The Smart CEO Questionnaire: Ashok Khanna, Founder, Ananda Spa, perhaps, India’s best holistic wellness destination

The Smart CEO Questionnaire is a series of questions aimed at helping our readers understand the thought process of an entrepreneur or CEO, their areas of passion and the finer nuances of his or her management style. For example, we try to understand what a leader does in week-one of launching a new venture; or, a question he/she asks in all hiring interviews; Or, even, how the leader tackled a really difficult challenge.

In this edition of The Smart CEO Questionnaire, we feature Ashok Khanna, the founder of Ananda Spa, one of India’s best holistic wellness destinations rooted in Indian philosophies and vedic principles. Ananda Spa, of course, gets guests from around the world, who come to the Himalayas to experience holistic healing. Ananda’s Ayurvedic physicians, its yoga teachers, hand-crafted organic cuisine personalized for each guest, and of course, the location on the Ganges, brings the place alive.

We convinced Khanna to give us a first account of how he nurtured Brand Ananda from Day-1, how he selected the location, the spa’s philosophies and many such questions. Edited Excerpts:

What are you extremely passionate about today? What is the Grand Vision for Ananda Spa, say, 10 years from now?

My passion is decoding holistic wellness and making it accessible to people. Most people take health and wellness to be physical in nature, but it isn’t just that. Mental health is also very important as well. That’s why I promote holistic wellness, personally and professionally.

Our grand vision for Ananda is to perfect our guest experience, develop and enhance our wellness programmes and cuisine and constantly improve staff training and welfare. 

We want to concentrate and put all our energies on Brand Ananda. Our product is presently being upgraded and all our rooms have been completely renovated.  We are constantly expanding Ananda’s reach to new markets and introducing the benefits of the holistic healing approach.

Ananda Spa launched operations in 2001. Please take me through what happened behind the scenes from Idea to Launch.

I was working with the Oberoi Hotels in the 1980’s, I realized the requirement for a Destination Spa, albeit under an umbrella of luxury.  Stress levels in India had increased tremendously since the IT revolution.  Young people were very stressed and there was a sudden increase in work-related stress, which was a new, yet emerging problem in India, and a known problem abroad. I felt, that people needed a place for calming the mind and rejuvenating the body.

I then travelled extensively to different destination spas all over the world, and came to the conclusion that for wellness, our Indian philosophies and treatments were far superior to what was available elsewhere. 

I made a decision to launch something new, and left the Oberoi Hotels to travel all over India to find a suitable destination.  I wanted a location where the climate was good throughout the year, that is easily accessible from an airport and surrounded by nature. I was getting frustrated not being able to find the perfect location when my father asked me to visit The Tehri Garhwal Palace at Narendranagar.  He knew that I was also looking for a location near the Ganges, near Rishikesh.  I visited the Palace at Narendranagar during the monsoons and the entire place was enveloped in clouds.  On entering the compound of the Palace, I got very good vibes and decided that this was the location for my Destination Spa. After reaching an agreement with the Maharaja, it took me 4 years to plan and build Ananda.

I visited many Ashrams, consulted many Swami’s and finally decided to base the wellness philosophies on Yoga, Ayurveda, Vedanta, along with international treatments and physical fitness programmes.

Unlike other Destination Spas who rely more on pampering, Ananda’s wellness programmes are constructed to be result-oriented, which is why our repeat business is high.

The Ananda Philosophy revolves around offering holistic wellness for the mind body and soul. How has this philosophy evolved over the last decade and half, in terms of translating into customer experience?    

Yes, our wellness programmes are constantly being worked on and have changed a lot in the last decade. The impetus is always to be authentic in what we do, offering nothing but the best we can to our guests. Our programmes have been designed by experts after years of research, and their improvement is constant, basis the feedback we receive from our guests. The best part about these programmes is that they are customized to suit each and every guest that comes in, and aims to help the guest achieve his/her health goals.

We start with a consultation that helps the Ayurvedic Physician understand the body type of the individual, taking into account one’s physical, mental and emotional characteristics, and current health conditions. The Ayurvedic therapies are then customized to suit the person, e.g. specific therapies and body oils are used for specific body types etc. Similarly, we have a Yoga consultation, a Fitness consultation and a Chef’s Consultation.

In yoga we do traditional Hatha yoga and meditation based on Raja yoga, which is based on the principles of the acclaimed Bihar school of yoga. Our current Head of yoga and almost all our teachers at Ananda are from the Bihar school of yoga.

Cuisine is another important part of the Ananda offering. The gourmet Ayurvedic cuisine at Ananda is organic, freshly sourced and devoid of anything artificial. Each person has to eat as per his/her dosha, as per their allergies and preferences. At one time the kitchen may need to handle 20 – 30 different menus.

