Pioneering The Eco Effect – Jose Dominic

Jose Dominic is the CEO of a chain of 16 eco-friendly hotels.

A man who sees the world in a grain of sand, is fascinated by rural village folk, is passionate about history, art and photography, always willing to innovate and explore the less trodden path – Jose Dominic is the CEO of an award-winning chain of 16 eco-friendly hotels and wellness destinations across South India. Sitting across us at the cosy open restaurant at David Hall, a heritage Art Gallery at Fort Kochi, he talks to RITZ about his spectacular journey and the making of a true masterpiece, the brand, CGH Earth. 

Born in a small village in Pala, he is the eldest son of late Dominic Joseph.  Growing up by the banks of the famous Meenachil River, Jose Dominic’s love for nature started early on. After finishing school studies at the famous and scenic Lawrence School, Ooty, he graduated from Loyola College, Chennai and went on to complete CA, after article ship with Brahmayya & Co, Bangalore. While working with AF Fergussons, Mumbai, as a chartered accountant in 1977, his father, the founder of the Casino group, insisted that he join the business. “In fact, he frequently sent hand written letters asking me to resign and come back. Remember, those were the days before the Internet, even a phone call had to be a Trunk Call. My wife tells me that I wrote out a resignation letter which remained in my pocket for a month. Eventually, I succumbed to my father’s pressure and decided to join him. In my mind, I promised myself two years and after my brothers joined in I hoped to go back to Mumbai or perhaps overseas as was the trend in those days. But that was not to be. So here I am after nearly 40 years,” Jose Dominic recalls with a smile. 

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The Beginning – A Disruptive Innovation

Jose Dominic clarifies that the name ‘Casino’ was a mere historical accident. “In 1957 when my father and his partners decided to start a restaurant, one of the partners had just returned from a grand tour of Europe. Fresh from the experience of his visit to a casino in Naples, he suggested the name ‘Casino’ for their new venture. The restaurant had many firsts, including the first tandoor in Kerala. The restaurant grew into a hotel with 32 rooms by 1967. The name given to the restaurant became the name of the hotel and later, for the group of hotels,” he says.

The transition to CGH was a gradual process which began in 1988, when the government decided to privatise the Bangaram Island in Lakshadweep. The tourism ministry invited ‘expression of interest’ from hoteliers.  The grapevine had it that all the big boys were vying for the country’s first island resort. Dominic told himself, ‘What chance do we have? A small hotel tucked away in Kochi! But this is my chance to see this beautiful Island, otherwise inconceivable!’ He expressed his interest and was flown to Bangaram – virgin, pristine, pure and spectacular. When the administrator asked the group to propose their plans, everyone promptly replied saying, they needed time for a detailed techno-economic feasibility study. The investments were to run into 50-60 crores. He couldn’t imagine a crore then, so he said, “I don’t need a month, I will tell you right now. I would do what the villagers would do – adopt their architecture and their methods”. He suggested a model that would not require crores but only lakhs and assured them that when the airport opened, the hotel would be ready. Casino emerged as the successful bidder in the bid process. They had 2 months to get the resort ready! The Tourism Secretary was aghast that a small unknown hotel had won the contract. They laid down the most protective clauses with restrictions on carrying capacity, waste treatment, water consumption and energy consumption – eco-tourism policies that were extremely ahead of their time! Casino decided that instead of taking it as excuses, they would celebrate the cause. Their advertised features – no air conditioners, multi cuisine restaurants, swimming pool, telephone or television! Presenting nature in its purest form, in the absence of all luxury that would diminish its beauty!

Pricing was the next challenge! The group priced it at the same tariff as that of the country’s top notch 5 star hotels (which were the hotels used enroute to Bangaram). Travel operators were astounded. “The operators would say, ‘the customers were getting so much more luxury at the 5 star’. The thinking being, luxury was the ‘built ostentation’. Casino’s new definition was that, it was the ‘experience’ that mattered”, he smiles. Though the early days were difficult what inspired them was the fact that the customer loved it and invariably returned. Their most common comment – ‘change nothing, keep it this way, even if you have to double the price’. This was the beginning of a new model! Flights were the biggest constraint. This changed when Kingfisher introduced a 45 seater ATR on this route followed by Air India (formerly Indian Airlines). From a drought for airline seats, it soon became a flood. Bangaram Island resort was rocking and it attracted travellers from around the world to a unique hotel on a very unique island – pioneering not just for India but for the world! “The model we adopted put environment and community as a priority above the consumer. This was a disruptive innovation that made the island resort extraordinarily successful”.

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How The Change Continued

“We adopted the innovation discovered at Lakshadweep for our developments on the mainland. Our first was in Thekkady, Spice Village in 1991 – conceived as a tribal village in a spice garden” he recalls. The cottages adopted indigenous architecture of the hill people, the Mannan tribe, using elephant grass roofs. The employees were village folk in traditional attire, serving traditional food. No air conditioners or television! Yet, it became an extraordinary success – another disruptive innovation, this time in Kerala. The local folk who followed suit replicating the model, also became an extraordinary success, eventually breaking the barrier for the local community to enter tourism. Kerala tourism also began in the early 90s – a breath of fresh air in Indian tourism, a picture of modern India, rural India, ordinary yet attractive to tourists.

