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Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 11 : 25 AM [IST]

Heritage Hotels - Holding the ‘Niche’ Tag Intact!

Developed as a niche product, heritage hotels in India are the stalwarts in the hospitality industry delivering first-hand experiences of royal legacy. Clubbing experiential travel with hospitality, each heritage property has a unique story to tell. Anurag Tiwari explores how the heritage properties have stamped their position in the industry amidst tough competition from mainstream hotels and how bright does the future look for them.

Heritage has always been Indian tourism’s unique selling point, and it continues to be one. India, unlike many other countries hasn’t been able to invest much on anything artificial so far. Along with diversity in various aspects of our social life, like language, clothing, cuisines, art, literature, etc., the facades which have been instrumental in attracting a large chunk of foreign tourists to India are the historical monuments, palaces, forts and havelis which have been mute evidences of transformational shifts occurred in our society. According to T.C. Chang in his book Heritage as a Tourism Commodity, “Heritage lodging holds tremendous potential as a sustainable tourism commodity in its multiple uses as a tool to promote civil pride, local identity and culture capital.” This stands true for India too.

If one recalls the pre-independence era, an architectural renaissance can be witnessed across the country with majority of it occurring in northern and central parts of India where each princely state, in order to satisfy the pleasures of its ruler and its royal guests, saw the construction of beautiful palaces and havelis. They might not have thought in their wildest dreams that these royal architectural wonders would become an integral part of hospitality industry of India later on to serve guests from far and wide.

Distinguishable space in the industry
With an aim to preserve these historical structures from falling into the decay post-independence, quite a few of these palaces, forts and havelis got converted into heritage hotels and lodges with the sole concept of serving the flavour of royal luxury mixed with the rich culture and history to the guests. Some heritage hotels have also become the reason for a particular area or a town to be categorised as a destination. Interestingly, majority of these royal palaces and havelis are situated in the rural parts of India and have become a source of economic prosperity in the region by providing employment and other sources of income.

Sunil Gupta, CEO, WelcomHeritage says, “The heritage properties that are converted into heritage boutique hotels have retained its royal touch. They offer a glimpse into a bygone era, local culture and traditions. Each heritage hotel has a unique story to tell. Though these buildings are decades or even centuries old, necessary reconstructions have been made to have a blend of old world charm with modern amenities.”

Predominantly, these family-run properties with comparatively small inventories have been able to create a niche in the hospitality industry and have been able to attract a set of traveller segment who looks nothing beyond experiencing and reliving the legacy. In the words of Steve Borgia, CMD, INDeco Leisure Hotels, “Heritage hotels in the hospitality industry enjoy a significant space because the guests to these hotels are special, i.e. they are authentic and seek historical tales. They seek experiential leisure which no other hotel segment can cater the way heritage hotels do.”

Changing market dynamics
The hospitality industry landscape in the country has changed dramatically over the last two decades. From a market situation where there were few select luxury brands at the top and few heritage hotels, then a vacuum in the lower level, the hotel eco-system came of age over the decades. Internationalisation of Indian hospitality brought in a sea change with brands taking positions at every price point across the length and breadth of the country. Heritage hotels which enjoyed their own niche space also started feeling the heat of competition around them. Adding to their agony was the new hotels built in the pattern absorbing the local architectural heritage of havelis and royal palaces with all the hues of heritage hotels. If we look at popular heritage destinations Jaipur, Udaipur, etc., and the new hospitality addresses that have come up, many are replicas of local palaces.

Has it taken the sheen out of heritage hotels? How do they feel the heat of competition? The players in the heritage space disapprove any impact to their business from the mainstream hotels. Binny Sebastian, General Manager, Alila Fort Bishangarh opines that there is no comparison of heritage properties with the mainstream hotels. “Heritage hotels with their regal charm have been kept intact through the traditional decor. Being opulent households to several royals in the past, the splendor of the architecture with capacious rooms with rich F&B offerings and warm hospitality is in a league of its own. Alila Fort Bishangarh is one such unique example of the Jaipur Gharana architecture influenced by both the Mughals and the British.”

Synonymous to Sebastian, Faiz Rashid, Director, Jehan Numa Palace Hotel, Bhopal expresses that heritage hotels are able to create unique experiences which mainstream five-star hotels are unable to. “Along with heritage aspect, we are able to share our ancestor’s experiences and make them relive the ancient times which becomes our USP. Mainstream hotels can recreate the facades but they cannot recreate the stories present inside our properties.”

Few heritage properties that are situated in the Tier-I and II cities like The House of MG, Ahmedabad, do face competition from mainstream hotels but it is the authenticity and heritage experience which separates them from the crowd. Abhay Mangaldas, Founder/Directror, The House of MG states, “Most heritage hotels in India are still in rural areas where franchise hotels are yet to make inroads. While city heritage hotels like ours are concerned, those have to compete with the mainstream hotels for business but we still provide an experience that cannot be matched by the others so we do hold a niche.”

