Jasmeen Dugal  (click here to know more about this blogger)

Gaurav Deb has rich experience in hospitality with The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group. We first met at Goût de France hosted by The City Palace Udaipur and when I heard he shifted base to Srinagar as General Manager of The Lalit Grand Palace, I got in touch with him for a conversation on his journey in luxury hospitality.


Let's look back: what motivated you to venture into hospitality? Tell us about your journey.


God, they say, is in the details. I was always a keen follower of how people lived — each aspect of it. What kind of house, what did they eat, how did they dress, where did they travel? The findings fascinated me and hence began my journey to explore further. To be brutally honest, I had envisaged a career as a television host for Travel and Lifestyle channels. Alas, information and opportunity didn't arise at the appropriate time. But what transpired was a smooth passage to a hotel school, which satiated my desire to work with the lifestyle industry — luxury hotels, I strongly feel, are an integral part of lifestyle offerings.


However, my real education had begun way before. My father's job took us to out-of-the-world locales, pretty early in life. Andaman, Sikkim and Meghalaya are some of these exotic locations I was blessed to have experienced way before they became tourist hotspots — I am talking of the early eighties. They were pristine and bespoke — if I can use that term for a location. The variety in landscape, people and their habits, food and culture — inculcated a deep sense of appreciation in me and from I started valuing the finer details of life.


Hospitality, I feel, is all about experiencing these finer details and processing them to create ways and means to make your guests experience the same. I strongly feel, if YOU, yourself don't experience what your guests would experience, then your offering is incomplete. During my training with a reputed hotel, I could see a gap in this aspect of execution. That motivated me to wholeheartedly venture into the domain. Since I stay in the properties I manage, I experience it 24x7 and tell my team, 'I'm your longest staying guest and will experience all details of the product and the service.'


What have you always enjoyed about working in the hospitality industry?


Hospitality delivers an experiential product. Unlike a tangible product, ours can not be made and stored in warehouses and then transported to the point of sale. Take for example a car manufacturer. They create a prototype, manufacture in bulk and store at warehouses, before selling them. Each car coming out of the assembly life is identical. And that is the way their customers like it. However, in the case of an experiential product, the need of each customer is defined by her or his definition of a good experience. Some may like a movie while some may dislike the same one. Fortunately, in the case of hotels, there is a scope of customisation to suit each guest's needs. In order to do so, one must anticipate what a particular guest would love. And there in lies the importance of a team's own experiences. 'What did I like as a kid? A buffet full of candies, chocolates,  great cupcakes and doughnuts OR a salad bar? When I am 40 which one would I like?'


The customisation makes our journey most exciting. And the experiences of forty-three years of life and twenty-two years of being in the industry comes in handy in mentoring my team on this. When a guest says, he or she is not going to go to any other property than yours, it's a great high. Unmatched by anything else you might hear. That is the ultimate compliment, which puts a spring on your feet — a compliment that rings in your ears for days to come, till you get to hear another one… and so on. That is what I enjoy the most in my work — creating experiences and winning over our guests. Other perks, though enjoyable in the beginning [far outweighed by the satisfaction of a guest compliment] are travelling to variety of places — I have worked in nearly every city of repute in the country, apart from stints at Doha, Bahrain and Manila. Experiencing different culture attracts me. In Srinagar, for example, I invite myself at the slightest opportunity to friends' homes to enjoy Wazwaan the way they have it — sitting on the ground and eating from the same Trami, with their family. Richness of thoughts is the derivative of such experiences. I feel like a fulfilled wanderlust — if at all there can be one.


You have the good fortune of working with the most acclaimed luxury hotels in the nation... what is unique about The Lalit? Does it have a core philosophy?


The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group is an Indian organisation at heart, with a global vision. We own all our fourteen hotels in India and the one in London. That's a big thing considering that fact that other brands operate mostly on a lease. The advantage of owning all the properties helps us in wholeheartedly implementing what we believe in. And therein lies our core philosophy of limitless hospitality and inclusivity.


Traditional Indian hospitality, I believe, cannot be confined in SOPs. It is beyond SOP. It comes from the heart. That is what we inculcate in our team members — be yourselves, take your personality to the table and let guests experience your uniqueness. Like our guests, each of our team members are unique and we strongly advocate that this uniqueness should be retained. Hence Inclusivity. We employee people who are warm and courteous; the rest is immaterial. We hire irrespective of the color of skin, height, cultural orientation, caste, creed and sexual orientation. We proudly have in our team more than fifty specially-abled employees working across our chain. We have transgender chefs in our team and DJs on wheelchair as well. That makes us the only hospitality chain to have broken thought barriers that only one kind of person can be successful in the industry. I'm extremely proud of this philosophy. Our Executive Director Keshav Suri has taken historic steps to formalise inclusivity in society and we stand firmly behind him, in his endeavour. This is our key differentiator.


What is the vision behind making most of the properties of The Lalit a destination within itself?


This is an interesting question. I'd first like to emphasize on something else. Developing a destination, before making a property a destination. Infact both are intertwined. For example, the world had not heard about a place called Bekal in North Kerala until 2006. It's an amazing place steeped in history and culture. We came up with a thirty-acre ultra luxury spa and resort at the confluence of the backwaters and the sea at Bekal. We were the only property there for years, before people realized the potential of the region. Now there are four properties there. The place is vibrant and people are happy. Similarly in Kashmir. We have been running The Lalit Grand Palace — an exquisite thirty-seven acre property overlooking the magnificent Dal Lake, since 1998. When we took over the property, it was at the height of disturbance and the lows of tourism. However, our Founder Chairman had vision and foresight beyond the ordinary. We have been open to guests, when no other organisation dared to venture into Srinagar. Today, there are numerous hotels in the Valley, trying to make the most of the situation becoming better.


