Jyotsna Suri: The high priestess of hospitality
Fortune India , Dec 08, 2019
Last year, videos of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani's family dancing to Bollywood numbers at his daughter's wedding made a splash cross social media. But a video of another business head performing at her son’s wedding also garnered considerable attention. Except this one was a bit different. Jyotsna Suri, chairperson and managing director of Bharat Hotels, the flagship company of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, was seen with her son and the group’s executive director, Keshav Suri, in a drag performance at his wedding reception in Goa, both swaying to a Bollywood song. Keshav Suri was getting married to his partner, Cyril Feuillebois.
By no means is this a regular event in India. Even after Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised same-sex relationships, was abolished by the Supreme Court last year, same-sex weddings are not common in the country. And for a business family to celebrate a same-sex marriage with such fanfare is definitely not conventional. However, for Jyotsna Suri, it isn’t just that one day she was there for her son; his identity has become an intrinsic part of her company’s approach to business.
It all started when her son came out as gay. Sitting in The LaLiT hotel in New Delhi, I ask her about it. “The first big thing was that I accepted my son... I had zero choice. Either I am happy and I have my son. Or I am unhappy and I lose my son. There is no way I was going to lose my son and there was no way I was going to be unhappy. So I took that decision and having done that, I had to do something for the community,” she says.
The LaLiT has been supportive of the LGBTQ community in many ways, from hiring transgender employees to introducing an equality pledge that every employee takes. It also owns popular nightclubs— Kitty Su in Delhi and Mumbai and Kitty Ko in Bengaluru—that host drag performances. Keshav says this is also where India’s most popular drag artists—Maya, The Drag Queen and Rani Ko-HE-Nur— were born. The company has adopted LGBTQ-friendly hiring policies: It not only changed its forms to accept the third gender but also started giving medical insurance to same-sex couples. In addition, it covers up to ₹3.5 lakh for gender reassignment surgery.
Keshav, the brain behind the nightclubs who looks after the hotel’s food and beverage division, gives his mother credit for these initiatives. “Kitty Su became this giant safe space... If she [Jyotsna Suri] wouldn’t have given me that freedom, we wouldn’t have had Kitty Su today. We wouldn’t have had The LaLiT become this beacon of hope for the LGBTQ community,” he says.
Suri, who debuts on the Fortune India Most Powerful Women in business list this year at No. 38, has been at the helm since 2006. Over these years, she has taken many bold decisions. From opening the chain’s first international hotel in London to supporting a property in Srinagar despite it not making enough money, Suri has been a risk-taker. And it has paid off. The company’s revenue rose to ₹811 crore in FY19 from ₹754.5 crore in FY18.
Suri took over the chain after her husband Lalit Suri died in 2006. A parliamentarian and hotelier, Lalit Suri started Bharat Hotels which opened its first hotel in Delhi back in 1988 as a franchisee of Holiday Inn. Jyotsna joined in 1989 as joint managing director. One of the first big steps for the couple was buying the erstwhile Gulab Bhavan in Srinagar at the height of the insurgency in Kashmir. Suri says people warned them it was a bad decision as no businesses wanted to go to Kashmir. The Suris stuck by their decision.
“We knew that at some point or the other Kashmir will settle down and this property, which we have picked up, is going to become worth a lot more than what we spent on it,” says Delhi-based Suri, who was looking after the architecture and interior design of their properties at the time. It took years to restore the heritage property and even after the hotel opened, it wasn’t able to sustain itself but was completely supported by Delhi. Suri says they had a couple of good years but for the past three years, they have been pumping money into it as it doesn’t generate enough revenue.
However, with the recent decision to abrogate Article 370, which gave special rights to Jammu and Kashmir, Suri believes the hotel will turn around. “Now with this going through, the Valley will see a revival in tourism... This is the right thing to do. It will cause some temporary upheaval, but, in the long run, it is the best thing that is going to happen to Kashmir,” she says.
For Suri, who spent 10 years in The Lawrence School, Sanawar, a boarding school near Shimla, and got married straight out of college, the days after the sudden passing of her husband weren’t easy. She had to take over the hotel chain within 10 days. Rumours of the group being sold were doing the rounds while bankers had started knocking on their doors. But she took over and has since steered the group into the largest private hotel chain in the country. At the time, the group owned six properties in India, which has now more than doubled to 14 spread across many cities from Mumbai to Jaipur. The 15th hotel in Ahmedabad is about to be completed.
The first big decision when she took over was to become independent after years of running the hotel under a franchise contract with the Hilton, InterContinental, and Holiday Inn. She rebranded the hotels under the name The LaLiT after her late husband. Many questioned the decision at the time but it proved to be a sound move and the chain has established an identity of its own. “My colleagues felt that I was just being emotional, but I knew I wasn’t making any mistake and that it was going to be an identity that was never going to be taken away from us, it was going to give a very strong character to our hotels and that’s exactly what happened,” she says.
Keshav says that for him and his sisters, Divya Suri Singh and Deeksha Suri, who are both executive directors, the name means there is an emotional connect and it helps resolve any disagreements that might arise while working together. “I think my mum played it so smartly, calling the hotel group after my father, so we always have an emotional connect, how much ever we might want to argue and fight, you can’t really walk off because it is my father’s name,” he says.
Suri is also not shy to admit that a lot of her decisions had an emotional reason behind them. For instance, opening a hotel in London, for which she and her husband had been scouting for properties before he died. She eventually found a building which was more than a century old on Tooley Street in London. It was restored and opened as a luxury boutique hotel in 2017.
Her efforts have earned her recognition: Suri was president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in 2015. FICCI secretary general Dilip Chenoy says during her tenure FICCI’s Forum of Parliamentarians organised several delegations to important countries and brought MPs together for discussions.
In the 13 years the Miranda House, Delhi University graduate has been at the helm, the hotel industry itself has undergone a sea change. The onslaught of tech players like Airbnb and OYO, food delivery firms like Zomato and Swiggy, and ticketing and booking platforms like MakeMyTrip or Booking.com has impacted the hospitality business. Foreign luxury chains like St. Regis have also set up shop in India.
But Suri says The LaLiT is prepared to take on the technology players and even partner with them. She believes players like OYO and Airbnb are not competition as they don’t operate in the same segment. However, the company is making its hotels more friendly for millennials and new-age consumers who expect services like fast Wi-Fi. “Airbnb or OYO is going to affect three and four-star hotels. If any executives from big companies are travelling, they won’t stay at an Airbnb. I don’t think in the next four-five years, Airbnb is going to be a challenge for five-star hotels,” says Sumant Kumar, vice president, institutional research, midcaps, Motilal Oswal Financial Services.
With an impending IPO and a hotel coming up in Ahmedabad, Suri is now in consolidation mode. The IPO was slotted for last year but was postponed as the market was unstable and because of the general election. Suri is also eyeing the budget hotel segment. “I am quite comfortable with the number of hotels we have. However, I do feel that we want to expand into the mid-segment; with the land bank that we have got, we will develop mid-segment hotels, but I am only going to look at it after two years,” says Suri.
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