Anuraag Bhatnagar: ‘The core of the Leela brand was very strong always, whether it came to product, programming or service’

International recognition, new property openings, harnessing artificial intelligence and data analytics to enhance guest experience, and a host of initiatives to increase engagement with customers – Anuraag Bhatnagar, COO, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, offers a sneak peek into their plans. The hotel group has been voted World’s No 1 Hotel Brand in 2021, the second year in a row.

With the Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts being voted World’s No 1 Hotel Brand in 2021, the second year in a row, by the readers of Travel & Leisure USA, the brand is certainly on a roll. We caught up with Chief Operating Officer, Anuraag Bhatnagar, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, to find out how they accomplished this commendable achievement and what we can expect in the coming months. 

According to him, there is no real secret sauce for The Leela Group’s success. He puts it down to a combination of many factors, “Some superlative assets that we are privileged to own and manage. Our talented associates and the mojo and spirit and energy that they bring to their jobs every day. And, of course, our frequent guests, who despite corona and all the implications, continue to utilise our hotels in all our locations.” Bhatnagar adds, “Guests were very encouraged to see the initiatives we’ve taken in terms of protecting our asset quality, maintaining the DNA of our service, and, most importantly, taking care of our associates during difficult times. I think it’s a combination of all of this, which has translated into the readers’ acknowledgement to bestow this recognition upon us two years in a row.”

He shares that a lot has happened in the last 18-20 months. “The core of The Leela brand was very strong always, whether it came to product, or the programming or the service. We have absolute quality of assets like the Leela Palace hotels.  In every city, we are probably and arguably one of the best architectural buildings, with world-class quality and authenticity in terms of art and offerings and programming. We also have absolutely world-class talent. What we have been able to do, powered by Brookfield (the Canada-based private equity firm Brookfield Asset Management which acquired some assets owned by Hotel Leelaventure in one of India’s largest hotel deals worth nearly ₹4,000 crores in 2019) is that we have been able to bring in technology, marketing initiatives, hiring very accomplished talent across positions, especially at the corporate level to ensure that the best of global processes, strategy, activations, promotions, and technology can be brought into play.”

Tech talk

The Leela’s new website has just gone live and has been rated highly in terms of both, user experience and technology, which is powered by artificial intelligence and the best of data analytics. They have also introduced a new customer-facing CRM system. And engaged in a one-on-one connect with guests using WhatsApp Business as a medium. They are currently evaluating technology initiatives that will go beyond just support but ensure that they can be used as an enabler, adding value to the guest experience and associates experience.

Value adds

“We are launching palace services such as our unique butler services programme, which will take it to a higher level of personalisation. And then we will have ceremonial rituals which celebrate true Indian luxury and the authenticity of the Leela as an Indian brand. Everything we do at the Leela has to be a representation of true Indian luxury, so we use elements that are not just organic but homegrown. We make sure we bring them to our customers in a sophisticated way,” Bhatnagar shares. Some plans that are as yet in the incubation and ideation stage, are to plant the Leela flag in Indian destinations that are currently under-visited but which can offer great experiences, in a curated Leela-like format.

Talent appreciation

From pride pins to demonstrate affiliation to all associates, to new outfits and uniforms, to 100 per cent vaccinations for everyone in the group, he emphasises that they believe in walking the talk when it comes to their team, from whom they derive the energy. They also ensured that roles and jobs in The Leela during these challenging times were not impacted.

Project sustainability

Among other initiatives, their latest is the setting up of bottling plants for their Elixir water programme.

F&B focus

Superlative master chefs head the kitchens of restaurants such as jamavar.
Superlative master chefs head the kitchens of restaurants such as Jamavar. Image: Courtesy The Leela Palace New Delhi.

He explains how they realised they had a lot of talent waiting to be capitalised upon. “Superlative quality master chefs, be it in the kitchens of Jamavar, or Megu, Le Cirque and others, our F&B offerings were Michelin class. It was time we brought them to the table,” Bhatnagar points out.

All these talking points have enabled them to acquire new guests and delight regulars. “The agility is a new introduction which has enabled us to reach a slightly higher orbit when it comes to visibility, brand offerings and brand expression being brought out more,” he says.

Coming up next

There’s a lot more to come in the next 18 months, Bhatnagar promises. He shares the timeline: “Two hotels we have already opened this year. In March, we opened the beautiful Leela Palace in Jaipur, which has taken off really well. The second opening of this year happened last week in Gandhinagar. It’s an amazing hotel with 318 rooms and accompanied by the Mahatma Mandir convention space, one of India’s largest convention halls. This is a prestige project for us, a marquee hotel, which is going to be a world destination, as that’s going to be the address where all international conventions which are India-bound will happen. The third opening of the year is happening in Bengaluru a month from now. These three big openings, with almost 800 keys being opened in a span of fewer than eight months, has kept us busy, but we are already working on a loyalty and affinity programme to recognise and reward our repeat and regular guests, which will be launched in Q4 of this year.”

A new thrust on wellness will see the launch of Vitality by Leela in Q4 of 2021 too. It will encompass all the pillars of wellness – mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. “These will be brand programmes, keeping our guests at the centre of all these initiatives. So, they continue to recognise the Leela not just as an owner and operator of such luxurious palaces but also a provider of service from the soul,” Bhatnagar sums up.

Read more.

The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts voted World’s No 1 Hotel Brand second year in a row

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