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Indian Heritage History – Leela Hotels

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This is 5th edition of History of Indian chain hotels that work cohesively as to offer Indian Princely heritage to their clientele. To read the previous edition :

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Overview of Indian Luxury Hospitality Heritage
Story of ITC Hotels
Story of Indian Hotel Company (Taj Hotels)
Story of EIH LTD (Oberoi/Trident)

Story of the Founder

Captain Chittarath Poovakkatt Krishnan Nair (9 February 1922 – 17 May 2014), C.P. Krishnan Nair by Malayali naming conventions, was an Indian businessman who founded The Leela Group. He was sometimes popularly known as Captain Nair due to his service in the Indian Army.

Nair was born in a village in Kannur district in northern Kerala on 9 February 1922. At the time the village was located in the Malabar District of the Madras Presidency of the British Raj. Nair was one of eight children. His father worked as a government bill collector earning a monthly income of ₹9. His mother was a paddy farmer. During a visit by the Maharaja of Chirakkal to his school, Nair wrote and recited a poem in the Maharaja’s honour. The poem impressed the Maharaja and he awarded Nair a lifetime scholarship.

Nair was one of the voracious readers there. He was heavily influenced by Swami Vivekanada and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa teachings, especially the philosophies of Vedanta. He became first secretary of the students’ union at his school at the age of 13, and it was also India’s first students’ union too. That made him the first students’ union leader in India. He became a freedom fighter at age of 13.

During his teenage years Nair met Communist leaders such as P. Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan. During one of his student march he met his idol Subhash Chandra Bose. 

He did his college education at the Madras Government Arts College. It was possible only because of the Maharaja again gave his diamond ring and asked to sell it and fund his trip to Madras and studies.

 

Army Service

Nair traveled to Bangalore in 1942 to join the Indian Army. His confidence impressed the recruiting officer and he was recruited as wireless officer, and posted in Abbottabad (in present-day Pakistan, Same place where Osama Bin Laden was killed). He would later rise to rank of Captain in the Maratha Light Infantry. In 1950, he married Leela, the daughter of industrialist A.K Nair, after whom he would name his future hotel chain. Nair resigned from the Indian Army in 1951.

He would work as decoder at army. His work was to decode Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose messages. He met Abdul Ghaffar Khan who is known by various names (Frontier Gandhi, Badshah Khan, Baccha Khan). He developed close relationship with his family. Thanks to that, he was closer to philosophy of Subhash Chandra Bose rather than Mahatma Gandhi. 

After independence, he joined the army, in the Maratha Light Infantry. After four years, in 1951, took voluntary retirement from Army as a Captain, to become an entrepreneur.

Moving event

Nair didn’t have any money when he was travelling for his service to Abbotabad. Seeing this, a co-passenger Karunakaran Nair, offered him both lunch and dinner. When he got down at Peshavar, he gave Rs 10 and said, this will help you complete the journey. When Nair asked for his address to send the money back, he said, you need not send it back to me. Whenever you meet someone who needs money like you do today, give it to him.

Desire to be a Hermit (sanyasi)

At the age of 20 or 21, he traveled to Rishikesh to see Swami Sivananda who was actually a good doctor but had stopped practicing and turned a hermit.

But after a few months with his guru in Rishikesh, his Guru told him that his path was that of a karmayogi and not a sanyasi. And, from then on, it has only been karma for this Padma Bhushan awardee. He has donned the role of an army officer, textile exporter and finally a world-renowned hotelier.

It was at 65, a retirement age for many that he became a hotelier by starting the Leela Group of Hotels and Resorts. Today, 20,000 employees work in his clothing business and 5000 people work in the hotel business.

Career

After resigning from the Army in 1951 with request from his wife. His father-in-law had a successful handloom business of 2000 looms and was given charge of one mill in Mumbai. Thanks to his guru’s teaching, He was very ambitious and wanted to spread it to the whole world. He started a producers’ and consumers’ co-operative society, the first one in India. Nair helped establish the All India Handloom Board. At the Board he played a major role in marketing hand-spun Indian yarn in the United States. Through frequent business trips to Europe and the United States, Nair gained exposure to international hotels such as Adlon Kempinski, Dorchester Savoy, George Shanvk and Waldorf Astoria, which would inspire his own eventual entry into the hospitality industry.

Lal Bahadur Shastri convinced Nair to meet then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He also warned that Nehru favoured power looms. By using the following knowledge, he persuaded Nehru to start the first Handloom Board in the country, and to help the industry, he agreed to impose a cess of one paisa on all the material made in mills so that the money would go to the fund.