We also have experienced Physiotherapy Doctors with specialized equipment. 

Most of our guests come with minor spondylitis, back problems, sports injuries, frozen shoulders, and other bone and muscle ailments, & excess usage of computer/digital device and related injuries, which we treat whilst they are undergoing their wellness programmes at Ananda.

We have highly experienced Gym instructors who assist in a variety of physical education and rehabilitation programmes at the Gymnasium.  Many of these are a part of the wellness programmes that a guest selects when he/she decides to come to Ananda.  

We also understand the importance of having leisure activities around as well, and hence offer weekly treks to ancient temples uphill, visit to Rishikesh for the evening Aarti, options of doing rafting, jungle safaris etc.   

I know this is a long time back, but as soon as you made the decision to launch Ananda Spa, what were the different work tasks you took on in week 1?

 Once Ananda was built, we wanted it to be experienced by experts, opinion makers, spa connoisseurs and wellness enthusiasts.  We reached out to such people we knew, and to editors of all international publications and media houses to visit and experience our version of bliss, and present their own individual experiences of the sustained benefits.

The people bring any hospitality destination alive. Who are your key people? What do you look for while hiring? What is that 1 question you ask in every hiring interview?

We try and hire people afresh who have had no work experience before.  This is so that we do not have to un-train and then train them to our philosophy & techniques.  Because we try and hire raw talent, our training costs are much higher than other hospitality ventures.  We bear this additional cost because we believe that our staff is our backbone and whatever is required for this training and development must be done. While hiring, we pay the maximum attention to attitude of the interviewee.  

Take me through a conversation you’ve had that has tremendously influenced you.

Swami Parthasarthy’s teachings on Vedanta and the use of these traditional vedic philosophies to enrich one’s life has been a huge inspiration. After deep conversations with him, I invited the Vedanta Academy to lead Vedanta sessions at Ananda, and this has been an ongoing and important part of the Ananda philosophies and offerings.

From a founder’s perspective, what are the many different aspects that bring Ananda alive?

 Ananda is brought alive by the experience. Right from the entrance to the palace, to the welcome by the staff, the consultation, the therapies and yoga, learning that healthy food isn’t just about bland lentils and raw food, introspecting with the Vedanta lectures, altogether makes a stay here unforgettable. The location, the majestic hills, the conversations with nature, it just all comes together at Ananda.

And the service of the staff is what binds it all together. What we do at Ananda is all about authenticity. We take great pains to ensure what we do is true to tradition, but offer it in a cocoon of luxury which makes the stay pleasant and not too over-powering.

Nature helps people heal and it’s our sincere effort to help people heal as well. The design of the programmes, the customization, the follow-ups, the fact that guests are encouraged to stay in touch with the experts post their stay as well, is all that makes Ananda what it is.

How would like to scale up Brand Ananda?

We have been blessed with the response that the brand gets year on year. People from over 70 countries come to Ananda every year, and we are constantly expanding our global footprint to reach out to more and more people and geographies.

We also have several important extensions of the brand. Firstly, our Spa product range, made from natural products and essential oils, paraben free. This is easily available online for everyone to purchase.

It’s important to reach out to people with offerings in context of the times we live in. We also have a recipe app: Ananda Healthy Cuisine which has a range of gourmet recipes, as per body type, for people to refer to and make healthy food at home.

We are also looking at new projects and locations for future destination spas, but this is something that cannot be hurried. The location and environment has a huge impact on something like this and we are cautious of not forcing things, but letting nature take its course & guide us towards the right decisions

 A typical day in your professional life…

Though it’s hard to pin point on something like this, I look into the wellness philosophy and some operational running of the hotel, as well as the commercial and financial aspects on a regular basis. I read and explore a lot on the current wellness trends, what is ailing people, what are they doing to stay healthy etc. I also meet a lot of people for this research.

Take me through a challenging situation you’ve tackled. Is there a typical game plan you follow for dealing with difficult challenges/problems?

A big problem that we faced almost a decade ago was that after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Foreign guests were hesitant to travel to India and this was causing a business slump in the Indian hotel industry.

We had to face this head on and look for results. Rather than follow a defensive strategy and cut back, we actually invested more on expanding our wellness expertise and brand building. We reached out to our past guests and were blessed to have such loyal patrons who not only returned to Ananda soon after, but referred us to all their friends and family. Our partner organizations worked round the clock to increase awareness and engagement and we emerged ever stronger from this period. I always maintain that a challenging situation should always be dealt with patience and a calm mind.

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