Aman, almost a byword for unhurried, tranquil luxury, has seen a record number of guests in search of solitude-encompassed travel. We get a taste of the Aman experience at Amanbagh in Rajasthan, and talk to Anand Singh Shekhawat, the group’s regional director in India, to get a sense of what’s on the anvil.
Space and privacy. Words that became top priority for a pandemic-dominated world. And perhaps, even remain so in the future. Where the urge to travel has had to be combined with a guarantee of solitude. In this topsy turvy world, Aman, which has always been based on those principles across its 35-odd resorts spread across the world, suddenly saw a record number of visitors – of course, where travel was permitted.
In India, the group has two hotels – Amanbagh with 37 keys, and Aman-i-Khas with 10 tents. For hotels that command some of the highest ARRs (average room rent) in the country, both have seen higher than usual occupancy rates for considerable stretches during the pandemic period. Anand Singh Shekhawat, Regional Director of India, Aman, based in Aman-i-Khas, points to a months-long wait list for the tents at Ranthambhore, while Hemendra Singh, General Manager, Amanbagh has record occupancies to show at the tucked away resort in north-eastern Rajasthan.
A garden for the senses
What makes the group so special that people are willing to shell out considerable amounts for ‘simple’ luxury? I was back in Amanbagh after about a dozen years, and from allocating me the same pool pavilion to knowing my food and service preferences, everything was stored – and revived for my benefit. Yes, the Amans see a lot of repeat guests – most of them self-confessed Amanjunkies whose travel itineraries are often centred around the availability of an Aman resort! And they are remembered – a loyalty quotient that is the envy in global hospitality circles.
A mere few kilometres from Sariska National Park, Amanbagh is a world of its own. Spread over 43 acres nestled in the middle of a valley – it’s hidden from the world outside. Located on a former staging area for hunting by the erstwhile royal family of Alwar, it was transformed into an idyllic getaway by American architect Ed Tuttle, whose work on several Amans around the world saw him focus on local design paradigms. Tuttle designed pale-pink sandstone and marble Mughal hunting lodges set amongst vast green spaces – surrounded by the low rise Aravallis, steeped in tranquillity. A veritable hunting lodge frozen in stone.
The main building, which houses the restaurant, the bar and the boutique on the ground floor and a library and terraces with twin cupolas on the upper layers, fronts a 33-metre-long turquoise (or is it emerald?) pool shimmering as the moving sun encounters it at different angles. Covered pathways, reminiscent of Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri, frame the pool, along with dense verdant hedges – a unique design collaboration by nature and humans. The views – from any perspective are a guaranteed tonic to add a sense of well-being. The spa and the gym round off the other end of the pool.
Stepping inside a pool pavilion – each 2,185 square feet, elicits more awe. Lovely round silver locks give way to a pillared lobby with a view of the private back garden and swimming pool. A huge living room to the right comes with every modern amenity – including excellent wifi and a day bed seemingly designed to take away all worries and aches. Do note the Bangala style roof, again inspired by its use by the Mughals. The en suite bathroom to the left is filled with natural light filtering through the dome and frosted windows, but it’s the bathtub, carved from Udaipur green marble right in the middle, that adds a touch of luxury that remains etched in one’s memory.
One could just traipse through the property all day – did I mention the multiple kitchen gardens which had, when I visited, sumptuous beds of marigold, chilli, zucchini, thyme, mint, rosemary, lemongrass, eggplant, tomato, bottle gourd, cucumber, garlic, basil (Italian, Thai and purple!) … surrounded by trees laden with limes, pomegranates, papayas, guavas and more. Of course, it would be impossible to miss the thousands of date palms. Other edibles come up by season, I was told. Add to that an emerging Ayurveda garden, a veritable plantsman’s delight. There are multiple private dining nooks – from romantic follies to bucolic huts and candlelit courtyards and lawns.
If one does feel tempted to step outside, Amanbagh offers a number of choices. Adjacent to the property is a dam, with a lone chhatri making for a stunning panorama aided by surrounding hills – verdant in the monsoons topped by a cerulean sky above. A lone hill has a mini fortress above. I went for a trail to Somsagar Lake, built in 1598 and enroute for Akbar’s numerous journeys from Agra to Jaipur. Nestled high among the Aravallis, the trek through these ancient hills is calming yet adventurous – possibly oxymoronic at face value but reflecting on just how long they have been around, and the impermanence of life can bring perspective to one’s own!
The cow dust tour at dusk to adjoining village in an open-air Thar, represents the flip side – colourful, clangourous in a medley of meetings – hookah-smoking elders in groups, youth channelling cows home, women in dazzling ghaghras and odhnis – saffron, ochre, scarlet, chrome, salmon pink, cardinal red… birds on wires and treetops noisily strategising for the morrow, an occasional domestic pet chasing them, all amidst visually stunning vistas as the sun journeys beyond the western flank of the surrounding hills.
