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Priya Paul: Queen of Hospitality

Meet Priya Paul: businesswoman, design guru, and hospitality expert

Priya Paul is a Renaissance Woman. Not only is she a keen art collector and design expert, she also runs THE Park Hotels, a collection of contemporary five-star boutique hotels across India. The Bangalore property was designed by Sir Terence Conran; Hyderabad by the New York office of SOM Architects. The latter is also the first hotel in India to gain a Gold Leed certification for ecology and sustainability.

In the light of THE Park Hotels celebrating its 50th birthday in November, Luxury London caught up with the business tycoon while she took some time out at her Regent’s Park flat.   

How did you start in the hospitality industry?

It’s a family business, the family business is in hospitality, hotels, shipping and tea. I started working in hospitality when I graduated from college at 22, straight into the family business – my father asked me to start working there. 

Was it a baptism of fire for you?

Yeah, in a sense. I wasn’t a hospitality student, or anything like that. I started off in the marketing department. It was really a lot of learning by asking questions, from my colleagues as well as senior management.

Why have THE Park hotels, and the boutique hotel scene in general, done so well recently?

When we started, I was working with my father in 1992. We had three properties, and I was looking at a way of carving out a special place or a niche for these properties.

One of them was an older hotel, and we started a renovation there. Really, I don’t think hotels have to behave in this overly traditional way. I was very young, and I had just seen some of the hotels that Ian Schrager had done at the Royalton, and I thought that’s a great way of doing hotels. So took that idea that a hotel doesn’t have to be this dull, boring place, and created hotels that behaved in a different way: were younger, contemporary, and had places to entertain in and be entertained in, with nice bars, clubs and restaurants.

So that’s why the word boutique has been used for these hotels, even though the hotels in question have 100 rooms, 200 rooms, and aren’t really those small ten, dozen room hotels. Boutique, design hotel, lifestyle hotel, all those categories are intermingled in my view. That’s where we started developing our brand, first with three hotels, and now with many, many more. 

Design is an important aspect for you – your Hyderabad property is beautifully designed. Why was the decision made to put so much time and money into exterior design?

That hotel was actually quite interesting, because up until that time, all the hotels that I had done – Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, Faisad, Mumbai and Bangalore – were all properties that we either owned, renovated and repositioned or bought, converted and upgraded. I’d never really done an architecturally strong hotel that I hadn’t inherited or bought. I like contemporary architecture, as does the rest of the family, so I decided to work with SOM [architects] out of New York because I wanted to create an architectural statement, and I think SOM is one of the top architectural firms in the world. 

One aspect of the process was the architecture, and the second was using designers from India and across the world to create different spaces – many different spaces, and many different designers. 

Art is so prominent in the hotels

Yes, it’s art as well as design. By the time you’ve reached Hyderabad in 2009, there was a lot in its design that was now of international quality, and I wanted to work with a lot of Indian designers to create spaces and objects for the property.

Art is something that’s prominent in all our hotels, because one of the things that I noticed in the early ‘90s in most hotels across the world – and I’ve always been interested in art – was that most hotels had very cheap copies and very obscure art, so in the ‘90s when I started refitting all the other hotels, the older hotels, I commissioned a lot of new artworks with contemporary Indian artists to create a body of work for the hotels.

How often do you get over to London?

Well, it’s a family home, so I’m over maybe three or four times a year, so not too bad, but I try to do longer visits rather than shorter.

It coming over here purely personal, or is there business, too?

It’s a mixture of both. Travel is always a mixture of some pleasure and some work, of course, and meetings. It could be meeting editors, some travel work, meeting the trade; it could be meeting with designers, as we work with a lot of designers in the UK.

I think London is at a very exciting time in hospitality, and it’s not just the hotels, it’s also the restaurants – it really has become a focal point for many different international communities. Certainly, there are a lot of international chefs working here, so I think there are very exciting things happening in London right now.

While you’re here in London, what do you usually do?

This trip I’ve done everything from Chessington World of Adventures, to an IMAX movie – we have lots of kids here with us, so it’s their holiday, and we do things that are more fun for them, too.

I also like the Arts Club – I’m a member, so I’ve done a few things there. I went to the Ned last night, which I enjoyed. It very nice: it was a Monday night and absolutely packed, a nice atmosphere with a beautiful room. They’ve really created a buzz down there.

I go to all the museums. The Pink Floyd Show at the V&A was outstanding, you needed a good two hours for it. The new Design Museum was also lovely. There’s so much to do, and even though I’ve been here for two weeks, you can’t do it all, so it can be frustrating. It’s a good excuse to come back, and always lovely to be in London.  

Obviously, I have to ask… Brexit

[Laughs] I’ve been asked that question every day! What do I think of Brexit? For the UK or for the trade?

How do you think Brexit will affect British visitors to your hotels? Will the Commonwealth become a larger trade network?

I think the expectation is that once Britain is out of the EU, there will be new trade agreements with India that will actually push trade through India and the UK, and I think that is great. India is already the third largest investor into the UK, and I think the UK is either the second or third largest investor into India, so certainly any increase would be welcome for both sides.

I’m not sure how that will affect tourism in one sense. I mean, tourism is a function of investment and trade. Tourism is also visa-dependent: India now has a certain amount of visas on arrival, I don’t think that is the case for Indians coming to the UK. So that could be a thought, if Britain wants to push up tourism arrivals from India – what can they offer to Indian tourists, who, I believe, spend a lot more time as well as money.

Going back to the luxury sector, what do you see as the main differences between the idea of luxury in India and the UK/London?

In the UK, the whole idea of luxury has gone towards sustainability. I think in India, that’s happening in pockets, obviously it’s a country that is still catching up in a lot of ways, so we have a large class of people who are more aspirational, for whom luxury means the goods and services that go with traditional luxury. 

There’s a huge tradition in India for bespoke luxury; everybody has jewellery and clothing made especially for them. That type of luxury exists in a large segment of the population. That kind of hand-crafted, made-to-measure, bespoke thing is very much something that is in many businesses. India is an interesting mix as far as luxury goes, and it’s a very poor country, too. Luxury means so many things to all different segments.

As you go into the next decade with THE Park Hotels, after its 50th birthday, where do you see the brand going?

Fifty years is a fantastic landmark to celebrate, and I’m glad we’re celebrating over the next year. I think sustainability is an issue, and I think it’s the mindful use of resources We started working on that, and some of those practices we now put in place in our older properties. 

I think that’s the kind of messaging we see a younger generation being concerned about, and their view of luxury products is quite different to the older generation. We have created a new brand called ZONE by the Park, and that I think is in the space of a more affordable luxury product.

I see a lot of that type of product happening across the world, because not everybody needs a £600 room to stay in. People want to experience destinations, and have fantastic experiences in the destination they are without paying a fortune. I think we’ll see new hotels that actually are in one sense pared down –a simplified luxury – and you couple that with great experiences, either at the hotel, or it could be some other extra experiences across the city that maybe the hotel or you have curated for yourself.

I think there’s a lot more of that happening. I see many more travellers choosing their own experiences, rather than just going with what a travel agent would say. I think people are looking even more now for individual experiences, and that is really the philosophy of THE Park actually, not just to create these experiences, but to help people explore in a different way.
You’re the person in charge. People are more confident travellers now.

What is your philosophy to work and life?

My late father said it very well when he said you should just work hard and play hard. It’s a simple statement, but that really encapsulates what I do. I enjoy every minute of life that I can cram in.