Leela Palaces' Rajiv Kaul on India's hotel scene

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Long a leading player in India's luxury hospitality market, the Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts operates nine properties, with its Leela Palace Udaipur named the World's Best Hotel in Travel + Leisure's 2019 readers survey. The Leela, which is part of the Preferred Hotels and Resorts network, is also in expansion mode, and the brand has openings coming in Hyderabad, Gujarat, Agra and Jaipur as well as plans for a second flag in Bangalore. Hotels editor Christina Jelski sat down with Rajiv Kaul, president of the Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, to talk about India's hospitality landscape and plans to move beyond a domestic footprint.

Q: It seems as though more and more major hotel brands are looking to enter or push further into India. Can you talk a bit about the trends that are fueling this investment?

Rajiv Kaul
Rajiv Kaul

A: I think what's fueling the trend at this time is the fact that the market is so underserved. I mean, the total number of rooms in India -- I'm not talking about [India-based budget lodging company] Oyo, I'm talking about two-star, three-star, four-star hotels, branded rooms -- are at approximately 140,000. I'm told there are more rooms in Manhattan than we have in all of India. So, the market is very underserved today, in comparison. I think that's why all these international brands see tremendous opportunity, and they're coming in. What's also interesting is that in India, the primary engine that is driving the demand is the domestic market. The domestic market is vibrant, and the new generation is really discovering the pleasures of traveling. In some ways, what happened in the U.S. in the '60s is happening in India now.

Q: What does this influx of international activity mean for a domestic player like the Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts?

A: We're a 30-year-old brand, but Leela, really in the past decade, has made a name for itself seemingly out of nowhere. Before that, very few people outside of India knew about us. But it was our Leela Palace hotels that helped put us in the map.

In each market we play in, the Leela hotel is in most cases the No. 1 or perhaps the No. 2 property in its destination. Take, for instance, Bangalore. You have the Ritz-Carlton, you have the JW Marriott, you have the Oberoi, you have the Four Seasons coming in, as well. You have all these brands, but we're still considered by many to be the No. 1 brand there. Part of that is because the service standards that are expected in India are very, very high. We have three employees for every guest. In Bangalore, currently, every guest is met and greeted at the airport. Check-in happens in the car on the way over, and anything you want to order, be it a small snack, anything, it can be ordered, and by the time you reach the hotel, it's already prepared. Guests really expect to be wowed.

Q: Can you offer more details on Leela's pipeline?

A: All our upcoming openings are in India right now. The whole world is coming to India, so we thought we should first strengthen our portfolio before looking elsewhere. We're really excited about the Leela Palace hotels in Agra and Jaipur because it positions us well within the Golden Triangle, and that's really relevant to our U.S. guest. But looking forward longer-term, we are going to take our journey overseas. We want to have an opportunity to service our guests on more of a global scale, not just in India. Where we're initially looking to go is somewhere in the Indian Ocean, maybe the Maldives or Bali. We want to do some high-end resorts there, and while we haven't announced any concrete plans, we are on the cusp of a very interesting transition. We have a number of things that are going to be fast-tracked, and you'll be seeing us being far more active then we've been in the past.

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