Mumbai: She is the staunchest Francophile one could ever meet in India. She lives and breathes all things French. She has mastered their language, studied oenology, travelled there innumerable times, and has been marketing the destination in India for 15 years now. When I meet Sheetal Munshaw, Director India, Atout France, I am instantly drawn to her genuine passion and regard for the nation, its culture, tradition and people. No wonder, the French deviated from mandate and appointed her India head – the first-ever non-French national to head an Atout France mission globally.
Munshaw was born into a Sindhi family in Mumbai and grew up in Bandra. Her stay-home mom, entrepreneur father and younger sister Pooja, made up her world. Convent school-educated, she chose commerce for junior college, only to realise that was not her calling. After graduating in English literature from Jai Hind College, she decided to pursue her master’s in French literature. Since standard eight, Munshaw was a student of the Romance language and completed all levels at Alliance Française. In 1997, she travelled to France for the first time, also her first international visit, as part of a cultural exchange program organised by Alliance Française.
“It was love at first sight”, Munshaw tells me. “Since the theme of our project was agriculture, we visited Normandy and the heartland of France, the farms and the cheese factories.” She was all of 17 and in her wildest dream could not have imagined what lay in store for her.
Starting her career as a journalist with the business publications division of The Indian Express, she was part of the team that launched India’s first business travel title. “I slowly realised travel writing and destination marketing were my thing,” Munshaw recalls. In 2004, she joined Maison de la France (the predecessor of Atout France) as promotions manager.
Those days France was welcoming about 70-80k Indian visitors a year. Today it is closer to 700k! “The destination has witnessed huge growth in terms of awareness and not just numbers,” says Munshaw. “When I started, Indian travellers knew only the Eiffel Tower, even more than Paris. Today they explore beyond Paris, and travel to Normandy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy and Nice. From the usual 2N in European GIT itineraries, we have grown to 4N as we have added the French Riviera, Chamonix Mont-Blanc and many more destinations.”
The hard work and commitment in promoting France amongst India’s travel trade paid off for Munshaw too. She was promoted to Deputy Director and figuratively had hit the glass ceiling. In 2011, as a young mother she took a sabbatical followed by a stint as an entrepreneur. Her firm Avant Garde Consulting started representing Chamonix Mont-Blanc independently as well as a consortium created for Portugal. “All my learning at Maison de la France and later Atout France came in handy,” remembers Munshaw. “It also gave me flexibility regarding working hours to focus on my family.”
In 2015, her reporting manager at Atout France and long time mentor Catherine Oden was leaving for China to head the mission there. Munshaw is all praise for the significant role played by Oden in shaping her career. “She brings relentless passion to the job even after 35 years with Atout France. Her attention to detail is outstanding.” Oden recommended Munshaw, this time as India head of Atout France.
It was an eventful year. In January the French initiated 48-hour issuance of Schengen visa. It became the fastest Schengen visa to come through. With 14 centres of VFS Global to support, Indian arrivals shot up to 500k from 364k the previous year. I wanted to know if the terrorist attack in November 2015 was the most challenging phase in her career? “It certainly was a difficult time for France as a destination but in India we had lot of solidarity and support from the trade, thanks to strong relationships. India, I feel, understands it because we as a nation can also relate to it having been a victim of terror many times over. In fact, the market grew for us that year,” remembers Munshaw.
Under Munshaw’s leadership Atout France has carried out a whole lot of activities educating the trade. She may be credited for introducing Chamonix Mont-Blanc and feeding off the love Indians have nurtured for the Alps. Till then it used to be the Swiss Alps. It was a masterstroke in destination marketing.
After the success with Chamonix, Munshaw started doing the same with other destinations. France maybe a small country but the diversity is immense. So sometimes it becomes difficult for visitors to decide where to go. Atout France’s ‘hallmark brands’ strategy has worked wonders. Today Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Brittany, Dordogne, Occitanie are all making it to the itineraries of GITs, FITs, women travellers, families & friends in groups, and the incentive market has grown significantly. Promoting the soft assets – fashion, food and wine, has also benefitted the destination, as the Indian traveller has evolved over the years too.
While on this, Munshaw found time to pursue another passion – wines. She completed the second level sommelier course from Wine and Spirit Trust (WSET) in India and also studied oenology at the Cape Wine Academy in South Africa – one of the two reasons she loves South Africa, the other being she honeymooned there. “I love Africa the most, after France. I have holidayed in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Zambia. I want to go to Namibia and Zimbabwe. There’s something so very heartening about the African smile,” says Munshaw.
“After more than 50 visits to France, are there places you have to still see,” I ask. “I have so many more places to see in France,” exclaims Munshaw. Bordeaux I am visiting in March for the first time; I have to go to Biarritz – Basque Country; Occitanie and Brittany all of which I wish to explore in more detail.”
The impeccably dressed and accessorised Munshaw leads us to Fashion and France, inseparable as they are. She doles out names of her favourite fashion outlets and it all appears ‘french’ to me! La Vallée Village, with more than 110 boutiques of world-renowned international fashion and lifestyle brands and offering their previous seasons’ collections at reduced prices, is sought after by Indians as well. Marais district with its Bohemian style and numerous cafes is where one can shop for local fashion brands. While the world knows and appreciates Hermes, Cartier, Dior and Chanel, she also recommends other local brands such as Goyard, Lancel, Maje, Gerard Darel,… the list is endless.
Across France, shopping for food and wine is an altogether immersive experience. She is a huge fan of Champagne and enjoys her Ruinart. In Burgundy, she finds wines from Gevrey-Chambertin and Chassagne-Montrachet are very special. She animatedly speaks about the soil and the magic it does to the grapes and wine, and I have lost her!
It’s a dual culture at the office as the team communicates in French and English. “Soon it will be the same at home as her son Ishaan is learning French,” informs Munshaw. She has been fortunate to have managers who offered opportunities to grow and empowered and guided her all along. Munshaw is doing the same. “That is my leadership style too. Empower, engage, remain approachable and transparent, ensure high motivation and positivity.”
Today Avant Garde is being ably run by spouse Kunal and sister Pooja. They represent some of the most luxurious boutique travel and hospitality brands across the world.
One million visitors from India is a goal and a dream. “We have to keep reinventing ourselves and our marketing strategies and hopefully we should get there soon,” she signs off.