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The leading lady

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She has been the power behind Bharat Hotels since she took over from her late husband Lalit Suri. Dr Jyotsna Suri, CMD, The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group (TLSHG) has not just consolidated the hotels under the company portfolio but also planned a growth path. It has been a conscious decision for her and the company to own, develop and manage their hotels, and not take up management contracts. “This is a business model that we chose to take. I will not say that it is the best model; every company has its right to take the direction that they feel is right for them,” she says.

Brands and more

After successfully operating nine luxury hotels under The Lalit brand pan-India, Suri is looking at setting up eight more luxury hotels. “We planned to have The Lalit brand in key metro cities of the country and we have done that,” she explains. At the same time, she has now ventured into the mid segment market with Lalit Traveller. “Mid segment is the way forward and we have concentrated on it,” she adds. She is adamant that she will not fall prey to the numbers game, “We are not in the business of acquiring real estate we are in the business of hospitality. I look into every project that comes our way, delve into it and then take a call. Only if it makes business sense do we take it forward.” This is exactly the reason why TLSHG hasn’t made any forays into Chennai and Hyderabad and Suri says that these two locations are definitely on her must-have list, especially for the luxury brand.

There is a segment, By The Lalit Traveller, Suri has developed. It is a branding tie-up for hotels which are not owned or managed by the TLSHG. They have only provided a support system and is not part of the business model either. “I believe in hospitality and it is the way forward. The first property in Faridabad is my son-in-law’s; it is completely their investment. There are a few other following similar concept, run by my nephews. This is something that I am doing for my love and affection for them,” she explains. There are 8-10 of By The Lalit Traveller planned and they are mostly going to be independent. As to the decision of going into the mid segment hotels, Suri says that it is the need of the hour. “My husband Lalit, never thought of the mid-segment he only wanted to focus on luxury. But the demand is there,” she says.

Bharat Hotels created the Lalit brand in 2008. “People thought I was being emotional and foolish with the branding. But if you see almost 60 per cent of hotels are family names Oberoi, Leela, Marriott, Hilton, it is not unusual at all. For us, The Lalit is short and easy on the tongue and it also has an international feel,” Suri explains. Very recently the company bought a heritage property in London, UK to be converted into a hotel. “It has been a dream come true and an emotional moment for me. Lalit always wanted a hotel there also we also lost him in that city. We had been looking for a property for almost five years,” says Suri. Talking about the company’s other international forays she says that the first international venture was with Dubai based Nakheel group where the two companies were 50:50 joint venture partners. “We identified the land and concluded the ground breaking, but with the bubble bursting in Dubai, UAE the project hasn’t progressed,” she says. Similar is the case with their project in Koh Samui, Thailand; with the turmoil in the nation development of the project did not take off.

Analysing business

Suri is pragmatic about how the business has been for her company and the industry as a whole, “It hasn’t been a great year financial; it hasn’t been for the industry as a whole. The atmosphere and the economic environment has not been conducive for growth.” Yet there is always a silver lining; despite difficulties there has been growth even if it is slow. Interest rates are high, development costs have gone up immensely Suri is glad that the developments are still going steady. “You can slow India down but can’t stop India. We are in development mode, we have the youngest population and we have our own inherent built in market. With a demand and supply within the country. It is a rough time at the moment but it will all settle down,” she is hopeful.

This brings us to Suri’s work with the travel and tourism industry. She has been a strong proponent of domestic tourism and is on both chairs of WTTC and FICCI Tourism Committee. “There was a time when we in the hospitality industry only wanted international travellers, we were only catering to that. Today 15 million people are travelling out of India versus the five million foreign tourists that come in. There is a lot that needs to be done,” she says. She adds that most foreign arrivals into India is for business. “There are many reasons for slow growth. It has to do with travel advisories, visa norms, lack of infrastructure. However all of them are being tackled,” she adds. She also laments that the industry isn’t getting due recognition in the country’s economy. She relates an incident of a meeting with the finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, “I said to him, when you talk about inclusive growth why don’t you include us. The hospitality has never ever been included in the budget other than levying more taxes.” She adds that there is a misnomer in the corridors of power that hotels are luxury. The fact that it is not about the hotel but the industry has not sunk in. It is a people driven industry; it is the only industry where people serve people directly. Suri is vociferous that it is the individual entrepreneur who is keeping the country afloat in such difficult economy and with a budget which has not been able to promote growth.

Suri is very close to her family, her two greatest loves as she puts it, “My grandchildren and gulab jamun.” Her four children, three daughters and a son have all been absorbed into different family businesses. Daughter Divya is a lawyer; Diksha is part of the HR team for the company; Son Keshav is part of the operations team while Shraddha works with the family’s telecommunication venture. “We have a fairly large business interest – hotels, aviation, automobiles and telecommunications,” she says. All of these are taken care of different members of the Suri family. On personal note, Suri is an avid reader, but doesn’t often get chance to pursue her hobbies. Most of her time goes into the business, “I work all the time, I don’t go home unless the work for the day is over even if that means I work longer than prescribed,” she says. Suri is also involved promoting art, she takes pride in selecting art works that are installed in all her different hotels. “I also promote local and cultural sports like Polo in Dras and Kabbadi in Kerala,” she adds. And her motto as an entrepreneur – “I never say no to anything. It is wrong for entrepreneur to say that I will never do this or I will only to this. It all depends on the environment it can make you change and if your a smart entrepreneur you will change.”

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