Salil Panigrahi is the Founder & Managing Director of Atmosphere Hotels & Resorts, a Maldives-based organization that has successfully created an up & coming Indian Ocean hospitality brand. In this profile for Smart CEO’s Leaders in Luxury, he gives us a glimpse into his working style, his passion for people, and why he believes the ultimate joy for anyone comes from giving, not receiving.
In the summer of 2017, a guest at OZEN by Atmosphere in the Maldives was gearing up to pop the question to his girlfriend at the iconic M6M, the underwater restaurant at the resort. At six meters below sea level, a mermaid swam near the window of the couple’s table with a banner that read: “will you marry me?”
It was a mesmeric & intimate experience that Salil Panigrahi, the founder & Managing Director of Atmosphere, had envisioned even as he was conceptualizing the design in 2015 for OZEN by Atmosphere – the “accessible luxury” resort on Maadhoo Island in the Republic of Maldives.
For Salil, the launch of the Atmosphere brand, was an important milestone in the second phase of his entrepreneurial journey. A Chartered Accountant from India, Salil started his career 22 years back at Oberoi Hotels & Resorts in the finance department. “I told myself that I would learn and understand the industry really well. And I picked up the hospitality industry, after a very careful thought,” reminisces Salil. For this unassuming hospitality entrepreneur, learning never stops. His forte lies at the intersection of two very diverse skills – an intuitive understanding of numbers (thanks to his CA background) and a passion for visual design. Salil believes his life revolves around his passion for people, their needs and aspirations. As an entrepreneur, he also understands that it is not only about delivering guest experiences but also meeting the expectations of shareholders, colleagues, and partners. His philosophy over the years has revolved around a simple mantra: “under promise and over deliver.”
After his stint at Oberoi, Salil worked at Six Senses Group founded by Indian-British hotelier, Sonu Shivdasani. He led the Finance Department there but was also responsible for several different functions including project management for resort construction and launch. Salil says, throughout his career both as a professional and entrepreneur, he has learnt from being a secret admirer of business leaders. He says, “I have learnt so much from observing people like Mr. Oberoi & Sonu. They were not my direct mentors, but like Ekalavya learnt from Drona, I was inadvertently learning. I don’t think it was planned.”
In early 2003, he formed EoN Resorts, a company that engaged in resort development and consultancy for luxury resorts in the Maldives. At EoN, Salil spearheaded the launch and growth of several iconic resorts including Jumeirah Vittaveli, Constance Halaveli, Six Senses Laamu, among several others.
At EoN, the focus was on building ultra-luxury resorts and team up with global firms like Jumeirah and Constance for hotel management. In 2012, Salil wanted to embark on his next phase and launched a brand called ‘Atmosphere’, to partially own but primarily take on management contracts of resorts within the Indian Ocean. In 2013, he launched an entry-level five-star resort Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives under the Atmosphere brand. Given the amazing success of the resort, he further went on to create two sub-brands under the mother brand – Atmosphere; a Luxury sub-brand OZEN by Atmosphere and a midscale sub-brand OBLU by Atmosphere.
Atmosphere is now gearing up for a few more launches: OBLU SELECT in Sangeli, Maldives in July 2018 (4-star deluxe) and two new resorts (one OZEN & one OBLU SELECT) in Tangalle, Sri Lanka in Q1 of 2020.
In this brief conversation with Smart CEO, Salil gives us a glimpse into his approach to entrepreneurship, the larger vision for the Atmosphere Group, his passion for people, and why he believes the ultimate joy for anyone comes from giving, not receiving.
As an individual, I am very comfortable exploring opportunities in the Indian ocean, before expanding elsewhere. In the hospitality industry, it is critical to understand local culture, sentiments and human values. Being from here, our vision is to make ‘Atmosphere’, OZEN & OBLU, the brands of choice within the Indian Ocean hospitality space
Please take us through your key priorities at Atmosphere.
It is a very simple set of goals and priorities I work towards. At Atmosphere, our tagline, JOY OF GIVING, is not just a statement. It finds its way into the core of the entire hotel operations at each of our resorts. As founder and promoter, my role is to ensure that we truly stick to our core philosophy and ensure that genuine value is delivered consistently to our aspirational guests, whatever level the specific product might be.
Additionally, I continue to ensure that we, as a team, deliver genuine value to all our stakeholders – our shareholders and investors, our colleagues and our partners.
My passion revolves around the human beings who contribute alongside me! Keeping our people happy is the prime focus.
