Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh is well known for its jungles. Such is the rich flora and fauna at Pench that the park, which was given the status of a national park in 1983, was once used by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It used the park for its wildlife series – Tiger: Spy in the Jungle – a documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Considering its proximity to Nagpur, loads of Nagpur wildlife enthusiasts visit Pench very often. Pench also draws a good number of domestic and international tourists. Many resorts have been set up in Pench over the years to cater to these wildlife enthusiasts. While many of these resorts can boast of being specifically meant for hardcore wildlife lovers, very few offer luxury. Bridging the gap between these two types of resorts is the luxury safari lodge situated at Pench – Vannraj – that offers luxury and an exclusive wildlife experience at the same time. Vannraj, which is situated near Turia gate, is spread across 20 acres and located on the border of Pench National Park. In an interview with Nation Next, Ramprasad (RA) and Kshitiz Agrawal (KA), the father-son duo, who own Vannraj and are the directors of Pench Tiger Retreat Private Limited, speak about the their luxurious resort, the services it offers and tell us why Vannraj is one of the best resorts in Pench.
You have primarily been into coal trading since many years and have other businesses as well, which are nowhere related to resorts and hotels. You started the resort – Vannraj – in Pench, which commenced its operations from November 2016. How and why did you start Vannraj?
RA: Vannraj was not started as a business venture; I started Vannraj out of my love and passion for nature. There are places, which are famous for snow and then there are places, which are famous for rivers and other things. But I think none match the diversity a jungle possesses. There are different trees having different fruits and there are different animals in a jungle. Having said that, I’m very much fascinated with jungles and not wildlife. I don’t go to a forest to spot tigers but to experience jungle. Plus, Vannraj is also my retirement destination.
KA: Apart from my father’s passion, we also saw a market for a luxurious resort at Pench. Very few resorts in Pench offer luxury as most of the resorts primarily focus on wildlife. We thought that we could be a bridge in between. At Vannraj, you can experience that luxury everywhere. We never wanted to create a home away from home. Why would one want to go away from home to experience home?
Given the fact that the resort is situated at a remote place where availability of resources for building a resort is less, what kind of problems did you face while setting up Vannraj?
RA: To set up such a huge establishment outside the city is definitely challenging. There were problems, but we are businessmen and we found the solutions to those problems.
KA: It’s a challenge to set up such a huge place in a remote area. You have to strive for everything right from the electricity, staff and skilled labour. But apart from resources, the biggest challenge is – to build the exact thing you’ve imagined. For Vannraj, most of things have been bought from across India and several different countries like Bali, China, Thailand, etc. We have built Vannraj with the same love and passion, with which a person builds his home. There were a lot of consultants involved as well but I was involved at every step. It took us around three to four years to construct Vannraj. We are running the resort in quite a corporate manner but we have kept that personal touch intact.
While there are a few expensive resorts in Pench, there are also budget resorts. Where do you position Vannraj?
KA: There are more than 25 resorts in Pench. While there are two to three resorts, which are luxurious, the other are budget resorts that specifically cater to wildlife enthusiasts. Even though Vannraj is not cheap and probably one of the expensive resorts in Pench, we position ourselves between the luxurious and the budget resorts.
You have a stiff competition, as there are a lot of resorts in Pench. What would you say is the USP of Vannraj?
RA: The place where Vannraj stands today was entirely a jungle before we commenced the construction of the resort. While most resorts are built around the jungles, Vannraj is in the jungle! There are a lot of trees in the area from the very beginning. Initially, people around started cutting trees, as they wanted wood. We then took the trees inside a boundary, after which the cutting of trees stopped. The trees grew again as they had their roots intact. We also did bamboo plantations. We did not cut a single tree while constructing our resort. We built it around the trees in an eco-friendly way.
KA: The luxury of the resort is definitely its USP. The presidential villa is one of a kind. It is spread in 6000 sq. ft. with two bedrooms, a private pool, a private bar, a private area and a private butler. Keeping in mind the wildlife resorts in India, this is one of biggest USP of Vannraj. Secondly, as my father said, Vannraj is in the jungle. Our property is blessed with trees, which are more than 100 years old. You simply cannot recreate a jungle!
Pench is very close to Nagpur and that’s why a lot of Nagpurians visit Pench. Pench on the national wildlife map is also well-known now. What is the percentage of national and international tourists who visit your resort?
RA: The percentage of international tourists is quite low. If a person visits Delhi, he would want to visit the places in the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur). If a person wants to visit jungles, he would visit Ranthambore National Park instead of Pench. However, people who want to experience hardcore wildlife will visit Kanha Tiger Reserve and Pench National Park. Pench and Kanha are all about jungles; there are no mountains or scenic beauty.
