About 18 years back I was visiting a very dear friend in Perth, Australia – Joyce P. Westrip. She is an acclaimed author, a Year 2000 Order of Australia Medal (OAM) awardee, a veritable Indophile and an unofficial ambassador for diverse arts and cultures, including being a patron and benefactor of several significant cultural bodies.
Both inveterate travelers, habitué of luxury destinations and highfliers lived in a beautiful, large waterfront home. I had the privilege of enjoying their luxe quarters while on a brief vacation.
Once Charles had passed on and Joyce had got on with age, she took a decision to downsize her life. She got rid of her luxuriously decadent bits and pieces – including a Napoleon Bonaparte Writing Desk, green antique Chesterfields, lamps from the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Palace, a bespoke, artisanal alfresco fireplace, a treasure trove of artworks, a prize collection of cookery books so expensive that they were their weight in gold – to go live in a much smaller sized and simpler apartment in a Senior Living community.
Though age and health were the deciding factors for the move made by Joyce Westrip; the COVID 19 Pandemic has coerced a whole lot of us to look at life, living, luxury in a brand new perspective.
While in the past opulence, ostentation, excesses, exorbitant lifestyle were considered luxury, the Coronavirus onslaught has made us redefine luxury inclining us towards experiential living, the value of time we have on our hands, the spaces we wish to or can inhabit and the virtue of disconnection from an erstwhile 24X7 wired existence.
Given this mind-shift, the travel and hospitality industry – easily one of the hardest hit – has sensitized itself to this new normal, taking wise, innovative steps forward.
Recognizing a great opportunity to move ahead with the times in the face of such grave adversity have been topflight, maverick hoteliers like Himmat Anand.
A dreamer with an acute entrepreneurial bent, Himmat left the corporate world in 2007 after having worked a long innings with the Taj Group of Hotels and with SITA / Kuoni Travel, which included postings in Frankfurt, London and Paris. At the time of his exit, Himmat was the Chief Operating Officer – India & South Asia – at Kuoni Destination Management. He went on to pursue his decades old dream to launch the Tree of Life Resorts & Hotels in 2010, which today operate in 10 locations. Himmat also founded a uniquely positioned Petotel – A Dog’s Story in three locations.
In the Fall of 2021, Himmat Anand has broken the mould to create a new product – one of the pioneering concepts in the world and definitely India’s first – with the unveiling of his Ecotainer.
This uber eco-friendly and path breaking concept entails creating a hotel in a Shipping container.
I was introduced, a few years back, to the concept of developing magnificent living spaces in shipping containers via the irrepressible Bryce Langston, a New Zealand based actor, musician, filmmaker and environmentalist. Bryce has spent more than eight years travelling the globe exploring the Tiny House movement as the creator and host of the popular online web series Living Big in a Tiny House.
I have been astounded by the sheer beauty and ingenuity of the homes built in the sturdy yet stodgy containers; and the possibilities that lay therein. But even for me, the building of a hotel in a straitjacketed, prosaic, heavy duty industrial product has been an absolutely novel idea. Furthermore, what Anand has achieved is supremely aesthetic, easy on the environment, and a great template to build upon.
So I invited Himmat Anand, the creator of India’s first Ecotainer Hotel for an enchanting, eye-opening and educative conversation –
Aruna Dhir – How have you branded it? What is the Ecotainer named as? And when does it get launched?
Himmat Anand – First of all thank you for the very interesting questions – away from the regular!
Being a ‘new’ product category, I wanted the name to speak for itself. The ethos behind this product is eco-sensitivity, to whatever extent we can achieve it. Hence the word Eco had to be a part of the name. Container is what the product really stands on.
Thus came about the marriage of both words along with the brand – Tree of Life Ecotainers, Agra.
I am looking at opening the Ecotainer on 15 December 2021 with four Units to start with.
Aruna Dhir – What put the seed in you to develop a shipping container into a fine lodging space?
Himmat Anand – A lot has been said about Covid and its impact on travel and tourism. It certainly has changed the way people will travel in future. Travel is now more about the experiences that one offers.
Covid has also put great pressure on the mental wellbeing of people – they want to get away from it all, they want to immerse more with their surroundings, they want to reach out to others for sharing and caring.
Covid has brought a huge shift in the way people travel. The Ecotainer fits in very well with the new thought process. Being environmentally friendly is finding greater acceptance with the traveller of the future. What better way than to start with recycling.
I see the holiday-maker staying away from traditional city centre hotels, away from crowds. I see more consciousness towards the environment. I see space and privacy as the premiums.
This led to the obvious question – what can I do to offer them all of this?
Aruna Dhir – Why did you choose Agra as the first destination to start this project?
Himmat Anand – As I ventured into this project, many of my well-wishers termed it as “crazy”! Using shipping containers in creating an eco-friendly resort in Agra appeared to be an antithesis of what hoteliering and the destination itself have stood for.
My drive came from a desire to think out of the box (literally!) and do something different, to challenge set hoteliering norms and to create another niche for the Tree of Life Resorts.
