Raichak on the Ganges: a hospitality hub
Ambuja Neotia, a major realty player in eastern India, is known for its out-of-the-box thinking management, which forayed into the realty and hospitality segment in mid-1990s, under the stewardship of Harshavardhan Neotia. A creative mind, Neotia decided to make a difference to the way people live by “building homes that are more than just four walls”. His mission was to create a pleasant impression for community living.
The group’s first residential project was Udayan Condoville on the EM Bypass at Santoshpur, Kolkata, a social housing project, as part of a joint initiative with the government of West Bengal, to promote social housing. The projects offer residential condominiums for LIG, MIG and HIG – a total of 1,606 flats on 26 acres. It was the first large residential complex with amenities, in Kolkata.
Its features included a central, open green, residents’ club with swimming pool and gym and a jogging track. Round-the-clock security, DG back-up and a fire-fighting system were also among the main attractions. Renowned architect, Balakrishna Doshi, designed the complex. Neotia was conferred the Padma Shri award for this social housing project in 1999. It established a benchmark in the housing segment.
The unprecedented success of his maiden project helped Neotia’s journey in the segment. Soon, he established a reputation as a builder of landmark projects. His projects include the Residency in Salt Lake City Centre; Uttarayan, a new township at Siliguri; Utsa at New Town; as also Upahar in Kolkata. Besides, the company also built commercial spaces like Eco Space Business Park, Ecocentre, Ecostation and Ecosuite.
Ambuja Neotia has also developed properties like City Centre Siliguri, City Centre Raipur and City Centre Haldia. City Centre Salt Lake was the first shopping mall and family hangout destination, introduced by the developer, in Kolkata. This is the only mall without any boundary walls and was designed by Charles Correa. The group has replicated the concept in other places too.
The group put special emphasis on design and aesthetics that offer a unique experience for homebuyers. It has always strived for architectural excellence in all its projects and engaged renowned architects like Charles Correa, Balakrishna Doshi, Channa Daswatte and Kapil Bhalla to design its properties. “Our hard-earned reputation has inspired us to explore more avenues to make a difference to the way people live,” says Neotia, 59, sitting in his sprawling corner office, adjacent to a terrace garden in Ecospace Business Park, New Town. Ambuja Neotia so far has built 20 million sq ft of residential and commercial spaces.
The real estate industry has been struggling with flat growth due to demonetisation and GST. The recent pandemic made the going even tougher. However, Ambuja Neotia quietly strengthened its business by offering niche quality products and timely delivery to its customers. Its well-thought-out business strategy worked. The large land bank the company has created over the years also helped. The lockdown, forcing people to stay at home, threw up an undeniable urge in their minds to own their own homes for the purpose of security in an era of stunted mobility and lifestyles centred around the house.
Dwivedi: homebuyers are moving to reputed developers
Ambuja Neotia is now developing several residential and commercial complexes, including signature projects. Some of them are: Uttalika in the Eastern Metropolitan bypass, Utsadhara Teesta Townsip at Siliguri, Uddipa in Sinthie More in North Kolkata and The Residency in Patna, among others.
Utalika is located beside the six-lane off the EM bypass and a proposed metro station. Ambuja Neotia is developing the project in a partnership with West Bengal Housing Development. So, it was obligatory to construct LIG and MIG apartments first. Spread over 20 acres, it has 1,100 apartments comprising LIG, MIG and HIG flats (including penthouses), at a total project cost of Rs1,400 crore. Built to blend with the natural surroundings, the building area has been restricted to 34 per cent, while the remaining 66 per cent has been kept un-built. The LIG and MIG apartments all sold out through lottery.
In HIG, there are four G+22 towers, which has a total of 540 flats of various sizes, covering 2,000-4,000 sq ft, priced at Rs1.5-3.5 crore. “The response to the project has been overwhelming and we have already sold more than 80 per cent of flats in Utalika,” says Pramod Ranjan Dwivedi, president, real estate, Ambuja Neotia. Utalika Luxury’s design blends aesthetics with a friendly environment.
