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Doyen of Hospitality: An Interview with Rajiv Kaul, President, The Leela Palaces, Hotels & Resor

In an expansive and brilliant career, Rajiv Kaul, President, The Leela Palaces, Hotels & Resorts, has hit many milestones, but being true to his values is what he cherishes most

What do you say about someone whose intrinsic qualities rest on perseverance and patience, and the ability to stay relevant. Someone who has not been blinded by the quest for success, nor lost sight of who he was even at the pinnacle of triumph. Someone whose pursuits rested more on adding value to life than lucre and whose fundamental beliefs are characteristic of both him and his brand. Without amplification, Rajiv Kaul, President, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, most exemplifies these attributes. Speaking with Today’s Traveller Coffee Table Book, 2018, Kaul delivers invaluable insights on his career, his sojourn with Hospitality and that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ factor that is essential to achieve success. A staunch believer in the science and art of hospitality, Kaul has always guided his team in driving business excellence across all functions. Under his aegis, the Group’s portfolio has grown to nine award-winning hotels and Brand Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts has been voted among the ‘Top 10 Hotel Brands in the World’ for a third consecutive year in a worldwide readers survey by Travel & Leisure USA. No mean achievement this, but Kaul’s excellence in his field stems from, in his words, ‘A passion for luxury hospitality and a desire to create more rewarding, unique, and luxurious travel journeys has been both my raison d’etre and driving force for continually raising the bar on luxury hospitality.” Reiterating his belief about passion being a powerful driver of excellence, Kaul articulates, “I would say that excellence in hospitality is not a single act, but a habit to be repeated consistently. It is not just about personalised services, but the warmth and grace with which they are delivered every time. At the organisational level, a passion for excellence translates itself into uncompromising attention to quality in even the smallest details and to keep pushing yourself to continually find new ways to delight changing guest needs.”

Additionally, says Kaul, “For me personally, passion for excellence also means benchmarking with world-class luxury hospitality standards – born out of a desire to showcase the warmth, grace and richness that is unique to Indian hospitality.” To be successful is to overcome complacency by anticipating and embracing change and commit to setting milestones. Throughout his remarkable career, Kaul has abided by these tenets. The distinguished luminary’s sojourn began in 1978, when Kaul took a big leap of faith by joining Oberoi Hotels as a Management Trainee, which was contrary to the conventional and coveted career choices of the time. Taking a calculated risk says much for Kaul’s grit, considering he knew little about hotels. However, the gambit paid off and Kaul was amongst the 18 selected from 9000 applicants – thereafter there was no looking back. After a formidable programme that combined six months of academics with 18 months of hands-on experience through every single department of a hotel, from laundry and housekeeping to kitchen, concierge, and even, engineering, Kaul’s feet were firmly embedded in a career in Hospitality. Two years later saw the intrepid hotelier as the Front Office Manager at the 600 room flagship hotel, The Oberoi Towers, with mentor and GM, Anil Madhok, instilling in him a passion to learn and not wait to be taught. Kaul’s French connection happened in 1984, when he was selected for a scholarship for MBA studies at Cornell-Essec, Paris. Thus began a ‘histoire d’amour,’ an amazing learning experience at iconic hotels such as Hotel Meurice and Hotel de Crillon, and initiation into all things French.

The next milestone in Kaul’s career was his appointment as General Manager of The Oberoi New Delhi, a highly coveted position in the industry. “I had to quickly expand my hoteliering abilities and managerial skill set, while developing intellectual and emotional maturity well beyond my natural age,” admits Kaul. Egypt was yet another milestone in Kaul’s career graph as he took over as Vice President of Oberoi Hotels, based at the legendary Mena House Oberoi, and was responsible for a diverse portfolio of differentiated tourism products, including luxury hotels, sea resorts, Nile cruisers, cruising restaurants, and the Golf course overlooking the great Pyramid and Casino operations. However, the defining milestone for Kaul was joining The Leela and working with the late Captain Nair. Says Kaul reverentially, “Capt. Nair kindled in me a deep appreciation for the multi-layered richness of India and making sure that it comes alive in the Leela guest experience – by each hotel showcasing a grand celebration of local art and architecture; cuisines and culture.” Reminiscing about the high points of his career and the impression it has made on him, Kaul cites some iconic hotels that he has been privileged to be at the helm of and acclaimed for their excellence, notably, The Oberoi New Delhi; Soaltee Oberoi, Kathmandu; The Oberoi Towers Bombay; Mena House Oberoi Cairo; The Taj Mahal Mumbai and the Leela Palace properties at Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Udaipur. Shares Kaul, “I have been fortunate to serve luxury at some of the finest hotels in the country – at Oberoi, Taj and Leela, which provided me an opportunity to usher higher operational standards of excellence; enhance the global reputation of luxury Indian hospitality; and also mentor a generation of hoteliers, many of whom are providing leadership to leading hospitality brands in India.” Continuing, Kaul emphasises, “Most of all, I am delighted to have contributed towards building Leela into a leading luxury hotel brand. The Leela brand’s portfolio today, has grown to nine award-winning hotels, with several new projects in the pipeline in India and overseas. Each Leela property is recognised for its unique identity; is a market leader in its respective location and is acclaimed for its superior hospitality, having received numerous accolades from guests and industry leaders.” Throughout a brilliant career, Kaul picked up the gauntlet and proved that in the final analysis, the true measure of a man is when he moves from his comfort zone to face times of challenge and controversy. Kaul narrates how 15 years ago, he and the Leela team challenged themselves to make the Leela a sought after luxury hospitality brand…and succeeded. For over two decades, the Leela brand has remained a market leader in Bengaluru and Goa. The Leela Palace Delhi has been number 1 on Trip Advisor amongst 8000 hotels in Delhi NCR for over 48 months. “Being No 1 is definitely hard, but staying on top is even harder…and a greater challenge,” informs Kaul. Ruminating over a 40-year-experience, Kaul concludes, “A personal challenge has been to stay relevant and to keep inventing oneself. It is not about being a man of success but also to be a person of value…I have been fortunate to add value by mentoring a generation of hoteliers, many of whom are providing leadership to leading hospitality brands in India.”

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