Keshav Suri: India’s enfant terrible

Keshav Suri: India’s enfant terrible
Keshav Suri, executive director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group. Photos courtesy: The LaLiT

Keshav Suri, executive director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, says he would  like to be known as somebody who opens people’s minds

If hospitality is akin to an artistic enterprise, Keshav Suri, executive director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, has the makings of an impresario, attuned to the demands of the profession, and the demeanours of hundreds of thousands of its performers who act as cog-wheels to enable the enterprise to operate. If it’s his empire, he acts less like an emperor and more like a magnate, a virtuoso, with a charmed circle of admirers, as an empathetic entrepreneur you can confide in, a boisterous baron you can share a laugh with or a culture aficionado you can exchange tips with in fashion, movies, music or style.

As someone who has been brought up amid the comforts of the lux life, the heir apparent of The LaLiT legacy is constantly trying to redefine opulence, ensuring that those who walk through the doors of The LaLiT, see themselves in the lap of luxury, with the reception accorded to them being such that makes them feel elevated to a heightened state of being, and their minds growing increasingly aware of the richness and beauty of life in the fast lane. Responsible for Food and Beverages (F&B), Keshav Suri doesn’t merely oversee the stuff on the menu and what goes in the glass, but also the motifs, the designs and the service across the group’s properties. He has also been entrusted with developing strategies for expansion and handling the chain’s marketing divisions, focusing his energies on creative synergies, galvanising individuals into action, inspiring them to strive, to serve, to excel. In the process, he ensures that every corner of his properties reflects class — at its glorious best.

The son, the sibling

For the 32-year-old scion of the group, these are traits — besides empathy, congeniality and conviviality, the ability to adjudge the way things should be, the way things should look, feel, sound, smell and taste — that run in the family. His father, Lalit Suri, who passed away in 2006 (November 19 marks his 71st birth anniversary), took a Suri-shot stab at success when he became someone for whom the sobriquet, “the uncrowned hotel king,” came to be reserved. A hotelier and a politician, Lalit Suri was the chairperson and managing director of Bharat Hotels Limited (which became The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group after his untimely demise in London), with the group having decided against renewing the management contract with the US-based Intercontinental Hotels Group. 

Lalit Suri’s life, filled with many a milestone, exemplified the idea of a hotelier as the “champion of the industry”. The group’s founder, who started as an auto engineer — having done a two-year specialisation in automobile engineering with Vauxhall Motors, Britain — went on to own a fleet of high-end cars. Joining the family-run Delhi Automobile Ltd in 1971, he also ended up owning several top line hotels in the country, with the Suri group having diversified into hotels in 1982. He was highly regarded in the Indian and international community for his discerning eye, dynamism and foresight. In February 2000, he was among the three-member core group of hoteliers under whose patronage World Travel & Tourism Council, India Initiative (WTTCII) was launched to raise awareness about the crucial role that travel and tourism play in the development and growth of the economy in India. The other two members were Prithviraj Raj Singh “Bikki” Oberoi and RK Krishna Kumar (of The Indian Hotels Company Limited or IHCL, branded as Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris). 

“It was a big shock to our family. It took us a while to figure out how to take the company forward,” says Keshav, talking about his father’s death. After Lalit Suri’s demise, the mantle fell on his wife, Dr Jyotsna Suri, the current Chairperson & Managing Director (CMD) of the group. It was on November 19, 2008 that she decided to go for brand change for the company, bringing all luxury hotels of the group under the The LaLiT flag as a tribute to the company’s founder. Today, under her able stewardship and guidance, the group has emerged as the largest privately owned hotel chain in India, with 13 luxury hotels under its flag. The group’s first international foray, and the 13th hotel, The LaLiT London, was launched on Republic Day this year. The group is all set to launch its 14th hotel in Ahmedabad sometime next year. On the anvil is the group’s plan for further expansion. Much of this expansion will be under the mid-segment umbrella called ‘The Lalit Traveller’; its launch was flagged off by the group’s properties in Jaipur and Khajuraho.

The group’s CMD believes in “developing destinations and not just hotels” which leaves enough room for the “cultural awakening” of the region, providing it with several opportunities to showcase its handicrafts, culture and food — thereby enabling the hotel to carve its identity as “catalyst for cultural rejuvenation and energy” in the regions where its hotels are located. In 2013, she launched The Lalit Suri Hospitality School in Faridabad. Spread over 5 acres, it offers customised programmes in Hotel Management.

His mother, says Keshav, has been an “exceedingly strong boss”. “Within months, she got us activated, got the group consolidated and started the process of propelling the company to what it is today,” he says. Also instrumental in the group’s journey so far have been Keshav’s sisters, Divya and Deeksha, the group’s other two executive directors. Divya handles the group’s legal matters and Deeksha takes care of human resources, revenue management and sales. Keshav’s other sister, Shradha, is currently MD at Subros, another family concern which manufactures car air conditioners. “Together, we as a think tank for the company have actually tripled and quadrupled what my father left us with. And, so, it was just befitting that we would be naming the hotels after him,” says Keshav, who is all praise for his mother for being a “democratic leader” who let him choose his own path.  

