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Beating the odds in the hospitality game

Veteran in the tourism and hospitality industry, Sunder G Advani,  Caravela Beach Resort, Varca, Salcete, in conversation with Shoma Patnaik offers interesting insights on tourism. He says that, tourism in Goa urgently needs a facelift to earn revenues to the state

There is a lot to talk with Sunder G Advani, chairman and managing director, Advani Hotels and Resorts India Ltd. Hitting eighty and with nearly five decades of experience in the Indian hospitality industry, the experienced hotelier is a warehouse of hotel knowledge.

  Advani’s years in the industry are remarkable. In the mid-seventies when the Indian hospitality industry was in very nascent stage he brought in global hotel chains like Holiday Inn, Ramada, Renaissance to Mumbai. In Goa during the eighties where the local hospitality industry had yet to wake up to the potential of tourism, he set up a 200-room, five star resort with the first golf course in the state.

  The hotel, Caravela Beach Resort, Varca, Salcete, changed the face of tourism in south Goa and popularized the concept of beach-side properties.  There are other grounds that Advani broke, for instance he opened the first flight kitchen at Dabolim, Vasco followed by starting the casino industry. 

  He represented India in important forums like the World Travel Tourism Council (WTTC), the London based think tank for the tourism industry and was responsible for several policies favouring the tourism industry. In 2019 he played a key role in reducing GST on hotels from 28 per cent to 18 per cent and prior to that getting the visa fees reduced.

  Advani  says that, the ongoing season 2019-20 is been a tough year for tourism, not only in Goa but also in other states. Room occupancy is fallen across segments and hotels are looking at drop in profitability. The tough times are due to law and order problems or perhaps the general malaise of slowdown, he believes. 

  As for Goa, the situation is worse because of the collapse of Thomas Cook, UK, which sharply decreased the arrival of foreign charters.  On top of it is the changing tourism profile that is bringing in less affluent travelers to the state. He says that, changed profile is affected the functioning of the industry. While the south Goa hotels are relying on weddings and MICE to fill up rooms the north is catering to the lesser paying mass arrivals.  

   “Changing the strategy towards conferences and weddings is become more of a hassle for hoteliers. It is difficult to manage the traffic between the two mixed types of clientele. The wedding guests love noise and fun but the conference types need a corporate ambience,” he says.

  According to Advani, the presence of garbage in the beaches and sightseeing spots, overcrowding and drugs are the main problems facing tourism in the state. “Thanks to it foreign tourist are avoiding the state and getting replaced by bus-loads of tourists who are on shoe-string budget. The domestic flights are full but majority passengers are males who are least interested in seeing the villages or heritage of the state.”

  Advani adds that, online players like Oyo are not doing any good to the state either. “They are getting occupancy to the budget segment which contributes very little tax revenue.”

He says that, unless the state changes its policies and image it will never get back the international tourists which is unfortunate because the foreign guest is easier to manage, likes to sightsee and needs less of entertaining.

  Advani’s journey as a hotelier is fascinating as it is full of ups and downs in the early years before he started winning stakes.   

  “I came to Goa in 1975 and immediately fell in love with the place. I had never seen such beautiful beaches anywhere in the world although I had travelled to Bali, Pattaya, Barbados, French Rivera, Florida and even Hawaii. I thought that the state had a future in tourism although the only traffic it then received was mostly hippies who were living on a shoe-string budget,” he says.

  In 1986 he purchased land and set up Caravela Beach Resort in joint venture with international chain Ramada Inc., US.  However afterwards he cut ties with the global chain and decided to go solo.  While Goan hoteliers are busy seeking partnerships with foreign chains or giving up day-to-day running by signing management contracts, Advani says that, he is comfortable being independent.

  What’s more unusual that the hotel is his only property and his company is listed on the Bombay stock exchange. “Hotel chains are important to persons who do not know the hotel business and they also provide the advantage of bookings. But in today’s times when there are online travel agents one does need an international chain,” he believes.

  Advani points out that, after cutting ties with Ramada his hotel occupancy is  improved and the profit is increased. “In 20018-19 the dividend pay-out was 100 per cent and in current year it is 95 per cent,” he says.

  In the future, Advani adds that, he has no plans of adding new properties. “The hotel industry is capital intensive and needs a gestation period of at least seven years to make profits. In the meantime the interest meter is ticking. I prefer to save on capital expenditure and give handsome payout to my shareholders,” he says.

  The father of the casino industry, Advani first started a land casino, Goa Nugget, in his hotel followed by the floating Caravela Casino. Both the casinos are shut, the first due to high tariff that made it unviable while the floating casino was sold to the Deltin group.

  Tourism is changed drastically in the state but Advani says that, the local beaches are still beautiful and scenic. He says that, the beaches if cleared of clutter would easily figure among the best beaches of the world.

Lifetime achiever

An energetic eighty, Sundar G Advani, was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the South Asia Travel and Tourism Exhibition (SATTE). “This award was important to me as I was chosen by a jury of peers of the industry. Advani believes that, it was his push for a reduction in GST rates from 28 per cent to 18 per cent for five-star hotels that got him the award.  

  He says that, the effort started when he was the chairman of the India Initiative of WTTC. Recently on completing eighty Advani  published his memoirs, Even Against All Odds. The 271 page autobiography is fascinating to read because it takes the reader through Advani’s journey.

  Home is where heart is, and Advani says that, his heart presently is in Varca. “My hotel was built in the early years when land was easily available. It is spacious and designed by the top-most architect. The lobby is huge and built like a cathedral in line with the beautiful churches of Goa. The rooms are large and private. The swimming pool continues to be among the best in the Goan industry.”

  He says that, he saw the best years of Goa tourism and for seven years he had the monopoly in casino industry before other players came into the industry. At eighty, Advani is partly handed over responsibility to his son but continues to be involved in operations. He liaisons with tour operators to get business and reveals that even in tough times the present occupancy of the hotel is 93 per cent.

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