In Conversation with Anant Srivastava

Head of Content & Media, V. Resorts
Monday, 22 Jan 2018
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An MBA from ISB Hyderabad by qualification, a Photographer & Content Media specialist by profession and a traveller at heart, Anant heads the Content & Media verticle at V Resorts. Having started his career in Consulting with Ernst & Young, Anant gave into his calling when he undertook a Photography course from the London School of Photography before doing his masters from ISB in 2014. Prior to his work with V, Anant led PAN-India Marketing for KLAY Schools, the country\'s largest Corporate Daycare chain.
An MBA from ISB Hyderabad by qualification, a Photographer & Content Media specialist by profession and a traveller at heart, Anant heads the Content & Media verticle at V Resorts. Having started his career in Consulting with Ernst & Young, Anant gave into his calling when he undertook a Photography course from the London School of Photography before doing his masters from ISB in 2014. Prior to his work with V, Anant led PAN-India Marketing for KLAY Schools, the country's largest Corporate Daycare chain.

What sort of research was done before launching V Resorts and what was the opportunity that you identified?

The gap and opportunity were the same, actually. What we saw at the time of our inception was a rising India story in terms of its tourism potential and the untapped market that India was. With the current regime, although the sector has seen a vital institutional push, there is still a long way to go in terms of market maturity.

Our research on the sector showed that firstly there were the five-star properties that catered to high-end business travellers and over the last 5 years, a lot of new startups came up in the budget travel space. However, there was a glaring gap so far as boutique leisure travel was concerned, especially for medium to high-income families. This was the segment where travellers - Senior Executives, well earning dual-income families, and even solo-travellers wanting to take a break from city life and enjoy offbeat boutique experiences. That's the opportunity we saw.

Clearly, this is different from Air B&B?

Air B&B is a successful concept but what V Resorts does is slightly different – we standardise the services in our business while in Air B&B, its a homestay aggregation model where user experiences are purely dependent on the host and the services he/she provides. Our area of expertise is standardized operations. We manage and curate the end to end experience for the customer. From managing the facilities to standardizing services, from training staff to dealing with customer concerns directly - we aim to provide the one stop shop for all the needs of a leisure traveller across India. Whether a customer travels to a heritage property in Rajasthan or a log hut in Kulu, we believe the experience needs to be standardized while retaining a local experiential element of the destination.

This was going to be my next question. How do you decide on destinations to open properties?

The first marker for us when we onboard properties is the kind of property itself and whether that fits our minimum standards in terms of the infrastructure. Paralelly our acquisition teams visit the site and take stock of its upkeep, accessibility, and whether it aligns to our brand.

While we are present in states and cities that tend to be higher on the tourist radar, we also look at offbeat destinations that can benefit from our tie-up, not just in terms of operations, but from a sales & marketing perspective. With "City Breaks" being one of the chief brand tenets, a majority of our resorts are located at drivable distances from major cities, whether or not they are located within popular tourist hubs themselves.

For instance, in launching one of our earliest resorts, instead of being in the heart of Nainital, we consciously chose to take up a property in nearby Sattal, which in itself is a pristine and a much less chaotic version of its popular neighbouring lake city. Likewise, in Rajasthan, we launched our first set of properties in Sariska and Amer, with the aim of defining the boutique image of the brand.

Other than the location itself, what sort of checks go into onboarding properties?

We have a very strong property acquisition team with its network across India that is constantly in touch with property owners and understands the dynamics of each state and its unique challenges.

Core to our principles is the brand vision and a clear definition of who our core customer is and what he/she values. This brand vision is relayed to every single employee at the time of their joining and especially with the property acquisition team, this becomes the first step for them to understand the kind of properties we take up.

A very important criterion for property identification is that it shouldn’t be a straight jacket concrete structure – our properties have character, comfort, and expansiveness so our consumers can relax, unwind, and truly take a break. Counter to a majority of hospitality chains, we also refrain from onboarding properties with over 30 rooms even though that adds to the revenue capacity. We are a boutique brand and for us maintaining quality standards across our properties is critical.

How important is being eco-friendly and environmentally conscious for V Resorts?

I would say not just being environmentally conscious but also having a strong community initiative is a very big mandate for us at V. One of the major recent developments has been our tie-up with IFC for their EDGE certification program where we work with them to make all our properties operate with the most sustainable & eco-friendly practices.

In case of community initiatives, there is a deep focus on positively impacting local communities through 100% local hiring and local procurements at the resort level. Engaging locals in our business is absolutely vital because one of our core propositions to our guests are local experiences - local in terms of the food we serve, the tours we organize,  the arts we exhibit, and the festivals we celebrate. All of these are critical touch points with our consumers.

We also look to work with local communities to positively impact their ecnomic well being. For instance in Sattal, before we launched our resort, there was hardly any tourist activity in the town given that majority of tourists would seek other, more popular lake towns. The boatmen in particular found it difficult to make ends meet. Soon after we began operations, we decided to give our guests complimentary boating tours, along with other local experiences, costs for all of which was borne by us and paid directly to the boatmen. As our occupancy grew, so did the earnings of the boatmen community which now thrives by the tourist activity at the lake. What we have achieved is a mutually beneficial relationship and an engaging community connect.

Similarly, through our work with local women help groups in Uttarakhand, we launched Pitara last year - an in-house local product store selling locally produced handicrafts, souvenirs, spices, pickles and more, all of whih are inspired by regional artistic traditions, and foods from specific regions of the country.

What does 2018 have in store for V?

We have expanded at a great pace within India the last 3 years and in 2017 in particular. This year, the focus will be three-fold with the first being our expansion beyond India. We've already taken the first steps to open shop in Srilanka and hopefully, by the turn of the financial year, we should be officially launching there. The other major focus will be on experiences. Although we've already got a line up of unique experiences at each of our properties, we are in the process of building a wider array of exclusive experiences and will be making them saleable to people whether or not they stay at a V property. Lastly, we would be bolstering our network with India as well. Currently although we are present in 18 states, the majority of the 100+ properties are located in the north & central India. We plan to expand further in the sourth and the north east this year as well.

What’s the reason for the success of V Resorts?

There are two key factors for the success of our brand, chief among which is our strong offline network to complement our wide-ranging online presence. Also, what helps us online is that we are not competing with other Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). We have our own booking engine which works seamlessly for us but instead of competing with OTAs, both channels contribute to our brand presnece.

More importantly, and as stereotypical as it may sound, the length & breadth of experience of our leadership team has helped immensely in keeping the boat steady at the time of the exponential grwoth that 2017 was for us. Our head of operations, for example, comes with over 16 years of experience in the hospitality domain with the likes of Club Mahindra while our Head of Sales has headed growth initiatives of names like MakeMyTrip, TATA Communications and Bharti Airtel. Our founder and CEO, Aditi Balbir who is also ISB alumni, left an accomplished career in finance with Mckinsey and Baring Equity before founding V. Having a team who have seen though such grwoth helps in maintaining the focus which can often be a challenge during high growth periods for startups.

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