A freewheeling chat with the young & dynamic George Muthoot George, MD of Xandari Resorts
He grew up in Delhi and for him, coming to Kerala, his home state, was a revelation! He was smitten by the sheer beauty of green paddy fields, the silver showers of rain, the mystical rubber plantations and the vibrant flora and fauna – it seemed as if nature was at its best in God’s Own country! As a young boy, he had fallen in love with Kerala and deep down, he knew this was one experience that was truly worth sharing. His family was in for a surprise when he chose hospitality for a career, a clear tangent from the successful family business. But he was clear that he wanted to create positive experiences even while focussing on sustainable tourism. RITZ has a freewheeling chat with the young, dynamic and fun loving, George Muthoot George (GMG as he is fondly called), MD of Xandari Resorts, which is probably the only Indian hospitality brand of its scale that has gone international in such a short period of time.
Interview: Riya Sonny Datson
Photography: Shafi Shakkeer
Venue: Xandari Harbour, Mattanchery
Wardrobe Courtesy: Rare Rabbit
Make Up: Subi Ganesh
Photography Crew: Savad, Midhun, Sreeraj
Image Retouching: Jineesh
Tell us one instance that you recall from your childhood memories in Kerala.
As a child, I remember that my brothers and I were very amused seeing the native red frogs that had black stripes on them. We had decided that we were going to have one as our pet. One afternoon, my mom was relaxing with a book and my aunt was almost dozing off and I wanted to show off my new pet frog. So I dangled it in front of my aunt and needless to say, I have never heard a louder scream in my life! She literally levitated off the bed and crash landed on my mother! I didn’t wait another second, I ran into the rubber plantations where I hid for the rest of the day! (Chuckles!) Those were exciting days.
How challenging was it to make a different career choice?
Well, the hospitality industry wasn’t a popular choice back then and my family felt that I would be perceived as a ‘Glorified Waiter’ but of course, I was determined to give it a shot. After my bachelor’s degree in Manipal, I worked with a lot of leading national and multinational brands but unfortunately, I was disillusioned! My idea of hospitality was not about selling rooms, it was about creating experiences. Then, as a last shot, I decided to pursue my Masters in Hospitality management from Cornell University and one of my professors there taught this class on sustainable tourism and that’s what rekindled my passion all over again. I realised that this isthe most meaningful way to define travel and I knew this is what I wanted to do when I returned to Kerala.
When compared to your family business brand, Xandari doesn’t seem to have aggressive marketing campaigns. Is that intentional?
Muthoot finance is a mass market product. At Xandari, our ultimate objective is to sell positive experiences and memories – which I think is the greatest value one can offer to a traveller. Yes, the leisure segment, particularly sustainable tourism, is growing at a rapid rate. But in terms of marketing, instead of a shot gun approach where you get splashed all over, we prefer to adopt a rifle approach focussing mostly on digital marketing. Our target audience would be the tech savvy, clued-in traveller who love to plan their holidays and make conscious choices. They are conscious about what they want to consume, be it the organic food we offer or a natural product that is sourced from the local community. This in turn encourages entrepreneurship and financial empowerment for local communities, which is sustainable in the long run and highly fulfilling to work towards. That’s a Win-Win for all of us! But let me point out that we are not tree huggers! We are not in denial and we don’t believe that your ‘carbon foot print’ will be reduced if you stay at Xandari. The whole idea is to try and reduce it as much as possible, share ideas and adopt good practices.
What is the philosophy that Xandari stands for?
Xandari stands on the three pillars of community, collaboration and conservation. I feel whenever you are entering a new destination, the first thing we have to do is to add value to the community directly. The more entrepreneurs and financial empowerment you create, the more the community changes their entire perspective of you. We cannot begin the conservation story unless the community and collaboration bit is done.
As a personal philosophy, I look at the entire exercise similar to a TED platform, created to share ideas. I believe that at our destinations are composed of three components – The Local community, us as Xandarians and the global community (the travellers). Our larger purpose is to act as the platform on which ideas can be exchanged between the local community and the travellers. I feel travel is all about the experience in terms of culture, traditions, food, history and even ethics. It is this exchange of ideas between communities that is the larger philosophy of Xandari.
What sets Xandari apart from similar hospitality groups?
