Adding a dash of warmth to hospitality
By Pooja Kothari
Each 'non-hotel' run by Francis Wacziarg and Aman Nath showcases a different slice of royal India.
Francis Wacziarg’s romance with India started in the seventies and continues to this day. Any story on expatriates who run businesses in India is incomplete without a mention of this 40-year love affair. Not only does he run multiple businesses here, the 68-year-old even became an Indian citizen in 1990.
“I landed at Mumbai and it was love at first sight. People ask me why I stayed back in India. I didn’t stay back; I stayed from Day 1,” says Wacziarg, of his first trip to India in 1970. Instead of travelling like a tourist along the usual route of Agra and Rajasthan, he visited the villages of South India, and even stayed with a poor family in the Chikmangaloor district. By the end of it, he knew he would not be able to stay away from the country.
During these years, he’s found himself a co-author and business partner in Aman Nath, and together, they’ve given India its first taste of “non-hotels” under the Neemrana Hotels brand. Although more visible, Neemrana isn’t Wacziarg’s first or only business in the country.
Way back in 1978, when there were very few people selling brand India abroad, Wacziarg started a buying agency. “I started with two clients—and very little money,” he recalls of his early days after leaving the security of his job. The agency continues to run to this day—incidentally, shares his name—and sells everything from garments to furnishing, furniture and accessories.
His story is unique in every which way you look at it—be it the 35-year-old partnership with Nath, an Indian, the multiple books they have written together on Indian art and culture, and the change they have brought about in the declining fortunes of the erstwhile royal families of India.
While there are several foreigners who come to live and start businesses in the subcontinent—its vitality and growing economy triggering the moth-and-the-flame attraction—there are not many who make it their home. “Not many of us have taken on Indian citizenships and are in business,” he points out.
When Wacziarg decided to set up his buying agency here, India did not even have a provision for “self employed” foreigners. “I had to go and see the Reserve Bank of India and the Ministry of Finance to find a way to stay in India,” he recalls, rather amused.
Wacziarg’s love for the country was for all to see. Not only was he involved in building business links between India and France, he was also an ardent promoter of the Indian arts movement. In 1972, Wacziarg had organised the first-ever festival of Indian films in France that ran Indian cinema for an entire week in Paris. He was also involved in “the young cinema of Shyam Benegal”. This was the seventies; the country was still evolving culturally and politically. “There were only two galleries in Mumbai and one in Delhi. It was an extraordinary time. I’ve seen India change. I am living through the third generation after independence,” he says.
And, then, in 1975, he met Nath in Delhi and they decided to explore Rajasthan together. Their attempt to make a film on the water systems of the desert state didn’t go very far, but their work on the frescoes of Shekhavati and the arts and crafts of Rajasthan was compiled into two books.
Their ultimate business venture didn’t appear till 1986, when Nath bought their first property from the maharaja of Neemrana for a sum of Rs 7 lakh. As a foreign citizen then, Wacziarg was not allowed to own property in India.
The beautiful palace was in ruins and there were no takers. “The Oberoi hotels had sent their team to survey it, and were advised not to touch it,” recalls Nath. But the duo was not willing to give up. They had tried restoring a couple of country homes in the months before the Neemrana palace came up on their radar. “We realised that, at least, in this century, we still have the techniques of carving stone and building jharokas and chatris. So we tried our hand at this,” explains Wacziarg, of what was considered a totally mad move.
What began as a passionate journey to save an abandoned 15th century heritage fort morphed into an interesting business proposition. In the process, the Nath-Wacziarg partnership got a chance to salvage and restore historical buildings, something the government and royals had struggled with rather unsuccessfully in the past.
“It took all our energies and time. And, there wasn’t much money,” admits Wacziarg.
That, of course, is now a distant memory. Both he and Nath have an equal ownership in the Neemrana Hotels and another company that runs the hotel properties. They operate 23 “non-hotels” across 17 destinations, ranging from four-roomed houses to nine-floor palaces.
The company has done well for itself, growing at about 20 per cent to 25 per cent a year since the beginning, except the last two years, when it grew between 10 per cent and 15 per cent due to the economic slowdown. With a turnover of Rs 30 crore, it is nowhere close to the giants of the hotel industry. But, “the business has notched up a reasonably good percentage of profits,” which enables investments in new projects.
New properties are either funded by the duo, or by the owners. “We give them a percentage of the turnover, not the profits, so they don’t have to wait for income,” explains Nath. It is no wonder that several erstwhile maharajas and palace owners have come forward in the recent years to sign up with Nath and Wacziarg. The duo gets nearly five proposals a week and are usually criss-crossing the country, evaluating the feasibility of those properties.
They select the properties very carefully, keeping an eye for financial viability as much as aesthetic appeal. Some of their hotels have just four or five bedrooms—which makes it difficult to make much money off them. At many places, such as Ramgarh, they have innovatively opted to operate multiple small properties within 10 minutes walking distance of each other.
In all their properties, these unlikely hoteliers have followed certain principles—be it employing the local population, or serving the community through initiatives such as churning out jams and chutneys from the fruits of the orchards at Ramgarh, or growing their own tea at Kunoor.
“We want people to represent the culture of an area since we want to be as authentic as possible. We don’t try to standardise our offering like other hotel chains.” And therein lies the charm of these properties.
The two owners share this vision and sincerity of purpose. Their partnership is rooted in a common value system that emphasises as much on the emotional aspect of business as on the financial. Of course, hitting the right numbers does count but neither Wacziarg nor Nath can fit into the mould of the stereotype businessman.
“We do things that we love doing. We don’t do them for anything else. We have no vision plans; we take things as they come. We survey proposals and decide. Our only vision is to die with our boots on,” laughs Wacziarg.
Make no mistake, though. Despite their otherwise full lives, they are “very hands-on and don’t delegate much of” their work. They travel frequently, mostly independently of the other, to evaluate properties, though all decisions are taken jointly. Thereafter, they work together on the restoration of properties, where they bring in architects to carry out the work decided by them.
“Since we are both based in north, we bring in architects for the restoration of our properties in south India. Otherwise, we do the work ourselves,” explains Nath. They have even won the Aga Khan award for architecture for their restoration work at Neemrana.
They pay attention to the minutest of details—from the overall look and feel of the property to the furniture and paintings to be used there. “The running of a property is what we delegate to our team, after training and empowering them,” says Nath.
While the northern and southern parts of the company’s operations are handled by regional managers, every property has its own manager, who is ably supported by a food & beverage manager and a deputy manager.. The company has two training centers, one at Neemrana and the other at Puducherry for recruits from the two regions of the country. “It’s easier to train a guy from Cochin in south than send him to north India,” they explain.
There is no fixed division of responsibility between the two. “We work very closely. We don’t have demarcated areas of work. Our sensibilities are the same. Our offices are just next to each other, so we keep asking for each other’s opinion,” explains Nath, who had been handling everything for the past month that Wacziarg was away.
There are some clear areas of preference, though. Given Nath’s work experience in advertising, he handles all advertising and marketing activities. “Francis is the foodie, so he handles food and beverage,” laughs Nath.
“Aman is more involved in the architectural aspects of the business, and I take care of the business side,” adds Wacziarg.
But both ultimately share a sincerity of purpose—be it the love for restoring dilapidated buildings, or the ability to treat business as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. “We’ve always been like that,” adds Wacziarg.
The two “Jacks-of-all-trades” lead rather rich lives between their books, music and hotels. “We’re writers on one day, music lovers on another, and hoteliers the next,” says Wacziarg.