The entry of young entrepreneurs like Gaurav Goenka, Director, Citrus Hotels, with a clear vision and a mission, has brought in a new wave in the Indian hospitality sector. He has been successful in building a trendy and a cheerful brand, and designing products and services that match, or at times exceed the quality of well established names in the sector. The key to success has been in providing them, at reasonable rates to the guests. In an Interview to Asian Traveller, he, without any reserve, opened up his mind on a variety of matters, including the company’s expansion plans and what the sector really needs from the government to take its growth forward. Edited Excerpts:
How far has Mirah Group’s dream of making it big in the Indian hospitality sector come true with your young brand Citrus?
Well, I would say it is a work still in progress. There are quite a few milestones that we have achieved. But, the present is not where we want to be. Future is where we belong and God willing, we will make it. We have been working very hard and aggressively on the brand. We firmly believe that nothing sells better than a satisfied guest experience. Along the way, we have won some accolades as well. So far this year, five out of seven Citrus properties in Goa, Mahabaleshwar, Pune, Alleppey and Lonavala have received the coveted TripAdvisor award for excellence. Also, the readers of this largest travel site have voted our resort in Mahabaleshwar as the top 25 in Asia. Needless to say, we are among the top 15 in India as well. Our Alleppey property has won the ‘Resort of the Year’ award from Hospitality Biz. Above all, Citrus managed to win the best upcoming chain of the year award, in the very opening year itself! So, yes, we have been getting accolades but like Robert Frost said: “Miles to go before I sleep.”
You must have forayed into the hospitality sector with a clear vision and a mission. How far the brand Citrus reflects them?
We are foodies first! Our restaurant brands like Rajdhani, Falafel and Mad Over Donuts are best in their segments. We have recently launched Cafe Mangi and are the national franchisee for the Manchester United. Food, hence, will be the best at Citrus. We are very passionate about it and firmly believe that the way to a guest’s heart is through his tummy! There are so many brands opening these days, but I see people choosing us because of ‘better food’ and ‘better service’.
Citrus has evolved as a young and a vibrant brand. We welcome guests with open arms, as if they are returning home! Citrus managers are willing to strike up a conversation with you and would even help you with shopping for your wife! Chances are that you will get five to six friend requests on your facebook profile, from my colleagues. We offer value for money. We make money on rooms. Every other thing we would use as an add-on to get you stay with us.
What are the unique offerings at Citrus, for the leisure, wellness and business travellers? And, what all things go into consideration, while you design the products and services for each category of travellers?
Our offerings are designed keeping the traveller in mind and most of them are always evolving. We were quick to add x boxes and play stations to our resort hotels. We upgraded our bandwidth in business hotels, because we know, for them internet is as important as a breakfast. These are, of course, small things but matter a lot. All our resorts have a spa. Each of our property is also unique. For instance, our Alleppey property is accessible only through house boat. In Mahabaleshwar, we have 29 rooms in five acres of lush green forest! In Goa, we are right in the party hub and about five minutes walking distance from the beach. We evaluate the strength of the location and inculcate that into our strength! It sells faster.
All your properties are located in tourist hot spots. How far the stay at your property would enhance the overall holidaying experience and help the travellers imbibe the real mood of the location?
Not correct in absolute terms. We have a mixed model. We have properties in both resort and business districts. For us, locations are important and so important is giving a guest a feel of the place. Hence, we have regular classical dance performances in Alleppey, live singer belting away classics by the pool side in Goa and in Lonavala we have regular ghazals in lawns, in the evenings. When it comes to business hotels, they are right where business is. Pune Hotel is five minutes from Tata Motors and close to the business hub of Chakan, while the Bengaluru property is across the road from Salarpuria and Prestige Tech Park! We are market leaders in Pune, building up in Bengaluru and enjoy an astounding 85 per cent occupancy in Sriperumbudur. Do you have any plans to take the number of Citrus hotels to more than seven, in the near future? If yes, have you decided on when and whereabouts it?
Of course! How else will the success story continue? We have 11 hotels on the anvil. They are all in work in progress mode. In fact, we are increasing our inventory in our existing properties, to cater to the growing demand. Coming years will see Citrus opening business hotels in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Nagpur. We will also open hotels in Tadoba and Pench (Tiger reserves), Thekkady, Alibag, Jodhpur and Munnar, to cater to the leisure travellers. How important a factor is the selection of a right destination for a hotel to be a success? Or, do you think, a hotel can change the fortunes of a destination?
I am a great fan of PRS Oberoi and whenever we are finalising locations I recall his words. He said there are only three things for the success of a hotel. Location, Location and Location! So, we will be in promising locations. We are looking at becoming pioneers in a location, but we will also definitely be there where we feel we can drive enough occupancy to sustain the business. Being a mid segment player, the project cost of the property is extremely important for us. We thrive on our pricing and hence it cannot be obnoxiously high! We have a budget of about 50 lakh for a key in category B cities and one crore for a key in category A cities. In category C cities, we are ready to shell out anywhere between 25 and 35 lakh, for a key. The prices are inclusive of land costs. We play the volume game and hence would always want to give our teams the advantage of price, when they sell our properties in the market!
You surely have noticed the entry of increasing number of known foreign hospitality players into the country. What kind of effect, do you think, it may have on Indian hospitality sector?
I am all in for a competition. They make a destination stronger! Hotels which do not have quality offerings will definitely fall by the wayside, but brands which give quality for price will survive. India is still a growing destination, in terms of hotel rooms. Entire country has less branded hotel rooms, than the city of Shanghai! There is enough space for everyone to grow. We might learn a few tricks from them as well!
Are Indian players positioned well enough to take the competition to such players? If not, where are they lacking in?
I think, Indians are well-versed in hospitality. The kind of hospitality we offer is way above what is offered in Europe or America, at similar price points. So, we can surely teach them a thing or two. Indian guest is also spoilt for luxury. He is used to his every demand and whim being met. He expects the hotels to change the ground rules, to suit him! For instance, Ibis, when it came to Gurgaon, offered no room service. They had to change it very fast. Ibis in Pune did not offer complimentary internet. It changed as well.
The only thing we lack currently is the global reach of international players. Marriott has 3500 hotels and is spread across the globe. They, hence, have instant brand recognition. The technology, which these brands bring to the country’s hospitality sector, is worth emulating!
Do you think, there should be a law in place to check the flow of foreign players to the country?
Nothing for me to comment on! Although I feel it is not required purely on the demand and supply basis. Maybe, later, the government should do something to protect the local players. Even then, I don’t think banning the entry is a solution. Why should a guest suffer because of the incompetence of local players? When the competition becomes tough, the government should look at providing things like electricity and loans to the domestic players, at cheaper rates.
According to you, what all things can government do, to help the hospitality sector grow?
The government policy lacks direction. Tourism is still not given its due. The hotel room is thought of as luxury and charged higher every year. It is for this reason that a guest travelling from Delhi finds Thailand as lucrative as or perhaps better than Kerala! Airfares are perennially up and even low cost airlines do not live up to their tags. Like hotels, let the foreign airlines enter the fray and let the prices be justified! The better the connectivity, the better a destination will sell. Network of roads and rails is still from the ‘Raj era’. Except for the Mumbai-Pune stretch nothing worthwhile has been done or maintained! Goa is just 550 kilometres from Mumbai, but takes eight to nine hours journey. In abroad, a similar distance can be covered in three to four hours. We need support from the government not in hotels but on the support services! Till that time the story of hotels in India will continue to be written in bits and pieces.
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