There are other drives, such as to the now abandoned fortress of Bhangarh, while Sariska’s gates are short drives away. Amanbagh is just a two-hour drive each from Jaipur (the nearest airport) and Alwar, while Delhi is about four and a half hours away. Once you have visited Amanbagh, it’s difficult to get away though.
“For Aman, space and privacy has never been a concern”
For Aman, as with much of the hospitality sector, the pandemic has been a time to readjust, even reassess goals and operation. The brand has traditionally seen a high proportion of inbound tourists, which, with travel restrictions in place, have been replaced by domestic guests with different demands. Anand Singh Shekhawat, Regional Director of India, Aman, explains how the group has reinvented itself, ensured safety and comfort, while maintaining the service and luxury standards it is famed for.
2020 was, of course, a Black Swan year – what are the challenges to recovery from it? To what extent are you expecting recovery to happen this year for the India properties?
Our first priority as a company was to safeguard the safety of our stakeholders – colleagues and investors. Of course, India has shown exceptional numbers and growth during this time. We realised that in the times of Covid, people were looking to go places where there were not too many people. For Aman, space and privacy has never been a concern. For our resorts, 40 is the largest inventory.
Besides ‘Amanjunkies’, Aman has usually depended on international travel. With travel restrictions and greater reliance on domestic travellers, have hotel operations been impacted in any way?
There is definitely a bit of amendment that is required. In India, the domestic travel component went from eight per cent of our total business to 100 per cent. Fortunately for Aman, because our guest-to-staff ratio is very high – 6.5 to 1 at Amanbagh and eight to one at Aman-i-Khas – it allows for a lot of space to be creative and amend yourself. If someone comes from say Gujarat, the chef could make something from the state, so going beyond the menu has I think helped us. Going beyond the menu has helped us.
There was also a push from domestic travellers looking for Aman, that helped us big time, as they were asking for unique, exclusive destinations. At Aman-i-Khas for example, we do not have demand-based pricing where we keep fluctuating rates, and we were sold out. There were months when people were asking when dates were available, and they would travel accordingly. When purpose became strong for travel, Aman got an opportunity to shine.
The luxury guest has been used to a certain, often personalised level of service, as Aman does. In a time of physical distancing, in what ways has that been adapted?
All the hygiene standards, such as UV disinfection, assigning one batman to guests – so interaction is with a single person, antibody test kits, strict protocols for frontline workers who stay at staff accommodation rather than go home, amend ways of working ensuring everyone is safe. We ensured that everyone in our staff was vaccinated.
We understand there is a need with the Indian market. At Amanbagh, we got some TVs put in – a kid who is used to watching a TV, putting the kid off will not make him comfortable. At Aman-i-Khas, we just cannot put in TVs as everyone can hear them! We have had a learning curve. We never focussed on or invested into the Indian market. We want what we have made with the market in India to grow – we wish them to explore Aman beyond India as well. We expect a rise in the Indian ‘Amanjunkies’. Indian Amans were built for a particular reason – to be aloof. However, Amanpuri is very chic and outgoing. We are coming up with an Aman in Bangkok. As our age-group is changing, Aman is adapting pretty quickly.
Are you looking to expand in India?
We are looking and are in late- stage talks with the government. Our focus is UNESCO and cities. If we grow in India, sites like Ajanta, Ellora, certain tiger parks, Hampi, Kaziranga, Leh, are places we are looking at, besides Delhi and Mumbai.
Are there new elements planned for the existing properties as well?
Aman has recently launched Sva, based on Chinese traditional medicine, so we are looking at expanding into traditional medicine. At Amanbagh, we are looking at Ayurveda including sustainably sourced Ayurvedic herbs. We are looking at setting up a manufacturing unit. We will also expand the spa in coming years. This October, we have an advanced yoga retreat, where we are getting experts and hopefully by then international travel will have opened.
Is there a change in the average customer behaviour, and is that something the brand is taking cognisance of?
Of course, very swiftly. Whether it is in design or food or service. You would be surprised that Aman does not have SOPs, which is a general thing. As in a home, we do not have SOPs. The GMs basically drive the properties, such as service concepts. In the last three years, we have come up with food concepts. Earlier it was unit specific. We have a Japanese food concept, Nama, and an Italian food concept, Arva. With two beautiful hotels in Italy, sourcing is not a problem. When we realise that we have mastered an art, it can be amplified and offered at other places as well.
Are the Amans in India going to stock the new apparel collection – ‘The Essentials of Aman’?
Yes. Aman always had boutiques which promoted local art. We launched apparel and fragrance, for which we had seen a huge demand. I ordered for Aman India, and it was sold out.
These are unchartered waters for us as well. However, we had seen a huge demand and came up with a better boutique in Amanpuri. We experimented at one place and realised it has potential and people want souvenirs to take back when they move from Aman. The core is our hotels and service, and these souvenirs are a way for guests to remember when they go back.