It’s a hot, tropical afternoon in Kumarakom, in the backwaters of Kerala. I am sitting on the verandah of a cottage in Coconut Lagoon, which is a nature resort and the brainchild of Jose Dominic, CEO of the CGH Earth Group of hotels. I am watching turtles trying to climb out of a backwater canal, biting on some plants, and falling into the water again. Boats pass by. Traditional Kerala houses dot the property, with ours being one of them.
Jose would not approve of my writing this article on my computer. I am supposed to be disconnected from all the trappings of modern society and focused on nature – the turtles, the herons, the butterflies.
Yet I need to write this piece. Now. Soon. Before I forget the details and the nuances of the fascinating story he shared with us last night over dinner. I did not take notes. Instead I just listened while chopping snake gourd, shallots and pineapples for our dinner.
This trip to Kerala was to speak at the inaugural TiECon Kerala event in Cochin, where many tourism entrepreneurs were present. Last night, at the Marari Beach resort in Alleppey (also a CGH Earth property), we had dinner (rather, we cooked together) with Jose and his wife, and we had a chance to listen to his fascinating entrepreneurial journey.
Jose is a chartered accountant by training, and he was working in Bombay in the seventies when his father launched a campaign to lure him back to Kerala to work in the family’s hotel business. It took a while, but eventually he relented.
One of the first major moves he made was to bid for a hotel in the Lakshadweep Islands against Taj, Oberoi and the other giants of the Indian hotel business. “They estimated investment ranges of 50 crores, and three months of feasibility study. I made a spot offer,” Jose said. The offer was to dismantle all the “modern” frills the hotel had put in when they replaced the thatched roofs and terra cotta floors with concrete and mosaic. Jose instinctively decided to return the hotel to its natural roots and position it as a retreat from the overdose of communication and entertainment people are fed 24 hours a day. The hotel’s publicity read, “No TV.”
Reflecting back on those decisions that were completely counter-intuitive at the time, Jose laughs: “It was a lot cheaper to go with natural materials than the concrete and the mosaic. Since I didn’t have the crores, I had to be creative.”
Eco-tourism hadn’t yet taken off, so when Jose decided to price the hotel at $180 a night – the same as the Oberoi in Bombay – there were some hearts skipping beats in the family business.
The gutsy bet worked out. The hotel was a hit. Jose Dominic never looked back, making one bold move after another, and over the years, he has put Kerala on the world’s eco-tourism map with luxury nature experiences like Coconut Lagoon, Spice Village, Marari Beach, and the magnificent Brunton Boatyard in Cochin.
Each creates a unique, memorable experience for the traveler in search of the off-the-beaten-path journey. Spice Village, for example, offers an opportunity for guests to go cardamom harvesting in the hills with the local tribes. At Marari Beach, they pick fresh vegetables from the farm, and cook with the chef. At Kalari Kovilakom, a complete Ayurvedic cleansing awaits.
As Jose explains, he is in search of the less than 5% of travelers who seek the unpredictable, the magical, and the unique. More than 95% seek standard fares. But Jose’s customer base, once seduced, remains loyal forever.
There is also a deeply thought through philosophical premise to the entire CGH Earth experience. It respects the environment and the community. Everything is sourced locally. Architectures are conceived or restored according to local themes. At Marari, for instance, the roofs are made of coconut palm leaves. They last only 18 months, and have to be redone. Jose likes that. Coconut palm is abundant in the region, and the re-thatching every 18 months provides employment for the villagers.
Colors are simple, elegant, blended with nature, in coordination with local traditions. There are white saris with gold borders, green saris with red blouses, and white sarongs on the men. The staff looks comfortable, at ease. Their warmth suffuses the guests in a sense of well-being.
You sense that feeling of peace in presence of Jose and his wife as well. They are patient, creative, and deeply committed to the core values of an endeavor that has spanned many decades. They have a great feel for stories that may lead to new experiences, laughter that is sincere and openly joyful, and a life being lived with purpose, enjoyed as it should be.
If you are looking for a travel destination, by all means check out the CGH Earth experiences.