More Room Space – Arjun Baljee

 Arjun Baljee founded a brand of ‘budget, boutique’ designed with  the utmost class.

“The term ‘budget hotel’ is today a misnomer,” states Arjun Baljee, dynamic son of Royal Orchid Hotels Founder, Chender Baljee, who steered away from his father’s luxury hotel chain to start a brand of ‘budget, boutique’ hotels that were high on design. Arjun is today branching out again, with another new hotel brand, a food app and a travel app, amongst others. Over a chat with RITZ, he unfurls the multiple disruptive plans that he has for the hospitality industry.

The year was 2011 when Arjun’s first ‘budget, boutique, design’ hotel had come up in Gurgaon under the Peppermint brand. He had left the Royal Orchid group after having worked for over six years under the leadership and guidance of his father, a bold move which not many business heirs ever make. He had recognised the potential for budget hotels that appealed to the young, were priced reasonably and were design-centric. Consumers were looking for great value at a decent price and there weren’t too many brands then, giving Peppermint an upper hand in the game.

But as they say, change in the only constant. Within just a few years’ time, the market is now brimming with ‘budget’ brands such as Ginger, Red Fox, Ibis, Premier Inn and Formula 1. And aggregators and online rental platforms like Airbnb are luring vacationers with accommodations at highly discounted pricing. Always up for a challenge, Arjun has once again decided to do something ‘disruptive’. “Hotel rooms are today given at insanely low rates. It’s tough to compete, especially when you are up against something which is almost free,” says Arjun, who is now focused on creating an entirely new brand of 3-star, value-priced, cool-tech hotels through an association with Dubai-based United World Infrastructure (UWI).

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This project will involve leasing existing hotels from property owners and investing in upgrading them, giving them a new brand identity and making them technology-heavy. Arjun calls it the ‘mobile-first, tech-first approach’ that will provide a millennial edge to the hotels. “There will be wi-fi everywhere and the cell phone will be the key to enter a room or order room service. Of course hospitality is all about the service and we will leverage technology as a tool to enable the best service.” This project, which will have investment coming in from UWI, will see Arjun starting off with 12 hotels this year, first from his home turf Bengaluru, and then expanding to other cities like Goa, Chennai, Delhi, Kerala. He is confident that there are multiple hotel owners who are keen to lease their properties, as running a hotel is a tough task. “Finding people to occupy each room each day across each location is a daunting task. We have the experience in running hotels and we have solid investors in UWI. This new brand will mark a new beginning,” says the suave man who has worked at leading hospitality brands in Dubai and Singapore, and credits his father for inspiring and teaching him a lot.

He also has on hand a project with UK-based Bespoke Hotels, through which around 70 hotels in the 4-star category will be put on the Bespoke platform, giving them unique representation in the international market and thereby providing the owners with a significant uptake in revenues. Arjun says that through this model “we will manage and market the hotels and they will follow certain standards of Bespoke.”

Amidst a flurry of activities with these two projects, Arjun eagerly awaits the launch of Stayology, an online travel marketplace that will list out options for (alternative) accommodation (like resorts, service apartments, B&Bs), restaurants, cab services, laundry service, travel experiences and activities, and everything which vacationers would require while on a holiday. Stayology already has listings in over 16,000 cities across 100+ countries that are all transactionable through the app. The focus is on aggregating the hyper-local aggregator globally.  “You can use the same app (and website) whether you’re holidaying in India or anywhere else in the world to access quality accommodation, food, cab services, etc. It’s one app, one world, one click,” explains Arjun, who is equally keen on the re-launch of his food app, Pataka, which is focused on delivering North Indian comfort food. “We had launched Pataka sometime earlier but faced delivery issues. Once that is addressed we will start off again, first from Bengaluru and then other cities.” A food app is apt for the foodie who has tried “every cuisine in the world.” He chuckles that in China he has eaten everything that “walks, crawls or flies.” And in Nairobi at the Carnivore restaurant, he has chomped on crocodile and impala meat. Haven’t these unique food experiences ever ignited the idea of starting his own restaurant brand some day? He laughs!

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As Arjun keeps laying out one business plan after another, the thought occurs as to what’s up with his Peppermint brand of budget hotels.  That was one of his first entrepreneurial forays and at last count there were 6 Peppermint hotels. He now wants to expand the portfolio under Peppermint by getting into service apartments, residences, resorts and hotels in the 3-star and 4-star categories; and by venturing overseas in markets like Dubai, Singapore and Colombo eventually. “We don’t want to do budget at all under Peppermint as there are enough ‘budget’ hotels both here and abroad.”

This brings us back to the scenario where the term ‘budget’ has transitioned dramatically, challenging hoteliers like Arjun to be radical and march into allied segments.