Pandit Nehru had no objection as I asked for only one paisa but this way, they got a funding of Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) a year!

In coming years he met with Laurence Mitchel, the managing director of a Scottish lace firm. The agreement led to beginning of Leela Scottish Lace and connection to the world.

In 1957, Nair was part of a delegation of the All India Handloom Board to West Germany, which involved visits to Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich and Hamburg. Following his stay at the Kempinski Hotel in Budapest, he realized the need for a luxury hotel chain in India that could measure up to international

In 1958, he joined hands with Brooks Brothers to announce Bleeding Madras fabric, which later had clients like Tommy Hilfiger, Wal-Mart, Liz Claiborne and Macy’s.Later that year, he started a lace-weaving unit in Sahar, Mumbai.

In 1972, Leela Scottish Ltd became India’s biggest garment factory. From my factory, we could export ‘Bleeding Madras fabric’ made of natural vegetable dyes. He used to export millions of yards to America; He started first garment factory with 200 machines in Mumbai (then Bombay) and became the largest exporter of readymade garments from India and started winning awards for that for 15-20 years.

Leela Hotels

Capt. Nair became a hotelier at the age of 65. After years of traveling to Hilton New York, Kempinski Germany etc. There was a desire to start a hotel for himself that would provide top-end luxury.

His garment manufacturing unit was close to the airport and taxis used to line up in front of our place. So, one day his wife suggested that starting a hotel in on the factory land near the airport, would be easier for travelers. She believed it would be an instant success.

Sold on vision of his wife, Leela, As it was her idea, he decided to build luxurious hotel named after his wife. With the Sahar International Airport opening in 1981,  established Hotel Leelaventure Ltd. in 1983, and began construction of a hotel in Sahar on 4 acre plot of land that he owned, and an additional 6.5 acres that he leased. Though his experience of hotels was limited to staying in them, he decided to build a hotel on the site he already owned. In those days, airport hotels were not regarded as being particularly luxurious. But Captain Nair thought big and built a grand property surrounded by gardens. He went wrong, though, in his choice of collaborator. He went with Penta, a three-star chain owned by a consortium of European airlines.

India’s other hoteliers were not pleased with the prospect of competition and they threw every objection they could find at Captain Nair’s hotel. It was too high for a property near the runway. It was built on Airports Authority land. Most of these objections had no basis. He went to Vasantdada Patil, then chief minister of Maharashtra, and got the project cleared. The first Leela Hotel opened in Mumbai in 1987 with marketing alliance with Kempinski opened. It was an instant success.The first luxury property in suburbs of Mumbai. 
This was followed by the Leela Goa, the Leela Palace in Bangalore, and the Leela Beach Resort in Thiruvananthapuram.

He thought of the Bangalore Leela when he had been invited to Karnataka by the then chief minister RK Hegde. He decided at once that he would build a massive hotel designed with south Indian temple architecture as its theme.

Of course, there were the usual problems. One: his hotel was far from the city and located near an airport which was due to be shut down in a few years anyway. And two: he didn’t have the money to build it. It was this desire to think big that led Captain Nair via his friend, Bob Burns (founder of the Regent Group) to the Four Seasons. Negotiations were nearly concluded when Captain Nair suddenly pulled out. The split was not without bitterness. In his autobiography, Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp, refers to Captain Nair as a ‘bad apple’.

His Bangalore gamble paid off as his hotel rode the success of the IT boom because of its proximity to the software companies. In no time at all, it had the highest room rates in India and so great was its cash flow that it saved the company. After that, Captain Nair was unstoppable. He threw out the Penta branding and transformed the Bombay Leela into one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. He planned a grand hotel in Chennai whose unique selling point would be that it was the only deluxe hotel overlooking the Bay of Bengal.

He had been friends with the Rajmata of Gwalior and had known Vasundhara Raje for decades. When she became chief minister of Rajasthan, she helped clear obstacles to his stalled Udaipur hotel. Leela Udaipur later went on winning number #1 hotel in India for Tripadvisor and globally ranked #19 in 2017.

