India’s first eco sensitive hotel brand, The Fern Hotels & Resorts has completed 10 years. In an exclusive father and son interview, Param Kannampilly, the ‘father’ of sustainable hospitality in India and Suhail Kannampilly speak about what was the inspiration behind the brand, how it carved a sustainable niche for itself and the roadmap ahead. By Steena Joy
How has the 10 year journey been for The Fern?
Param K: It has been an exciting journey there’s no doubt about that. But it had its share of problems too. The first brand we had was Gracia , we launched it, but then found that someone else had the same brand. Then we were searching for a name and we thought of Fern – no one else had used it and Fern was very appropriate because it is very environment friendly. Besides according to history, fern was the first plant that appeared on Earth and the first plant that will die if pollution increases. So we chose that as our brand name.
The journey has been interesting because asset owners really trusted us. We are a homegrown brand and the Mishras who owned the Jaipur property, our first Fern hotel, were kind enough. Even though they had many people who wanted the hotel, but the Mishras went with the Fern. Then came the Ahmedabad hotel, Delhi, Gir and later Meluha in Mumbai. When Suhail finished his education, he joined the business and it has been smooth sailing ever since.
The millennial traveller has different needs and demands. How has The Fern adapted to the new age hotel guest?
Suhail K: The age group of clientele between 25 to 40 years is the bulk of travellers. In terms of what a millennial guest wants, one of things that really is the highlight is regional, local and to an extent glocal. And Fern represents that to a large extent. We have a lot of environmental friendly initiatives which we do at our hotel and this echoes well with the eco conscious millennial travellers and that’s one of the key drawing points attracting them to the brand.
Technology wise what we try to do, is keep it still personal. We have not gotten to a stage where the entire system is driven by technology. That said, we are soon launching a new brand called Zinc, which will be completely targeted at the millennial traveller. And it will be heavily technology oriented and will have a casual feel. We are opening a 200-room property under this brand in Whitefield Bengaluru hopefully by November this year.
What was the reason behind starting an eco sensitive hotel brand?
Param K: It was the market. I didn’t know much of environment, I studied that later. We never wanted to be a single hotel at all. We wanted to be a brand which expanded and which had many more hotels attached to it. When you look at it, the market was only in three places at that time – hospitality belonged to Taj group, professionalism to the Oberoi group and cuisine was ITC group. We could only have been a me-too brand and many hotel chains have taken this path. So we created the fourth pillar that was environment and focused on it and opened it so all our industry people could see it, understand the benefits of it and start adapting to it. That was the inspiration behind The Fern.
What are the challenges of growing a homegrown brand vs an international brand?
Param K: It is difficult because you are competing with people who have more years of experience than we do. But the interesting part of the indigenous brand is that owners check with other Indian owners. Are you comfortable with these people? have they delivered what they promised you? Are they respecting your company’s philosophy? Here we score much higher than international chains.
Suhail K: Also, we have international travel movement of around 15 million while domestic travel is over 550 million people. And these domestic travellers still recognise something regional, they need the touch and feel which is regional, they need someone who can understand what they are. So in this aspect, we are a step above international brands.
Suhail, who is your role model? What advice will you give the next gen hoteliers?
Suhail K: My father is of course one of my role models. His patience and human relations are one of the key factors that has been the driving force of the group so far. What I can tell the gen-next is what we lack is patience. That’s something we have to imbibe from the older generation. We want everything in the ‘Now’ and at times that doesn’t happen. We got to live with it. We have to work on how it can happen. Sitting back and waiting for change is not the solution. We got to go out and drive the change.
Miles to go before I hang up my boots. Param, what more do you want to do for the brand?
One of things that is missing is trained manpower for hire. At some stage, before I hang up my boots, we must start a training college. We are on the lookout for it.
Apart from the training institute, what is the future roadmap for The Fern?
Suhail K: We set out with a target to reach a 100 hotels as a company by 2020. When we set that target, we were only six hotels. Currently we operate 67 hotels in India across the various brands that the company has, Fern being one of them. We are on course to reach about 97 hotels by 2020. The next step is to now consolidate the brand, make it stronger, ensure that our customer loyalty part is focused well, working on enhancing their experiences in the hotel. We are looking at expanding within the Indian subcontinent right now – we have started off with Nepal and have three hotels there. Post that we are also looking at Sri Lanka and later south east Asia as well.