After working in the corporate sector for over three decades, during which he founded KPMG in India, Ravi Ramu started a boutique hotel, Primrose Villas, with his wife in Chikmagalur, a serene town known for its coffee estates, 150 kilometres east of Mangalore. Ramu says he has travelled to some 20 countries but his experience of staying in hotels, primarily branded chains, has been far from fulfilling. "When I am on a vacation, I don't want to see the time I sleep or wake up. If I am governed by the rules of the hotel, it's not a holiday. We don't pay through the nose to abide by another set of rules," he says.
Ramu's first promise to guests is that he will serve food any time of the day. "We don't want people to rush for meals. Boutique hotels are about flexibility. Putting expensive marble or spending money on fancy bathroom sinks and antique furniture are incidental. Luxury comes from the mindset," he says.
Primrose Villas is among the handful of properties dotting the country's luxury boutique hotel landscape. India is estimated to have over 350 premium boutique hotels; of these, about 30 would be luxury. This is minuscule compared to large hotel chains where each brand has several properties. For instance, there are over 75 Radisson hotels in the country within the larger portfolio of the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group.
Over the years, these boutique hotels have carved out a niche for themselves, attracting discerning travellers who desire an intimate and personal space. "Large chains are usually impersonal, and once you've stayed at one, youve stayed at all," says Jaisal Singh, Founder & Chief Executive of SUJN, which has five top-end boutique properties, including India's first leopard lodge, Jawai.
Each boutique hotel is built around a theme. The popular themes include historical palaces and large havelis (or bungalows) with a rich heritage quotient. Then, there are hotels designed around wildlife, wellness, coffee plantations and coastal life. The design can be traditional or contemporary, but all of them put emphasis on personalisation, showcasing local culture, extravagant amenities such as personal butler service, swish accommodation and high staff per guest ratio.
"Travellers are seeking authentic, memorable moments. Independent luxury boutique hotels deliver authenticity that allows travellers to live like the locals," says Arpit Pant, Regional Director (South Asia & Middle East), Preferred Hotels and Resorts (PH&R), which provides marketing, sales and loyalty support to boutique hotels across the globe.
Take Suryagarh, a fort-palace hotel in Jaisalmer and a member of PH&R, which has curated activities for guests for immersing themselves into the local culture. The property is a gateway to the Thar desert and offers facilities such as Akhara (fitness centre), Neel (swimming pool), Taash (card and billiards room), Rait (spa) and Relaxation (yoga), besides adventures such as mountain biking, camel safari, silk route exploration and chudail trail - a midnight drive to spots in the area where the spirits are supposed to roam.
"At Suryagarh, we aim to offer guests a peek into the traditional Rajasthani hospitality. The hotel presents the secrets of a land that has been long shrouded in myths and legends," says Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, Managing Director of MRS Hotels, which has two more boutique hotels - Narendra Bhawan and Laxmi Niwas Palace in Bikaner. Most luxury boutique hotels have tied up with independent brands like PH&R or Relais & Chateaux (R&C) to expand reach as most tourists are from foreign countries.
Broadly, the hospitality sector in India is divided into three categories. One is domestic chains such as Oberoi Hotels and Resorts and ITC Hotels that own and manage their hotels. The second is foreign brands like Marriott, Accor and Hyatt Hotels that get into management contracts with hotel owners. In these two cases, the room inventory is large. But boutique hotels have a smaller room inventory - ranging from 5 to 40 rooms - that makes them unattractive for large players. And that's where brands such as PH&R and R&C come into picture. "These brands have global offices. Besides sales and marketing support, R&C does a lot of knowledge sharing and consulting work," says Yeishan Goel, CEO of hospitality consulting and services firm THRS.
Becoming a member of these brands involves a detailed process that includes inspection by anonymous inspectors and a vote by the board. All members undergo regular inspections. R&C has a strong focus on cuisine and gastronomy. Among its 540 members, more than 370 are Michelin Star properties.
However, the dependence on foreign tourists has been waning of late due to two major shifts: the rise in the share of domestic high-end travellers and the year-long attraction of some destinations. The mix of domestic and international guests in luxury boutique hotels has changed to nearly 75 per cent international and 25 per cent domestic. Earlier, the number of international guests used to be almost nine times the number of domestic tourists. "When I started Sher Bagh 18 years ago, hardly 2 per cent guests used to be Indian. That trend continued till quite recently. That figure is over 20 per cent [now]. The affluent Indians who used to travel abroad are now starting to enjoy the experiences that lie within," says SUJAN's Singh. Joerg Drechsel, a delegate of the Asian chapter at R&C, says, "The domestic market is growing fast; we expect it to grow to 50 per cent of guest arrivals."
"There have been ups and downs in the number of inbound tourists over the past few years. There are new destinations such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia that are competing with India for international travellers. However, domestic tourism is here to stay," says THRS's Goel.
The luxury boutique hotel market is burgeoning but could grow even faster. The owners are mostly HNIs, industrialists and royal families. Beyond them, it's difficult for anybody to enter this space as government policies do not favour high-end properties with small room inventories. For instance, to apply for a bar licence, a hotel needs to have a minimum number of rooms. The online chatter on platforms such as Tripadvisor and Expedia has made travellers confident about seeking out adventures beyond the traditional destinations. The hotels that can create lasting memories will stand out. ~