Sarbendra Sarkar founded Cygnett Hotels and Resorts in 2014 when the marketplace was already ruled by many domestic and international players. But his rich experience and tenacity are allowing him to blaze a trail forward
HVS Anarock India Hospitality Review 2018 noted that Cygnett Hotels and Resorts recorded the highest number of hotel signings in India that year. It was an achievement for a relatively new hospitality chain. Following the pandemic disruption, where are you now with your expansion plans?
We have been moving from strength to strength since our inception. Today we operate properties across different segments, from upscale to economy. We have even made our presence felt in areas that are underserved by many other leading brands.
We have an ambitious target of adding more than 5,000 keys and establishing the company as a 100-plus strong hotel group in the next five years. Besides four to five projects in India’s North-east, we are looking to open new properties in markets like West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Rajasthan, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh – just to name a few.
Apart from tier-one cities, our focus is on smaller cities that are missing the presence of a branded hotel chain. The government’s emphasis on infrastructure development is opening new doors for the hospitality sector and that’s the reason we are witnessing strong tourism demand in regions like North-east India.
The growth strategy of Cygnett mainly consists of attaining pre-owned possessions from the unorganised sector at key, strategic locations in both non-metro and metro cities. We then upgrade and align these hotels to Cygnett standards through renovation and technology assimilation to get them operational and available globally.
Although the domestic market has always been important to hotels in India, the pandemic deepened its significance. How do you expect domestic demand for hotels in India to look in the coming months?
The domestic tourism market… is going to be crucial for hotels in the near future too. Inbound travel has been picking up slowly since the government allowed operations of scheduled international flights. However, the road to recovery for the inbound tourism segment is going to be a long one. I hope to reach pre-pandemic inbound numbers by the end of 2023.
So, going ahead, the focus will still be on domestic markets. Domestic tourists pay well, they stay on longer, and spend on F&B offerings in the properties.
The economy is steadily coming back on track and therefore the demand is accelerating, especially in non-metro cities. The average occupancy rates in Cygnett hotels have been going above 85 per cent for the past few months. The recovery in the hospitality sector has been faster than expected after the mayhem caused by the pandemic.
Earlier, your thrust was on the management model. Are you going to stick to a similar strategy for your future expansion plans?
We have a Franchise Plus’ programme, and the majority of the hotels under our portfolio are managed. However, now we are keen to have 60 per cent of our properties under the franchise model and the rest either managed or owned.
One of the brands that we view is well-positioned to grow as a franchise-based model is Cygnett Inn. If our brand standards are met, we are open to tie-ups with hotel owners who may be facing business difficulty in the wake of the pandemic.
There are many people who want to run a hotel on their own but also want to associate with a reputed brand. After the onset of the pandemic, owners understand that brand value is very important for travellers when they make an accommodation choice. So, apart from the brand association, we offer such owners technology, sales and marketing, financial, call centre and training support through our franchise model.
Cygnett also offers training to staff of its partner hotels under the franchise model. We have an e-learning module, which helps staff to learn from their premises. At present we have only two hotels operating under the franchise model in a portfolio of 20 operational hotels and 15 hotels that are in various stages of pre-opening.
You now have brands like Cygnett Park, Cygnett Inn and Cygnett Lite. Are there plans for more new brands?
We have always tried to introduce brands that cater to the ever-evolving demands of the market. We are excited to soon launch Cygnett Retreat, which is going to offer a boutique resort experience in a budget-friendly manner. These resorts will have an inventory of 40 or fewer rooms. We are considering markets like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa for opening properties under the brand.
We are also excited about the launch of our new wellness brand, Ayurvyaas. The brand aims to offer a holistic wellness experience to its guests for physical, cognitive and spiritual healing using ancient Vedic sciences and contemporary practices. The properties under the brand will have an inventory of 200 or more rooms with 25 to 30 rooms dedicated to therapies. Ayurvyaas will be an integrated lifestyle and wellness solution that offers its guests premium spaces with spectacular views combined with supreme luxury and exceptional hospitality.
Wellness has gained prominence, and we are looking to offer a one-of-a-kind wellness experience through Ayurvyaas. We are considering Rishikesh, a popular wellness destination, to open the first Ayurvyaas property in India.
You currently have one property in Nepal. You had also previously expressed interest to expand to destinations like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Vietnam. What’s brewing in this space now?
In my past visits to destinations like Sri Lanka, I have seen many hotels filled up with Indian guests. So, there is a huge opportunity for Indian brands in such destinations.
Also, with India being a major outbound market, hotel chains like ours have a good opportunity to connect with Indian travellers.
We would definitely like to expand internationally but for the time being our focus is going to remain on the domestic front.