The man behind some very successful boutique hotels in prime tourist destinations across India shares the ingredients to developing a destination as a whole and his secret sauce to making heritage appeal to the 21st century traveller.
Dynamic hotelier, instrument for positive change, photographer and film-making enthusiast, MD of the MRS Group, Shekhawat wears many hats and each with élan. He currently owns and operates Suryagarh in Jaisalmer and Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner, runs the Laxmi Niwas Palace on lease, and has taken over operations for the Mary Budden Estate in Binsar, Uttarakhand, since November 2020. An INK Fellow, 2015, and a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Shekhawat is interested in all aspects of hotels and hospitality along with heritage conservation, design, experiential real estate and social entrepreneurship.
In his endeavour to promote cleanliness and bring Jaisalmer the glory it deserves, he launched his NGO – I Love Jaisalmer. From its inception, the organisation has been undertaking mass cleanliness drives at the iconic Jaisalmer Fort, The Gadisagar Lake, Main Markets, and Shri Jawahar District Hospital, along with creating sustainable employment options for women and organising blood donation camps in the region.
His hotels, much like himself, take the path less travelled to cater to the global traveller while providing them bespoke experiences in the lap of luxury. Shekhawat’s work, right from Suryagarh Jaisalmer to Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner, is a representation of a unique way of life with careful preservation of the traditions of the past framed in a modern idiom. He says, “Hotels, for us, are mediums through which we express our fascination for the lands, the people, their extraordinary stories and cultural heritage.”
Suryagarh, surrounded by the Thar Desert in Jaisalmer, probably has the most dramatic location amongst all his hotels. The architecture was inspired by the traditional styles of Jaisalmer. The interiors of Narendra Bhawan are eclectic and very stylish. Laxmi Niwas is as palatial as you can get, with a dining room that oozes oomph and real gold fittings.
Their newest hotel, the Mary Budden Estate in Binsar, is in the middle of fragrant Deodar forests and where you might just catch a glimpse of the local leopards if you’re lucky. Each property is like a polished gem held up to the light to delight you. And in every single one, Shekhawat and his team have curated explorations of the culinary and cultural heritage of the destination as few others have done. There is immense style behind the substance and immense research behind the light-hearted expression of each meal and local tour at all his hitels, be it a sumptuous meal or following the Chudail Trail to catch yourself a ghost at midnight!
Luxury in the hyper local
As someone who understands the underpinnings of hotel luxury today, which has evolved from just gilt and velvet to a more holistic hankering, he explains, “Luxury is what is rare and aspirational. When people go out, they seek travel that has the ability to transform them, to touch them in ways that those stays stay with them.”
Despite being in the foremost tourist destinations of Rajasthan, Shekhawat has always designed his hotels for discerning guests from everywhere, especially India. It could have been easy to slip into a Western tourist-wooing hotelier mode, but he is clear, “When I was setting up my first hotel 12 years ago, I saw an that Israel Tourism had an ad in Mumbai targeting Indians. I thought that I’d be quite stupid not to make a hotel that was for Indians too.”
He elaborates how they adopted a market-forward approach to see what made the most sense for their guests. This approach has brought the MRS Group unmitigated success. Shekhawat says, “India is a huge market from the business point of view, and a well-paying one. I find that when guests come from our larger feeder markets – industrialised and developed towns such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Nagpur, etc – they see a destination in their own country that they have heard about but not seen through this sort of lens, it feels like they have discovered something unexpected. That’s why our hotels are able to get a lot more referral business. Indians are also very resilient travellers and are not so disturbed by travel advisories, etc.”
The path ahead
We ask him about the pandemic and how far-reaching he believes its effects will be on the tourism industry. “The need to get out and explore the world, the need for transformative experiences, given the fragility of life, the emotion of people yearning for travel has only grown. Certainly, domestic tourism is going to bounce back first. Within COVID protocols, people are going to start travelling at the earliest opportunity,” he assesses.
His hotels are also known for the bespoke and beautiful events that have been hosted there. Intimate weddings and celebrations were always a part of their portfolio, and he believes the trend is only going to continue. Here again, it all works through word of mouth rather than vanilla advertising or social media campaigns. Most people who choose to have an event at one the MRS hotels, have stayed at the property earlier or been referred by someone who has.
The group is in a good place and even on the verge of expansion. “We’re in talks with a prominent group to form a new company that will expand its footprint, to start with, in Bhutan and Nepal and a few other destinations in India. We have made a lot of mistakes in the past. Now, the products will be much more refined, the experiences a lot more bespoke. But it’s still under wraps and a few years to go before we disclose the details,” he grins. Shekhawat attributes the success story of MRS hotels to just two main things – a good team and the ability to stick it out because things are not always rosy. He also believes very strongly that collaborations are the only way ahead.
The power of the people
Last year, just when Jaisalmer was reopening post-COVID, Spice Jet suddenly decided to pull out operations, possibly because of low projections. He says, “If you cut off a destination from arrivals by air, then it’s basically a death sentence to tourism. We spoke to Spice Jet to understand the underpinning reasons for taking us off. We understood the potential business from us that they’d expect. We were able to rally all the stakeholders of the tourism industry of Jaisalmer and gave them a commitment that we’d underwrite any losses they’d incur. Within one week of them pulling off the flights, we were able to get them restarted. The flights operated at 80-85 per cent load so everyone was happy. It was a very small initiative but all the stakeholders – travel agents, the local administration, almost anyone who had any interest in tourism in Jaisalmer – coming together was big. We were able to forge a partnership within a week with an airline and take a very large public-scale problem by forming an alliance of local people who wanted to solve it.”
According to him, this is just one small example of how stakeholders, government policies, and infrastructure can gear up a state towards a much more cohesive approach to attract tourism. “There are compelling case studies within India. How in Kerala all the stakeholders from the tourism industry came together with the government to promote the state as one. It’s a very good case study to learn from and I don’t see why it can’t be done pan-India. More specifically, given our context today, we are competing for the same limited time of the people,” he says.
Shekhawat adds, “In destinations all over the world, be it the Maldives or Greece, all the stakeholders are coming together with one voice to promote their places and the experience of the guest is backward integrated. For example, I may be running a great hotel but if the experience of the guest at the airport is not good, the guest is not going to come to Jaisalmer again. Even if the airport is good but there are no flights, not enough or affordable flights, it won’t work. Similarly, if the flights come but if the visa is expensive or gets stuck in bureaucratic hurdles, that’s another thing that will impact the traveller’s impression of the destination. How safe a destination is, how well laid out, how efficient the infrastructure is, these are all touch points that combine in a cohesive way to define a travel experience and for that, if all the stakeholders don’t come together, it’s a losing battle.”
That’s perhaps why his NGO I Love Jaisalmer organises cleanliness drives and other projects to strengthen the overall systems of Jaisalmer so that it benefits everyone, including the tourism sector. Like Shekhawat says, “When you go out into the world with an intention and a lot of people find resonance with that intention and you are able to use technology to crowd pool that intent and resources, it’s amazing the kind of stuff you can pull off!”
With a lot of worthy projects up his sleeves – restoration of some gorgeous heritage properties, work on creating an empowered sustainable community, and more – Shekhawat, the savvy social entrepreneur, is a man to keep an eye on.