I think everybody is doing their bit and we are not here to compete but to complement each other. There is always something to learn. I think if we had more like minded organisations, communities across the world would thrive and prosper. We are here to tell people and other institutions, even non-hospitality organisations, to be a part of the change. I encourage my team to be out there at our resorts to understand what the global traveller has to tell us and imbibe that as the best practices.
Which would be your favourite resort?
It’s like asking a mother ‘Which is your favourite child?’ I have seen each of these resorts almost since their inception, so every single one has many memories attached to it and they are all very special to me. But Xandari Pearl is emotionally special to me as it is dedicated to my brother, Paul, who passed away in 2009. My brother was called ‘Pearl’ by the Thirumeni (high bishop at church) for he felt that he was the gem amongst us. Paul had come to Kerala to help me with the resort when he passed away. Since we were at the beach and it happened during the time, I decided to dedicate the resort to him, so it was called the ‘Xandari Pearl’. So the name is a constant reminder of him.
In a short span of time, Xandari has gone international by acquiring a gorgeous property in Costa Rica. What are biggest challenges that you face in this segment?
I think the government and its bureaucratic nature is the greatest challenge in this country. In Costa Rica, for example, we get a lot of support from the government and they are serious about sustainable tourism. They understand the benefit of travellers coming to their country and ensure that any challenges in the industry are quickly removed. So our resort has done wonderfully well there and we are focusing more on empowering local communities and sustainability.
In India, the situation is the opposite. Although the government spends a lot of money on promoting tourism the ground realities are very different. There are far too many bureaucratic restrictions, no single window clearances, very poor infrastructure, impractical laws on liquor and finally the new GST rules have slapped some of the highest taxes on the industry. Now I am beginning to understand why they call it ‘Incredible India’
Muthoot as a brand has set a very high benchmark in terms of performance. Does that become an added challenge for Xandari?
It works as an advantage for us. We bask in the reflected glory of the parent company that has a lot of goodwill. We are a fledgling company and we would want to be recognised in our own right for all that we are doing! At one point, it would be interesting to see ‘Muthoot’ basking in the glory of ‘Xandari’!
Nature. People. Life is so beautiful by itself. I have come to realise that there is so much to be grateful for and I think that’s what inspires me to do better. I feel there is no greater joy than giving. My passion is about giving back to the community, for I have been blessed immensely.
One thing you like about hospitality?
Inspiration to create positive experiences through a creative approach.
One thing you dislike about hospitality?
Commoditizing hospitality. There are no entry barriers for people who want to enter the hospitality industry, even if there is no prior experience or qualification you can start a hotel – which I feel is not the right approach.
Are you very health conscious?
I would like to think that I am but I am not. (Sighs)
What’s your routine on a regular day?
I hate routines! Routines are so boring. Everyday should be different. I enjoy travelling and going to the resorts. I can’t imagine having a scheduled life.
Being in the hospitality industry, are you a foodie or a cook?
Cook? Not really! I love food but then, am not really a ‘foodie’ either. I am more interested in the science, the ingredients, the history and the traditions behind the food. I love to explore different cuisines.
What’s on the Bucket list for Xandari?
Africa! For me, I think the entire continent is just so phenomenal and beautiful. There is so much potential. I believe it’s the birth place of Nature. I think Africa should be Xandari’s natural home – Hopefully, one day!
Interests outside of Hospitality?
I love trekking and camping in the forest. Walking through the forest is like meditation for me. But if there is one interest that I indulge in then it would be going on adventure tours on my motorcycle. At one point, I had four bikes! I feel biking helps me take a break from work and family life while I enjoy being out in the open with all the elements around – the heat, the rain, the breeze, the dust and what not. Also, while biking, I have to be focussed so it’s almost like meditation. I love adventure biking. If I had to do a cross country or continent, I would want to do it on a motorcycle!
Amidst all this busy schedules and travel, how do you recharge yourself?
I recently discovered that I am an Ambivert! I get recharged when I am by myself. I need to be super quiet and need my personal space to unwind.
- Holiday Destination: Kruger National Park, South Africa
- Weekend Getaway: Tea estates in Valparai, Tamil Nadu
- Favourite Read: The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman
- Brand that I admire: Amazon
- Proud Possession: My kids!
- Can’t do without: Humour
- Biggest Fear: Dying without dignity
- Zodiac: Pisces
- What is RARE in life: Compassion