“We launched the first backwater hotel in Kumarakom, the ‘Coconut Lagoon’ in 1993. The cottages at the resort were reassembled from beautiful traditional tharavadus that were being torn down thanks to the gulf boom. Guests were in awe of the rich heritage architecture,” he recalls. 1994 was the year of the plague. In Surat, foreign tourism collapsed. This was the year India discovered India. Coconut Lagoon became an icon and in its wake, the backwaters. Kerala was now becoming a much sought after destination by foreigners as well as Indians.

The group started their next venture, Spice Coast Cruises (cruise in a houseboat) with Babu Varghese building a customised houseboat for them. This was followed by Marari Beach Resort at Mararikulam and Brunton Boatyard, Fort Kochi, all following the same model. In 2004, the group was renamed ‘CGH Earth’ – Clean Green and Healthy Earth with core values – environment preserved, community benefited and being ‘local’. Investments – zero waste as a policy, waste treatment plants, water recycling, paper units that made paper and recycled it and plastics sent for recycling. The Lakshadweep model was flowering into a new concept in tourism, which soon became the flavour of Kerala, eventually winning the state the reputation for responsible tourism and the prestigious Ulysessus Award from UNWTO.

Healing And Wellness Through Ayurveda And Yoga

The Thamburati of Kollengode Palace expressed her interest in leasing the property to CGH, her concern was that never had wine and meat been consumed in their palace nor had leather footwear been used. Thus was born, the idea of a ‘Palace for Ayurveda’, following the tenets of the ancient healing, art and science without compromise. This soon got global attention and was featured in leading newspapers and magazines of the world – another disruptive innovation, this time drawing from what the group refers to as ‘Indian Consciousness’. Soon Kalari Kovilakom obtained NABH accreditation, the first to be so recognised in the field of Ayurveda.

From Ayurveda, CGH went to yoga, this time, in North Karnataka at Gokarna. The venture, named SwaSwara was another first. A space to rejuvenate the body, mind and spirit but through the window of the mind, through yoga.

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There Were Challenges 

“When you are pioneering, there is no precedence – that is the biggest challenge. But the innovation factor puts us in the blue ocean beyond competition. We could lay down our own parameters and define our product, which is extremely fulfilling. Nature cannot fail you as long as you protect it. For the traveller, the holiday plants the seeds of exploration, discovery and adventure.  The name we have coined for such a traveller is Alert Independent Traveller (AIT). Adventurer, seeker of a sense of wonder, spontaneous, enthralled by cultural diversity, keen on understanding local community and conscious of environment and human values. We believe that the spirit of AIT is an aspiration for everyone, it only needs to be ignited. The challenges are many but what we have to guard against most astutely, are mainstream pressures. To hold on to and to even lift the bar of our proposition in the rapidly changing market place. Luxury and sustainability go hand in hand and are not contradictory as is commonly believed. Experiences have to be immersive and igniting. Hence while ‘holiday as memorable’ is a lofty ideal, we have to step further to make them transformative.  While the challenges this constitute would look formidable, they create a clear differentiation between our holiday offerings and the general marketplace. An engaging experience for the traveller that is beneficial to the community and protective of the environment is our aspiration and ideal.”

Motivated employees are another challenge! The CGH Cell is an effective tool that the group uses to enthuse a sense of participation. The members of the cell are champions of the CGH Earth cause and work towards strengthening the model. They seek a consensus and involvement from the entire team, the customer and community. The local vallom serving tea in the backwaters at Lagoon or the 50 mile restaurant in Spice Village are some of the brilliant ideas from the cell.

CGH And Art

CGH has always appreciated and nurtured Art. At David Hall, Jose Dominic explains that art is a strong part of our culture and the group has tried to create a platform for artists through the cultural centre and gallery. It is not a profit centre but a brand ambassador for CGH promoting art, hosting events like book readings and children’s activities.

New Beginnings

It’s been 60 years since they started and he believes it is time for the old to make way for the new! “The next generation should take the brand to the next threshold, pan India, pan global. Globalisation should have a new definition, it should not be standardised but should celebrate the difference of each village”, he says. Future projects would be a holiday experience in Wayanad, another at Hampi, Karnataka, Tanjavore in Tamil Nadu and at Panchaalimed in Kerala.

He signs off with the message, “Do not be afraid to be yourself!”

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Quick Facts:

  1. Favourite Holiday – I enjoy NOT taking the most popular route but being spontaneous, exploring, making discoveries in whichever destination.
  2.  Favourite Dish – Biryani, any traditional ‘Naadan’ delicacy
  3.  Brand with great potential – Indian Coffee House
  4.  Brand you admire – Fabindia
  5.  Inspired by – Steve Jobs
  6.  Current Read –  Ivory Throne, by Manu S Pillai
  7.  Current Exploration – Discovering the joy of being a farmer, which is as challenging as starting a hotel! Doing organic farming with my wife, Anita at Madukakkunu Farm near Pala where our ancestral home is situated.