Room for ambition


From Oberoi To Oyo:  Behind the scenes with the movers and shakers of India's hotel industry
Author:  Chitra Narayanan 
Publisher: Penguin Portfolio
This book is not about the history of hoteliering in India, or even the triumvirate badshahs of Indian hospitality in the Taj, Oberoi and the ITC, though the initial pages do bring you up to speed on some of it. Rather, the book by business journalist Chitra Narayanan is about, in her words, “…more on the unknown players who now have a lot of skin in the game.” So change-makers  and professional managers in Agarwals, Madhoks, Kerkars, Bakayas, Chhatwals, Keswanis, Aroors, Casses, Kannampilys, Puris, Dominics, Naths, Kalras and Tibrewalas are the book’s constant companions, names largely unknown to even most business press readers. Even though the book dedicates a full chapter on legacy women hoteliers in The Lalit’s Jyotsna Suri and The Park’s Priya Paul, it is the stories of new breed of women entrepreneurs in Amruda Nair, Shruti Shibulal and Aditi Balbir that makes for more interesting reading. 
Though Ms Narayanan’s well-researched book is often detail-heavy, it comes alive in telling the journey of the sector from just over 7,000 rooms back in 1962 to over 128,000 (2.72 million by another definition) in 2018, and the five-and-a-half business models that it has spawned—from owned, leased, managed, franchised, distributed ­and manchised,  a hybrid between managed and franchised—in the hospitality industry.

The chapter on the global Goliaths — Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Accor, IHG, Carlson and Wyndham — and how they flirted with India, failed, and finally managed to crack the India code is instructive of how the local-global osmosis of best practices, customisation, and the inevitable flexibility in managing partnerships helped shape the industry we see today. 

Interesting anecdotes, such as what was supposed to be the four-five Novotels of the failed Oberoi-Accor partnerships of the 1980s is what you see in Trident today, developed locally by the Oberoi Group. The French hospitality group Accor finally succeeded in establishing a beachhead in India in the 2000s with upgraded version of Novotel and Ibis in partnership with Rahul Bhatia-led InterGlobe. The book gives a ringside view of managing the tensions of global mergers — such as Marriott-Starwood in 2016 — on India operations by quoting first-person accounts of people who were at the helm of affairs, always a better read than management gurus theorising on what should or should not have been done. Though the book does introduce the reader to the travails of what it calls the “lesser chains” originating in east or west Asia such as Thailand’s Dusit and  Hong Kong’s Shangri La, one wishes for more detail here.

The beauty of this book is also in telling the stories of people who make the bedrock of the industry, property owners in “real estate barons, textile magnates, infrastructure majors, high networth individuals, industrialists, politicians with loads of spare cash, former royals or simple small business families.” And how they are increasingly upgrading their largely unbranded properties, adding bells and whistles and handing them over to brands — from Oberoi to Oyo — to operate. Like the one about Rajat Pahwa, who claims his family pioneered the guest house business in the national capital—the extended family apparently opened 50 hotels in the last five decades — but is now turning them over to tech-led players like Oyo. 

Ms Narayanan is bang on when she underlines the criticality of managing relationships, for “how these management firms manage the relationship with the hotel owners will define their future.” One is already witnessing the consolidation of hotel property owners, like the Marriott Owners’ Association or mom-and-pop hotels’ growing consolidation to take on the might of aggregators like Oyo or online travel agencies or OTAs like Make My Trip in demanding more even balance of power between owners and managers of hotels. Big brand chains on their part have become every bit more serious and flexible while dealing with property owners who now have real choice given the plethora of brands serenading them. “..when you meet my owners, I am either their daughter or a sister. I call my Lucknow owner bade papa,” says Deepika Arora, vice- president, Eurasia, for Wyndham Hotel Group with brands like Ramada, Howard Johnson and Days.

In fact OTAs and aggregators —“branded-hotel franchise,” as India’s homegrown Airbnb in Oyo’s founder Ritesh Agarwal will rather define his firm—have become the sector’s biggest opportunity as well as the challenge. While the tech-led innovation these OTAs and aggregators have brought to the industry is well documented by now ­ — barely decade-old Oyo being multiple times more valuable than 100 year-old Taj Group — how they negotiate their relationship with the travel ecosystem will be critical going ahead.

Many chapters towards the end delve into these issues in detail, tapping the protagonist in this battle, such as Make My Trip’s Deep Kalra, for insights.

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