Within a hotel, it's important to cover all aspects of wellness because that is what the guests choose a leisure hotel for. A spa, salon, sports facilities and gym are mandatory. Our hotels have their own kitchen gardens and 'will sell what we grow'. Our Chefs take guests to pick ingredients from the garden for their meals. At The LaLiT Grand Palace, Srinagar,  we grow apples, peach, plum, apricots and almonds apart from vegetables. Similarly activities such as movie walks — ours is the most shot property in Bollywood films! Heritage walks within the Palace are part of curated experiences.


You were General Manager at The Lalit Udaipur and now at The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar. How have you embraced the change?


Change is the only constant. Learning lies beyond one's comfort zone. I have always been guided by these two universal principles. Hence, I look forward to change and opportunities to enrich my faculties. I make it a point to invest in traveling. I recently undertook a European trip. Srinagar is the closest to Europe that one can experience in India. Infact, it is better at times. The weather is the best anywhere in the world and so is the architecture. The buildings with their red roofs reminds me of a bygone era… Udaipur was the land of Maharajas and stories of their valour. It was magnificent. Lakes, Mahals and the colors associated with Rajasthan is exemplified by the city of lakes.


Like I enjoyed being in Udaipur, I'm having a great time at Srinagar too. I love people and their cultures, and make friends easily. The change then becomes a welcome one. I have been fortunate enough to have received a warm welcome to the city by the local administration, media and friends in the travel and hospitality trade. Now i am looking forward to strengthening the association and meaningfully contributing to tourism development in Kashmir. Luckily The Lalit Grand Palace at Srinagar retains the essence of what Kashmir has to offer — acres of lush landscape, magnificent Chinar trees adorn the Palace and the history associated with it; it was the erstwhile residence of Maharaja Hari Singh.


Gaurav... what is your role and responsibilities at The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar? How would you characterise your contribution to the continuing success of the brand?


My role as a General Manager entails upkeep of the values that the brand lives by. Developing the destination for discerning guests, ensuring Limitless Hospitality and maintaining an inclusive workplace are key responsibilities. I believe, business takes care of itself if your values are strong. It is imperative that the GM leaves a mark on the properties he or she manages. From that perspective, I have my goals of imbibing traditional methods into our offerings, encouraging local cuisine and creative arts, for our guests to experience the essence of Kashmir.


How challenging is the food and beverage segment and how significant is it to bring local community to the bar and restaurants?


Food and Beverage forms an important aspect of a luxury leisure property. On one hand, our in-house guests need a taste of local cuisine and service; on the other, locals have an inherent need to know the trends, outside. For a top of the line product like ours, it is essential that we do the best in whatever we do. That is the expectation. Fortunately, we are a preferred choice, when it comes to domestic ceremonies with the niche residents of Kashmir. They have a great sense of dining. Dining is a celebration of what life has to offer. Traditional crockery, cutlery and glassware are a must and so is traditional music. We have the best of arrangements, customised to guests' needs. That is probably the reason, we have maintained our status, when it comes to being the first choice of dinners. The mesmerising views that our guests get while digging into the choicest menu, is icing on the cake. With a sprawling Dal Lake in front… with Chikaras lazily floating around… ours is one of the best settings anywhere in the world. From a challenge perspective, it is to maintain our standards and at the same time innovate in order to remain contemporary.


Gaurav... what do you do at work that you enjoy so much you actually lose track of time? And what are the most challenging issues you are facing on your current position?


When one enjoys what he does, it shows. When one gets an opportunity to manage the most picturesque hotel in the country, what more can one ask for? And getting to stay in the palace with my family is an added bonus. I enjoy taking care of the property and lose track of time while talking to gardeners who nurture the grass, flowers and fruits. But what I like most is nurturing my people. I'm a PG in HR from XLRI, Jamshedpur, which helps me study human behaviour and potential. Developing people leads to immense satisfaction. When you make people realise their true worth and give them wings, you leave an indelible mark in their lives. While speaking to my people and understanding them, I give my 100 per cent time and attention. Mentoring people is something I see as the best investment one can make. The challenge, if one can call it so, is to put the point across to potential guests from across the world that Kashmir is as safe as any other place, for tourists. Infact, it is safer. Women are treated with utmost respect. I walk around the city after work with my wife, daughter and son, and let me tell you, the respect they get on the streets, they haven't got anywhere else in the country. Need I say more?


You are very well travelled. What's the most exciting trend you see in luxury hotels today?


Luxury has to be an aspiration. Always. The moment you achieve luxury, the definition needs to move one step ahead. Therein lies the key. Else luxury becomes normal. Luxury hotels need to innovate all the time to stay in the game. What excites me is creating a perception of exclusivity. In Rajasthan, there are lonely deserted havelis in the midst of nowhere, far away from civilisation, transformed into abodes of luxury. That experience, which is rare in this day and age, is what sets the bar for luxury. The property and the service needs to make guests feel as if it was custom made for them.


As you look to 2018-19... what are the key priorities you are focused on for the property in order to make sure that The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar retains its leadership position?


I feel the good times for Kashmir is just round the corner. Numerous movie shoots are happening across the valley as we speak. The destination is outstanding. All of that put together, makes us hopeful. I want The Lalit Grand Palace to be thoroughly prepared to ensure guests have an experience, second to none. Creating that experience requires painstaking work, behind the scenes. Each interaction has to be a moment of truth for our guests. How to instil the philosophy of going beyond service and 'creating memories', is the focus. Profits will follow.

The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar Gourav Deb, General Manager, The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar



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