The Dynamic Diva of Heartfelt Hospitality
It was a casual question from her husband that spurred the dormant entrepreneur in her. “Why don’t you work?” Sajan asked his wife one evening after returning from office. The reason: the ever-busy young entrepreneur could see his educated better-half becoming restive sitting idle at home. When Mini Sajan entered the office of SAJ Flight Services in Chennai the next morning, little did she realise that her entrepreneurial journey had just begun.
This is the story of a homemaker scaling great heights to hold the reins of a business empire using perseverance and inborn talent. The entrepreneurial journey of Mini Sajan Varghese, CEO of SAJ Hotels & Resorts, began with the Group’s catering arm under the watchful eyes of her spouse, Sajan Varghese, the Founder & CMD of SAJ Hotels & Resorts. She soon proved herself and stepped out of the shadow of her husband. As years passed by, the twist and turns of business took her to the hospitality segment of the Group. Learning the ropes in no time, she began guiding the segment which presently has several high-end properties under it. As the czarina of high-end hospitality in Kerala, she enjoys a unique place in the industry! In this issue of Destination Kerala we present her inspiring story for our readers.
I met Mini Sajan Varghese, CEO of SAJ Hotels & Resorts, one of the leading names in the hospitality industry in Kerala, at her small but tastefully done residence adjacent to the SAJ Earth Resort for the interview. Hers is a story of a constant struggle to learn and remain the best in whatever she does. During the brief conversation, I could feel the vibes of a vibrant woman who has passionately embraced an opportunity to be an entrepreneur with sheer self-confidence and dedication.
The spouse of Sajan Varghese, the Founder & CMD of SAJ Hotels & Resorts, Mini is perhaps the only woman Chief Executive in Kerala’s hospitality sector who owns four properties. She also has plans to set up three more luxury hotels by 2022. SAJ Hotels & Resorts now runs SAJ Earth Resort in Kochi, SAJ Vagamon Hideout at Vagamon and SAJ Luciya in Thiruvananthapuram. SAJ Jungle Village Thekkady was leased out in 2011.
Born to parents who were both government employees in Thiruvananthapuram, and being a Convent-educated girl, she had always dreamt of a career as a lecturer. However, after getting married to Sajan in 1998, Mini moved to Chennai. “Sajan’s work schedule was really hectic those days and naturally after sometime I started feeling bored. That was when he suggested me to start working. The next morning, we went to the office together and I was shown the Accounts Department. Once in office, Sajan was a completely different person altogether. That was the first time I got to see his transformation from husband to a managing director,” Mini recollects the first day in office. SAJ Flight Services had catering facilities in airports, including Kozhikode, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Bengaluru and Chennai.
For her, it was a learning curve. She started picking up the nuances of the business and then even began suggesting ways to improve the efficiency of the system. “Things were not that easy. To be frank, most of the staff considered my entry to the company as a mere dalliance. Whenever I sought clarifications, the answer from the middle management used to be – ‘these things had to be done in a certain way. We would be happy to explain it to you later.’ But that never happened. There were only two ways before me – either to learn things from the scratch by myself, or not to venture into unchartered waters. I had no one to turn to for instant solutions, as my husband was not inclined to spoon-feed me,” she said.
Gradually, the steely entrepreneur in Mini began waking up. Through analysis of data, number crunching, and case studies, she could identify certain areas for revenue saving, without compromising on quality and standards. With relatively little effort, she could learn the different functional aspects of Finance, HR and Administration wings. The next logical step was to move forward to the operational aspects of the catering unit, and implement the things that she learnt from the time spent in Finance and Administration.
For her, the challenge in mastering the operational aspects was to navigate the maze of varying standards and benchmarks followed by each international airline for different types of aircrafts, complying with their unique loading patterns. In short, there were more of differences than similarities, from one airline to the other.
Right from strict implementation of usage of protective gears at the production and assembly areas of the catering units, she began learning and monitoring all activities related to procurement, production and loading of meals on the aircraft. Simultaneously, she began to concentrate on the Quality Control division also, which was comparatively easier to manage as she had studied Microbiology and related subjects, as part of her post-graduation.
Proper utilisation of the human resources was an area which demanded firm, but creative intervention. “Since the procedures varied from airline to airline, most of the staff became specialised in handling one airline, one operational area, and one activity. This was not a viable model. The solution arrived at was to make our staff multi-skilled and versatile,” she said.
Another challenge for her was to master the skill to evaluate the quality and feel the taste of dishes they prepared. “Airlines, that time, used to provide diverse kinds of meals and cuisines to the passengers. To name a few, there were Jain meal, Muslim meal, diabetic meal, special festival meal, seafood meal, besides the regular meals. That was really challenging since I was never a passionate foodie before my wedding,” said Mini.