In line with our ‘Joy of Giving’ mindset, we also adopt a transparent pricing model; We have, for example, an Atmosphere Indulgence Plan, which is what I would call an ‘exclusively inclusive’ pricing plan. When discerning travelers stay at our resort, they pretty much spend their entire time at the resort itself; We work to preempt their expectations from the resort and price it accordingly. So, food, high quality spirits & wines, spa treatments, snorkeling and a range of water sports activities are all priced in, into the accommodation pricing. There will be no surprises, no shocks or hidden costs for the guest once he/she checks in and this certainly elevates the overall guest experience. Today, resorts within the Atmosphere portfolio are popular worldwide for these specific reasons, wherein the guests and intermediaries trust us fully for our core deliverables and consistency.
Where do you see Atmosphere and its brand extensions (OZEN & OBLU) five years from now?
Given the immediate success of Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives and our intrinsic strengths, I decided to sub-brand internally, so as to clearly showcase core deliverables for a Luxury product as well as for a medium segment product. Within one year of inception of the mother brand – Atmosphere, a Luxury Sub-brand OZEN by Atmosphere as well as a medium segment sub-brand OBLU by Atmosphere were born, with each sub-brand having its very own and distinctive core values & deliverables.
Today, at Atmosphere, we successfully operate 3 resorts in the Maldives – Atmosphere Kanifushi, OZEN By Atmosphere at Maadhoo Island and OBLU By Atmosphere at Helengeli. We’re gearing up to launch OBLU Select at Sangeli, a 4-star deluxe property in July 2018. All these resorts are in the Maldives. We’ve now announced the launch of an OZEN as well as an OBLU Select in Sri Lanka, in Q1 of 2020. Broadly, we’re looking at opportunities across the Indian Ocean; We’re additionally looking at opportunities in India – in Goa and a few other locations.
As an individual, I am very comfortable exploring opportunities in the Indian ocean, before expanding elsewhere. In the hospitality industry, it is critical to understand local culture, sentiments and human values. Being from here, our vision is to make ‘Atmosphere’, OZEN & OBLU, the brands of choice within the Indian Ocean hospitality space and we believe we have the right ingredients for excelling within this specific segment.
In 2014, we launched the mother brand Atmosphere, with just one resort and by the end of this year, we would be managing 475 keys in four operating resorts. By 2020, my vision is to manage over 1000 keys cross 8 or more resorts within the Indian Ocean region, and from a financials perspective, we should be crossing US $150 million in annual revenues, by end of 2020.
Additionally, it is important to mention here that we have a wonderful management team in place that has the experience and expertise to lead us to this target.
We have several interesting initiatives to keep our people happy; For example, at OZEN, we have one day a week, when our colleagues experience the resort as guests
Take us through how you tackle very difficult situations?
I think there is a lot I can say here; A lot of it may sound philosophical, but it’s true. When I find myself in difficult, impossible situations – I get concerned, but I don’t get worried. I deeply believe in god, and that belief and faith keeps me going. Of course, we work very, very hard to find solutions.
There are many situations I can quote here; In 2008, EoN resorts was valued at over US $200 million and Merrill Lynch had agreed to invest in us. After the deal was done, needless to say, we were extremely excited. However, within a week or so after the deal was signed, in mid-September Merrill Lynch collapsed, and we were in trouble. We were cash strapped, and it was one of the most difficult situations we had ever been in.
I discussed with my core team and colleagues. The answer was – double the work, half the salary. We would bring in revenue from sales, once the resort launched. The challenge was to keep the team fully motivated, until we completed the resort-building phase. Some senior team members said they’d work for only 20% of their pay, to keep their family expenses in order. We worked really hard, launched the resort, and the new resort started making money.
In this particular example, the answer to our troubles lay within the system. Our own people came to our rescue.
What is one difference you see in yourself, after you became an entrepreneur?
As a professional, as ironical as it may sound, I worked for myself. It was about learning, upgrading one’s career and garnering experience. As an entrepreneur, it is a very different priority. You’re working for your whole team and their families.
There is a big responsibility to make the right decisions, scale up the business, give good career opportunities to people, and most importantly, pay salaries on time.
We have close to 900 people working at the Group today, and with that comes a whole lot of responsibility.
Q) Take us through your approach to hiring & retaining people
The core leadership team and functional heads take care of spotting people and testing for skills. When I meet prospective colleagues, I ask them very general questions. I like to know about their life, their families and their ambitions. It is important to understand what kind of impact taking a job with us will have on their personal lives.
Post hiring, we impart a lot of training on a regular basis. Over 20 supervisors from our Group have gone on to become Assistant Managers. I believe two or three, from this set of personnel, will go on to become GMs.
Of course, as Atmosphere grows, and we manage more resorts, there will be lots of opportunities for people to grow their careers further. I often proudly say our turnover is less than 3%, an excellent rate within the hospitality industry.
We have several interesting initiatives to keep our people happy; For example, at OZEN, once a week, our colleagues can experience the resort as guests. The staff quarters are well-equipped with various sports facilities, to ensure they have a good life outside of work hours. It is important to think through the details and ensure that these are sustained consistently as core values!