Millennials And Gen Z Are Keeping The Luxury Business Sharp And True: COO, The Leela Hotels

Anuraag Bhatnagar, chief operating officer of The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, talks about the brand’s strategy to stay engaged with guests in an evolving post-pandemic world.

Published On Mar 31, 2023 | Updated On Mar 08, 2024


That India has become the go-to destination for Indian and international travellers is now an established fact. The demographic groups that have driven this interest in India are the millennials and Gen Z who, exhausted by the cooped existence of almost two years during the pandemic, have started to approach life and luxury very differently. Indian hotel brands, that have been at the forefront of luxury, were faced with the challenge of trying to stay ahead of the curve in a fast-evolving business.

It was an interesting time for Anuraag Bhatnagar, COO of The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts. He had taken on the mantle of heading hotel operations for the chain just a few months before COVID struck. It was a daunting experience for everyone, including the 27-year industry veteran. But a never-say-die attitude and smart thinking helped him, and The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.


If you ask Bhatnagar the secret to success, he will say, “I think the very successful brands are those who embrace change before the change has caught them unprepared. Feedback from guests is the breakfast of champions I think, it is the only way to evolve because it is the only way you can be ready for the future.”  We spoke to Bhatnagar on the sidelines of one of The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts’ cultural initiatives, Icons of India, in Mumbai. That evening, sarod masters, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, enthralled the audiences with their stringed symphony.

Edited excerpts:

The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts has always been a representative of true Indian luxury. It is also a homegrown brand that hosts almost 60 to 70% of international guests. So we are very mindful of what we portray as the best of Indian luxury. Icons of India is one of the pillars wherein we have been able to identify and recognise India's finest who have also been the world's best. It is an expression of Indianness, warmth and grace. It is how we celebrate India's heritage, art and achievements and India’s positioning in the global ecosystem from a luxury hospitality standpoint. Icons of India also allows us to express the tenets of Atithi Devo Bhava—which was the primary driving force behind the initiative.

They chose themselves—whether it is sarod artistes Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, Manushi Chillar, or Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi. They are Indian citizens who’ve excelled in their professions and have directly impacted India’s representation on the global stage. All our icons are also representative of Indians of all demographics which is similar to how we want to position The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts; as a hotel chain that caters to millennials, Gen Z as well as seasoned professionals.

We want to celebrate India's achievers on a global platform. So, we are looking at creating this super eclectic club of specialists and we are looking at different ways to build active engagement to see how we can grow this initiative. But we are also very mindful of how we grow the portfolio—it has to be the finest and the best.

We are being very strategic and mindful about our growth. We intend to remain within the lanes of ultra-luxury hospitality and boutique hospitality. We are looking at wellness and wildlife as areas of focus this year. We would also be looking at the right international market where we should be in the next year. These are some strategic directions that we are working on and I'm sure within the next 12 to 18 months, we will have something more specific to share.


5. How has travel evolved post-COVID?

Firstly, I think, discovery and experience-led travel are here to stay. Initially, we thought it was only revenge travel. We really believe that more and more people are going to travel within India. There has been a mindfulness about travel as well, which has happened because post-COVID people realise that life is a perishable gift, and we need meaningful experiences. It's no longer about a great palace hotel and a lovely retreat, it is about what travel does for a person. It now also extends to the impact of travel and what a person can give back, whether it is conscious and sustainable travel or giving back to the community.

6. How important is India as a market when it comes to post-COVID travel trends?

I would say domestic travel has seen a significant rebound because people have rediscovered India. Discovering your own country has become exotic and people compare notes. There is a whole new generation who are travelling more and travelling better. They are travelling better because there is a propensity of consuming a higher category of rooms and villas.
India is still under-branded and under-marketed, I would say, and we have a lot of space to grow when it comes to inbound travel. If we compare India to the world, the pure tourist footfalls that we get versus any other economy in the world, it's disproportionate to the country’s size, scale and standing. By 2023 Q4 and 2024 onward, it is going to be a big one for India.

As a group, all our hotels strive to be sustainable. Nearly 60% of the energy used in our hotels is green energy. Unfortunately, there's not much we're able to do in Delhi, but we are getting there as well. In Chennai, we have a solar plant.

We have also created Tishya, which is our own fragrance that is vegan and organic. It is made using local ingredients and it is also manufactured locally. We also have a big initiative in the pipeline where we will look at recycling as the core to develop product ranges.


We launched Signatures by The Leela during Diwali 2022. It is a specially curated gourmet gifting collection for festivals, special occasions and more. We also introduced The Leela Palace Services, which is our butler services program — from the moment you step into a Leela hotel, there are personalised services across eight to nine touch points. The director of British Butler’s Guild, Anthony Holland worked with our teams for six weeks to ensure we offered the best possible service.

We recently introduced The Leela Palace Trails, which is a marquee product. The trail covers six of our palace properties wherein the minimum length of stay is seven nights. It's targeted towards international guests, but it's also great for our domestic leisure market. It is a 360-degree experience where everything from ticketing to sightseeing as well as the stay is taken care of.

It certainly has. Luxury has become slightly more democratic, in a good way. Earlier, luxury was more about association and acquisition. Now, luxury has become more experiential. It used to be about things like where you stay, what you wear, etc. It has evolved into awareness and curiosity, especially with the new generation of Indian customers—millennials and Gen Z. They are the ones who have kept the business of luxury sharp and true; they know exactly what they want and have very clear feedback. And as I said earlier, mindfulness has come in, that ‘look, I'm fully aware of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.’  And obviously, authenticity and the credibility around creating authentic experiences. That's been the only constant.

Photo: The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts