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Thai hospitality chains are set to bring a distinct feel to Indian hospitality

Visitors to Bangkok are unlikely the Dusit Thani, a landmark few miss, whether they are staying there or not. The group has 12 hotels in Thailand alone, largely luxury, besides a host of hotels in other countries such as China, Egypt, UAE, Maldives and Philippines. Many more are on the way, largely in countries where the hospitality sector is more mature and with clear segmentation. So perhaps it comes as a bit of a surprise that the group’s first luxury category hotel, in a new brand altogether, each positioned as ‘one of a kind’ – the Dusit Devarana, has opened its doors in dusty Delhi.

dusit-blueWell, the Dusit Devarana in Delhi, spread over eight acres, is more an oasis of lush greens interspersed with stunning pools and architecture. However what is of greater significance is the vote of confidence in India’s hospitality sector. Hospitality consultant HVS puts the number of hotel beds available across the country in the star categories at 84,000, predicting a need for 90,000 hotel rooms over the next five years in India.

In the last decade, India woke up to advantage of having a global (read Western) hotel brand at its place of business. Consciousness of Hyatt, Sheraton and Meridien had started filtering into the consciousness of Indians before the turn of the century. Names such as Hilton, Radisson, Westin, Novotel, Marriott, Intercontinental and many others were added in the last decade. They too largely started with luxury end hotels, a category already substantially but not adequately catered to by domestic brands such as Taj, Oberoi, ITC and later Leela. Most hotel chains have already started hotels across multiple categories – from luxury to budget, and have significant pipelines, even if most projects are delayed.

Well, the wheel seems to turning once again as a slew of brands now are targeting the India, only this time their genesis lies in the east. Hongkong based Shangri-la tied up with the Eros group to start their first hotel in Delhi in 2005. After years of delay, the second one opened in Mumbai, only to close within the first year of operations. However this year is seeing a number of Thai brands – Lebua, Dusit, Amari and Eastin have opened or about to open their hotels in India. More chains such as Six Senses and Anantara have announced plans.

Thailand is a favourite destination for Indians, more than a million went in 2012, and its hospitality standards have found high acclaim. “Our properties stand out from the crowd for their very high standards of personalised service and legendary Thai hospitality,” says Ankur Bhatia, Executive Director, Bird Group. “Dusit hotels in India will be no different. It will offer the same discerning standards that Dusit is known for internationally, combined with these sensibilities is our sensitivity to local culture.”

Thai hotel groups are synonymous to quality service with a smile, says Bhatia. “Hospitality groups from Asia imbibe this aspect of service as the Asian culture is very warm and welcoming. Within Asia, Thailand stands out for its genuine caring hospitality. This culture of sincere service is our distinctive strength at Dusit. As an eastern brand with clear segment focus, our values, working style and cultural compatibility for India is dramatically superior. While in India we are still in Asia where our core strength lies. In addition we have a very strong revenue culture, an owner-centric approach and the modern technology advantage to deliver value to our hotels.”

Dusit international, Thailand and Bird Group, India have a formed a joint venture. The initial development is with Bird-owned properties, explains Bhatia. However, the joint venture will actively offer operator services to other hotel owners in India. The group is also targeting opening another hotel, Dusit D2, soon at Delhi’s Aerocity. The group has also announced hotels in Jaipur and Goa.

Amari, another Thai group with a fairly similar hotel footprint to Dusit’s, has chosen the mid scale route to enter, with its first property slated to open by the year end in Ludhiana, a growth hub. “It is estimated that maximum investments are expected to take place in Tier II towns so we are bringing up our first property in Ludhiana, which is a fabulous upcoming market,” says Peter Henley, President and Chief Executive Officer, Onyx Hospitality. “Amari is already known to Indian travellers who form a large percentage of our guests in Thailand, and we are looking forward to bringing that same Thai warmth and hospitality to our customers in their home market. We take the best of Amari’s expertise, service and warmth to wherever we open.”

