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Going palaces

February 06, 2004 14:23 IST

Having bagged the "best grand heritage award" for the fourth year running (equally shared between flagship City Palace Udaipur properties Shiv Niwas and Fateh Prakash), the Historic Resorts and Hotels group isn't resting easy on its laurels.

"Heritage," says its mentor, the chairman and managing director of the group, Arvind Singh Mewar, "should not be an excuse for bad hoteliering."

Clearly, at HRH it isn't, and priorities are constantly being monitored and re-adjusted for, despite the advantage of premier properties in Udaipur, the group finds itself short of the deep pockets that corporate-backed hotel companies command at will.

Part of the reason for this is that funds have had to be self-generated, and profits have been ploughed back into improving facilities, upgrading the product, building eco-sensitivities, and buying or leasing palaces and stately homes outside Udaipur.

Thirteen royal properties in Udaipur, Kumbhalgarh, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Jaipur are part of the bag.

At Gajner Palace, the hunting lodge that was once the property of the royal family of Bikaner, "Shriji" Arvind Singh Mewar is both gracious host as well as critical proprietor.

Meetings are held in abeyance as he checks on housekeeping and service, demanding higher and greater efficiencies. A trained hotelier, he's decided that Gajner needs a concerted blitzkreig to place on the international tourist map "as a complete destination in itself".

For now, it serves as a historic retreat by a desert lake with a 6,000-acre bird sanctuary attached, and sightings of deer, hare and wild boar are common. But clearly it needs more.

"This year, therefore," says Shriji, "we're concentrating on building up Gajner." This includes the addition of a spa, health club and swimming pool to the premises.

"But we also have to create fun and activity centres to completely hold the attention of our guets and extend their guest stay to two days or, ideally, three."

Even more exciting are two projects at Gajner that, announced earlier, had been held in abeyance in the wake of catastrophic tourism run-downs following 9/11.

The first of these is the revival of the rail-link between Bikaner and Gajner, approval for which has already been obtained from the railways ministry.

Only a 2-km portion of the track has to be laid, which will make it India's only heritage property that will have its own, private railway platform.

The platform itself, being designed by New Delhi-based Rajiv Narain Architects, will front the lake and be encompassed by giant banyan trees.

The same firm has been asked to create a village mart alongside the railway platform. While the platform will have a formal structure, the mart has been designed as an organic structure congruent to the platform, but representative of village architecture.

As for any considerations of harming the lake waters, Shriji is vociferous about his dedication to conservation.

"No water from the palace goes into the lake," he explains, "all waste water is collected into a soak pit. And because we're sensitive to the environment, a recycling plant will soon be commissioned at Gajner, as we have already done in Udaipur and in Jaisalmer."

The cost of the two projects is likely to be in the region of Rs 6 crore (Rs 60 million). HRH is studying the option of a government/private participation in the railway link, failing which it may finance the project through loans.

"The fallout will be multi-faceted," he insists, "and will mean a lot to the economy of Bikaner."

Active promotions in the media are being supported by promotions that highlight an annual calendar of activities at Gajner, while also positioning it as a venue for both weddings as well as honeymoons.

Actress Raveena Tandon may be the first to take the complete package for a wedding in Udaipur followed by a honeymoon in Gajner.

And now that palace hotels such as Jodhpur's Umaid Bhawan Palace have taken the lead in tying up with an international hotel company such as Aman Resorts, the HRH group is no longer averse to a similar alliance.

"We'd like to establish links with someone who has international marketing strengths and global reservation systems. We're exploring such partnerships either as an investor in HRH, or as consultants for management, marketing and reservations."

Kishore Singh