In conversation with Manvendra Singh Shekhawat

The charming young managing director of Suryagarh, one of the best known luxury hotels in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan dons many hats. At the recently held INK Conference at Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, I probed into the swashbuckling hotelier’s penchant for conservation and social entrepreneurship. Presenting a few excerpts.

  1. In India, you often find cases of vandalism and neglect at heritage sites. When I visited Shahpura, the ruins of the erstwhile palace had been completely plundered. As someone who works for heritage conservation, what are your views on this? Where are we going wrong and how can we make it better?

It’s human tendency. We take what we have for granted. But if we learn to value what we have and try to make it better than how it was when we found it, then there’s hope. There are two ways in which you can inspire people to be more conscious about our heritage:

  • Lead by example
  • Tell stories; the more stories you tell them, the more they get inspired
  1. On a recent visit to a boutique resort in Uttarakhand, the proprietor said that more and more, experiences are becoming the selling point rather than the property itself. Do you agree? And do hoteliers pay enough attention to the experiential part of travel?

I agree a 100 per cent. And hoteliers are increasingly becoming more aware of this. The problem is that your definition of luxury is different from mine. I might show you chandeliers and mosaic flooring and maybe you already have all that back where you come from. So luxury is no longer aspirational. When people go out, luxury for them is bespoke and that consists of unique experiences. So the question to think about is – what can I show you that’s really memorable? So you’ll go for the silk route in Jaisalmer or the Buddhist temple crawl in Leh.

Suryagarh Hotel
  1. Tell us about your NGO ‘I love Jaisalmer’. What kind of issues does it focus on? Did you always want to get into social work? Would you say it’s a consequence of your royal ancestry?

Not really. We’re operating in eco-systems and we need to work on reinforcing them. If you’re hungry, you feed yourself. You don’t wait for someone else to feed you. In the same way, I solve my own problems in Jaisalmer because I take custodianship for them. Cleanliness was a big issue. Also when art is undervalued, it moves us and becomes our problem. So we ensure that the artisan gets his credit. Otherwise, his son will go do something else. I began I love Jaisalmer with a friend and we’ve taken Jaisalmer’s fashion and music to the world.

  1. Your hotel Suryagarh continues to be in the news for all the right reasons. What’s your secret? What sets it apart from all the other heritage hotels in Rajasthan? And there are many of them.

There’s no attempt to set ourselves apart. Because of our love for that region, we understand it very well. We are able to present it in a manner that people like it. We tell unheard stories, provide comfortable accommodation and focus on explored facets. India is a land so diverse that there can be a Suryagarh in every region! I’ve just returned from Leh and I was wowed by the beauty of that place. Maybe I’ll set up something there. The more we see our country and understand our inheritances, the more we love our country.

Suryagarh Hotel
  1. You are currently working on the restoration of a 350 year old military fort. Tell us more about that. What are the other structures you’d like to restore in future?

We are working with a conservation architect and we have already documented the entire fort. We are currently restoring the parts that are majorly damaged and restoring the 17 rain water harvesting structures “bawdi’s and wells” within the fort. I would like to restore any and all physical and cultural heritage, if I can collect the resources and get the opportunity to do it. Our heritage tells us about the best that is remaining of our glorious past. I believe we can learn a lot from it, and it can help us stride confidently into the future.

  1. Most of the royal families in Rajasthan today are engaged in the hospitality industry. What is the way forward to ensure that the tourists keep coming? What innovations are on the anvil?

The way forward is by living up to the promise that we make to guests before they come. This is the promise of being genuinely hospitable and giving our guests more value than what we are charging them for. The way it works best is to constantly put yourself in your guests shoes and ask, “Given the choices I have around the world the paucity of time I have for a holiday, will going to this place and spending my hard-earned money be worthwhile?” That’s the question we should ask ourselves as hoteliers, guides, travel agents, industry bodies and governments. And if the answer is no, we should identify what’s making that happen and then play our part in solving those problems and leaving things around us, better than we found them.

Suryagarh Hotel
  1. What is your favourite destination in India and abroad? And what kind of traveller are you – laid-back or hectic, planned or spontaneous?

I honestly cannot answer that. That’s like picking between your parents and siblings. However, I love the antiquity of Jaisalmer, the magic of Mandu, untouched Ladakh and the enterprise of people in Mumbai and similar examples around the world. I am a curious traveller and for most times, spontaneous.

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