I asked Mini why then did they decide to exit this segment eventually? “It was a tough call for us to come out of a business in which lot of effort, time and talent of many had been invested. But the reality before us at that time forced us to take that big decision. With the recession in 2008, the structure and style of airline business changed globally. The concept of ‘budget carriers’ came into existence and the elaborate meal plans that existed till then underwent transformation. We used to give full meals to major domestic and international airlines such as Air France, SilkAir, Qatar Airways, Air India and Indian Airlines. However, a sudden switchover to ‘budget meals’ made it difficult to sustain our production stream and the staff attached to it. Hence, we decided to quit,” she said.
Was that a major disappointment for you? I asked. “Yes, of course,” she said. “I felt that all the efforts and pain I took over the years to adapt to this industry had gone down the drain in a moment.”
Meanwhile, the visionary in Sajan had diversified his business into hospitality industry and carved a niche for himself in that vertical as well. In the year 2008 the Group launched SAJ Earth Resort near Cochin International Airport (CIAL), in Kochi. “It was almost a ‘dejavu’ experience that was awaiting me in this area as well. Colleagues in the middle management were constantly reminding me of the difference between ‘flight catering’ and ‘hospitality’. The management dictum – ‘finding differences in similarities and finding similarities in differences is the cornerstone of the art of management’ – came to my rescue. I was able to adapt and apply many a practices that I was using in flight catering industry to improve the day-to-day operations of the properties,” she said.
Altogether, SAJ Hotels and Resorts now has an inventory of 200-plus premium rooms in Kerala. Mini says, the new rooms – to be categorised as ‘Club Rooms’ – that are coming up at SAJ Earth Resort soon, would be the finest in the premium luxury segment in Kochi.
SAJ Hotels has decided to resume the hotel projects at Kumarakom, Mararikulam and Alappuzha. “We backtracked few years back since there was hardly any support from the Government. Now, the situation has changed. Entrepreneurs enjoy more acceptability in Kerala. Government itself is doing many things to promote entrepreneurship and create jobs. So, we hope it is an ideal time to resume the work. The plan is to commission the projects by 2022,” Mini said. The Group also has a tour operations division which offers both inbound and outbound tourism services.
According to Mini, almost all five star luxury properties are having more or less the same facilities as they follow the same set of standards, services and facilities stipulated by the Government of India. “Then why should somebody choose my hotel? At SAJ, what really makes the difference is the service being offered. We train the staff in such a way that each guest would feel that they are the most important person,” she said.
For SAJ Earth Resort, the proximity to Cochin International Airport (CIAL) is a big advantage. “Our resort is one of the most sought-after wedding destinations in Kerala. We have regular clients from the USA, Europe and Far and Middle East countries. We also do corporate conferences and meetings at SAJ. The hotel is also in much demand for high-profile get-togethers. Another attraction is its positioning as a hub to facilitate visits to Guruvayur and Sabarimala temples, the famed hill-stations of Munnar and Vagamon, attractions at Fort Kochi heritage village and houseboat cruises on the backwaters of Alappuzha. Annually, we have an occupancy of around 80 per cent at SAJ Earth Resort,” she said.
Apparently, the devastating floods in August 2018, termed as the mother of all disasters Kerala has ever witnessed, affected SAJ Group as well with CIAL shutting down for 15 days.“Kerala’s tourism industry in general suffered a huge setback owing to floods, Nipah outbreak in north Kerala, law and order problems due to Sabarimala issue and frequent hartals. Not only that the property suffered damage due to floods, but the closure of the airport literally robbed us of our business as well. Cancellations of bookings were rampant,” she said.
Later, when things were limping back to normalcy, the negative publicity over the situation in Kerala played spoilsport. The indiscriminate media campaign almost turned suicidal for the tourism industry, Mini opined.
“For instance, take ‘Rebuild Kerala’ project. It’s a really good idea. We are also actively supporting the government’s vision and extending help to the affected citizens. However, there is another angle to it. This gives out an impression that the whole State has been destroyed and we are rebuilding the entire State. People from far off places are thinking that Kerala is not a place to consider at least for the time being. I am saying this based on the calls we have been receiving at our sales office. Actually, the fact is floods did not affect the entire State. There were certain places which were affected badly and the whole State, with an unparalleled display of volunteerism, managed to deal with the situation. However, media reports and subsequent campaigns gave out an impression that the entire State was terribly hit. When we try to convince people from many countries, they would ask then why should the government initiate a campaign like ‘Rebuild Kerala’ and solicit support from across the globe. I think we should have informed the world that we were safe and our tourist destinations were intact. Adding insult to injury, the US and the UK issued warning to their citizens against visiting Kerala. When there is such a warning, tourists won’t get insurance coverage for their trip. Obviously, tourists would skip Kerala,” said Mini.
So, how do you think media should contribute? “I believe media can act more sensibly and responsibly. They should be conscious that travel and tourism industry is one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for India. It is also one of the biggest job providers in Kerala. Take for instance, the popular Clark Quay and Boat Quay in Singapore along the river. Why can’t the media campaign for doing something similar in Kerala, which has far more potential? Why can’t we think of creating a shopping village along the Container Road in Kochi? In my view, there are several such opportunities wherein the media can mould public opinion and help attract investors to setup projects, even without causing any harm to the beauty of this place. Ultimately, Kerala’s natural beauty is what brings tourists here,” Mini said.
