Hospitality starts at the family’s ancient palace

By Perry Garfinkel  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 12

Padmaja Kumari Mewar straddles several worlds — old and new, East and West.

She was born into a family of Indian royalty, maharanis who call themselves “custodians” over the region surrounding the city of Udaipur in India and who trace their lineage back 1,500 years through 77 generations.

But both by choice and necessity, Mewar, 29, and her generation seem increasingly removed from the insular wealth and privilege of their ancestors. Mewar said in an interview that she “could have chosen to live a very luxurious lifestyle without lifting a finger,” but following her entrepreneurial father and grandfather into the global business community proved too compelling.

She moved to the US to complete high school at Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Massachusetts, then earned a degree in international relations from Tulane University. She went to work as an events coordinator at Burlington Capital Markets in New York and from there, the Four Seasons New York, where over two years she worked her way up from the front desk to special services liaison for the hotel’s top 100 guests.

Mewar returned to Udaipur in 2006 to join HRH Hotels, a collection of about a dozen resorts and former Mewar family palaces and hunting lodges that was founded by her grandfather. She lives with her parents and brother in the centuries-old family palace.

Mewar is now joint managing director of the hotel company and travels extensively to promote the chain.

Though India’s tourism economy suffered after the attacks on Mumbai in November, the country is still ranked first in the world for 10-year growth potential by the World Travel & Tourism Council. But Mewar said she was pursuing new markets to expand the family business.

New York Times (NYT): You come from an upbringing in which you must have been served hand and foot, and yet now you’re in the hospitality industry serving others?

Mewar: Hospitality was not and is not a business for us; it’s a way of life. Historically, my family has been the official welcoming committee for visiting dignitaries. But it’s erroneous to think I grew up spoiled. Yes, we had privilege, but our parents taught us very early that with privilege comes responsibility — thus, “custodianship.” My late grandfather, Maharana Bhagwat Singhji, established a charitable foundation in 1969 to preserve the region’s heritage and develop better local educational infrastructure.

My father, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, added health care and support for regional crafts and arts, recently involving the Getty Foundation in our preservation initiatives. I am forging new associations with local nongovernmental organizations, such as Alakh Nayan Mandir, a medical institution dedicated to eye care, and Seva Mandir, a group advocating women’s rights. The rewarding part is when people come up to me when I visit their centers, they just want a hug. I have the means. But it’s the human connection that gives my support meaning.

NYT: How do you compare the styles of service between India and the West?

Mewar: Service isn’t necessarily part of the culture in the West. It has to be taught. In India, it’s in our DNA. We learn it in our nuclear families from the earliest age. On the other hand, Westerners deliver a kind of seamless service I admire. You don’t see the waiter refilling your glass but it gets done.

In India, sometimes you feel everyone hovering over you — until you need something, that is. It’s something I am very conscious of as we train employees who work more and more with our international guests. Working at the Four Seasons job, I saw Americans get things done because they are clear and simple. They know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Indians tend to solve problems in a more circular fashion but are beginning to see there are more efficient strategies.

NYT: What are you doing to respond to the double whammy India is dealing with now, between the global economic downturn and any reduction in travel to India due to the attacks?

Mewar: At the trade show I just came from in Madrid, I was heartened to hear that people are still keenly interested in and fascinated by India. Surviving the attacks has actually increased people’s appreciation of our fortitude. But hearing the reality of the slowdown in Europe and the United States, I came home more committed to exploring and opening new markets. Diversifying is the key these days. That’s why next month I am going to Germany and Russia, two segments with vast potential that we have not fully tapped.

Also, I feel well positioned, even through these times, because of the growing trend of authenticity, a word that’s already in danger of becoming a cliche in the hospitality world. Guests know the difference between brand-new hotels built to look like 200-year-old palaces and actual 200-year-old palaces turned into hotels with modern amenities and history that’s palpable everywhere. Hospitality is like fashion. Both thrive on changing styles and tastes. But our kind of authentic is timeless.

NYT: How do you explain the dichotomy between the perception and the reality of India, between the booming economy we read about in headlines and the India that many in the West saw for the first time in Slumdog Millionaire?

Mewar: Yes, there is poverty. Yes, there is illiteracy, overpopulation and massive traffic. We are dealing with them the best we can. It’s another cliche, but India really is like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. It all depends on what part you touch, what your perception is. The reality is we are like our famous biryani dish, a mix of spices, rice and vegetarian or non-vegetarian.