront hotel in the hub of the capital’s business district, spanning six acres, with magnificent views of the Bay of Bengal. The stunning property seamlessly combines the architectural opulence of the Chettinad Dynasty with the largest guest rooms in the city. State-of-the-art facilities, finest dining concepts and a dazzling collection of renowned contemporary art and artisan craft makes the hotel one of the most luxurious landmarks in the region.

What motivated you to opt for the Kempinski brand as your strategic partner? Are all your future development projects in India and abroad co-branded with Kempinski?

We are pleased to align with three world-class sales and marketing partners. The Leela has enjoyed successful alliances with Germany-based Kempinski, US-based Preferred Hotels & Resorts and is a member of Global Hotel Alliance based in Switzerland.

To what extent the Kempinski Group is involved in the management of your hotels?

We enjoy a strong sales and marketing relationship with Kempinski which has existed since 1987.  The Leela is featured in the Kempinski global directory, on their website and we are promoted by Kempinski through marketing, sales and PR channels.

Your company has been praised internationally for your environmental policies, receiving many prizes and awards. Which are the key elements related to ecology in your operations? How do you engage your personnel in environmental protection activities?

The success and praise must be attributed to our Honourable Chairman. Over the years, Captain Nair and his wife, Madame Leela, personally supervised the landscaping of each of our eight hotels. They both dreamed to create green havens in the heart of the urban cities – Bangalore, Chennai, Gurgaon, Mumbai and New Delhi. And, the same approach was taken to create a magical green experiences in the Goa, Kovalam and Udaipur.

Both of our Chairman’s sons, Vivek and Dinesh, were raised with love for greenery.  It has inspired them to design and operate excellent sustainable hotels that contribute every day towards environmental protection and offer important benefits including a healthier and safer environment for the enjoyment of our guests and employees. These practices are now being recognized. The Leela Palace New Delhi recently earned the first LEED Platinum (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification for excellence in sustainable design and integrating world class green best practices. The hotel is the first within our group to have earned this prestigious certification from The Indian Green Building Council (IGBC), licensed by the internationally renowned U.S. Green Building Council.  The Leela Palace Chennai slated to open in a few months also has a similar sustainable design.

In less than a year from opening, The Leela Palace in New Delhi is being rated as the leading hotel of the Indian capital, both in specialized travel media as well as major international independent review sites such as Tripadvisor. What were the key ingredients behind the rapid success?

Our owning family and senior leadership had a great vision in creating The Leela Palace New Delhi. We set out to buy one of the most sought after locations in the city. We then hired the finest architects and interior designers and began building a beautiful, modern day palace that is respectful and reminiscent of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ legacy. He is the master planner who laid out Delhi when the centre of power was moved in 1931 and became the capital of independent India in 1947. This design aesthetic combined with state-of-the-art technology, innovative dining which includes partnering with legendary Le Cirque  and highly-respected Japanese superstar Megu have contributed to the award-winning formula. It has to go without saying that our service is excellent and befitting a luxury Indian hotel brand – warm, welcoming, personalised and attentive.

The Leela Palace New Delhi is the first luxury hotel in India to integrate in its F&B a franchise of a major international restaurant chain (Le Cirque). Do you plan to introduce such restaurants in your existing hotels?

We take each project one by one. There certainly is an ‘appétit’ for this partnership approach in India and it is something that we will continue to explore.

How do you maintain consistency throughout your chain, given that some properties are brand new such as the Leela Palace New Delhi in contrast with older properties such as Mumbai or Bangalore?

There is a great emphasis placed on training in our organization. We run The Leela Academy of Learning which is based in Mumbai. It is our goal to select the strongest college graduates and provide them the opportunity to develop and hone their skills with The Leela. At the end of the training they may be offered a role with the group or select to begin their business career elsewhere. It is very fulfilling to our hotels to see graduates of The Leela Academy in key management positions in our corporate office and the hotels today.

Your company has recently announced its interest to expand outside India, in the Middle East. Why have you opted for the Middle East over other regions? What is the timeline of your expansion outside India?

We are optimistic about growth and our approach is strategic. We remain focused on India and believe the majority of our expansion will be here, but there are some very interesting projects in the region which would be foolish not to explore. I do not have anything to announce today, but believe there will be expansion news beyond India in 2013.

What are your financial performance expectations for this year? Has the international political and financial turmoil had any influence on your business in the past two years?

We have an optimistic outlook for the current year, as we expect significant revenue growth accruing from business stabilization at Leela Palace New Delhi and from the launch of Leela Palace Chennai. The impact of global economic slow down has fortunately been cushioned by strong domestic demand – witnessed both at our business and leisure hotels. However room rates remain soft due to large supply of room inventory.

What is the ratio of foreign travellers versus Indian travellers at your city hotels?

We enjoy a healthy mix of Indian guests at our resorts and city hotels which accounts for approximately 55% of our business while the remainder is made up of a share of UK, Germany, US, Japan and Russia rounding out our top five international markets.

Which are the innovations guests should expect at the upcoming The Leela Hotels?

Many – every day we have to find new ways to delight our guests!!

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