By then, the Leela had taken over the old ITDC hotel in Kovalam and transformed it, turning it into Kerala’s best hotel, a triumph of the Captain’s Malayali roots. Captain Nair’s final gamble was his most spectacular. The Leela had suffered because of governmental duplicity when it had bought land in Andrewsganj (the area where Ansal Plaza now is).After years of wrangling and legal decisions, the company got its money back. But by then, land prices in Delhi had sky-rocketed. Yet, such was Captain Nair’s determination to open a Delhi property that he paid too much for a site at the edge of the city’s diplomatic quarter. Then he spent even more in building the hotel. When it was ready, it was one of Delhi’s most spectacular hotels. But the problem was that even if it got the highest room rates in the city and had hundred percent occupancy all around the year, it would still not turn a profit because the capital costs were so high.

Captain Nair Passed away on 17 May 2014 after brief period of illness in Mumbai.

Post death changes

Capt. Nair is survived by his two sons Dinesh and Vivek Nair. Mr. Vivek Nair, joined Leelaventure Limited in April 2007. He  was promoted to the Chairman at Hotel Leelaventure Limited in June 2011. Mr. Nair holds a B.A. (Hons.) from St Xavier’s College Mumbai and Post Graduate programme in Hotel Management from Cornell University (USA).

The fortunes of the Leela Group’s hospitality business turned decisively against it during the global financial crisis of 2008. Vivek Nair, Chairman and MD of Hotel Leelaventure, recalled last year that the company’s “debt problem” could be traced to the global stock market crash of that year.

Sr. Nair had over-borrowed to Rs 4500 crore debt which couldn’t be paid. Hence the beginning of settling of the debt. in 2011, Leela had sold its luxury hotel, Leela Kovalam in Kerala, for ₹500 crore to Travancore Enterprises. In 2013, its IT Park Building in Chennai was sold to Reliance Industries for ₹170 crore. Leela Palace Chennai was sold to Marigold Capitals for  ₹700 crores. Leela Goa was sold to Raj Bagri for Rs 725 crore, marking the biggest single property deal in the Indian hospitality sector. Bagri, promoter of the Metdist Group.As per the arrangement, Ceres Hotels, a local unit created by the Metdist Group, will acquire the Leela, Goa, marking the diversified enterprise’s foray into hotel ownership in Asia’s third-largest economy.

In late October 2013, Leela also had partnership break up with Kempinski group of hotels after 25 years partnership. Luckily for them, they still have an International partner in Global hotel alliance (GHA). 

Global Hotel Alliance (GHA) founded in 2004, and based on the airline alliance model, claims to be the world’s largest alliance of independent hotel brands. the Leela group will get marketing and sales support from Global Hotel Alliance members such as Kempinski Hotels (Germany), Omni Hotels (North America), Pan Pacific Hotels & Resorts (Japan), Rydges (Australia), Dusit Hotels & Resorts (Thailand), Landis Hotels & Resorts (Taiwan) and Marco Polo Hotels (China & Hong Kong)  encompassing 550 upscale and luxury hotels with over 110,000 rooms across 76 different countries.

Aiana Hotels & Resorts

Third generation hotelier Amruda Nair, daughter to Mr. Vivek Nair, 

Amruda, together with Doha-based billionaire Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani (Forbes estimates his net worth to be $2.3 billion, or Rs 15,277 crore, as of September 3, 2016) announced a joint venture to create Aiana Hotels & Resorts, a global hospitality company. Since then, the Doha-based company has signed management contracts for eight hotels in both India and the Middle East. The locations of the hotels are based on a hub-and-spoke model—cities with an international airport serve as hubs and hotels are at driving distances from it.

Sheikh Al Thani is the chairman and CEO of Qatar’s Al Faisal Holding, which, through a subsidiary, owns marque properties like The St. Regis Washington, DC, the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo and the Grand Hyatt in Berlin. 

On current date, we are not aware if Leela would be able to have partnership with the hotel or it would operate as it’s separate entity. 

 
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Cody is a native of city Indore, Madhya Pradesh. He acquired a degree in Engineering (IT) from Rajeev Gandhi Technical University, Bhopal. He had a keen interest in the field of networking and network security and took various courses such as OWASP, EC Council’s Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), Cisco Certified Internet Expert (CCIE) Routing and Switching. After finishing his education, he joined up corporates to establish his career as IT Tester and Auditor. He moved up to become IT consultant and shared his expertise with IT industries. Cody loves traveling and socializing. He has traveled over 30 countries in the past two years. He enjoys flying business class and staying in 5-star hotels. He has been featured in multiple publications such as Times of India, Dainik Bhaskar, magazines such as Men’s Health. He was invited to inspire people on a platform such as TEDx.

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