The pride of Shillong

Hoihnu Hauzel 19 Mar 2014

On the face of it, the suitable plot of land that Kishan Tibrewalla acquired from his ancestors was nothing short of a legacy. But it is what he did with that plot of land that eventually shaped the history of what would be known as Hotel Polo Towers, a formidable name in hospitality in the northeast. Tibrewalla, identifying a gap in the northeastern market in the hospitality sector, set up Shillong’s first four-star hotel, Hotel Polo Towers, in 1991. To be sure, this was the second four-star hotel property in the Northeast. Under his leadership, the group not only runs the flagship hotel in Shillong, it has also marked his presence in Cherrapunjee with Polo Orchid Resort and Polo Orchid Hotel. While the success path was full of challenges given the state’s uncertain political climate and even his financial constraints, Tibrewalla was firm in his resolve to expand and grow his hospitality brand. Not only is he ready to unveil his next property, Tura, he’s also planning to add four more hotels in north India thus expanding the brand’s footprint. What’s more, Tibrewalla is also the master franchise for three QSR brands based in the US.

NE Travel and Life speaks to Kishan Tibrewalla, the man who is happy building not just hotels but getaway abodes -- the home away from home. * You were driven by the desire to open a good quality hotel in Shillong. Looking back, what were the challenges?

Hotel Polo Towers, our first project in the hospitality field, was a dream inspired by the demand for a good hotel in Shillong, and the necessity of developing a suitable plot of land, so thoughtfully acquired by my ancestors and passed on to me as a blessing.

However, the challenges were aplenty, the first being finance. In 1986-87, the financial institutions were not as competitive as they are today and there were limitations on quantum of finance that could be provided to independent hoteliers as per the RBI guidelines. But once we overcame that obstacle, there were other hurdles we faced. We decided to build our dream project with a Delhi-based architect but he was not very cooperative for site visits. We soon decided to partner with a Guwahati-based architect and soon the project was completed and inaugurated in 1991. But to our dismay, we had another financial hiccup what with the subsidy scheme promised initially to us getting withdrawn. We were left in a lurch because additional finance was not available. But thanks to the impeccable financial reputation of my forefathers that we got market support on deferred payment purchases.

But Shillong was in turmoil, owing to political uncertainty and disturbance, which continued till 1996 thus affecting tourism. This led to our debts rising. But all the challenges only made us stronger and we learnt to combine tight financial planning with efficient management practices.

So, instead of hiring hotel consultants (most of whom are used to working with five-star hotel projects) at an exorbitant price, we hired hotel professionals at key managerial levels.

When I look back, I feel Hotel Polo Towers, Shillong, was built with dedication, hard work and a constant focus on quality, and the desire to give that little extra to the guests. From complimentary breakfast package to complimentary WiFi, we make sure that customer satisfaction is never compromised on. * How important is expansion of the hospitality sector in the northeast part of India? Your hotel in Cherrapunjee is already touted as a trend setter.
You must remember that a place like Cherrapunjee has immense potential but is challenging in terms of a hotel property given the logistics and the harsh climate (especially during the rains). It is a beautiful location but still quite remote if you consider the logistics of building a hotel in such an area. So it is a matter of pride when Polo Orchid Resort is appreciated. This is an eco resort that has a sprawling place and is created keeping in mind not just luxury but also simple but essential comforts of our customers. Our hotel has a Rain cafe, Seven Sisters Suite and Spa and Mawsai Banquet [perfect for corporate events and occasions]. While Cherrapunjee is a fascinating place, our resort makes the destination even more exciting.

* How do you view the coming of international chains like Marriott in the northeast? What impact does it have on hotels such as yours?
The Marriot brand will be a welcome addition to Shillong as this will lift the profile of the entire region. It will set a higher bench mark of quality. In fact, GS Road, considered the lifeline to Shillong, is getting ready for its new avatar -- a four-lane National Highway -- by the end of 2014. This will lead to a comfortable and faster drive between Shillong and Guwahati thus strengthening the tourist population even more in Shillong. On our part, Hotel Polo Towers is committed to matching international quality standards in providing comfort to our discerning customers. As per policy, we are always renovating and upgrading and adding facilities. You must remember, the hotels in and around Shillong are surely equipped to host even the most high-end of tourists. While Hotel Polo Towers, Shillong, is considered one of the finest and Shillong’s largest hotels, and has played host to many celebrities, diplomats and heads of state, several other properties, Hotel Pinewood, The Heritage Hotel, Ri-Kynjai, for instance, are a favourite with tourists too. I’m sure everyone is working hard to achieve the ultimate goal -- providing customer satisfaction.

* How, according to you, should the hospitality industry innovate?
I’ll give an example of what we did in the F&B segment of Hotel Polo Towers. Though the flavours of the northeast cuisine is so different from the rest of the country, Sky Grill, one of our restaurants, introduced a set menu of grills, kebabs and several other tandoori dishes, which many people were unfamiliar with. Then, we gambled bigger with Milano, the Italian restaurant at Hotel Polo Towers, hiring a trained Italian chef for the restaurant. Diversification and taking a bit of chance always helps and with these two restaurants, we innovated intelligently; a reason why both these outlets have been well received and remain popular with the tourists as well as Shillong residents.

We are now innovating by stepping out of our comfort zone and expanding footprint in north India. We will add four more hotels in the next couple of years. We have also acquired the master franchise for 3 QSR brands of the US, including Quiznos, Great American Cookies and Forever Yogurt. * How should hospitality brands create a balance at the top level? What’s the secret sauce in your company to achieve the balance?

In our case, we continue being a family-run organisation at the board level. However, our emphasis is on professional background and training. My son, Devel Tibrewalla, is a graduate from the prestigious Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, Switzerland. He was, in fact, the ‘valedictorian’ of the batch. At the management level, however, we ensure that we hire the best professionals at all levels. That’s the secret sauce for us, really.

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