Sant Chatwal is Hautel Living a Dream

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Fourty-four years ago, for the promise of a job and a new life, Sant Singh Chatwal left India, his motherland, with only a couple of bucks to his name. When he arrived for the position, well, as you’ll see, it didn’t quite work out. Yet, through a persistent vision, 16-hour workdays, and an otherworldly inner patience, the chairman and CEO of Hampshire Hotels & Resorts, LLC has not only transformed two industries in his adopted homeland, he’s also transformed his name into one that is internationally known as a synonym for success. And now, with his (and his son’s) Dream hotels, he’s about to bring it all back home-to do the same for the place where it all began.

It certainly wasn’t a dream in the beginning. In 1947, Pakistan was carved out of the Indian subcontinent, creating an Islamic state. In the ensuing chaos of a religious border war, hundreds of thousands were literally put to the sword. Indian Muslims ran for their lives to the newly created nation, while Hindus and Sikhs fled it. The year-old Chatwal was a member of one such refugee family. His parents fled Pakistan with Chatwal, his four brothers, and three sisters. They settled in Faridkot, in Indian Punjab, where the Sikh family became small traders.

It was a good, stable life, growing up in a small town. But Sant Chatwal wanted a little bit more. “At 18, I joined the Indian military and became a fighter pilot,” Chatwal recounts. “I was assigned to India’s only aircraft carrier, the Vikrant.” For a few years it was adventurous, but once again it wasn’t enough; Chatwal wanted more out of life than making a few hundred a month.

He headed for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1967, having locked down a position in Emperor Haile Selassie’s airline. “I left India, oh my, time flies, 41 years ago to have a better future,” Chatwal affirms. Yet that better future didn’t happen immediately. When he arrived, he found out that he had to take off his Sikh turban, slice off his traditional long hair, and lose his beard to a razor. For Chatwal, a man of deep conviction, these demands were a deal breaker. Instead he took a job as a clerk and also helped a friend run a Lebanese market. Eventually he had saved enough money to buy the restaurant and open a second, serving Indian food. Things were going well.

But then, for the second time in his young life, Chatwal had to deal with political upheaval. In September 1974, amidst famine, an oil crisis, high unemployment, and inflation, Selassie was deposed. The new Marxist government grabbed Chatwal’s assets. This would ruin most men. But not Sant Chatwal. He had been shrewd enough to allow for the possibility of such a thing by earmarking a percentage of earnings from his restaurants (and other investments and ventures) for deposit in a Big Apple bank. This time, he might be leaving with almost nothing in his pocket, but the small difference was he had 400 grand waiting for him at his next stop…Canada.

Chatwal went to Montreal and successfully introduced a new kind of cuisine: French-Indian, which became a smash hit with the city’s trendsetters. By 1979, he was able to parlay it into a shot at the big time-a lease on a huge property at 75 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. “I got to New York, and I said, my God, this is a crazy city,” he reminisces. He opened the first of his Bombay Palace restaurants, and within seven years there were Bombay Palaces popularizing Indian food all over the Western world: Houston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and London (and even in Hong Kong and New Delhi). Why did his business enjoy such rapid growth? Because Chatwal’s formula was simple: inexpensive ingredients, trendiness, deluxe surroundings, and good location.

It worked then, and it’s been working ever since. The career entrepreneur has built a collection of properties in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, and Thailand, with more than 3,000 rooms in Manhattan alone, including the boutique Dream, Time, and Night hotels. “We believe in location, location, location,” Chatwal firmly states. “This is something we do not compromise, because this is where the opportunity is; it allows us to give the right product at the right price.”

In 2004, the first Dream Hotel was definitely just that, infusing the industry with an avant-garde level of surrealism, creating a mixture of fantasy and luxury dubbed “Hautel Couture.” This instant success of form, fun, and function redefined the boutique genre and spawned the Dream brand, under a division of Hampshire called Vikram Chatwal Hotels, named as such after Sant’s son.

The incredible X-factor of Dream is strategic alliances with like-minded partners. Through collaborations with designers such as David Rockwell, Michael Czysz, and Handel Architects; all-stars of the food and nightlife worlds, including three-star Chef Geoffrey Zakarian (Town, Country) and Will Regan and David Rabin (Lotus, Double Seven); and restaurateurs Greg Brier (Aspen, Highbar), Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato (Serafina, Geisha), and Ric Addison (Ava, Rm. Fifty5, Inc.), each extension of the brand achieves a wonderful rhythm, character, and identity. Additionally, world-renowned mind-body guru Dr. Deepak Chopra offers a much needed counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the city landscapes that Dream Hotel in Manhattan inhabits, with the Chopra Center & Spa.

