Shruti Shibulal's hospitality venture, The Tamara, eyes the European market while it expands in India
In the last two years, Shruti Shibulal, the 31-year-old daughter of Infosys co-founder SD Shibulal (whose personal wealth is estimated at $1.02 billion), has seen a shift in her life—both personal and professional. For one, her hectic travel between New York and Bengaluru has ceased, with Shruti choosing to settle down in the Garden City with her businessman husband Gaurav Manchanda. (In New York, she was supervising various portfolios of the family office, Innovations Investment Management or IIM; it has diversified interests in property management, project management, investment portfolio management, hospitality and other areas.)
Back in India, Shruti now focuses on her hospitality venture, The Tamara, which launched its first property (The Tamara Coorg) in 2012. At present, the hospitality firm runs resorts, hotels and service apartments in South India (3) and Germany (1); this includes the luxury resort, The Tamara Coorg, which is spread over 170 acres of coffee, pepper and cardamom plantations on the slopes of Kabbinakad Hills in Karnataka.
Currently, apart from overseeing the development of one hotel project in Thiruvananthapuram for two years now, she is also setting up two more properties and expanding one (Palma Laguna, Alleppey) in South India. In an interview with Forbes India
, Shruti talks about the plans to grow her company in Europe, and expand through acquisitions and greenfield projects. Edited excerpts:Q. What has changed in the last two years?
My shuttling between the US and India has ended. I moved back to Bengaluru permanently last June. In 2014, I was the director of the Thiruvananthapuram project; my role has changed recently: I’m now director of strategy and development [she’s now in charge of all the development projects under The Tamara, as well as acquisitions, expansions and the overall strategy of the company.]
Under The Tamara, the Thiruvananthapuram project is under construction. We started building our Kodaikanal hotel, a 56-room property, and will begin work on a property in Guruvayur, Kerala. At present, in India, we operate three properties: The Tamara in Coorg; Lilac, a 28-room service apartment property in Bengaluru and Palma Laguna, a five-room boutique property in the backwaters of Alleppey, Kerala. We are expanding the Palma Laguna to 18 rooms. We have also acquired a 126-room hotel earlier this year in Gütersloh, a small city in Germany; it is being operated by Holiday Inn Express.Q. Are you looking at more acquisitions abroad and in India?
Currently, we are only looking at the European market. There are interesting places [hotels] in Africa. When we consider outside investments, we are looking at extremely stable markets that are transparent. Germany seemed to be a good first place to start our journey in the international market. I realised there is quite a bit of opportunity in the mid-segment space [where Holiday Inn Express operates]. And that is where we wanted to attack first.
In India we haven’t found anything that we would like to buy because a lot of these properties are overpriced, and the development is not up to the mark.
Currently, I have 200 rooms operational (in India and Germany across resorts, hotel and service apartments) and would like to have 1,000 rooms by 2025. I would like to have a mix of properties in India and abroad, across different segments, more so in the mid-segment, where room rates would be $75 to $100 per night.
__PAGEBREAK__Q. Are you looking at a uniform umbrella branding, or will you operate with different brands?
The Tamara is the company, and also the name of our first luxury brand. In the future I see a good chance of bringing other brands under the The Tamara umbrella. For now, the property coming up in Guruvayur will not be under the The Tamara brand while the Kodaikanal project will be.
Q. Room rates (Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per night) at The Tamara, Coorg, are on a par with those of well-established luxury hotels such as Oberoi and Taj. How does the pricing work?
Our pricing is different from other luxury properties because our room rates are all-inclusive [includes food]. That said, I feel our customers are not necessarily looking for a cookie-cutter sort of property. Today, people are looking for offbeat, boutique resorts and I don’t think there is unwillingness to pay for it. We certainly designed The Tamara Coorg to be an upscale luxury property, and we have been rewarded with good occupancy. From an operations standpoint, we broke even more than a year ago. [The company did not share revenue figures.]Q. There are many domestic and foreign hotel chains that already have the scale that you aim to achieve. Then there are disruptors like OYO Rooms. Is the road ahead challenging?
Yes, you have huge disruptors such as Airbnb and OYO Rooms coming into the space. Today, Airbnb’s valuation is much higher than any of the major hotel chains in the world and with good reason.
In India, too, there are massive changes happening in the industry. In the present context, we have an advantage compared to the established larger players.
We are agile and nimble, and not restricted by boundaries. We can change according to the industry demand, if required.
Initially, the challenge was to get the word out for a new brand like us. The internet has helped us reach out to the right customers. And we have been able to distinguish ourselves from the rest by focusing on sustainability and the environment.
Honeymooners love us; celebrities like us because our properties offer privacy. And this is how we like to be. We don’t want to be overexposed and mass market. Going back to the earlier point, I think our pricing is also at that range where we can position ourselves as aspirational.Q. What is your father’s scope of influence on the operations of The Tamara. Is there any guidance from him?
He is on our board [as chairman]. He is quite involved from a governance point of view. I’m very focussed on operations, and I do get perspective from him once in a while on a variety of things. He was heading operations at Infosys for a long time, so on anything to do with operations, I take his advice. He is a great sounding board for that. Besides, he sits just across the hall, so I can get to him anytime. On the development side, I have a great team which has helped me learn over the last couple of years.Q. What are your involvements outside of The Tamara?
I have joined the boards of two non-profits. One is the Women’s Education Project (WEP); it is an NGO based out of New York, but all its activities are in India. I have also joined the board of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, a research institution that focuses on biodiversity, conservation, and sustainability. Both deal with issues I’m passionate about, such as women’s education, sustainability and conservation.
At Innovations, I have an active executive role and look into every portfolio. I’m aware of what is going on at Innovations, but 70 percent of my time is spent on The Tamara.