Since their inception, the guests at these hotels primarily belonged to the high-end segment considering the premium pricing. Foreigners, especially Europeans and Americans dominated the guests profile for quite a long time. Though, in recent times with changing market dynamics and increase in disposable income among the middle class and upper-middle class segment of India, the domestic travel market has picked up. Rashid recalls how a role reversal has happened in guest profile over the last two decades i.e. from 70% foreign guests back then to 50 to 60% domestic travellers today at Jehan Numa Palace Hotel.

Reinventing products & services
The customer behaviour is constantly changing and no business can remain constant in their product and service offerings. Heritage hotel industry is too walking an extra mile to meet the expectations of their special guests who seek royal experience clubbed with modern amenities. According to Rashid, “At Jehan Numa Palace Hotel, the façade and the interior structure of the property remains same to provide the traditional feel but we are modernising on other fronts such as in-room amenities, technology infusion within the property, etc.”

A guest today at a heritage property can relish amenities like private bath, swimming pool, air-conditioning, LCD TV, entertainment systems, etc., clubbed with the experience of bygone era. “Horse riding, polo races, vintage car rides, buggy rides, spa experiences and other such regal pleasures when mixed with the induction of technology at touch points inside a hotel, enhance the convenience and experience,” says Gupta.

Not only in terms of technological advancements, heritage hotels can also be seen adopting non-conventional marketing techniques. Use of social media, online distribution channels, promotions through digital advertisements, etc., are few popular non-conventional marketing methods of gaining and maintaining a loyal audience.

Mangaldas expresses that most heritage hoteliers have started a bit late but are fast catching up with branded hotels in terms of non-conventional marketing. “At The House of MG, we focus on cross marketing our inhouse services to increase customer spend by offering a 360-degree heritage experience that extends to onsite heritage shopping, onsite museums, special heritage experience tours as well as starting our own in-house branded products that customers can order online with us. We even offer packed meal service from our restaurants.”

Irrespective of the competition from the mainstream hotels, the owners of heritage properties say that they hold a definite edge when it comes to pricing because of ‘unmatched experiences’ they offer compared to ‘standardised’ offerings at mainstream branded hotels. Borgia opines that special guests seek special experiences and for the same they are ready to open their pockets. Echoing to the sentiments of Borgia, Rashid adds that for the unique heritage product we offer, demanding a premium price does justice as mainstream hotels unlike us, offer standardised products which are readily available thus have to be price competitive. “Customers are willing to pay extra only if they are to experience something not so usual and heritage hotels hold such a niche in the market, thus can demand a premium price,” says Mangaldas.

Way forward
With reference from Wikipedia, at the time of the British withdrawal, 565 princely states were officially recognised in the Indian subcontinent, apart from thousands of thakurs, taluqdars, zamindaris and jagirs. This statement is worth mentioning as it helps in analysing the scope of heritage hotel industry. In 565 kingdoms, there would be as many forts, havelis and palaces of which only handful have been converted into heritage.

Sebastian says, “India is home to innumerable forts and palaces, some of which have been restored to take forward the legacy of wealth and rich culture and traditions. With an increase in the number of fortresses turning into heritage hotels, it can be validated that the graph is moving upwards. Indian’s take pride in their rich lineage and want to experience regal living through these hotels.”

More than Indians it is the foreign tourists who are attracted to India’s antiquity. According to Krishna Pal Singh, Managing Director, Enchanting Experiences, “Europeans are the most influenced travellers when it comes to exploring the heritage properties of India. Americans or Japanese may get attracted to the mainstream boutique hotels, but Indian historical creations always interest European travellers.”

Borgia exclaims that heritage hotel industry in India is here to stay provided the heritage properties are well maintained and hospitality services delivered within are not compromised. He feels that heritage hotel industry faces maintenance of properties as the only challenge in front of themselves. “The prominence of heritage properties lies in being authentic and beautifully maintained together with excellent housekeeping and sanitation facilities. These aspects if projected efficiently, also help in word of mouth publicity which is one of the biggest source of attracting visitors to a property.”

According to a report by World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the tourism sector in India is predicted to grow at an annual rate of 6.9% to I NR 32.05 lakh crore (USD 470 billion) by 2028 (9.9% of GDP) there by becoming third largest tourism economy in the world. These stats when put together with the fact that experiential travel is on rise in the industry with travellers willing to explore new things each time they travel; the future of heritage hotel industry looks bright.

Considering the fact that travellers are now done with clichéd destinations and tourism industry expanding its legs in the offbeat rural areas, heritage hotel industry is the next big thing in the tourism space with each property having its own unique story and experience to relive within themselves.
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