By the fourth quarter of 2009 multiple new properties will have opened their doors. With the eponymous Chatwal opening in Manhattan in 2009 under the Vikram Chatwal Hotels moniker, the group will mark its first entry into the ultra-luxe market. “This is a great, unique building,” Chatwal boasts. “It’s not to be found anywhere else on the island. It took me eight years to get an approval.”

There will also be new incarnations of Dream opening in Miami’s South Beach, Cochin, India, and downtown New York. “I believe in New York City; it’s endlessly fascinating,” Chatwal sings. “There’s no other city like it, where you can have unlimited product and you don’t worry about competition. I have 44th Street. Forty-fifth Street. Forty-seventh Street. Forty-eight. Forty-ninth. Fifty-one. Fifty-five. A few blocks are missing. I want to have a hotel from 42nd to 59th-each block.” And he’s convinced that there will be even more opportunities in New York in the next few years.

This year welcomed Hampshire’s first hotel opening in Hyderabad, India. In total, 2,000 rooms will be added in Bangalore, Cochin, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. In the last few years, Chatwal has overseen this expansion into India. “India’s hotel industry has simply failed to keep up with the nation’s hectic economic growth of 8 percent a year,” Chatwal explains. “Cities like Orlando and Las Vegas have more rooms alone than in all of India. There’s so much demand and there’s a huge, huge vacuum; the country will need a million keys. It’s like what America was in the 1950s, and New York in the 60s. There was so much potential. The city most like New York is Bombay. That’s why our company is putting such a huge investment into India.”

Yet even with exploding growth and vast potential, doing business in India isn’t a slam dunk. “The system, the bureaucracy is not so simple,” Chatwal sighs. “The approval process is so sluggish, each deal takes two to three years just for the acquisition process.” But as we’ve come to know, Chatwal is nothing if not patient.

That’s why he bought a private jet, to fly nonstop from here to there, take his whole team along, and spend three, four, five days working the kinks out. “My vision is that India is going to be the most booming market,” Chatwal asserts. “The land is expensive. The process is expensive. But in the end, it’s worth it.”

By 2012, there will 10 Dream properties in India, Chatwal confirms. “By importing our brand names, novel approaches in hospitality, and new concepts in food and beverage, we are going to be the largest hotel group in India,” he boldly predicts.

An increasingly affluent population of 20- and 30-something Indians who desire the pleasures of leisure and business travel will certainly aid in the herculean effort. He also has a distinct advantage in India, not only with family and professional connections, but he and his son also inherently understand, better than most of his competitors, which new things will be well received.

Yet as business-driven as he appears, Chatwal is more than just a hotel magnate. He’s a leading worldwide voice of Indo-American relations (in April, 1999, he became the only Indian in the United States to be honored with the “Order of the Khalsa” by the Indian government for his outstanding service to the community), a major fundraiser for the Democratic Party, and a fighter for immigrants’ rights.

He’s also a longtime buddy of the Clintons. “President Clinton, he is a great, great friend,” Chatwal proudly crows. Both Clintons attended one of his sons’ weddings in 2002, and the former president attended another son’s wedding in 2006. During this past election season, Chatwal worked tirelessly for Hillary. In 2007, Chatwal founded the Indian Americans for Hillary 2008, a grassroots community organization aimed at supporting the Senator’s presidential campaign. Now that she lost the Dem nomination to Obama? Chatwal proves yet again that he’s truly a man of heritage. “As a Democrat, I’m there to help Democrats. He’s a good guy, and let’s hope he gets a chance. So far it looks good.”

In 2001, he became a founder trustee of the American India Foundation and accompanied President Clinton on his first humanitarian tour of India in the aftermath of the Gujarat Earthquake. “He was a great help and a great inspiration to the people,” Chatwal says with reverence. He is also a proud Trustee of the William J. Clinton Foundation, the charitable foundation formed by President Clinton to focus on global issues of health, security, and economic empowerment. This includes active involvement in: HIV/AIDS initiative, Clinton Global Initiative, Urban Enterprise Initiative, and Alliance for a Healthier Generation. “My main interest is India and Africa, to help and serve the people,” Chatwal says.

And that’s the crux of his life: the tradition of service. One of the reasons he opened up a Dream in Bangkok was because Thai people love giving service. The same occurs in India. It makes people very happy to see that their customer is happy, because the customer is still king. “All of India believes in hospitality, even in opening your home,” Chatwal chimes. “It’s the way we were brought up. Hospitality is tradition. It’s in the blood.”

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