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Saturday, Jan 18, 2003

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Innovating constantly...

Rina Chandran

A blend of her creativity and personal beliefs has created hotels around India that are... well, very different.

The Park Hotels, a chain of premium boutique hotels, have, in a short time, become known as highly individualistic, trendy and friendly to the arts, a description that just as easily fits its President, Priya Paul. At 36, she has established a reputation for being innovative and adventurous in an industry that is slow to embrace change. She started work under her father, the late Surendra Paul, as the Marketing Manager at the Park Hotel, Delhi, at the age of 22. She became Acting General Manager in 1989, and succeeded her father as President of the hospitality division of the Apeejay Surendra Group in 1990.

"I started off so young because it was a family business," Priya says. "My mother had worked from time to time in various aspects of the business, but her involvement was fairly low-key."

She doggedly stuck to the boutique hotel concept at a time when luxury hotels were equated with lobbies with big bronze statuettes and bars that resembled a rich man's den. Chennai, the latest destination for the Park Hotels, had never seen anything like it before: jungle prints in the lobby and black leather in the bar!

"The response in Chennai has been better than expected - Chennai wasn't expecting a hotel like that, and it's very rewarding when you are appreciated for something innovative," says the women who is based in Delhi and visits the other four properties at least once a month. Each property has a separate identity, which is international and yet distinctly Indian, and tied to the city it is located in.

In 2000, Priya was the first recipient of the Young Hotel Entrepreneur of the Year award from The Federation of Hotels and Restaurant Associations of India. She also holds numerous positions, including Vice President, Hotel Association of India; Founder Member, World Travel Tourism Council - Asia Chapter; Member of the Northern Region Council of the Confederation of Indian Industry and Member, Young President's Organization.

"Ten years ago, when we started to re-develop the Kolkata and Delhi properties as boutique hotels, it was difficult to say: It's ok to be small and not have so many restaurants," she says. "Since then, mindsets have changed, people are more adventurous and willing to accept change. And, because they are travelling a lot more, they want the same things they see abroad."

Almost paradoxically, Priya, who studied Economics at the Wellesley College (US), is also a keen patron and advocate of the arts; she is a trustee of the India Foundation of the Arts, and a Board Member of the National Culture Fund. Her interest in the arts is evident in the contemporary design and decor of the hotels, as well as the space provided for contemporary and traditional arts. At Chennai, for instance, the hotel took on the lead sponsorship of The Other Festival for contemporary arts last year, and encourages the showcasing of film as an art, in recognition of the fact that the hotel stands on the old Gemini Studios property. In Delhi, the hotel is involved in the restoration of the Jantar Mantar.

"I have a creative side, and my personal beliefs do get translated into work — I look for creativity in ideas, products and services," she says. Her other interests include cuisine and their histories, meditation and reading. "This is especially relevant in boutique hotels as you are constantly re-inventing and innovating." The hotels have a "holistic approach" to the arts, which entails promoting contemporary art and the preservation of traditional arts and crafts, as well as the conservation of architecture and historical sites.

As one of the few women directors in the industry, Priya has not encountered any difficulty in her work, perhaps because of the nature of the industry and because of her own position. "There are far greater numbers of women in senior management positions in the hospitality industry than in many others and because it is so international, it is much more open and exposed to trends and influences, so there are no issues (about women in senior positions). And certainly, because I am an owner-manager, people are more accepting of that."

Priya counts her hands-on attitude and penchant for working with teams as crucial qualities, which she has also transferred to her colleagues; no one is afraid to get in and get their hands dirty, she says. In addition, she credits her family's support as a vital factor: "That has really given me the leeway to do what I wanted to do," says the hotelier whose "lifetime goal" is to work hard and enjoy herself.

Going forward, she is bullish on the Indian hospitality industry and says it has an enormous potential to grow. While the industry is extremely competitive, she sees the Park Hotels strengthening its position — despite some concerns about the property in Visakhapatnam — with new additions being made to the Delhi and Chennai hotels this year. "The challenge is to constantly innovate. No day goes by when you don't learn something new," she concludes.

Picture by Bijoy Ghosh

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