Agra is too deeply associated with the Taj Mahal and has an overdose of everything ‘Mughal.’ For me, it has become sort of staid and boring, needing a shake up!
Putting up another traditional ‘hotel’ in Agra would only add to my struggle of selling the rooms once completed. Therefore, I was very keen to introduce an unusual, innovative, unprecedented element.
Besides, what is life if risks are not taken?! Moreover, to craft out a new mould and to shape new mindsets – which the Ecotainer helps me achieve – is immensely gratifying.
Aruna Dhir – What target customer base are you looking at for the Ecotainer?
Himmat Anand – In order to be successful in business you cannot wait for the market to develop or come to you. You have to create your own market.
Fortunately for us, the Tree of Life Resorts has carved out its own space and a segment of guests who enjoy what we differently offer in each destination.
I hence see our present customer base as an ideal starting point for this unique project. Quite obviously, the Ecotainer is more for those wanting an ‘outdoor’ experience.
Aruna Dhir – Alternately, what cross-section of people do you think will be interested to come and stay in the Ecotainer? With the Pandemic, the consciousness towards environment protection and conservation has risen in leaps and bounds. So I think there would be many new takers who would choose this experience. Your thoughts?
Himmat Anand – As you said, Covid has created that strong desire in people to be away from crowds and built up areas. So yes, we have a huge target market waiting for us – of the curious, conscientious, away from the cookie-cutter traveler.
Given the nature of this product, there will also be many excited and charmed first timers to the Tree of Life brand.
But I also think that the traditional traveler too is pivoted towards dipping into newfound, avant-garde experiences!
Aruna Dhir – Can you enlist all the features of the Ecotainer?
Himmat Anand – The objective is not to cloud the ‘container’ experience and yet provide all comforts. The bed is fixed, made of bricks, but comes with a comfortable 10 inches mattress. The sides of the containers have been cut and replaced with large glass windows and slides to allow a lot of light and fresh air inside.
Electrical fittings are made of natural wood and ropes, to go with the feel of the structure. We have also used jute rugs and jute dustbins.
A large flat screen television will be provided along with air conditioning for cooling and heating.
Aruna Dhir – Can you please describe the inside space, size and the outside areas of the Ecotainer?
Himmat Anand – Ever since I started the Tree of Life Resorts over a decade ago, I have always looked at each property of ours from one clear perspective – what will my guest want? This one is no different.
It will have all the facilities that a guest expects when on a holiday. However, this time I want to bring the outdoors indoors, with focus being more on the former.
I am looking at a total of around 15 units on three acres of land, in line with the Tree of Life thought process of staying ‘small.’
This will give our guests huge amount of private space – again, a positioning which the Tree of Life stands for. The idea here is that while the indoors will be adequate and comfortable with 300 sq.ft. plus of space, the focus will be on all that is provided outdoors.
Each air-conditioned Unit will have around 1,500 sq.ft. of private garden space, outdoor covered and open seating, grill and bonfire. There will be a cycling track, along with sports facilities like Croquet and Badminton.
We will also provide some very interesting excursions to neighbouring places, including a boat ride on the River Chambal.
Aruna Dhir – Are there any distinguishing facets you wish to point out?
Himmat Anand – I believe that we are the first branded hotel chain in the country to bring out a product like this and at the level that we will.
It has its challenges but I do see us as being the front-runners in this space. I am already getting queries from people wanting to associate with us and wanting to know more about it.
As for the element of quirk you say that I introduce into my brands of hotels – well! just the fact that one can stay in a shipping container in the land of the Taj Mahal is a huge idiosyncratic characteristic in itself!!
Aruna Dhir – Can you enumerate all the ways in which the Ecotainer is an absolutely eco-friendly venture?
Himmat Anand – It is my belief that it is very difficult to be “absolutely eco-friendly” in the hospitality sphere. It is a challenging and expensive segment to be in and there is more lip service happening, with only a handful living up to what they claim on the environment-awareness front. And I admit that while I am very conscious, I am no crusader of staunch eco-friendliness as I cannot live up to all that it really needs!
So this project is a balance, striving out to do as much as I physically can. The start is hence with re-cycling shipping containers, which in itself is a big first step. We will use bamboo furniture as we go along. Hundreds of trees have been planted in the three acres, making it a green paradise in about four years time. Solar energy will be used to the maximum and we will also encourage the growing of our own vegetables, with the assistance of the local villagers. And most importantly, we will make our guests conscious of the eco-space in terms of near zero plastic use etc.
Aruna Dhir – How comfortable are the Ecotainers?
Himmat Anand – As I said earlier, I always start a project from – ‘what does my guest want?’ Like all our properties, we will provide our guests all the comforts that they expect during a holiday.
Aruna Dhir – What is the pricing that you have fixed for the Ecotainer?
Himmat Anand – Here again, I believe that while unique products command their own price point, one cannot be too far away from market realities. Further, with the advent of OTAs, all rates are naked and there is no camouflaging.
The challenge will be to stay away from the crowd of hotels that Agra has, where pricing is presently depressed. While it is too early to decide on the price point, I see it in the affordable range of Rs.7, 000/ a night with breakfast.