The complex has created elevated jogging tracks connecting all the towers, walkways under pergolas, an amphitheatre, a bamboo forest, a yoga meditation garden, a senior citizens’ area and a children’s corner. The large open-to-the-sky spaces have been landscaped to connect the green spaces with the residential towers, aiding advantageous micro-climatic conditions generated by the two natural lakes in and around the project. The lake has a floating fountain, as also a boating and fishing deck. There is also a four-storey residents’ club, Club De Ville. Kapil Bhalla has designed the project.
“Flats in the first and second phase have been handed over to the buyers before time,” says Giriraj Damani, joint-president & CFO, Ambuja Neotia. “Phase 3 and 4 should be ready by June 2021 and June 2023 respectively.”
Ensuring brand continuity
Ambuja has recently announced an 81-acre township project called Utsodhaara Teesta Township at Siliguri. Neotia, who visited the proposed township this month for the ground-breaking ceremony said: “The start of the project was delayed due to Covid-19. We will offer residential plots of different sizes here. But it will take at least two years to create the infrastructure first.” This will be the second township project of the group in Siliguri. In 2012, it had set up Uttorayon, the first and the largest township, with a shopping mall, in Siliguri. Incidentally, the names of all the residential projects start with ‘U’. Neotia clarifies that this is just to ensure brand continuity.
The group has also entered into a development management agreement with Riverbank Holding Private Limited, for an affordable housing project – Ushaar – in the Bata Township near Kolkata. Ambuja Neotia is expected to build the project and market it on behalf of Calcutta Riverside, with Neotia getting a share of the topline.
Kohli: upbeat on the future
Ushaar comprises 12 G+31 towers across 10 acres of land near the Ganges. It has amenities such as an infinity swimming pool, fitness centre, indoor game room and a multipurpose hall. In the first phase, the builder is expected to launch 300 of a total of 1,000 apartments. The project offers contemporary 2 & 3 BHK homes, along with home-office spaces, at prices ranging from Rs30-40 lakh. “We are happy to join hands with Ambuja Neotia,” says Sumit Dabriwala, promoter, Riverbank Holding. “The group is ethical and has built amazing trust in the segment. We hope we will launch many such projects with them.”
“A reputed builder like Neotia makes signature projects,” adds Pradip Chopra, chairman, PS Group, a well-known developer in the city. “His landscaping is excellent, with good designers working for him.”
The market is witnessing a gradual sales recovery in the residential segment. “There are some favourable factors like the lowest ever interest of 6.25 per cent on home loans, extended PMAY scheme till March 2021, tax benefits, etc, which may help the real estate industry. The prices remain fixed, but the sales have gone up,” explains Chopra. He believes that investing in property is now safer than parking your money in the bank. Post-lockdown, CREDAI had also launched an awareness campaign to boost home-buyers. However, no significant inventory has been added in the segment. Dwivedi observes that the demand is picking up post Covid; but buyers prefer to buy ready flats from reputed developers.
The Neotia group forayed into the hospitality sector with The Conclave in 1986. It was Kolkata’s first business club to offer a unique melange of fine dining and high commerce. In the 1990s, the group widened its coverage and created a hospitality hub in Raichak, spread across 100 acres of land on the Ganges. Ffort Raichak, a 62-room resort hotel, was originally the first of the lot, set up with Radisson, but now it’s on its own. Raichak has gradually added more boutique hotels like Anaya, a concept of Spa resort; Ffort Suits; and Ganga Kutir; to add a total of 150 rooms. It has also built country homes – Shyamolina, Pakhiralaya, Simana, Suravi and Riviera, inside the large and secluded campus, which were sold to HNI buyers. Traditional, rich Bengali families used to have baganbari-country houses where they could spend the weekend. The baganbari style fell into decline at the time of the Naxalite unrest of the 1960s and 1970s.
Neotia has been a mover in reviving the baganbari tradition or the second home concept. Raichak is just a two-hour drive from the city. Ganga Kutir is a premium property in Raichak and is sprawled over two-and-a-half acres, with a rack rate of Rs16,000 a day for a suite. It has 26 key rooms. Sri Lankan Channa Daswatte has designed the resort. The architecture is inspired by the structure of a small village or ashram community, where the space in-between the buildings becomes very important. The interiors are done with strong influences from Neotia himself. “Ganga Kutir is a niche product for HNIs…there is no compromise on tranquillity, quality or comfort,” says Neotia.
Chia Kutir: the resort at Darjeeling
Raichak Ganges has large corporate customers like Tata Motors, Dalmia Cement, IOC, Asian Paints, RPSG Group, Kotak, Maruti Suzuki, to name a few. “We lost several months because of Covid; but now, business is picking up fast. We have a cent per cent occupancy rate in all weekends. The place is also a destination for weddings,” says resident manager Pinaki Ghosh. Restaurants include Sonar Tori, which serves Bengali cuisine, and The Orient. Cyclone Amphan had damaged the properties and the place is now in need of a major renovation.
In hospitality, the group has a presence among quick service restaurants, fine casual diners and boutique hotels. Tea Junction, Tiffin, Hangout, Aftra Deli are all parts of QSR, while Aftra, Uno Chicago Bar & Grill, Sonar Tori and The Orient are for fine and casual dining. Raajkutir and Altair are curated hotels. “From 2015-16, hospitality became serious business for our group. We are strengthening all our verticals in hospitality,” says Nitin Kohli, president, hospitality. He takes pride in Raajkutir boutique hotel, located in the centre of Kolkata. The place has recreated the zamindari splendour of the Bengali renaissance of the 19th century and offers an all-day dining restaurant called East India Room, serving British colonial Bengali cuisine, a bakery, a bar, gym, spa, banquets and 33 guest rooms.
“The company is focussed on growing its QSR segment,” says Parthiv Neotia, 24, the scion of the family. “There is a lot of opportunity to grow in eastern and beyond-east markets. We have good products. Now, it is all about value creation.” He joined the family business two years ago after graduating from Babson College in the US. He is also on the board.
Covid-19 was a major setback for the hospitality industry, probably the second-worst affected after aviation. Kohli is upbeat about the prospects of growth in the next two years. Serious players with large investments have learned the hard way how to run good quality hospitality, with reduced costs, during the pandemic, he says. They are here to stay, while the others wither out. He hopes all the segments will swing back after consolidation.
Ambuja Neotia has three major verticals – realty, hospitality and healthcare. It achieved a turnover of Rs2,036 crore in 2019-20, as against Rs1,492 crore in 2018-19. While realty constitutes 60 per cent of the revenues of the company, 20 per cent each come from hospitality and healthcare too. Neotia has no plans to go public in the near future.
Healthcare: mulling expansion
Bhagirathi Neotia Women & Child Care Centre, a speciality hospital, was the first venture of the Ambuja Neotia group into the healthcare segment, in 2002. The 108-bed, super-specialty hospital offered the most advanced facilities for women and childcare. The group had realised the need for an appropriate healthcare facility in north Bengal and, in 2012, set up the 250-bed Neotia Getwell Healthcare Centre, a multi-specialty hospital at Siliguri. Another 125-bed unit was opened two years ago in New Town in Kolkata, and offers advanced maternal and neo-natal care. It adds up to a total 485 beds.
“Our Siliguri hospital caters to the entire north-east, as well as Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal,” says Ruma Banerjee, VP, business operation & projects, Neotia Healthcare. The hospital also serves Covid patients. NGHC is planning to add an oncology unit to serve cancer patients. There is no hospital in the region at present, which has ultra-modern facilities in oncology; so, the majority of patients travel to Kolkata or Delhi. “We are growing in healthcare. It is now important to expand our reach to more underserved markets,” Parthiv says. “We intend to open another nine hospitals in the next five years, at an investment of Rs500 crore.”
The Swasthya Sathi health insurance scheme announced recently by the West Bengal government is a great concern for private hospitals. The existing price cap set by the government is almost one-third of normal charges. Private hospitals have asked for revised rates. “Providing standard healthcare is important in our country,” says Parthiv. “The government should ensure that all stakeholders should benefit in the ecosystem.”
The company is in good hands, with Neotia at the helm. Only after a decade or more will the quality of the next generation be tested, as the old generation fades away and Parthiv comes to the fore.