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Priya Paul, the force behind Park Hotels

By Kishore Singh in New Delhi
July 23, 2005 14:41 IST
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Priya PaulAt Park Hotels, it is a time for new beginnings, and with the industry on a roll, if Priya Paul, president, cannot stop smiling, it's because the new phase of expansion is occurring at a time when to stay still would be to stagnate.

Not that she's one to let grass grow beneath her size five feet. Fresh off the maternity bed, Paul is bringing a new spell of enthusiasm to the group's hospitality business with a series of announcements that could announce the arrival of a significant chain on the domestic (chiefly business) circuit.

Therefore, when she inked a deal for a 250-room Park hotel in downtown Hyderabad recently, Paul was only reaffirming the group's commitment to push for rapid expansion in key locations. "I'm not one to say I'll add six hotels by next year," says Paul, but the intention to become a serious player was never more evident.

With two hotels added to the kitty (Bangalore in 2000, Rs 42 crore; Chennai in 2002, Rs 110 crore), and Hyderabad soon to come online, the group is consolidating its position in the south.

Clearly, it works with the profile that Paul has pushed for, ever since she took over the running of the then new hotel in Delhi (commissioned in 1987) as downtown properties intended to appeal to the young, with a strong sense of design, and elements of fun in the F&B outlets (restaurants contribute 35-40 per cent of the group's turnover). The parent hotels (Kolkata and Visakhapatnam) had dated back to 1967 and 1968 respectively.

"We have a lot of experience in handlings bars and nightclubs," she says, having learned from those that worked as well as those that didn't. Those experiments will now provide a leg-up to another business the group wants to enter -- of stand-alone and chain restaurants outside the hotels.

"We have the expertise on a variety of cuisines," Paul confirms. A foodie and a wannabe chef who loves interacting with the Antonio Carluccios of the world (he's currently touring India with the group, training chefs in the Park restaurants across the country), she says, "Restaurant eating is booming, so there's a lot of opportunity for the group to get into the business."

Both formal restaurants as well as chains in mall outlets are under consideration, but for now Paul will only confirm that they'll have one restaurant each in Delhi and Kolkata operational in 2005, and another in Mumbai in 2006. These will in all likelihood be new brands, but also under consideration is the Flury's tea room concept.

In a highly competitive industry, the Park group seems to enjoy a soft spot among most captains of industry. "She's got no competition," says a prominent hotelier, "because she's catering to a mid-level corporate clientele where there are few options."

That's not strictly true, since everyone from Trident to Fortune and the new no-frills IndiOne are aiming for the same slice of the pie. But there, Paul has an advantage -- location (always centre of town); facilities ("Small does not mean less luxury," says Paul); and a profile (strictly business) that has helped the group negotiate room nights for corporates across the country. It's one reason it's in a hurry to get into Mumbai, and second hotels in both Bangalore and Delhi are under consideration.

"As a family, we're very focused on the hotels business," Paul confirms, "and we're in talks for acquisitions all over the place." A second phase could well look at the leisure market, but for now the focus is clearly on business locations.

That's because a high percentage of the group's business comes from the domestic market. And here, Paul has used design as a differentiator to good effect.

Designed by Sir Terence Conran, or Hersch-Bedner and Associates, she's now roped the Hersch-Bedner acolyte Thom Catallo of Catallo + MacKenzie for the Rs 25-30 crore renovations at The Park, Kolkata, that begin next year. Already, a new bar, Roxy has been added to the facilities there.

Meanwhile, the three-year, Rs 35-crore Terence Conran-driven renovations at The Park, Delhi will wind down next year, after a complete makeover that has given the city hotel an edgy look and feel that is refreshingly different from most contemporary rooms in the capital.

Already, the poolside has been re-done, while a new spa is on the anvil. The glazed bathrooms and starker rooms have LCD television screens and wield design as a marketing tool almost as effectively as others use discounting on tariffs.

"Corporate guests may have little say in their choice of bookings," says an agent, "but guests will always remember the impact of a Park room, and that means they will ask for it by choice the next time."

With a group turnover of Rs 135 crore (April 04-March 05), the Park group is looking to grow through a slew of internal accruals and debt. Hyderabd is just the springboard for a flurry of action on that front.

"When we started the concept of boutique hotels," says Paul, "nobody in India knew what was happening in the rest of the world, so we had to establish the concept." Today, she's implying, you don't have to look to the world at all -- the Park should be adequate in indicating the global buzz.

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Kishore Singh in New Delhi
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