How Kapil Chopra is rewriting the rules of luxury hospitality
Image: Elmer S. D’SouzaWe’re settled into the plush lobby-café of a sprawling South Mumbai hotel when our hostess greets us. Kapil Chopra, former president of the Oberoi Group and now founder of the new The Postcard Hotel chain, is spiffily dressed in business formals, but smiles often and broadly during conversations with those around—me, the hostess, his team that’s polishing off some business at the next table and an old colleague he spots from afar. He orders an Americano, “very hot, please, almost boiling”, and I ask for green tea. The hostess helps me with a list of options, and when I select mint, she smilingly probes, “fresh or peppermint?”
I settle on fresh mint, and Chopra, who is also a contemporary art collector, has made a mental note. An hour later, towards the end of our conversation, he brings this up again. “You see, that’s what you call great service. I’m a spotter for talent. Can this young lady run a hotel on her own? Of course. But in a traditional hierarchy, she’ll first be promoted to supervisor, then assistant manager, then manager, and so on. People’s potentials are being caged,” he says. Along with disrupting the guest and product experience, adds Chopra, The Postcard Hotel wants to disrupt the employee experience too.
“All our managers are young. They’re hungry and eager to please. If you have robust systems, you make sure they don’t make mistakes,” he says. As if on cue, our hostess is back to clear the empty cups. “We were just talking about how talented you are,” he says to her. “Thank you,” she says shyly. And then, more confidently, “Thank you, Mr Chopra.”
Image: Madhu Kapparath
Chopra is surprised, and assumes she’s checked his name in the hotel records. “No, sir, you’re famous around here,” she says.
He gives her an embarrassed half-nod and smiles his thanks in acknowledgement. Then he turns to me and dives right back into the conversation as if this never happened.
When The Postcard Hotel announced its sudden debut in December—with no teasers or pre-launch buzz—its existence came with a bang. On Day 1, three hotels had opened at once, all in Goa, and all with starkly different characteristics. These are three of 50 hotels that Chopra plans to open within five years, an ambitious target.
All three hotels are named after the quaint Goan villages that they are located in. The Postcard Moira is a nine-room hotel built on a restored 214-year-old ancestral home; The Postcard Velha is eight rooms at a modernist colonial property on a two-acre Champakali estate; and The Postcard Cuelim is another eight-room hotel, overlooking 3,500 acres of paddy fields and housing a 350-year-old chapel. The Postcard has one more hotel coming up in the south of Goa, along with properties in Mangaluru, Uttarakhand, at the Dauladhar Mountain Range, in the Sunderbans, Ranthambore, Kaziranga, Andaman and Nicobar, Kanha and more.
“Goa has 334 villages, 12 municipalities and five towns. Everybody treated Goa as one party and rave destination. Goa, for me, is the next Bali. It’s a great confluence of architecture, design, cuisine, music, history,” he says. “When people ask me, how many hotels can you open in Goa, I say 334. And they’ll all be different.”
The idea behind the brand is to create super-luxury, intimate hotels, which bring back the romance of destination-inspired travel. Before The Postcard entered the market, the most expensive Goa hotel was The W, at an average room rate of ₹15,000. The Postcard, a homegrown and decidedly small brand, has audaciously priced itself with an average room rate of ₹19,000 in Goa, betting on its experiential offerings and defined distinguishing factors: No stipulated check-in and check-out timings; no buffet meals; alcoholic welcome drinks; no minibar; and emphatically, Chopra points out, no croissants.
Image: Elmer S. D’Souza
“I have nothing against croissants,” he smiles. “But India has more than 28 key bread varieties, defined and popular. In Goa, we do the poi. In Mangaluru, we do the Mangalore bun. In Gujarat, we’ll do a khakhra. Which Indian home wakes up in the morning to have a croissant? We want to build a sustainable brand, and much of this will come from enhancing each destination’s local ethos. Why do we call it brie and camembert, and not French cheese? Why can’t all wine be labelled red and white? Let’s celebrate our regional diversity like the French do.”
