It was a golden party at the Leela Raviz resort in Kovalam on Sunday, the first day of Onam. First there was a high tea on the beach with a rotund Mahabali, and pulikali (tiger dance) warriors mingling with the special guests, followed by a cultural interlude, reminiscences and then a cake-cutting ceremony to mark the iconic hotel’s 50th anniversary. Presiding over the ceremony was NRI industrialist Ravi Pillai, chairman of the RP Group, the current owner of the landmark property.

The who’s who of Thiruvananthapuram as well as those who played a part in the creation of the stunning cliff top beach resort were invited to the gala event where many nostalgic stories were shared about Kerala’s first five star hotel designed by legendary architect Charles Correa for ITDC. It was this hotel, then an ITDC Ashok, that transformed the sleepy fishing village of Kovalam into an international tourist destination commanding top dollar.

Storied past

When the government decided to privatise it, it changed hands several times, before Ravi Pillai’s RP Group acquired it. Speaking to Businessline, Pillai talked about how the hotel he acquired from the Leela group was the pride of his portfolio. “Even if somebody offers me ₹10,000 crore, I will not sell this beautiful property – last year I got an offer for ₹5,000 crore and turned it down,” he said.

Aerial shot of Kovalam Leela Raviz resort

Aerial shot of Kovalam Leela Raviz resort

Pillai has roped in the Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts to manage the property and to elevate it. Already, sweeping changes are evident – for instance, Leela’s trademark Aujasya (wellness) menu is now introduced, it’s Tishya range of luxurious amenities offered to guests as well as the Leela Palace Trail – a multi-day specially curated experiential itinerary. The 50-year old hotel looks modern and contemporary – a tribute to Charles Correa’s futuristic design that has stood the test of time.

Recounting the hotel’s storied history, Dileep Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Imperience Hotels and Resorts who was the first sales manager of ITDC Ashok Kovalam, described how in 1959 the Indian government had appointed a consultant Club Mediterranean to identify a destination to set up a beach resort. It zeroed in on Kovalam, where the only construction was the Halcyon Castle, the summer retreat of the Travancore royals. According to Dileep Kumar, it was due to the untiring efforts of Col.Goda Varma Raja, then chairman of Kerala Tourism and Karan Singh, then Union tourism minister that the Kovalam project took off. Charles Correa brilliantly used a sloping design to create the beach view hotel and cottages on the Cliffside and won many awards for his architecture.

In 2002, upon privatisation, M Far Hotels promoted by Muhammed Ali of the Galfar group acquired it and rebranded it as a Le Meridien. In 2005, Captain Nair of the Leela group acquired the hotel and renovated it to ultra luxurious levels, but due to debts, was forced to sell it. Over the years, the Halcyon Castle too became part of the 65 acres resort’s property and today the four royal suites attract the world’s elite.

Checking in

Pillai, who has given his Raviz resort on the Ashtamudi lake at Kollam to the Leela group to manage as well, has drawn up big plans to take that property up a notch too. He has acquired an old palace on an island opposite the resort and royal suites will be built there.

In 2019, Bahrain-based Pillai, whose net worth is estimated at $3.3 billion, and has a big play in oil and gas, steel and construction, had announced an investment of ₹11,000 crore to expand the hospitality business of the group that operates under the Raviz brand. Ask him if it is on course, and he says the group has invested in a new hotel in Maldives, and also plans to build another hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, but sounds a note of caution. “In hospitality business, people would be lucky to get margins of 5 to 10 per cent. The main attraction is that the price of land would increase,” he says.

His personal mantra in business and life? “Hard work, commitment and will to succeed,” he responds.