Aruna Dhir – As a hotelier who has essentially developed properties in the luxury space, how does the Ecotainer fit into that segment? Does it at all, or you are entering the budget segment with it?
Himmat Anand – Luxury has moved away from the glitz and glamour that it stood for, a decade ago. Today, there are various forms of luxury. For example, not having internet connectivity for a couple of days in the wilderness could be a luxury for a stressed out corporate honcho.
In the same vein, Tree of Life Resorts also evolved its own definition of luxury when we started out some twelve years ago – space and privacy being the two important cornerstones.
I also am of the opinion that pricing is no longer an indicator of luxury or budget in the larger sense. The uniqueness of a product is what commands a price and given this, I do believe that the Tree of Life Ecotainers will find its own unique space and price point.
Aruna Dhir – The Ecotainers seem to be very well suited for Staycations and Bizcations. Do you agree?
Himmat Anand – Staycations and Bizcations have always been there in a limited way. Covid has just created a temporary over-hype which will fade away as we get used to living with Covid.
I do not see these segments at their same level a year down the line. And I doubt that Agra as a city will be the choice of these segments.
Aruna Dhir – What does the Ecotainer experience compare with? Is there an old model that can familiarize guests to an Ecotainer stay?
Himmat Anand – I doubt that there are any comparisons. The guest’s desire to enjoy different experiences and our capability in meeting his or her expectations is what will determine the success of this new model.
Aruna Dhir – Like your other brands, is the Ecotainer also pet-friendly?
Himmat Anand – The Tree of Life will always be more than just pet-friendly – we are pet-loving!
The fact that Jugnu, my Labrador pet child is the official mascot of my Brand elucidates this.
Yes, our four legged guests will enjoy the huge open space that we will offer them along with their own in-room dining Wags Menu, a comfortable mattress, sanitized bowls, toys to play with – the works!
Aruna Dhir – Are the Ecotainers planned as single units or as clusters?
Himmat Anand – They are Independent Units of 300 sq.ft. plus area with attached bathrooms, and with over 1,500 sq.ft. of garden area segregating one from the other.
Like I said, privacy and space are the luxuries that the Tree of Life believes in.
Aruna Dhir – And to ask you the inevitable question, how is the Ecotainer Covid-ready and crisis-proof for other unforeseeables?
Himmat Anand – We will for now, follow all the guidelines that are expected of a resort, without going overboard. Other unforeseeables will be dealt with as and when they happen.
Guest and staff safety is paramount to us, without creating paranoia.
Aruna Dhir – From a hotelier’s point of view; I reckon an initiative such as this would be pocket friendly with far less overheads and development costs. Can you please share your thoughts on this?
Himmat Anand – Land cost is the main factor for any hotel project and that remains constant, irrespective of what category of hotel one puts up. We at the Tree of Life are always situated on very large parcels of land, but away from city centres. Our land cost is therefore a fraction of what most hotels pay.
On the other hand, we always do limited number of keys – say between 10 and 20 odd. This key to land area ratio is what drives up the overall project ratio.
While with the Ecotainers, we are doing shipping containers, we are not compromising on the quality of what we offer indoors and outdoors as our guests now have a certain expectation of brand Tree of Life.
So over all, I would say such a project is about 20% cheaper than a traditionally constructed hotel.
Aruna Dhir – How do you wish to expand this line of e-hotel? What are the next destinations you may have thought of and why?
Himmat Anand – The Tree of Life is a pure leisure brand and we will not pursue the eco space aggressively as that is not our forte nor our intent. This will be a one-off in the Group, a culmination of my desire of the last few years to think out of the box and do something different.
So while the brand will continue with its steady and thought out expansion in the leisure division, there will not necessarily be another e-hotel. At the same time, as they say, Never Say Never!
Aruna Dhir – Finally, as a fast forward future possibility, would an entrepreneur like you think of an ecotainer or e-hotel on wheels; where a guest could drive their serviced caravan to a set of pre-leased parking spots to choose from? Is that concept a possibility?
Himmat Anand – Time has come for this segment to grow in India. What we now need are established and secure camp sites on popular circuits, where Campers can park for the night.
These are virtually non-existent, unlike as in Europe or America. However, we will stay away from it as it is not our core competence.
The serendipitous streak in humans coupled with our hunger and insatiability for neoteric, offbeat experiences has seen us take the world of hoteliering to tree houses, luxury boats, cruise liners, ice grottos and more.
A few years back, the famed designer Jean Marie Massaud had envisaged futuristic travel with Manned Cloud that was dreamt up as a hotel flying in the sky like a cloud.
As a matter of fact, plans are afoot to open the first hotel in Space in 2027 with Orbital Assembly’s Voyager Station. Apparently, Voyager Station is already taking reservations. It’s going to cost you a cool $5 million for a three-and-a-half-day stay.
And then there is Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic which has by now made its maiden flight, and is gearing up to run regular paid passenger service flights as early as next year.
With the Tree of Life Ecotainers, Agra; I am both delighted and relieved to note that Himmat Anand has chosen to stay closer to the ground and kinder to the environment!
L. Aruna Dhir