Mumbai: His cryptic and honest posts on everyday life at work and home get many likes, more so because of his followers’ love for best friend Jugnu who has some of the most adorable expressions. The canine is more popular and well known than the master himself. At least on FB!
I met Himmat Anand, Founder, Tree of Life Resorts & Hotels for the first time at the FHRAI Annual Convention 2018 in Lucknow. I noticed him at a panel discussion for being articulate, passionate and different. Someone true to his thinking and enjoying what he does. Someone who has not sold his soul for profits. For this interaction, we sat down at Grand Hyatt Mumbai on the sidelines of HICSA 2019. Born in Amritsar, Himmat’s childhood was spent all over India (Kolkata, Babina, Secunderabad, Ahmedabad, Darjeeling), studying in various schools, thanks to his dad serving in the Indian Army. “I learned the value of honesty and punctuality from him,” says Himmat. “He was very strict with us, me and my sister.”
Developing one resort of his own was always a dream for Himmat while his dynamic son, Akhil has now shifted gears and expanded the business
The first entrepreneur at home was Himmat’s mother who after being a homemaker till the age of 50, enrolled for the Montessori course and set up a school at home in Delhi. Six years ago when she hung up her boots, the school had about 70 kids. Himmat, like dad, wanted to join the armed forces and sat for the NDA entrance examination. Since he was not strong in mathematics, he did not make the cut even after attempting twice. At crossroads, he sought his dad’s advice. “After checking with a friend, dad told me to pursue hotel management.” Himmat passed out of IHM Pusa and joined Taj Mansingh New Delhi. On a New Year’s eve, one and a half years later, he was speaking to his sister based in Dubai, when he realised hotel management was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“Everyone was having fun that night, and I was working. I refused to work for the rest of my life while others were having fun. On January 3, I tendered my resignation even without another job in hand.” Himmat’s parents were shocked but he decided to prepare for the civil services examination. For the next five months he studied well but soon realised that was also not his cup of tea. Wanting to be employed, he joined Roneo Vickers, a British company as a sales executive. When Sita Travels advertised for Management Trainees, Himmat applied and got selected.
The following 22 years Himmat stayed on with Sita and defines it as the most amazing time of his work life. Five years down the line in 1985, when Sita decided to open an office in Frankfurt, Himmat was given the opportunity to head it with remit spanning Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It was the first European office of Sita. “I stayed in Frankfurt for six years. I started seeking an opportunity to work in the US since Sita had an office in New York. In 1993, I was allowed to move to NYC.” He was 35 then, married with a child.
As soon as he landed at JFK International Airport, Himmat decided NYC was not for him. In one week he called his boss in Delhi and informed that he wanted to return. Inder Sharma (Chairman, Sita) told him to stay for six months, advising “the city will grow on you”. “I agreed but told him my decision will not change,” says Himmat. “I am fine if I have to return to India too.” It created the biggest HR related upheaval in the company. Someone young was rejecting the great American dream! Sita was planning to open an office in London and thought of transferring Himmat there. “But I did not like the Brits much then. Now I do. Sharma got irritated with my attitude. I told him to send me back to Frankfurt. There was silence on the telephone line,” remembers Himmat. Within two weeks of handover and moving to NYC, Himmat was back in Frankfurt!
The tryst with Naresh Goyal of Jetair Tours and Jet Airways started with a surprise call from his office offering Himmat a job. “I flew down to London to meet him. He was an amazing man. I met him at his house at 1 pm. He asked me how hungry I was? I thought a sumptuous lunch was waiting. But Goyal meant hungry for work – appetite to kill the competition and take over the market!” Himmat laughed out loud recollecting the meeting. Himmat moved to Paris and was initially managing the packaged tours business and later the airline business. After about four years, I decided to move back to India. “Goyal tried to dissuade me but I was certain I wanted my son, five years then, to have uninterrupted school life and it had to be India.”
Post his return to India, Himmat received an invite from Shailendra Mittal of Trade Wings, a leading travel agency of the time. The agency was going through a rough patch. Himmat joined as Vice President even though everyone cautioned him. Trade Wings was a full service agency. It was also the official travel agent for BCCI. “It was crazy but I learned a lot. One day I got a call from Mittal. He wanted precise and predictable return on investment. I told him I quit. This is travel and tourism business and not real estate!”