Henley says the group will be presenting a compelling brand narrative, management experience and market understanding. “When carving a niche great brand stories grounded by strategic thinking and articulated through creative executions and engaging experiences, are the catalyst for reaching and retaining guests,” he says. Amari is partnering with Apna Punjab Resorts Ltd for its 127-room Amari Ludhiana, which will offer significant banquet facilities and will be able to accommodate events for up to 2,000 people as well as parking for 250 cars inside the complex, making it an ideal location for MICE or hosting weddings and other ceremonies as per the need of the local and non-resident communities. The group is also scouting for other properties in India and the aim is to become a leading Asian hospitality service provider by 2018 with a management portfolio of 51 properties, says Henley. Agyapaul Singh, owner of Apna Punjab Resorts Ltd says that the well regarded reputation of Amari and its enviable reputation for service, food and spa facilities in Thailand will help establish the brand in India.
Bangkok headquartered Lebua too has made a foray into India. A short lived association with a hotel in Dwarka, in south west Delhi has been called off earlier this year, but the group now has opened or signed up with three properties in Rajasthan. The hotels have been rebranded as Devi Garh by Lebua – Udaipur, Lebua Resort – Jaipur and Lebua Lodge at Amer – Jaipur. CEO Deepak Ohri has long been bullish on India, and has in the past spoken of his desire to run defining properties in India, emulating the success of his hotels, especially in Bangkok. Known to bring flair to his hotels, his $30,000 dinner of a lifetime in 2007 at The Dome is still a benchmark for the industry, though recessionary times have possibly prevented further progress down that path.

Ohri says the Indian hospitality scenario will see the emergence of more organised investors and the tourism infrastructure will improve. He also expects the Delhi Mumbai industrial corridor to bring significant investments and changes to the region. He says that India is a great market and the group should get its fair share, though establishing the brand in India will take a while. “We want to be known as a destination in luxury experiences.”

As for Asian, especially Thai hospitality chains coming in, Ohri says they will bring “quality over quantity” a service standard in Asia are very high. He is looking at a property in Rishikesh and ultimately about 1800 rooms in India across major gateway locations such as Goa, Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi
The potential of the mid level category has international chains excited, many are looking to ramp up the presence here. A Thai brand that is largely targeting the mid scale and budget segments is Bangkok-based hospitality services provider Absolute Hotel Services, which opened its Eastin Easy in Ahmedabad in June earlier this year. The 52-room three-star hotel is a joint venture of Citizen Group and AHS. Incidentally, AHS is scheduled to open another hotel in Ahmedabad before the end of the year, under the brand name Eastin, Absolute Hotel Services CEO Jonathan Wigley had said. Another brand, Eastin Easy has two hotels coming up in 2014 – a 75-room Eastin Easy in Mapusa, and an 85-room hotel in Kolkata and another scheduled for 2015 in Kurseong. AHS has contracts for another 13 hotels in India
Another brand that is looking to have its hotels in India is Anantara, the flagship brand of Thailand based Minor Hotel Group. Their first project is already been signed – a luxury villa property in Mahabalipuram. The group is also said to be looking at Varanasi, followed by Goa and Rajasthan. In 2012, MHG launched an “affordable luxury” hotel brand, Avani with the aim of offering choice to developers.

Also looking to get a stake in the Indian hospitality pie is Zinc InVision Hospitality, a joint venture between InVision Hospitality, a Thailand-based hospitality management and consultancy firm, and Zinc Holdings, the Singapore-based investment arm of Cinnovation CG, a part of the Chaudhary Group from Nepal. Zinc is said to be targeting the mid-market sector as well, with its brands Zinc City and Glow Studios in cities such as Amritsar, Chandigarh, Haridwar and Noida. The first Glow Studio will open in Noida in August. “The luxury market is getting saturated,” says Rahul Chaudhary, Executive Director, Zinc InVision. “We are very clear about the tariff bracket in which we want to be. It has to be $100 or even less in any market in India we go to.”

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated brand in the luxury resort brand Six Senses. While there has been talk in the past of the group exploring locations in the Andamans and Tamil Nadu, nothing has been announced as yet. However in 2010, A Six Senses spa opened in Noida’s Jaypee Green Resort.
Thailand’s success in tourism has been documented across the world, and as India seeks to upscale its tourism offering and infrastructure, Thai hospitality groups across sectors are expected to up the levels, especially in service standards. Given the long term nature of the sector, the current slowdown may not have such a direct impact, though signings may become slower, which is again expected to impact luxury segment more than the mid scale and budget segments.

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