Mini Sajan is all praise for the State Government for the revised liquor policy. However, she says, the industry is yet to recover from the damage, which was caused by the inconsistent policies. “Earlier, several major pharmaceutical companies and corporates used to conduct several national conferences at SAJ Earth Resort. Due to curbs on the consumption of alcoholic beverages, those meetings and conferences were shifted to Coimbatore and other places in the neighbouring states. Now, even after putting in place a favourable liquor policy, the MICE business is yet to return to the State. I hope 2019 would be better,” she said.
Mini’s mobile phone rings. I understand that she was sanctioning permission to a friend who had reached without advance notice at SAJ Vagamon Hideout to enter the premises. Out of curiosity, I asked why a guest would require permission from the head office. “That’s the kind of privacy we ensure for our guests at Vagamon. No walk-in guests are allowed. One should have a reservation with a valid ID card to enter,” Mini said.
Spread over 20 acres of lush greenery, the property is a paradise for those who want to unwind. “We have 16 rooms there. If someone wants to block couple of rooms and wish to avoid other guests in the property, they can do that. We will book the entire property for them but without any additional cost. The whole property literally becomes theirs on that night with the entire team to look after them,” she said.
Doesn’t it affect your business? I asked. “No. We are sure the guests would become repeat customers. They would also refer the property to many of their friends,” she said.
Two years ago, in an interview to Destination Kerala, Sajan Varghese had said 90 per cent of the reservations for SAJ Group were coming through aggregator portals. Now, the first thing that one would notice on the homepage of SAJ Group’s website is the message – Book direct and get a good deal! Why is it so? I asked Mini.
“There is a shift in strategy. Not just for us but across the whole industry as certain portals have started charging exorbitant commission. We have to compromise and give competitive rates for the portals. Now some of them are charging very high commission. They always demand parity of rates across all portals but there is no parity as far as commission is concerned. That’s why, in certain States, hoteliers have openly declined taking bookings through these portals. We also decided to promote direct bookings by offering perks to the guests. Right now, we only have around 50 to 60 per cent business coming from aggregator portals and the rest are direct bookings. Going forward, business from online aggregator portals will further reduce,” she said.
SAJ Group has no plans to diversify. Mini feels that given the ground realties in Kerala, tourism industry is the best sector to invest in. Mini, however, says the biggest challenge is getting skilled manpower for the business. “Attrition is very high. And, as far as youngsters in Kerala are concerned, they are always looking for greener pastures abroad. The campaign of our training colleges is also a reason for this. They market their courses saying ‘study with us to get a fabulous job abroad.’ It clearly gives the message that jobs in Kerala’s hospitality industry are not so attractive and they should move out to Canada or Dubai or UK. Now we have no other option but to engage people from the North East. Among our 500-plus employees, more than 50 per cent are from other States,’’ she said.
Ten years from now, Mini Sajan would like to see brand SAJ as one among the leading experiential holiday destinations in the country. “If anyone thinks of holidaying in God’s Own Country, SAJ should be one of their destinations of choice. We were the best when we did flight catering. We were the first flight catering business in India to have won the prestigious Mercury (silver) Award in 2004 (The second best caterer in the world!). If we could do that, this is also very much possible,” says Mini, brimming with confidence.
I asked Mini about her leadership style. “I believe an entrepreneur should have the quality to guide the employees whenever they are confused. If you have that, you are a leader. If any of my employees comes to me, he or she will have an issue to solve. It is easy to put them off. But I always try to listen to them and suggest ways to tackle the situation.”
For aspiring entrepreneurs, Mini has a word of advice: listen to the experience of successful entrepreneurs. “Don’t waste time nit-picking. Instead, spend time learning how one person has become successful.”
Before wrapping up, I asked Mini about her husband’s role in grooming her. “He never forced me to take up additional responsibilities. I took each step forward out of my passion. During the initial days, he once said – ‘you will make mistakes but don’t repeat the same mistake.’ He is the person with an eye for detail. And, I also developed a habit of reporting the day’s work to him on our return from office. That has really helped me improve my skills,” she signs off.
Mini Sajan Varghese
Born at: Thiruvananthapuram
Based in: Kochi
Age: 50 years
Education: Master’s Degree in Science
Family: Sajan Varghese (spouse)
Loves to do (when not working): Cookng. “It has become my passion now. Whenever I get time, I join my chefs and do demonstrations on cooking and baking”
Favourite holiday destination: “We travel a lot together. Of late, we have developed a passion for cruise. Once in a year, we do cruise from the US. As we associate with several organisations in the US, we usually have longer holidays there”
Drives: Mercedes Benz S Class
Favourite cuisine: Kerala cuisine
Movies: “My husband was a successful movie producer, and we both love watching movies. We hardly miss any”
Music: Likes listening to music but not very passionate
Leader you admire: Sajan Varghese. “He is the only person who inspires and surprises me always”