Women in Luxury: In Conversation with Sonavi Kaicker, CEO of Neemrana Hotels

Words by:

Nyssa P. Chopra
The Women in Luxury series on The Cultureur celebrates visionary women who are breaking down barriers across the luxury industry, highlighting their trials, tribulations, and triumphs.

Meet Sonavi Kaicker.

If the name is not familiar to you already, make note of it now. Sonavi is the CEO of Neemrana Hotels — a portfolio of 23 historical properties that speak volumes of the glorious heritage and rich culture of India. Each restored Neemrana property is a tale of two eras: one reminiscent of a traditional Rajasthani palace and another that caters to the values and whims of the modern discerning traveler.
Sonavi first caught my eye when an article about her success turned up on my Facebook newsfeed. One of my personal mantras is to give credit where credit is due, particularly when it comes to women breaking glass ceilings and reaching unprecedented professional heights. I instantly reached out to Sonavi to congratulate her on her success and to speak with her about her journey.
Read on to learn more about her and her inspiring story as one of the leading hoteliers in India.
1) How did you get started in the hospitality industry?
I graduated from Lady Shriram College in Delhi and then continued onto Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, I completed two Master’s degrees: one in Psychology and another in Management Research. When I returned from Oxford, I had a few viable options — none of which were exciting to me. Hospitality, on the other hand, seemed like a great choice because it involved working and interacting with other people in different operational roles and it looked like a lot of fun! So I ended up spending a few years in hotel management and learning the fundamentals at Sarovar Hotels.
Although I had family that was already into heritage hospitality, my uncle Aman Nath and Late uncle Francis Wacziarg asked me to join them only after I had proven my capabilities at Sarovar. And since, I have never looked back as each day presents new and exciting challenges across our portfolio of 23 non-hotel hotels!
2) What does hospitality and luxury travel mean to you?
Hospitality and India share a legendary history. It represents the fundamentals of our culture and history. It’s about sharing your food with an unexpected visitor, even if your own children go hungry and taking care of guests as if they’re your own family. This comes intuitively and instinctively to most of rural India.
Luxury is a relative term, but one thing that I have learned is that the more it is used, the more it loses its value. It is an endless pursuit when hospitality brands merely try to transform five stars into seven without substance. This has pushed for increased consumption of experiential travel within the luxury industry. Though there is a widely held belief in urban India, often colored by Western values, that branded international items are superior, there is also a huge parallel movement that is calling for raw fabrics and local products.
Over the last few years, experiential hotels have moved towards much more relaxed and seamless welcome experiences, enhancing the arrival aspect of a guest’s experience. This is something that will continue to gain momentum worldwide. Many countryside and experiential hotels have also started growing their own vegetables and produce, focusing on providing organic food and culinary experiences that bring out the local flavors of the region.
Another prominent trend has been the revival and showcasing of Indian art and culture: vibrant performances of Indian classical dance, musical performances, workshops, and theatre by aspiring and renowned artists.
3) What qualities make you successful in hospitality?
I firmly believe that there is no problem that does not have a solution. I have a very positive outlook towards work and life – something that stems from my wonderful parents who always encouraged me to be a go-getter from an early age. Strangely enough, over the years, hospitality has taught me to be a patient listener. The art of listening is definitely one of the qualities of any successful person. I try to be there to listen to my team or to guests that contact me whenever they want to share something that is important to them.
In general, women bring with them a huge amount of dynamism and energy as they are always multi-tasking 24/7. That quality is a huge asset in the hospitality industry as hoteliers have to juggle many responsibilities and are always pressed for time.
4) What are your favorite parts of the hospitality world?
I love my work and the fact that it brings people together – both from India and across more than 70 countries. It’s a joy to inject life into dead buildings and to see the transformation of ruins eventually fill up with laughter and celebrations. I also love seeing our team members evolve from trainees to managers with more challenging and fulfilling roles.
5) What are some unique challenges you’ve faced as a woman in hospitality?
As a young woman and industry neophyte, it was extremely challenging dealing with the Indian Government for various regulatory procedures and approvals. There was one officer who literally refused to look at or speak to me when I visited his office for some documentation. Today, I’m glad that things are changing and that women are taken much more seriously. There is still more work to do, but women are making strides every which way you look. As a woman in her 30s, I am often told that I’m too young to be CEO, but I simply take that as a compliment.
6) Asian hospitality is revered around the world — what do you think makes it so unique?
In Asia, hospitality is taught at a very young age and touches every aspect of our lives. In general, we let people enter our homes, we like to feed others, and we open up about our lives easily. So Asian hospitality naturally begins with an inherent intuitive advantage. This uniqueness is felt across all our Neemrana hotels. We encourage our staff to build on their strengths and take pride in the fact that they are from the local region.
7) Who are some of your role models in the hospitality industry and why?
Even after I left Sarovar, my hospitality guru continues to be Mr. Ajay Bakaya, the Managing Director of Sarovar Hotels. He is a thorough professional and always gives very practical advice whenever I reach out to him. With a warm smile and gentle leadership style, he is loved and respected by his entire team. He always takes the time to train and nurture those that work under him and takes a personal stake in their professional growth. He taught me to embrace my decisions fully and to never be afraid of making the wrong decisions, for those are the best teachers!
I also have a great deal of respect for Mr. Aman Nath, the Chairman of Neemrana Hotels. He is internationally famous for his unmatchable creativity in the hospitality and architectural fields and his ability to think outside of the box. His unique way with words and his incredible ability to transform ruins into huge architectural assets are two qualities that I hugely admire. In my mind, there is nobody in this world who is more humble or fearless than him. I respect him the most as he always stands up for what is right, no matter who is standing in front of him! He has a very special quality of intervening and helping those in need of help – I hope that I am able to carry on this tradition going forward.
8) What advice do you have for women entering the hospitality industry today?
Hospitality calls for women who are focused and looking for an exciting, but challenging role. It’s like most other professions, but as an industry that requires strong people skills, you have to know how to charm customers, inspire your team, and play the different roles to perfection. As women, we are naturals at multi-tasking, so one piece of advice that I would give to any woman is that the world moves at dizzying speed so don’t forget to keep some time for yourself!

Thank you, Sonavi for sharing your journey — onwards and upwards!