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‘We see tremendous opportunities for growth in key leisure destinations in India and Sri Lanka’

Thursday, November 14, 2019, 14:02 Hrs  [IST]

Since joining Preferred Hotels & Resorts in 2010, Seema Roy has played a key role in successfully amplifying brand awareness of Preferred Hotels & Resorts in the region. Considering her contribution to the brand in the region, the world's largest independent hotel company, had decided to elevate her and bestow her the responsibility to manage a wider region of South Asia, Middle East & Africa as Area Managing Director in December last year. As Area Managing Director, she oversees hotel retention and development efforts of the brand's growing portfolio in the region. As a person who grew up and evolved with the brand in the market and having seen Preferred growing from a very small base, Seema has been able to hit the ground straight away with a clear understanding of her responsibilities. P Krishna Kumar had a detail conversation with her recently.

Q This is your third big responsibility within Preferred Hotels & Resorts. How do you look at your journey with Preferred?
I have been with Preferred Hotels handling various roles for the last 10 years. I started with sales, and then moved to marketing for a bigger region of APAC, and this is my third big responsibility. Broadly, this is a P&L responsibility and business ownership role. It's a great feeling of accomplishment for me. The good thing about a company like Preferred Is that you don't get stereotyped in one role. This kind of evolution is not very common in hotel companies in this part of the world. And the good thing is that in the run-up to the new responsibility I have understood the DNA of Preferred Hotels and seen the portfolio evolving from three hotels to where we are today. It helped me in hitting the ground running straight away. In South Asia, today we have 43 hotels. This includes 5 resorts in the Maldives and remaining in India.

Q Preferred Hotels entered India 17 years ago. How Indian hotel owners have evolved to Independent soft brands like Preferred over the years?
The Imperial New Delhi was the first hotel we signed in India back in 2002. At that time, many independent hotels didn't know about many soft brand partners like Preferred Hotels. Even the differentiation between a hard brand and an independent brand was not that big at that time. But over a period of time, the independent owners in India started understanding their needs and selecting partners accordingly. With our 88 global sales resources spread across 36 offices globally, it is quite difficult for any independent hotelier to invest that kind of money on sales marketing or distribution. The industry is a lot more matured and there is a lot more confidence in owners today, that they can run their property themselves if there is soft-brand support which helps in global sales, marketing, and distribution. Back in the day, the only option the owners had was to align with hard brands and sign either management or franchise agreement. In the last decade or so, with the presence of companies like Preferred, a level playing field has been created for independent owners.

The most important factor for an independent owner to run the hotel himself is the right intent to run and the expertise to run it. If the owner lacks either, it is better to look for partners who can run the show for him and get the X amount of results. For those passionate hoteliers who want to run their hotels on their own and compete with the big brands to get the right business mix, a soft brand like Preferred is a reliable partner. On the other hand, if he changes partners and brands' number of times, the property loses its identity. Hotel identity is prime for us. We provide reach and visibility to the property in the international market.

Q You have your Reward programme, I Prefer, which is quite popular. How is it driving business to your member hotels?
We are a chain of more than 750 independent best in class hotels. These hotels could be standalone property like The Imperial New Delhi or a local chain like The Leela Hotels in India. Each of these independent hotels is competing with international brands which have strong loyalty programmes which help their customers earn and burn while they travel.

Over a period of time, we also realised the need for a loyalty programme. Initially, our I-Prefer programme was an Instant gratification program like something which allows members Late Check-in or Late Check, Upgrade, etc. We found that independent hotels or small local chains cannot run a loyalty programme of their own. It doesn't make sense for consumers. They needed a bigger platform. That's where we converted our I-Prefer programme into a rewards-based and point-based programme. There was a misconception that luxury travellers only care for experiences and not really about loyalty points. But our research proved that they care for both.

We kept our Rewards programme extremely simple with only two tiers because it is comprehensible by a boutique luxury property with 10 rooms as well as a big luxury hotel. I-Prefer is very simple and easy to use for our consumers as well as for our hotel partners.

Our I-Prefer has a database of more than 3 million members worldwide. We work with our own member properties for organic growth and also work with some qualified partners whose audience has the propensity to spend and also frequent travellers for inorganic growth. We want to keep our loyalty membership active and engaged at all times so that they earn and burn frequently. Through the year we run different special rates, programmes so that they keep booking our rooms and keep them hooked on to our hotels.

In Asia, we have under 2 lakh I-prefer members which we know is a small percentage of our overall loyalty membership. So, our endeavour is to work with both our hotel partners in the region for organic growth as well as with partners outside for inorganic growth.

Q What is Preferred Hotels & Resorts brand architecture to cater to different segments of travellers?
As an international hotel company, Preferred stands for best in class luxury. We have five different collections based on the customer experience we provide. On the top of our portfolio is 'Legend' brand which represents iconic luxury properties and are destinations themselves. The Imperial New Delhi and The Leela Palace New Delhi are 'Legend'. Then we have 'LVX', upper-class five-star hotels. Leela Hotels which are not Palace fall under LVX. 'Lifestyle Hotels' are entry-level 5-star hotels which have local luxury flavours. Zuri Bangalore, Raintree Hotels, Avasa in Ahmedabad, Chedi Mumbai, etc. are Lifestyle Hotels. Then we have 'Connect' which is our mid-market luxury brand. 'Residences' are our extended-stay product. This helps us to cater to curate experiences various tiers of consumers.

What is the kind of gap you see in terms of your geographical spread in the South Asia market and what are the future opportunities you seek in this important region?
With 43 properties, South Asia is a matured market for us. This helps us to curate experiences for both business and leisure travellers in the market. Delhi is a mix of Business and Leisure travel market, while Bangalore is heavily a business and corporate travel market. Similarly, we have a presence in leisure destinations like Jaipur, Goa, Kovalam, Udaipur, etc. However, we understand that there are opportunities to grow our footprint in leisure markets like Kerala, Goa, Rajasthan, etc. The accessibility to all these places has improved a lot in recent years. Our endeavour is to have more locations so that we can cover key leisure itineraries in those places.

In South Asia, our focus market is now Sri Lanka. Since the island country is recovering from the terror incident last April, the hotels there are increasingly looking to get out to partnerships for more international business.

In India, there are so many opportunities both in Tier I and II cities. In key Tier I cities like Mumbai, we hope we can have more hotels. The one we have currently is in one part of the city. Bangalore and Chennai, we have a comfortable presence with 6 hotels each. So, Mumbai, Tier-II cities and Sri Lanka are the future opportunities for us going forward.

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