KA: 80% of tourists who visit Pench comprise domestic tourists; the rest 20% are foreigners. The reason being – it’s only recently that Pench has made it to the international wildlife map as compared to Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Park, which have been there since long. Ranthambore comes within the Golden triangle, so obviously it is the favourite. Probably, Kanha is a better jungle than Ranthambore. Kanha takes the major share from Pench when it comes to international tourists but if we talk about national tourists, Pench is a tough competitor for Kanha. Plus, it’s really easy for Nagpurians to visit Pench as compared to Kanha considering its proximity to Nagpur.
Many people visit Pench because they want to see the wildlife and experience jungle. But, there is also a huge chunk of people who visit Pench just to relax with their families. What does Vannraj has to offer for such people for whom Pench is a weekend destination?
RA: 60% people visit Pench for chilling out on the weekends. Vannraj and Taj are the only properties in Pench, which have natural forests. There are around 15,000 trees in Vannraj. So, once the tourists come to Vannraj, they don’t have to visit jungle. Secondly, the quality of food and services we offer are very good. The rooms and other buildings in the resort are very spacious and spread across. We have a big swimming pool and we are also in the process of creating a lake. So, even though we don’t charge as much as Taj does, we are best in our segment.
KA: For those who want to visit Pench for a weekend getaway, Vannraj is heaven. Apart from a big swimming pool, there’s a billiards table, a table for table tennis, a badminton court, a fuss ball table, etc. So, there’s something for everybody. For easy access to the entire resort, we have eco-friendly e-rickshaws. There is probably just one resort apart from ours, which is offering so many things together. Plus, Vannraj is on the main road and when you enter, you’re in the jungle already!
Since Vannraj is in the jungle, it must have been challenging to complete the construction…
KA: Even now, every day a leopard passes by the swimming pool at Vannraj! We have a trap camera and we have noticed the pugmarks, so we know that it comes in the evening for a stroll. The place where Vannraj has been constructed was the place where the tiger would pass through regularly in the past. So definitely, it was an extreme challenge. Once, when we dug up the land for building a cottage, we found more than 100 scorpions.
Vannraj has been described as the ‘forest king’ on its website. While there’s a royal touch in the name ‘Vannraj,’ the interiors of the resort are a fusion of royalty and new age designs. How do you describe the architecture and interiors of Vannraj?
RA: Vannraj is very simple from outside, but there’s luxury inside because people want it. People visit jungles but they don’t really want to stay in the jungles. So, we have kept the exterior environment of the resort close to the jungle but have given them luxury inside the resort. For example: we didn’t want to install TVs in the rooms initially, but now we have started installing them, as people demand it. We intended to give a village like look to the resort even as we offered luxury.
KA: The design of Vannraj is rustic, vernacular, earthy, eco-friendly and royal. We wanted the design to be easy. Keeping in mind the royal touch, we have kept poster beds. Our architect and interior designer Ritu Chanekar has rightly designed the resort in such a way that, no matter how many times people visit Vannraj, they will get a different feel each time. It’s definitely a high end product but it’s for people of all ages. It’s designed to match everybody’s sensibility.
Ritu Chanekar has made quite a name for herself in the city for her interior designs. This is the first resort she has designed. How was the experience working with her?
KA: It was really great. While discussing Ritu’s remuneration for Vannraj, I told her jokingly that Vannraj would be turning point for her. I told her that I’m very lucky for others. I think it has happened. She has also evolved as a designer with this project. Today, she designs every good place or a new place in the city. She’s extremely hard working and has a very good taste. The current design of Vannraj is all Ritu’s choice. Of course, we gave our inputs, but Vannraj is completely her product.
Your father comes from an old school of thought when it comes to business, whereas you’re young and must be having contrasting ideas. What were the kind of differences in opinions you both had while Vannraj was being set up?
KA: There were many differences in opinions. My father is passionate about nature and with Vannraj he didn’t want to show anything to anybody. He wanted to probably build a budget resort, which was comfortable. Whereas, I never wanted Vannraj to be a budget property. It was clear in my head from the very start. During the construction, my father didn’t want to make a swimming pool. I always wanted to. I’m from the hospitality industry and have a holiday company (The Voyage). I knew how much amount people really spend. My father didn’t have any idea about the hospitality industry; he just followed his passion. I told him that we need a swimming pool; rather we need the best swimming pool! When we started constructing the pool at Vannraj, every resort in Pench started making pool!
We don’t have buffet at our resort because I personally don’t like to stand and take my food; I like it when it is served on the table. I always wanted to make a resort where I could stay. If I cannot stay in my resort, how can I sell the services of my resort? We never wanted to be number one; we just wanted to make a good product. I have taken all the design decisions for Vannraj and my father has always co-operated and supported me.
You have a holiday company and now you own a resort. Has Vannraj got benefitted because of your holiday company?
KA: Of course! The clientele we had at the holiday company is now automatically the clientele at Vannraj. 50% of the business, which we get for Vannraj is because of the holiday company. I have travelled to many countries and know a lot of agents. This makes it easy for us to reach out to a lot of people. For us, it was never a concern whether we would be able to run the resort despite we not coming from the hospitality industry and people trying to write us off for the same reason!