The scion

After his father’s death, even as his mother steered the group in new directions, she ensured Keshav’s studies were not hampered. He graduated from the University of Warwick in business studies and majored in law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He also did Masters in International Management from King’s College, London. “After finishing my studies, it was just a natural progression for me to come in to the family business. One of the reasons why my sisters and I never studied hospitality was that at the back of our minds we always knew that we were going to end up in hospitality. So, we decided to educate ourselves in something we will not end up doing,” says Keshav. 

When the prodigal son returned, he wanted to work “outside” and, therefore, joined Unilever in Mumbai. Today, however, Keshav has established himself in the group as well as in the country. But the learning continues. “I’m still learning because in life you can never stop learning and if you stop learning, it’s the day you die. This is what I believe in personally and I know my family believes in the same,” he says. The values inculcated by his father — hard work, respect for every individual and attention to detail, for instance — have held Keshav and the family in good stead, showing them the way ahead.
Keshav says that his father always said that one of the reasons why he wanted to own all the assets and not just manage them was that when he was gone at least these buildings will stay and when people will remember the building, they’ll remember him. “That’s what we did. We called the hospitality chain after him. He was an exceedingly disciplined human being. He had a routine set and nothing would disrupt his discipline. It was his vision to live on in people’s minds forever in some way or the other and that’s the vision that we continue to pay homage to him. Nothing would have made that vision come alive than naming the whole group after him,” says Keshav.

The Great Eastern

Lalit Suri Hospitality Group bagged The Great Eastern, Kolkata, for Rs 52 crore from the West Bengal government in 2005. Keshav, the youngest on the company board, found his foothold in the industry with the careful and sensitive renovation of the 200-year-old heritage property. “It was among the last few acquisitions of my father. So, it hit home that I should make it come alive and make sure that it fructified. Plus, I’m very influenced by history, art and culture and nothing gets more historic than owning a historic building. And The Great Eastern is a part of Kolkata’s history. The pressure on my mother to restore this building alone was immense. When I saw her, I wrangled myself and said, ‘I’m going to come with you for this’. She knew that she did a great job because she’s always done a great job,” says Keshav, who adds that while the group had renovated many buildings during his father’s lifetime, there was added pressure to this building because this was actually a part of the city’s heritage. He says: “It was made as a hotel by a baker of Hertfordshire (David Wilson). He started as a bakery because he wanted to bake bread for the British Army and for the British people who were living in Kolkata. He bought the whole block so it became 1, 2, 3 Old Court House Street. From a bakery, it became one small hotel called Auckland Hotel. And then it became a much larger hotel which then eventually became the Great Eastern.” Keshav’s first project has seen massive restoration for 11 long years at the cost of about Rs 320 crore and remains a work-in-progress. The hotel was called “Jewel of the East” during the British Raj and played host to guests like Queen Elizabeth II, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. “It was and is a big deal. It’s older than the Raffles in Singapore,” says Keshav. At the Great Eastern in Kolkata, the group has taken extra effort to keep the Victorian/Edwardian ethos intact with the Wilson pub and the grand piano adorning its premises.

Westward ho!

Keshav also oversaw the launch of The LaLiT London, a 70-room boutique hotel nestled in a 180-year-old former grammar school (St Olave’s Grammar School, originally designed by Edward Mountford, the architect of the Old Bailey court) near Tower Bridge, which was thrown open early this year after a five-year, £50-million refurbishment. It was Lalit Suri’s dream to open a hotel in London. With The LaLiT London, his dream was fulfilled. Among those who came to raise a toast were actors Steven Berkoff, Amy Jackson, Clara Paget, Luke Pasqualino, and models Ashley James and Roxy Horner. The LaLit London blends East with West. While its exterior is Western, the interiors of the 70 guestrooms (numbered as classrooms) exude the Eastern sensibilities reflected in the choice of Indian furnishings. Two beautiful bars — The Teachers’ Room and The Headmaster’s Room — boast intricately restored, carved ceilings and an original fireplace. And, of course, there is the chain’s signature pan-Indian restaurant, Baluchi, at The Great Hall, featuring cuisines from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The launch in London was preceded by the launch of The LaLiT Mangar, on the outskirts of Delhi, which has been designed as an experiential, eco-friendly retreat. 

The slices of luxury at The LaLit London are some of the Indian imports: the peacock and elephant motif tapestries, the blue cobalt Hyderabadi chandeliers, the jaali-work wooden screens — all shipped from India.

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