Let’s consider these disruptive measures, both big and small. To start with, Chopra’s Goa hotels could greet you with locally inspired triple distilled feni margarita, or, if you prefer the teetotaller version, a kokum sherbet. “You’re on holiday, you don’t want to start it with apple juice,” he laughs.
Most guests use their minibars for just tea and coffee, says Chopra’s research, mainly because it is free and convenient. “So we did away with the minibar altogether,” he says. “Instead, we have a nice card in the room that says we will give you freshly brewed tea or coffee anywhere in the hotel and at any time, with our compliments.”
Next, no buffet spreads, largely unheard of for a luxury hotel chain. This is connected to the other revolutionary idea, of no stipulated breakfast hours. “You’re on holiday. You want to saunter out of bed at 1 pm, I’ll give you breakfast even at 2 pm,” he says. “This means that my lunch sales might suffer, but I tell my team not to look at it as wasted sale. Look at it as customer engagement. Whenever you have guests who turn up at 2 pm and ask for breakfast, you know you have engaged with them successfully. On the other hand, it allows us to cook you fresh, artisanal meals, which are not only sustainable, but also much cheaper for us.”
And finally, no check-in and check-out timings. Usually, hotels demand that guests check out before noon, and allow them to check in only after 2 pm. “This means you’ve wasted half the day,” says Chopra.
The upper hand here comes from Chopra’s early vision, of building their own technology platform. Chopra also serves as chairman of the board at EazyDiner, an online restaurant bookings and rewards platform, which gave him a fair idea into how far you can push the envelope with custom technology, while other hotel chains usually buy their platforms and make minor customisations.
“Hotels will be a $13 billion market by 2020; 30 percent of that will be online,” he says. “Everyone’s approached it the other way around. They first build hotels and think it’s enough to have a website. But I think brands need to be built digitally first. So with my own technology stack, I can personalise the back-end and give direct feeds to the website. From this winter, you’ll be able to see that, say, on June 17, late check-in is available, or on June 18, anytime check-out is okay.”
This works in multiple ways. First, when you book your hotel room, you will be asked if you need airport transfers. If you do, the hotel now knows what time you will be flying in and out, and update its schedule accordingly. If they don’t already know by the time you arrive at the property, the staff could ask you subtly if you will be joining them for a special dinner the next day, for instance. If you respond with saying you will be flying out before that, they will take note of what time you intend to leave, and other incoming guests will be given time leeway accordingly.
“We find that out in quiet ways, without inconveniencing you,” he adds. “If, as a high-end consumer, time is the highest luxury you have, then I need to take care of that.”
A sustainable hotel of the future, says Chopra, has to have a low time and cost of construction, and high time of use. It has to be low maintenance. “How do I do that? It’s simple,” he says, gesturing to the sprawling lobby around us. “What you see here is Italian marble, which is expensive to maintain. It costs about ₹6 per sq ft to maintain, ₹350 on cost and ₹150 to install. So we said why not use the Kadappa stone, which is ₹30 per sq ft in cost and local to the area.Nature created Kadappa to be black and not easily spoil, because nature knew that there’s high humidity here in Goa.”
In similar vein, The Postcard Hotel has partnered with local Goan housewives for its F&B offerings, and hopes to expand this concept to other destinations. “You’re not in Goa to eat pasta. You want a real Goan fish curry,” says Chopra.
These Goan housewives can indulge you in a cooking session too, as part of the hotel’s focus on experiences. The Mangaluru hotel is located “zero kilometres” from Trasi beach, which Chopra claims no other hotel can manage because it’s a CRZ violation. “But we bought a pre-1991 hotel, demolished and built it up again.” This property was meant to be the first of The Postcard Hotel to open, but ran into litigation because of possible said violations. Chopra fought the case in the Supreme Court and won, and construction has begun.
“There, we offer an experience that will take guests out at 3 am into the sea,” he says. “You may have watched a sunrise from the beach, but never from the middle of the ocean. That will stay with you. If you fish in those waters, and have that fish for lunch, that’ll stay with you. That, for me, is transformative travel. It gets the highest amount of distinction, and the highest amount of premium.”
