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How I Did It: Priya Paul, The Park Hotels

Priya Paul was given three sleepy hotels to run. Two decades later, she's converted it into a chain of nine boutique properties.

As told to Pooja Kothari

How I Did It

Photograbh by Vijay Kutty

Offer a trendy and well-designed place to stay. Combine it with personalised service standards. Stay small, and yet creative and sophisticated. That’s the ideology Priya Paul followed while giving a makeover to the three properties she was given to run after the tragic loss of her father in 1990. The Apeejay Surrendra Group-owned Park hotels might be part of a 100-year-old family business, but Paul sure has left her own imprint by pioneering the concept of boutique hotels in India. Today, the group has nine properties across the country bringing in Rs 250 crore in revenue. Paul hopes to add a few more over the years, but the only thing that matters to her is that each has a distinct identity of its own. The czarina of the hotel industry, Paul’s work is proof that size has nothing to do with spectacular success.

I was born in Kolkata, the eldest of three children. My father and his brother ran a business, which was a part of our lives in those years, and had interests in hotels, trading, real estate, construction, shipping, tea and steel. The hotels part was managed under The Park brand.

I grew up watching both my parents work. Although ours was a family business, my mother handled quite a few responsibilities, something not very usual at that time. At one point, she was managing Flury’s, the iconic tea house, and our hotel, The Park, both of which still stands on the city’s famous Park Street.

By the time I was 10 years old, I had pretty much figured out that I was going to be a businesswoman. Despite being a traditional family, my parents had brought us up to believe we could do just about anything. I faced no barriers because I was a girl.

I went to Wellesley College, a liberal arts college in the US, to go my graduation in economics. I explored different subjects, such as design, archeology and astronomy. I didn’t know then that I would work in the hotel industry. I had plans of working abroad for a couple of years, and had even gone through the recruitment process. But this was 1988 and in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash, I didn’t get a job. So, I decided to travel for a few months and try again later. When I came back to India, my dad put me to work as a marketing manager at The Park, Delhi, which was then two years old.

In hindsight, it was the best start ever. I got to understand the dynamics of the industry and learnt valuable lessons. My brief was to sell the hotel, but for that, I realised, I needed to know the product first. So, I had to get involved. The hotel was new and struggling; I got to do everything—sales, calls, negotiations, even plumbing. I had to really dirty my hands.

At that time, very few women went on to join businesses run by their families. They mostly built careers as professionals in government and banking. After my dad’s tragic death in 1990, the family circumstances were such that even my sister, who was an architect by training, had no choice but to dive into the family business.

I was 24. All four of us—my mother, uncle, sister and I—were forced to take charge of various parts of the business. During such extreme tragedies, people either sink, or swim. As a family, we decided to meet the challenges head-on. My uncle, Jit, held the family together. Every one of us worked really hard and by the end of the nineties, we emerged much stronger, both as a family and as a company. Personally, I learnt never to make long-term plans. Of course, we have a plan, but I feel very nervous about making broad and sweeping statements. I know that life can change dramatically overnight.

For my part, I took charge of the hotels in Kolkata, Delhi and Visakhapatnam. It was a tough time. I had to get over a personal tragedy, and at the same time, learn how to do a completely different job. To top it all, as the boss, I was expected to have all the right answers. That was certainly a challenge. I dug into my limited leadership experiences as a student leader and the head girl of my school. It kind of helped as they had taught me how to deal with team work and people issues. I got a good team in place and gleaned whatever knowledge I could from other people.

I knew that even if we had only three hotels, they had to stand out. My years abroad and all that international travel had exposed me to the boutique hotel movement, which was gaining currency around then. So, we thought, why not bring home the boutique hotel. India had five-star hotels and budget hotels, but no boutique hotels then. Of course, we also worried whether our customers would understand the concept.

The Kolkata Park was undergoing a design makeover then. It seemed like the right place to start. I knew I couldn’t expand it into a large-sized hotel. So, I worked on making it creatively different. Since design is a significant element in the concept of a boutique hotel, I began experimenting with that first. I remember seeing some designs for a restaurant there—something in red, white and black. I rejected those and asked for something more contemporary. Bit by bit, we explored; we started the pub Someplace Else; bars; more contemporary rooms—we tried something, watched the response, and refined our offering.

People used to think we were different and daring—and then, the world moved to what we were doing. But, in 1991-92, we were introducing some cutting-edge concepts. I remember seeing a bath menu at a hotel in Berlin 10 years ago and coming back and implementing that at some of our hotels. We used interesting communication and graphic design. We backed it up with investment in our people. I finished what my father had started in trying to bring the three hotels together through common systems and processes. We introduced manuals and operating procedures for various departments such as human resources, housekeeping, food and beverage, and implemented them at all hotels. That gave us an edge. Now, we have the knowledge, the people as well as the training material; so it’s easier to add hotels to the chain. The efforts have been rewarded. In 1998, we became a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, a small group of distinct properties. And, in 1999, The Park, Kolkata, was accorded a “Five Star Deluxe” status.

The result is that each property in the Park chain of hotels has its own clientele, its own tariffs, and its own décor. The general appearance of each property—and even of different floors in the same property—is strikingly different. Although certain policies and activities are uniform across the chain, each Park property is managed with considerable freedom to introduce changes and practices.

I am still very hands-on. I can give the big picture and get the team to deliver it; or get into the details of a project. In my current role, I am more of a mentor and guide. We don’t have a 360-degree evaluation programme, but a lot of my team members have worked with me long enough to give me feedback. I am generally quite mild, unless someone repeatedly does not do what’s expected of them. I can also be pretty adamant in what I want and don’t want.

I meet a lot of my team members, especially during the annual evaluation exercise. I would meet around a 100 executive-level and upwards people in Delhi alone for this. As a leader, it’s important for me to have a direct connection with a large number of people. And it helps me ensure that people are aligned to our vision and mission. In a small business like ours, team members want that interaction, too.

Since I didn’t get the chance to study further for an MBA earlier, I attended a course at Harvard that really validated what I had been doing. The Owner President Management Program was like a mini-MBA. I believe it’s important for people to re-educate themselves and handle change.

With nine hotels, we now have a footprint across India. People in the industry and our customers recognise us as a strong Indian brand that can consistently deliver high standards—as well as a product that’s unexpected and interesting. That’s something I want to continue to build on. We would like to have 20 hotels by 2020—whether owned or managed, they will certainly be in the Park style.

We believe in ‘leadership through differentiation’ and that’s what drives each and every person at the Park hotels to do their job really well. There are always these short-term goals to drive people internally. However, as long as we are doing every hotel in an interesting manner, living up to our vision-mission statement and every employee enjoying what he or she is doing, I would be doing my job well.

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