Imagine being able to go back in time and live in the opulent past, for just a day. Unfortunately, time machines are a thing of the movies, but vacationing at restored ruins and heritage properties can take one close enough. For historian Aman Nath and art connoiseur Francis Wacziarg, founders of Neemrana Hotels (Neemrana), being in hospitality is just a means to a greater end – restoring India’s historic ruins. The duo first met while co-authoring a book on the frescos from Marwari havelis of Shekhavati and it was on this project that they sighted one such haveli in Haryana. The year was 1977, long before the entrepreneurial bug had bitten India, but instead of allowing the opportunity to go to waste, they set about restoring the haveli and in the process was born, Neemrana ‘non-hotel’ Hotels. “For us the entry was from the ‘heritage’ aspect, not ‘hotels’. We then had the idea that heritage buildings could be saved in the future only by making them viable and self-sustaining. The scale of the restoration of Neemrana Fort-Palace was awe inspiring, consuming both time and money and this led itself quite naturally towards hospitality,” explains Nath while adding that the tag, ‘non-hotel’, arose from the fact that none of restored properties were built originally to serve as hotels. Since both founders were not architects or hoteliers by profession, their first restoration served as a learning platform which allowed them to visualise how else they could turn waste into assets. Today, with over 25 properties in nine states in India, the chain specialises in creating destinations – be it Neemrana in Alwar, Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu, or Morvi in Gujarat.
“We do not follow any pre-set rules of management – we have made our own,” asserts Nath. Stepping away from the norm, Nath and his team have ensured that a guest at a Neemrana property takes back an ‘experience’. “Common hospitality practices like room service or television in individual rooms are usually avoided except in city hotels where business travellers come. Similarly, stereotypical receptions of guests are shunned. You will never be greeted with a tilak and a garland on arrival,” says Nath. Instead of expecting the ordinary, Nath urges guests to discover India in all her magnificence through the chain’s properties and their surrounding environs. Neemrana does its bit in showcasing the country’s art and culture. There are weekly performances entailing Indian and western classical dance, musical performances and theatre by renowned and local artists. “Tourists get the opportunity to learn about Indian heritage and to interact with both maestros in the arts and the local artistes from the neighbouring villages. This exchange and flow of cultures engenders respect between tourists and host communities,” elaborates Nath. The underlying philosophy is this – guests should not be superficial tourists and they must return as informer travellers.
“If we fall in love with an old heritage property – be it a villa, a colonial home, a haveli, or a royal palace – we try and Neemranify it. The planning and analysing come later- it is a retrofit!”
So, how does the company identify properties to bring back to life? “Since we have built a reputation to transform liabilities to assets-on an average- we get three to four proposals a week. Even our guests contribute as they think it a good idea to inform their circle of how their ancestral property can be turned around,” shares Nath. He goes on to say that this allows the company a wide range to choose from and a choice is made based on several parameters- the location, the charm and how pocket-friendly the option is. Strategic thinking is kept to a minimum as Nath says, “If we fall in love with an old heritage property – be it a villa, a colonial home, a haveli, or a royal palace – we try and Neemranify it. The planning and analysing come later- it is a retrofit!” However, not every operation can be based on impulse and Nath says that common sense prevails on whether a project is viable.
Not without a challenge
As is the case with every noble idea, execution can prove to be more than challenging. “There are many challenges in setting up a remote restoration and reconstruction site without proper access or water,” says Nath. For Neemrana, there has also been a battle of perception as villagers surrounding its properties would often view it as ‘the curious case of a ruin restoration’. As Nath narrates, “We are often strangers in the villages that surround the properties and their Bollywood imagination occasionally makes them imagine that only a smuggler could have bought such a mad ruin to conduct some underhand activity.” But, in time, the villagers could see that the properties were a means for them to generate an income.
Another significant challenge was that of finding labour. “Finding masons who worked in lime and mortar to raise such high stone walls from 1464 CE, specifically for Neemrana Fort-Palace, was particularly hard. Well, even getting such a high scaffolding was not easy. But, it is a huge tribute to our masons and labourers that they find inventive ways to achieve what would otherwise have cost a fortune. No construction company could have given us 12 rooms to start the place with just Rs. 30 lakh,” he says. Since then, it has taken 20 more years of continuous re-investing and close involvement in all aspects of construction, design, and interiors to get Neemrana to where it is today.
Beyond the bottom-line
Unlike its contemporaries in the hospitality industry, Neemrana’s priority goes beyond its bottom-line. This is not to say that money does not matter as Nath says, “Till date, the company has not taken a single loan from a bank or an individual beyond ourselves and as we do everything with our own funding, it has to be self sustaining.” Wherever possible, the company keeps initial costs low to contribute to the self-sustainability of its ventures. Today, Neemrana has annual revenues of close to Rs. 30 crore and Nath expresses excitement about reaching this figure as it will allow the company to take on even more difficult restoration projects across India.
A key aspect to Neemrana’s operations is its inclusive approach, an attempt to make India’s bottom-line ‘richer’. “Through the restoration process we have been able to encourage rural-urban integration as it keeps the rural people in their settings and the urban lot go out to taste another life,” says Nath.
Even when it comes to hiring, the company prefers to go local, bringing on board the talent of that region. “We shy away from commercially trained hotel people,” states Nath. Instead, Neemrana prefers to encourage ambition amongst its ranks – “There are examples of employees who joined us in the restoration team and later became stewards, who eventually climbed their way up to be managers and are now over-seeing the daily operations of our smaller properties,” says Nath. As for training, again, there is no particular methodology that is used. As part of its endeavours for the future, Neemrana is working with the Indian Tourism Development Corporation to conceptualise a vocational training institute that can empower disadvantaged people.
Usually, when companies cite ‘word-of-mouth’ as their advertising tool, it indicates a lack of funds to do anything further. With Neemrana, this statement is believable as it just lets its properties do the talking. The only improvement to its communication initiatives has been the revamping of its website to allow prospective guests a more comprehensive understanding of what is in store. While some might view this low-key approach as too ‘laid-back’, it is one that is in keeping with the company’s working philosophy. Nath suggests that even planning for growth is not a structured activity at the company. “Our growth is organic and propelled as much by our constant self-goading as by the pushing of others. We are not fixed to any number or plan that propels us, beyond what is comfortable as a challenge and possible for our clockwork.” Speaking of Neemrana’s future plans, Nath talks of its latest concept – ‘Neemrana Noble Homes’ where one can lease a home in a scenic location to enjoy the ‘living’ experience without having to own a property. And Nath shares that the first two ‘homes’ – ‘Ishavilas’ in Siolim, Goa and ‘Ganga-Ho’ in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, are ready for occupation. “In addition to the above two properties, Neemrana will be launching Tijara Fort-Palace near Alwar, Rajasthan; Deo-Bagh in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh; and Diwan’s Bungalow in Ahmedabad, Gujarat by the end of 2011,” says Nath.
As a business, Neemrana has proved that making money need not be the nucleus of all activities. Where there is soul, an idea can thrive and be robust, for there are several people who find joy in its success. And money is just a part of the deal.
The Neemrana way
At Neemrana ‘non hotel’ Hotels, expecting the ‘usual’ would be a folly. No fancy, no frills, one would think a stay here would not amount to much of a vacation, but this is where Neemrana delivers – a vacation at one of its properties allows guests to embrace beauty through art, culture and nature – ways of life, long forgotten. Through its endeavors, Neemrana has not so much raised the bar of Indian hospitality, but has worked concertedly towards creating another niche whereby the experiencing of history and its architectural treasures has now become a part of the Indian tourism repertoire.