Sunder Advani: the lone, long ranger of hotels in India
At 80, Sunder Advani does not live with medicines, he lives with dreams.
He says he has a huge, list of unfinished agenda, and he must complete it as fast as possible. And then he pauses, remembering the start. It was in 1959 when Advani was admitted to the MBA program of The Wharton School at the University Of Pennsylvania, secured a Green Card and ended up as a Senior Economist in one of the largest Management Consulting firms in the US. But he returned to India and started shaping up the country’s nascent hotel industry. He brought Holiday Inns into India and held their master franchise and later the same master franchise for the Ramada hotel chain for India and Sri Lanka, set up the first casino in Goa. And then, eventually, settled for his own brand, Caravela which is owned by the parent Advani Hotels and Resorts, a listed company.
Last week, as he completed 80 years of his eventful life, Advani told reporters why he felt the need to pen his biography, Even Against All Odds. Wearing casuals, Advani walked on the beaches of his expansive Caravela Beach Resort in Goa to narrate anecdotes from his life and why he felt age was not adding to his life, he was - actually - adding life to his age.
“After 80, each day is a bonus and no one can predict if one will be alive tomorrow,” Advani told BTVI in an interview.
Anyone else in his place would have relaxed on the laurels, Advani says he has miles to go before he can sleep. He says he will continue to work, Gods are on his side.
Over the last five decades or so, Advani - says the book - developed 11 hotels, 2 flight-catering units, and 2 casinos. The first one was on the beaches of Juhu, it was a great start in Mumbai.
Just before his grand bash to celebrate his 80th birthday, Advani remembered his pioneering journey in one of the biggest foreign exchange earners and employment generators - the hotel sector.
He remembered how he changed the standard perspective of Western travellers who looked at India as a nation of tigers, naked sadhus, rich kings and snake charmers. He reminded them time and again India is - actually - the land of the mystic orient, almost comparable like the Shang Ri La, or the lost, heavenly kingdom that many say lies buried in China. He encouraged visitors to travel to Indian forts, the ghats of Varanasi, the Buddha circuit and the beaches of Goa and Puducherry. He helped visitors look beyond the Taj Mahal and the Golden Triangle. “I was happy to work towards this perception change of travellers to India. It was very important for all hotels to offer a package that never revolved around the Indian stereotypes you see in Hollywood."
Advani said he was lucky to team up with Holiday Inn, the best-known hotel chain in the US. The legendary Kemmons Wilson, (founder of the Holiday Inn hotel chain) had tremendous faith in Advani and his dreams. “It was a great start.”
Arranging funds to build capital-intensive hotels was a big challenge, Advani learnt lessons on the job. He remembered the golden, unwritten rule saying that if you do not own and control at least a 50.1% stake in a venture, you practically own nothing.
It was his unbridled persistence that saw Sunder build not only several Holiday Inns, Ramada Hotels and Renaissance Hotels in India, but also in Sri Lanka. There were many firsts, like India’s first airport hotel close to the Mumbai international airport. In 1988, Advani hired the world-renowned resort architects WATG, (who are famous for designing the Atlantis, Sun-City, and Venetian) and created an architectural wonder in 1990. He named it the ‘Renaissance Goa Resort’, now known as the ‘Caravela Beach Resort’.
There were others first’s up his sleeves. India’s first slot-machine casino in 1993 called the ‘Goa Nugget’ and then India’s first live-gaming casino in 2001, both came to India because of Advani, helping the Goa government earn a whopping Rs 400 crore annually from the market.
No wonder Advani is loved by all. Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog, and former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, penned a foreword for the book, describing Advani as “a pioneer whose persistence brought in tremendous strides in the development of India’s image as an upcoming tourist destination in a foreigner’s itinerary”.
But there are issues that bother Advani, among them high GST rates for luxurious hotels & resorts In India. Why would foreign travellers come to India, when they have many island nations to go minus the GST, asks Advani? But he knows there will be no tax relief for five-star luxury hotels as the GST Council is unlikely to reduce the 28% GST tax on luxury hotels with tariffs of Rs 7,500 and above.
Everyone standing close to him agree.