The first of the two Raffles will debut in Udaipur in autumn of 2021. The second will be in Jaipur, while Mumbai will get its first Fairmont. All three properties are crucial for Accor’s strategic growth in the ultra-luxury hospitality business.
After a rather long wait, India’s first Raffles property will open in Udaipur sometime later this year. By then, the property would have been in the works for a few years.
The iconic brand, which debuted in Singapore in the early 1830s, has only 15 luxurious iterations across the globe and India is set to join this elite club. The country has been waiting for a Raffles for quite a few years now, right since the time the Accor management announced its decision to bring one to India.
Raffles Udaipur was to open its doors in 2020, except that a global pandemic laid low every plan. In an exclusive interview, Puneet Dhawan, Accor’s Sr. Vice President – Operations, India & South Asia and Kerrie Hannaford, Vice President – Commercial, India & South Asia, says that the country’s large luxury domestic market offers them hope that the hotel will do well even if global travel does not pick up quickly.
“Raffles is an iconic brand with legendary service. The hotel is set in a magical, mystical location in Udaipur,” says Dhawan. It sits on a lush 21-acre private island in the midst of Lake Udai Sagar, its palatial building surrounded by Aravalli Hills and with a view of a 400-year old temple. Most other luxury hotels in Udaipur are located on the banks of Lake Pichola, except for Taj Lake Palace which sits pretty in the middle of the lake.
According to Hannaford, Raffles Udaipur’s owners, Ratan and Jui Sharma — who, incidentally, also own Fairmont Jaipur — fell in love with the island. The hotel is designed by a British architect and Indophile, Randolph Gray, who has also designed Fairmont Jaipur. It features 101 lake-facing rooms and suites with private pools. The resort also features Raffles’ signature spaces such as a 1,100 square meter Raffles Spa, Long Bar and Writers Bar, besides a farm-to-table restaurant, a stunning ballroom and well-appointed banquet rooms. “It nestles between acres and acres of landscaped gardens,” says Hannaford.
Every hotel in the Raffles family has its unique character and design. Raffles Udaipur, for instance, is designed like an English countryside manor but with architectural elements that reference the local palace architecture.
The choice of Udaipur as a destination was ideal for the first Raffles in India, says Dhawan. “It is a city with picturesque lakes, palaces and forts.” Together with Raffles Jaipur, it will offer another reason for global travellers to travel to a state with a lush regal history and more palaces per acre than any other state in the country. Raffles Udaipur and Raffles Jaipur are crucial for Accor’s strategic growth in India, particularly at the highly differentiated, ultra-luxury end of the hospitality business.
Accor’s expansion of its luxury portfolio includes Fairmont Mumbai at Sahar, an area often referred to as the Hotel Mile in the city. “Mumbai still has space for a few luxury hotels,” says Dhawan. “It is a very good market and areas such as Sahar hold promise for luxury hotels because of their proximity to the airport.”
Dhawan and Hannaford are enthusiastic about India’s potential to attract luxury travellers. “I was speaking to someone travelling to Kashmir. He told me that Khyber (a luxury hotel in Gulmarg) was sold out till May. Even Fairmont Jaipur is pretty much sold out.” Discerning Indian travellers are sophisticated and understand the luxury space. “They have travelled the world and are willing to pay for quality service and luxury,” says Hannaford.
As far as global travellers go, once the country’s borders open up and the world can travel without fear, Accor will leverage their loyalty programme to attract loyal Raffles customers to stay with them in Udaipur. “A global chain and a loyalty programme will play key roles in attracting our customers. Some stay only at Raffles and will travel to different cities in which there is one. Others stay at a brand such as Raffles because of the points they earn and can leverage,” says Dhawan.
Hannaford pitches ALL – Accor’s Live Limitless as a “lifestyle programme” rather than just another loyalty programme. “It integrates rewards, services and experiences across the entire ecosystem. It opens doors across a portfolio of all hotel brands as well as a collection of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and ‘money can’t buy’ experiences. It was launched worldwide in November 2019 and we rolled it out in India in February 2020.”
India, unfortunately, poses several challenges for luxury travellers who look for comfort, service and health. In 2019, 10.93 million foreign tourists visited India but many of them did on work or for medical tourism, rather than leisure.
Unlike most hoteliers, Dhawan believes India largely gets luxury travellers in the leisure space. “Look at Oberoi’s Vilas properties. The majority of their guests were international travellers until 2020 when Indian travellers began discovering these properties and destinations. However, international travellers come to India in smaller numbers compared to other countries,” contends Dhawan. “The biggest challenge lies in the perception of India across the world and a lot of that has to do with tourism infrastructure. India is not tourist-friendly.”
Hannaford agrees, giving an example of Jaipur airport “which is one of the most disgusting airports I ever been to. And yet, the moment you step out, Jaipur is a sensory delight with its palaces, forts, bazaars and the sheer beauty.”
Accor is also looking for partners to bring its young, experiential boutique hotel brands to the country. “India is a young nation and there are well-travelled millennials who appreciate design-led, experience-led boutique hotels. That is a strong audience. We have learnt from our experience with ibis, our design-led economy brand that set new standards in the branded economy hotel space. We will leverage that experience to bring in boutique hotels in the mid-market segment for evolved travellers, who appreciate affordable design hotels,” says Dhawan.