Himmat called Sita to check if there were any opportunities for him. In 1997, he rejoined Sita and was looking after inbound. In 2000, Kuoni bought Sita and Himmat became Head of Kuoni India Trails reporting to Arjun Sharma who was then Joint MD of Sita. When Arjun moved out, Himmat became COO of Kuoni’s inbound business in India and South Asia reporting to Ranjit Malkani, Chairman & CEO, Kuoni Travel India. This was to be his last salaried employment and lasted till 2007. “Malkani was a great leader,” recollects Himmat. “He would make you feel like a king and back you up. He always challenged you to think how can you do three times better. From Rs. 90 crore inbound revenue when I joined, we touched Rs. 220 crore.” Developing one resort of his own was always a dream for Himmat. That is how the Tree of Life (ToL)saga started. In his mind the basic ethos of Tree of Life were space and privacy. He started looking for a suitable land parcel outside the city of Jaipur and prepared a 20-page concept note for his architect Nimish Patel.
Himmat’s friends thought his entrepreneurial bug was a stupid plan. He was getting crazy money and all the perks of a high flying job at Kuoni. “For me those things were not anymore a draw. I had done it for long. I gave it up just like I did earlier too. I jumped with my eyes closed, as always,” Himmat says. He had little resources but extreme self confidence. The loan application was rejected by Tourism Finance Corporation of India. They found the project – in 7 acres just 13 villas 15 km outside Jaipur – unviable. But gathering own resources and those from two cousin brothers, Himmat launched Tree of Life. The flagship resort was built at an investment of Rs. 18 crore. The construction lacked the glitz of modern five-star hospitality. It was done in stone and mud; No cement or bricks but offering all modern comforts of upper upscale hotels. Each villa is 900 sq. ft. 60 per cent of the guests are foreign tourists. Though Himmat expected to rely on his decade long trade relationships to fill his 17-key resort, that was not to be. Trade did not buy into his out of city limits resort with high tariff. He changed his marketing and sales strategy. Today direct booking is 20 per cent and OTAs contribute 40 per cent.
Himmat had no intention of creating a second resort and so for four years there was just the Jaipur unit. What changed the plan is his son Akhil joining the business in 2011. Akhil who did his IB from Pathways World School and music engineering in Mumbai wanted to join the business only a decade later. But he came in early, joined as a butler and worked up the ranks. He wanted to expand the business and fast. Today, Tree of Life operates six resorts. Starting its expansion, the company took on lease a property in Rishikesh but things did not work out and they discontinued a year later. “I realized management contracts are not for us. It is difficult to mange owner expectations when property is small. We leased out in Binsar Uttarakhand, Marari Kerala and Udaipur Rajasthan. We built a unit ground up in Varanasi Uttar Pradesh two years back and very recently leased out a unit in Ranthambore Rajasthan. All resorts are pet friendly. The pets are given a proper welcome on arrival. There is even a pet menu in the room!”
Tree of Life has two sub-brands to differentiate between owned units and leased ones, because the product experience is slightly different when the unit is a leased one. Tree of Life Expressions: Jaipur 17 rooms and Varanasi 18 rooms; Agra 20 rooms – ready by end of 2019. Tree of Life Hideaways: one step lower than Tree of Life Expressions in terms of tariff and amenities. With owned units adding to asset base and along with leased units expanding footprint and profits, Tree of Life is ready to roll. “I don’t want to associate with a PE who is looking at an exit period of four years,” says a confident Himmat. “I want an investor who has a long term view. My cousins who understand my vision are my partners today. We are three of us and hold 33 per cent each.”
Most of the properties are in the plains and Tree of Life is looking at hill stations to expand. If hill station properties are within the portfolio, then staff can be redeployed especially from April to June. Himmat confirmed that Coorg, Goa, Mussoorie and Leh are on the wish list. “By end of this year we should have 10 properties, but no compulsions. We were never pursuing fast growth.” But Akhil may not see it that way. Their visions are certainly different. Himmat is short on patience and poor at social networking. Akhil never loses his cool and is excellent at building key relationships. “I believe 28-30 year olds can read the future better than my generation. We also disagree a lot though I know he is right. He looks after the present. I look after the future. I don’t get involved in daily operations,” shares Himmat.
Jugnu, the most popular and loved character in Himmat’s life came in 2010 as a 6-week old pup. The idea was to have Jugnu and Tara, but Tara did not happen as planned. Himmat’s world is centered around his job and Jugnu who will turn 8 soon. He retires by 9 pm and gets up at 430 am; responds to mails first thing in the morning as he does not check mails during the day. He travels extensively and stays at hotels to learn.