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Hotelier Arun Saraf on Hyatt and the city

Arun Saraf, managing director of Asian Hotels East Ltd, in a chat with t2 as Hyatt Regency Calcutta completes a decade…

Where did you see Hyatt Regency 10 years ago?

Ten years back, Calcutta was still considered a backwater. Delhi and Bombay and other cities were zooming and Calcutta was lagging behind. When we took the Hyatt Regency Calcutta project, Eastern Bypass and Salt Lake was the new thing and Rajarhat was on paper. When we saw what was going to happen in Calcutta, we felt this was a great opportunity. We felt that Calcutta was finally going to move from the central BBD Bag area to this area. The positive side is that Rajarhat did happen but it has not happened fast enough. In the next 10-15 years, Calcutta is going to be different and more vibrant. I’m quite pleased actually; we’re not disappointed in any way.

Back then, how did you think of beating stalwarts like The Oberoi Grand?

We did not think of them as a threat. They had their style, architecture… and their soul and ethos was from the colonial times. (Oberoi) Grand has maintained that heritage beautifully. But we saw that Calcutta was developing into a world-class modern city. So we had to develop a hotel that was modern and paid tribute to aspirational Calcutta. One that was up-to-date, almost timeless. We didn’t want to downplay any of the existing hotels, we wanted to complement them.

Yet a modern hotel like Hyatt Regency has been designed following Vastu…

See, Vastu is a science. Many people think it is hocus-pocus. It is a science based on our Indian traditions, climate and conditions. We always make our architects follow its principles. It’s not like I bring a pundit to look at the place. We tell them you hire a good Vastu consultant but we don’t follow it like a rulebook.... And when we started building Hyatt Regency and gave the job to the contractor, the soil was so weak; it took us almost 15 months putting piles after piles after piles to make the foundation. A huge amount of money was spent. That surprised us!

What is Hyatt Regency’s strength and weakness today?

The strength is the people and the quality of the service we provide. As for weakness, at this moment because Rajarhat has not come up as fast as we thought, it is still perceived by the old stalwarts of Calcutta to be far away. If we were in a location that was closer to the residential area, I think our revenue would be at least 50 per cent more! Once it’s fully functional, things will change. I also feel that the weakness of Calcutta, at this moment, is that people are giving up on it. Calcutta should fight hard not to become also-ran, i.e, they were also in the contention but no more. I would like that Calcutta should actually — all of us, the government, people — we should not feel that we are second-class. We are top class. We have a strong heritage, there is no reason why we can’t become as glorious as we used to be.

Does that have anything to do with the new government?

No, I don’t think so. The past or present governments are not to be blamed or rewarded. They are mostly following what is the requirement of the people. Calcuttans have to take responsibility of their city.

How do you plan to handle the new star category hotels that will open in a few years?

We are actually upgrading our property. We will continue to be the market leader. We do not want to compete on price alone but on the quality of service and contemporary design. We are going to enhance our banqueting facilities and we do have a plan to expand the hotel but we will wait and watch for the competition to come and then take a call. With more hotels coming in, I don’t think there is any need to build more rooms just for ego.

What are your expansion plans?

We have properties coming up in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Guwahati, Raipur and our first Hyatt Place in India in Hampi.

Is there a higher supply of star hotels than mid-market hotels nationally?

There is a higher supply of five-star hotels than mid-market hotels historically. What I mean by historically is that in earlier times, an international traveller was the main source of business for all star categories. Mid-market was considered to be a no-no for the international traveller. There was no foreign exchange earning so the government was also not supporting them. So the development of mid-market, 15-20 years back, was more catered to the local customers. Then came the newer times when people felt that five-stars were becoming very expensive so the niche market which was there for mid-market started opening up. But the investment in a mid-market property and a star property is the same. What costs less? Maybe just the furnishing, tables and crockery.

Which is your favourite Hyatt property?

I’ll be honest. Either the Hyatt Regency in Calcutta or Kathmandu. I mean it. The design of this place — look at it! The planning, the structure, it’s superb. It’s actually over-lavish… we’ve overspent. Ten years ago, we spent around 200 crore on it. As for the Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu, it has a local feel and yet it’s contemporary.

Karo Christine Kumar