In 1988, when Priya Paul returned to India armed with an undergrad degree from Wellesley in the U.S.—she would eventually be the first woman in her clan to work in the family business—her homecoming was anything but easy.
A year after she joined Apeejay Surrendra Group, the closely held family conglomerate, as marketing manager of the Park Hotel in Delhi, Paul lost her teenage brother in a car crash. Nine months later her father, Surrendra Paul, the 54-year-old group chairman, was killed by militants while he was touring the family’s tea estates in eastern India.
“It was a very traumatic time, fraught with grief and pain. Our group was practically written off,” recalls Paul, the eldest of four siblings, who suddenly found herself in charge of three hotels at the age of 24. Her mother took over as group chairman, while her younger sister was dispatched to London to oversee the shipping interests. (A younger brother was still a sophomore at Brown University.)
In the two decades since, Paul has put those misfortunes behind her and proved the skeptics wrong. Today the Park is a well-entrenched brand in India’s fast-expanding hospitality sector. With a dozen boutique hotels in its fold and over 1,400 rooms, the company is holding its own against much bigger homegrown names such as the Oberoi and Tata’s Taj chains as well as a host of international hotel operators.
The Park gets its competitive edge from its niche as a collection of funky “designer” hotels where the yuppie crowd likes to hang out. No two Park hotels are alike, a quality that makes them stand out in an industry that makes a virtue of standardization. Both front-office and back-office staff wear clothes designed by some of India’s top designers, and every hotel has its own uniforms. “Ours aren’t cookie-cutter hotels. Our mantra is ‘leadership by differentiation’; each of our properties has its own design and style,” says Paul.
For example, the 214-room Park in Chennai, which is built on a former film studio lot, has old cinema posters in each room and a lobby that has the look and feel of a theater. “There’s a bit of Priya in every Park hotel. They reflect her interests and passions, and that’s what makes them so full of character,” says Arjun Sharma, chief executive of Le Passage to India, a tour operator and longtime customer.
As for her own work style, Paul prefers to operate from the cozy ambience of her home office in central Delhi with its carefully assembled collection of artwork and sculpture. The arrangement allows Paul, a hands-on mother, to keep an eye on her 7-year-old son between business meetings.
Paul is equally a hands-on hotelier. While she’s worked with top-rung international architects and designers, she acknowledges that her hotels tend to bear her imprint. “I sign off on every bathroom hook,” she admits. Iconic British designer Terence Conran, who designed four Park hotels, starting with one in Bangalore, says he’s enjoyed working with her because “Priya’s a bundle of energy and a detail maniac. It’s good for our designers to work with someone like her as they tend to learn so much more.”
In her journey as hotelier Paul has largely been self-taught. When the now 45-year-old was inducted into the family empire by her father, hotels seemed a natural fit, given her interest in cooking and food. The chain drew its name from Park Street in downtown Kolkata, where the first Park hotel had opened in 1967. Paul’s first job was to help boost occupancy at the Park in Delhi, but “I did everything, even worked at the pastry counter,” she says.
At the time, the Park was regarded as a mediocre chain whose main clientele were midlevel executives from state-owned enterprises. Each of the three hotels in the portfolio had militant unions and were housed in separate companies. When Paul took charge, bringing the hotels into one company and tackling the unions were her priority: “But no one wanted change,” she recalls.
She started by building a new team, recruiting professionals like Vijay Dewan, a hotelier who had worked with the Oberoi group in Iraq. Before he died her father had begun renovating the Park in Kolkata, which gave Paul an opportunity to experiment with her ideas. In 1992 she converted the Chinese restaurant into Zen, a new restaurant sporting a black-and-white decor and a pan-Asian menu. In 1994 she opened Someplace Else, a bar that quickly established itself as Kolkata’s new hot spot.
Paul lucked out on her timing. The country’s liberalization had created a rising middle class with the ability to spend. Inspired by boutique hotel pioneer Ian Schrager, cofounder of Studio 54, New York City’s legendary nightclub, Paul decided to reposition the Park as a collection of boutique hotels. “It was a new way of doing hotels. We could compete by being different,” says Dewan, now managing director.R Soft Web Hosting