Hotelier Vikram Puri, managing director, Archer Hospitality that owns The Astor Kolkata has been busier than ever with non-stop work travel. The 41-year-old is currently all set to launch his newest property, The Astor Goa, in a few months’ time and already has plans for his other properties. On a whirlwind trip to his “favourite” Calcutta, Vikram spoke to t2 on his upcoming properties and plans over delicious food and tea. Excerpts.
It’s going to be almost 15 years in the hotel industry. How does it feel?
Good! The Astor is my first project in the industry. It is where I learnt everything because before this I was working in Wall Street. I was a finance guy. In 2008 I joined this business in India. My father had bought this hotel in 1999 with no real ambition to grow in the hospitality industry. He grew up in Calcutta so getting this property was nostalgic for him when he bought this property.
In 2012 I started my second project which was DoubleTree in Agra that opened in 2015. It was a transitory time for me because I lost my dad and we went into consolidation phase and next few years we were careful that the two properties we had, this and that, had settled down. In 2019 I started a company that runs homestays called Rosakue Hospitality and the aim was to have a collection of homestays across legend destinations.
Then Covid-19 happened in 2020....
During Covid everything was disastrous. 2020 was a difficult year for us but it is interesting that in 2021 the first revival that happened was with the homestay business. Kasauli was the first one we started with. The smaller boutique spaces started filling up and this revival was great for us.
As part of our expansion plans we have ventured into the homestay segment through Rosakue Hospitality where we have a mix of managed and leased assets in leisure destinations. We have four Bura Bungalows and eight Rosakue properties.
Any trend you noticed during this time?
Yes! 2021 people started preferring booking these boutique properties than going to a larger format. And I feel this market is going to continue growing and add to the larger hospitality segment.
Tell us about taking The Astor outside of Calcutta.
During the pandemic I ended up buying a property in Goa and it is where The Astor Goa is coming up. It is launching in a few months and it is very interesting. We ended up building a 70-room, all-suite hotel. There are studio suites, one-bedroom suites, two-bedroom suites and four penthouses with pools.
A glimpse of Vikram’s favourite Bara Bungalow in South Goa
DoubleTree by Hilton Agra
The property is coming up in North Goa that is already saturated with hotels, why did you decide to open The Astor there?
We are opening in Candolim and it’s a very heavy tourist area and my neighborhood has everyone from Fortune, Lemon Tree, Hyatt, Radisson… so it is an established place with tremendous footfall. We are the only place which is suited for long-staying guests. Like a typical business hotel the average stay is one or two nights. Goa is a four-night destination if not more. Now when you come with your family to Goa, typically what a couple with a child does is either baby sleeps on the bed or they take an extra bed. A typical size of the room would be 300sqft. The Astor Goa is unique because each of the bedrooms have sofa-cum-beds. So if one is taking a one-suite bedroom parents have the bedroom, there is a living area with the sofa-cum-bed where two children can easily sleep. Our rooms are very spacious. It’s designed with kitchenettes mostly and so many other facilities. We also have villas sitting on top of the hotel with butler services. We have gym, spa, one 200-seater F&B outlet.
What has been the biggest learning for you about the industry?
Astor is a F&B-driven hotel, with Kebab-e-que restaurant that is an iconic outlet. The Astor is a heritage hotel so when I got involved, we had to think how can we maximise the revenues from a space we can really modify. So we started launching different F&B brands and I realised one can make more money by doing F&B products than just have rooms. If you sold a room, you could do it Rs 5,000 for a night. But if you sold this table you could sell it three times more. So lesson No. 1 was to make your restaurants a priority.
I learnt man management here. When I came to this hotel it was a 35-room hotel with 220 employees because this had a strong labour union and it took me a long time to wrap my head around and understand how we will be able to make it an efficient profitable project.
I learnt the different sensibilities of Calcutta and I had to change myself to what Calcutta would like or do.
What else is on the cards?
After Goa Astor settles in, we will be focusing on DoubleTree by Hilton Agra property. We are looking at expanding. Agra is going through a paradigm shift and there is a new airport coming in Jewar and it is supposed to be the largest airport in India… so connectivity is going to get better in the next five years with tremendous tourist flow. Of course there is the Taj Mahal, but there are also pilgrimages through Uttar Pradesh and the government is spending a lot of money towards Ayodhya and Varanasi. Domestic tourism is huge and people are looking at all price points. We are building 50 more rooms, building larger banqueting spaces, we have just opened our new ballroom in the hotel at 10,000sqft and doing so much more.
Perhaps in the next 12 months, Astor Goa is stabilized we will start construction of Phase Two of Agra. As far as Calcutta is concerned, the next thing here will be renovations of Kebab-e-que. The place has been a legacy for years, it’s a restaurant where your parents took you to eat and it still continues to be frequented a lot by families so we have to retain the essence and the nostalgia but at the same time the restaurant needs to be modernised because there is a new generation. We will stick to the name, I like using Kebab-e-que Brasserie, it will have a nice beverage element as well.
What about Phoenix, the nightclub?
We realised Phoenix was not doing well because we had to shut early as compared to other nightclubs in a hotel. But now since we are a four-star hotel we can stay open till late, we have the opportunity to stay open till 4am and generate more revenue. And if I may say, Phoenix has risen from its ashes and it’s now doing fantastically.
You also have a new general manager and chef...
Yes. We have chef Azad Taslim Arif who has joined us as executive chef and we have Amit Kobat as the general manager of The Astor Kolkata.
Where do you see yourself in the next decade?
When I came here in 2008, within a year I knew this was my calling. I am 41 now and I can say there are 10 years where I can work, and hopefully, if I can get things right, by the time I am in my 50s, I wouldn’t mind sitting back and saying, let me sit back and enjoy the last 25 years enjoying the fruits of my labour.
I want to carry the brand Astor all across the country. I want The Astor to be considered amongst the finest boutique hotels in the country.
Lastly, Calcutta holds a special place in your heart....
Absolutely! Calcutta is one of my favourite cities in the world. It is that one city in the world that I have been to that doesn’t differentiate based on money. I could be sitting on a table with six people from different social strata and nobody has an air about themselves and that to me is incredible and that to me defines Calcutta. I love coming here because it has removed the hierarchal social fabric which is so infamous in Delhi, for example. I can be wearing shorts, chappal and T-shirt and I will be as loved anywhere here if I was suited up.