As Preferred Hotels & Resorts Turns 50, CEO Lindsey Ueberroth Makes a Pitch for Sustainable Luxury
AS IT celebrates its golden jubilee year, Preferred Hotels & Resorts is looking at growing its South Asian footprint to 50 hotels — up from 40 at present — by the year 2020. The Imperial New Delhi was the first Indian hotel to open Preferred’s innings here in 2002. Since then, the number of Indian member-hotels has gone up to 35, including all of the nine hotels flying The Leela Palace flag, and the latest addition has been the Shahpura Haveli, about 65km from the Jaipur Airport and 38km from the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary.
That’s an impressive growth story riding on the back of sound financials — in 2016-17, Preferred provided its Indian member-hotels 87,000 room nights and $18 million in revenues. Worldwide, Preferred’s reservation revenue contribution to its 650+ member hotels in 85 countries serviced by 40 offices stands at $1.35 billion.
Over a lavish lunch laid out at The Leela Palace New Delhi, which followed a news briefing and cake cutting, I asked Lindsey Ueberroth, CEO, Preferred Hotels and Resorts, about how she envisioned her company’s growth path at a time when mergers and acquisitions have ensured that the hospitality world is ruled by behemoth chains that have their own loyalty programmes.
Lindsey Ueberroth, who has visited India 12-13 times since she was 10, said Preferred’s biggest strength is that “every single hotel is unique and individual”. She said Preferred, which passed into the charge of her father, John Ueberroth, in 2004, “celebrates the individualised nature of our hotels,” which set them apart from the cookie-cutter formats of chain hotels. John Ueberroth, who’s, incidentally, the brother of America’s famous former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, is the executive chairman of the company, his wife Gail is the chief creative officer and vice-chair, and Lindsey’s brother, Casey, who left the company to become a medical doctor, is a member of the board of directors.
The other factor working in Preferred’s favour, Lindsey said, is the categorisation of its member-hotels into five global ‘collections’. You have the ultra-luxury Legend hotels at the top (The Leela Palace New Delhi is a member), followed by the LVX luxury range (The Leela Palace Mumbai, for instance), the Lifestyle collection (which has added the newly minted The Chedi, overlooking the Powai Lake in Mumbai, to its ranks), and the Connect, which Lindsey describes as “affordable luxury”, is a line-up where a Fortune Excalibur Select in Gurgaon would feel completely at home. Preferred Residences is the fifth category that brings Preferred’s luxury orientation to the serviced apartments.
Together, the five categories, to quote from a company fact sheet, connect discerning travellers to one luxury hospitality experience that meets their needs and life and style preferences for different travel occasions. Lindsey can personally relate to this nuanced differentiation very well, for she travels extensively — “60-70 per cent of the time” — not only for work, but also for pleasure (which is when she prefers non-Preferred hotels to protect her privacy).
Preferred has shown impressive growth in India, expanding from one property to 35, and eyeing 50 by 2020. The man who has been leading this growth, Saurabh Rai (a graduate of IHM Aurangabad and the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development), Executive Vice President, South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australasia, is bullish about the Indian market, which got 87,000 room nights and business worth $18 million in FY2016-17 from Preferred.
Rai is also upbeat about India’s ability to generate room nights for overseas markets. “Never before have I seen greater interest in the Indian outbound travel market among international hotel operators,” he says, giving the example of the Palazzo Versace in Dubai. The prestigious hotel depended mainly on the Qatar and Saudi Arabian markets — the first is lost because of the UAE’s sanctions against Qatar and the second has “softened up” because of Crown Prince Salman’s anti-corruption campaign. As the hotel panicked and looked around for alternative markets, it was India Outbound that “rescued it”.
Moving the focus away from India, I asked Lindsey Ueberroth what she believed would be the big issue confronting the hospitality industry in the years ahead. It didn’t take her much time to answer this one. “The big question will be how to balance luxury with sustainability,” Lindsey said, adding that it was starkly apparent during her recent visit to Cape Town, South Africa, which is facing the worst water crisis in its history. Even the luxury hotels in that picturesque city have started keeping buckets in shower stalls to capture excess water. Likewise, the hotels have take out drain plugs from bath tubs to nudge people out of the habit of taking long baths. These visible actions mirrored the resolve of the local industry to rally behind the city in a crisis.
Hotels around the world, according to Lindsey, have to take a call on questions that matter in discussions about sustainability. Should guests be given physical copies of newspapers or connected to the online editions? Must hotels change bed sheets daily for guests? “I don’t change sheets every day at home, so why should I expect my hotel not to do so?” asked Lindsey. Fortunately for the industry, environmentally conscious customers today appreciate such little gestures that can make a serious difference in the long run.