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Ace Achiever: An Interview with Rajiv Kaul, President, The Leela Palaces, Hotels & Resorts

Mentor to a generation of hoteliers, Rajiv Kaul, President, The Leela Palaces, Hotels & Resorts, has enhanced the global reputation of luxury Indian hospitality brands

There are certain parameters which distinguish a leader from others. One is the ability to make the most out of every situation. The other is not to stay away from challenging the status quo and pushing boundaries to make things better. It is because of these sterling qualities, amongst others, that the best leaders know how to showcase the full potential in others and get the best out of them. Rajiv Kaul, President, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, most subscribes to these attributes of an accomplished frontrunner. Speaking with Today’s Traveller Coffee Table Book 2019, Kaul shares valuable insights about his journey in the Hospitality Industry, career highlights and his work philosophy.

The beginnings were a little arduous, explains Kaul, as he chose a path that was not his parent’s first choice. Turning his back on the favoured MBA route, in a leap of faith, Kaul enrolled with the Oberoi Trainee Programme. Perseverance and diligence soon paid dividends and saw the young Kaul firmly entrenched in the Hospitality Industry. From Front Office Manager at Oberoi, New Delhi, to Cornell University, Paris, for further studies, Kaul achieved a milestone in his career when he was designated as General Manager of The Oberoi New Delhi, which was the Capital’s finest hotel and amongst the best in the country, at a young age of just 31 years. Thereafter, there was no looking back. The year 1996 saw Kaul as Vice President, Oberoi Hotels, Egypt, helming an award-winning portfolio, including the legendary Mena House. Another landmark achievement under his aegis was launching Egypt’s finest luxury Nile and Red Sea resort. This was followed by a brief assignment at Taj Hotels, where key achievements included the repositioning of the Taj Mahal Place and Towers and launch of Wellington Mews and Wasabi at Taj.

Under Kaul’s tutelage, the brand has grown to nine award-winning hotels, with the brand being acclaimed for its superior hospitality. Joining The Leela, and working with Late Captain Nair who was a true visionary, was perhaps another defining milestone for him. In the past decade, under Kaul’s leadership, the brand has built some landmark Leela Palace properties, which ushered in new standards of luxury not just in cities but the country.

The Leela Palace Udaipur was recently voted ‘No 1 Hotel in the World’ and The Leela Brand was part of ‘Top 10 Hotels in the World’ for the fourth consecutive year in a worldwide readers’ survey conducted by Travel & Leisure, USA. Though India has been the sole touch point for The Leela, the brand has received global recognition from discerning travellers on coveted lists of top international hotel brands. 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.” Kaul articulates on his work philosophy and how it stems from his own intrinsic value system that steps outside of measuring success by prestige, personal wealth and power. Having been in the hospitality business for over 35 years, Kaul is cognisant of the significance of technology in revitalising the industry.

However, says Kaul succinctly, “A lot of times it can be easy to forget that at the heart of hospitality lies its people. The value of being greeted warmly on arrival by your first name and personally escorted for a check-in is far more memorable than an app talking back to you. In the pursuit of efficiency and profit, we should not forsake our biggest and most important resource: service from the heart.” Kaul declares that while The Leela believes in innovation as a market driver, “We have taken care to not become technology-rich and insight-poor.”

Kaul further waxes eloquent about The Leela’s biggest motivating force behind its excellence as being the great vision of the owning family and senior leadership. The overwhelming leadership skills, extraordinary vision and unwavering commitment of the Late Captain Nair and his wife, Leela Nair have inspired millions working in the organisation.

Throughout his august career, Kaul’s resilience in the face of adversity has proved that the true mettle of a man resides in his ability to move from his comfort zone to face tough challenges. 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.

Reminiscing over his long-term 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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