by LAUREN CODLING
AN AWARD-WINNING hotelier has revealed how she realised her childhood ambition of running the family’s hospitality business and came to be recognised as one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in India.
Priya Paul is the chairperson of The Park Hotels, a collection of luxury hotels across India.
The 52-year-old acts as the creative “powerhouse” behind the business, personally decorating the hotels with art from her 3,000-plus collection.
Alongside her two younger siblings, Karan and Priti, she also co-owns the Apeejay Surrendra Group. The business covers a variety of sectors, including real estate, hospitality, shipping, tea plantations and retail.
However, Paul is best known for pioneering the design and boutique hotel scene in India. Her interests lie within contemporary art, although she has a passion for old traditional crafts such as puppetry and carving.
Each hotel within the Park brand is designed differently – the Hyderabad hotel is jewel-themed, Chennai is based on film, and Delhi on the elements.
“The one thing I believe is that India is about colour, which has become a very important element of the Park’s design story” she told Eastern Eye while on a visit to London. “There is always a punch of colour somewhere.”
Paul’s father Surrendra was an early inspiration, acting as chairman from 1982. He was a big influence on her life and career path.
“My father encouraged both me and my sister to study, work, and have a meaningful life. I knew at a young age that I wanted to be in business,” she recalled.
“As a teenager, you never know what you want to do, but I knew I wanted to be in the field.”
Following her graduation from the private women’s liberal arts school, Wellesley College (she obtained a BA in economics), her father asked Paul to work with him. From there, she took a post at one of the groups hotels in Delhi.
However, tragedy stuck when her father (whose brother is the UK-based businessman Lord Swraj Paul), was murdered in 1990.
It was a huge shock to the family and at the age of 24, Paul succeeded her father and took over the hospitality division of the group.
She was given the responsibility of looking after three hotels and busied herself with the task of modernising them.
Still relatively young at the time, Paul recalled she wished that she had taken more risks.
“I did things very cautiously in the beginning,” she revealed. “Looking back at the fact it has been a very successful journey, I would have done more and done it faster.”
The brand has since been transformed into a cultural hub of entertainment, creativity and leisure. The hotels boast a variety of hip nightclubs and bars, as well as luxury restaurants.
Paul has also organised a wide range of events across the properties, including concerts, performance art festivals and theatre showcases.
Paul began to transform the hotels in the early 1990s, when she aspired to turn the properties into “characterful, stylish and young” living spaces.
“I tried to make the hotels very vibrant places which became a hub of different activities,” the businesswoman and art collector revealed.
The flagship Park Hotel in Kolkata was inaugurated in November 1967 and a second was opened the following year. In 2017-18 the business marked its golden jubilee, an achievement Paul described as “fantastic”.
Today, the Park brand comprises of seven hotels across India. Paul spoke of her pride in contributing to the brand’s journey, as well as helping create a new brand, owned by the Park.
The mid-market design hotel concept, Zone by The Park, offers budget and business hotels in India. This includes properties in Chennai, Jaipur, Coimbatore and Raipur, with another 17 more in development.
Although The Park has no plans to construct properties outside India, Paul is not opposed to the idea. She would love the opportunity in the future, but India remains the prime focus.
However, she revealed if an expansion was to happen, it would most likely occur in another Asian country such as Sri Lanka or Thailand.
“It would be easier for us to manage these locations,” she noted.
Paul travels a lot, which means she experiences other hotels which are not her own. She revealed she chooses hotels for a variety of reasons, but it is mostly down to the location.
When visiting London and New York, Paul admits she likes to explore the city in new ways, so she can “start afresh”.
Therefore, she tends to visit a different hotel every time she travels abroad.
“I like exploring new neighborhoods,” the entrepreneur said.
Working closely with her family unit, Paul said the secret to working well together is constant communication.
The vast size of the business also means that each member of the family has enough personal space and can work on individual projects they regard as vital.
“We also trust how we make decisions because we know where we are coming from,” she said. “We come from a greater good, and for us it has worked well.”
Paul is a mother to a 13-year-old-son, Vir. Although she was encouraged to join the family business as a teenager, she stressed her son is free to do as he wishes in the future.
Forcing him into the business is not something Paul wants to do, and she hopes he can find his own individual path.
“Among [the Paul siblings], we have six children,” she said. “Who knows what they do and where they’ll want to be in their lives?”
Throughout her years in business, Paul has received several notable accolades for her work in the trade and hospitality industry.
She was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2012, India’s fourth highest civilian honour, and has been listed in Fortune India since 2011 as one of the 50th powerful businesswomen in the country.
Paul is also involved with charity. Her central point of support is for women’s charities in Asia, a project she is passionate about. Acting as the chairperson of the South Asia Women’s Fund, she stressed it was important for females to be empowered and encouraged to take leadership roles.
“I was encouraged as a child to be part of the workforce, to really live up to my potential and I think every woman has it in them,” she said.
Paul added: “Being involved in organisations which help to empower women through their rights or through providing them livelihoods is a very important part of the things I like to give back.”