From the outset, Chopra knew he had to build a profitable hotel brand. “So we started with places that guarantee that,” he says. “Mountains get a 32 percent premium; beach resorts, a 41 percent. In Kaziranga, a good non-AC resort is ₹15,000. Land is relatively cheap here compared to cities, as is your payroll. It isn’t rocket science,” he says.
Hotel chains in India are rarely profitable, and the challenge—complete with legal and licensing hurdles, flip-flopping government policies and an underdeveloped tourism infrastructure system—is large. The Postcard Hotel has decided on a niche market, but this positions it to compete not only against giants like the Taj and Oberoi, but also experience-oriented players such as Airbnb.
“We’re not cheap,” admits Chopra. “In fact, we’re more expensive than any of the others. But we love competition, as it creates a market. I love what Airbnb is doing, and if they weren’t around, it would be hard for me to convince people to choose transformative travel. There’s a market for us both, and the advantage we offer in India—where Airbnb can’t often guarantee good electricity and water supply—is superlative service. We think that once you get used to our experience, you’ll keep coming back.”
According to Chopra, the larger hurdle is not competition, but unfavourable government regulation. The Mangaluru resort case is one example. “At a central level, if we’re really serious about our tourism, we need to make sure that tourism sites are clearly marked and incentivised. It will create jobs too. Even today, 10 percent of our GDP is through tourism or tourism-related activity—this could easily become 15 to 20 percent. All we need are some policy changes on land titles, tourism zones and so on. If those can be solved, I could do 500 hotels instead of 50.”
As part of its marketing plan, Postcard has partnered with multiple credit card companies to get the initial word out, along with some first-time offers and giving out vouchers to select guests. Additionally, if you’ve stayed at a Goa property, for instance, you may receive a voucher at the end of your trip. “Suppose that voucher is ₹5,000. When I open in Mangaluru, I’ll send you a message saying that amount has been doubled to ₹10,000 should you be travelling to Mangaluru. I’m playing with you directly, so my distribution costs are a lot lower. My rates are higher, so I’m more profitable.”
When Chopra first announced The Postcard Hotel brand last December, he had raised funds through a real estate investment trust based in Mauritius, and from foreign fund Small Ventures. He had said he that was not interested in an asset-light model. “But things have changed since,” he admits. “I never wanted to do asset light, but since we are among the only players who do super-luxury hotels in the under-50 room category, we have had a lot of global interest from owners. Now, if the property is iconic enough, has a great story to tell and makes good business sense, we will sign a management contract.”
Image: Elmer S. D’Souza
Some such properties Chopra could launch in the future include one among a famed tea estate in Darjeeling, or on a 2,800-acre site in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which could lend itself to expansive private beach villas.
With this approach, Chopra says his next announcement may well be international. “It’s so dynamic. But I think you’re likely to hear from us in Sri Lanka before anywhere else now—we like when others have gone away—and we will be in France’s wine region before any other Indian hotel is,” he says. “I’ve built this as a global brand from the word go. I’d love to be in Scotland’s castles, or in Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia. I’m offering Indian travellers a familiar brand, they are likely to arrive with a 100-euro voucher already, and I have only 25 rooms to fill.”
Chopra says he doesn’t need additional funding at the moment. “There’s been a lot of interest, so it wouldn’t be an issue if we need it. However, the great thing about India today is that intellectual capital is valued more than legacy capital. If you have a great business plan and proven track record of running a business, then capital is not a constraining factor.” Chopra has been known for bringing some of Oberoi Group’s highest ever returns during his tenure.
“Kapil Chopra’s great skill is that he combines first-rate operations with a unique understanding of the market—he has worked out what kind of luxury appeals to an emerging demographic, and created a product that disrupts existing concepts of luxury. It’s almost bespoke in its approach,” says Vir Sanghvi, noted journalist and hospitality expert, and also the lead food critic at EazyDiner. “Many people can run good hotels. Very few can change the entire paradigm. Kapil is that once-in-a- generation hotelier who can do both.”