Premier Inn has its first Indian hotel up and running, with the second to follow this year. ABTN talks to Aly Shariff, managing director of Premier Inn India, about taking the budget hotel sector by storm
Premier Inn chose Bengaluru, the technology hub of India, for its first opening. "They call it the garden of India - it's very green and lush," said Aly Shariff, managing director of Premier Inn India.
|Aly Shariff, Premier Inn India|
A further nine properties are planned, although only two locations have been announced: Delhi will open later this year and Pune is planned for 2011.
"The other six are all part of our ongoing finalisation search. And also, I suppose what we're doing is trying to learn from this opening in terms of location, size, what works and what doesn't work. We want to make sure we get the next locations absolutely spot on, as we have here."
With expansion on the horizon, it's important to build the brand, said Mr Shariff.
"We have a huge business in the UK, a developing business in Ireland and the Gulf, but in India we are a completely new brand in a relatively undeveloped sector. The limited service sector is hugely under-developed in India," he said.
Because limited service chain hotels are relatively unknown in the Indian market, Mr Shariff said he has spent a lot of time educating people about the concept.
"In India, if something is not extremely expensive, it usually means that it is not good value. We absolutely are challenging that.
"Our policy is quality and value for money, and they can live very happily and cheerfully together."
As part of this process, Mr Shariff decided to carry out some market research into what the Indian guest was looking for in a value for money property.
So he built an exact replica of the Premier Inn room, which is virtually identical in every hotel you'll visit, in a portacabin in the UK and had it shipped to Delhi via Southampton and Mumbai.
Then he engaged a market research company and ran 12 guest focus groups, drawing people of different ages and from different social groups.
One of the questions asked of the participants was about what was absolutely essential in a hotel - suprisingly, for a budget hotel, most of them said a hotel was "absolutely essential", said Mr Shariff.
While this didn't get through, guests in India have the benefit of a fridge and marble floors.
Another surprise for Mr Shariff was the popularity of the Hypnose bed - the brand used in all Premier Inn hotels in the UK and in the new hotel in Bangalore.
"We asked the participants to lie on the bed and I think we had an offer to buy it from every person who tried it out... It just shows it was absolutely the right thing to import the bed."
Mr Shariff said the research gave him a lot of insight into the Indian psyche.
"They want to have all these things. They must be there," he said, "not because them want to use them, but because it's an extremely rapidly developing country and therefore society and culture. All of the social icons are extremely important to make people feel special."
Mr Shariff thinks the majority of Premier Inn regulars will be travelling on business.
"The vast majority of our guests are going to come as business travellers within a hugely expanding middle management - whether from large Indian companies, small to medium enterprises or individual traders."
These travellers are increasingly looking for value for money, said Mr Shariff.
"Indian middle classes are becoming much more internationally savvy and much more well travelled.
"They are saying: ‘I have the right to travel in my own country and I have the right not to be ripped off. I have the right to good quality - if I go to the UK I get it, if I go to the US I get it, so why can' I get it on my own doorstep?'.
For Mr Shariff the experience of launching the brand in India has been wholly positive. Although his great grandparents were from Gujurat in India, he himself had never been there. He arrived to launch the brand armed only with a laptop.
"After three weeks I had an internet connection. After two months I had recruited two people. Today I have an office with 23 people, we have our own email exchange and our own server. And we have an operating hotel with 105 bedrooms and a team of 50 people working there.
"It has been the most challenging, the most stretching and at the same time the most exhilirating thing I have ever done professionally."