You only have to glance at Gaurav Sinha to understand he is a creative man. Like many a businessman, Sinha arrives at the Arabian Business office dressed professionally, but this is no ordinary outfit.
The flamboyant Indian has punctuated his white shirt and blue jacket ensemble with a striped necktie, a polka-dot pocket handkerchief and a buttonhole, in a deliberate expression of his ornate nature.
It is with this elaborate enthusiasm that the ex-hotelier also has developed the marketing strategies for some of the most revered brands in the world of luxury hospitality over the past decade. His company, Insignia, was one of the first to set up in Dubai Media City as a fully independent organisation in 2003. It has since branched out to India, Sydney and London, with plans to also open an office in Los Angeles by the end of the year.
With 60 five-star hotels across 20 countries, 120 restaurants and 30 lifestyle and leisure outlets on its books, the company has turned over $55m worth of business in the past decade. Clients include Viceroy Hotels, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, Westin hotels in Australia, the Burj Al Arab and the Dhow & Anchor restaurant.
But there’s a distinct difference in Insignia’s marketing, Sinha explains. It’s not about a product but a destination, and luring a potential customer to experience that destination and, hopefully, to return. The strategy is far different to that of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), such as soft drinks, electronics and consumables.
“In FMCG a product should be competitively priced, easily accessible, well promoted and unique in its product proposition. In destination marketing we believe in marketing the enduring essence of the place,” Sinha, who established the company with his British wife Lucy Bruce, says.
“The enduring essence of the place requires a completely different matrix, which involves understanding cultural implications, how civilisation plays an impact, the natural DNA of the place and so on.
“I have a chronic sense of discontent in terms such as ‘creative brand advertising’. I think they’re a very lethargic posture on our own vocabulary in the industry. I like to call ourselves a brand enrichment company; we use design, media and technology to enrich brand experiences.
“Today we’re looking at creating social value for brands, not just value for brands; you’re looking at enriching equity. So it’s not about brand communication it’s rather about brand conversations and it’s about creating worthy conversation.”
Selling experiences has become increasingly popular in marketing internationally, from sports clothing brands associating themselves with feelings of power and heroism to car manufacturers promising freedom and adventure.
Sinha says it’s about expressing a personality behind a brand.
“The toughest question you can ever ask somebody, whether it’s an individual or an organisation, is ‘we know what you do but what do you really stand for?’ That’s where compelling creative genius is born,” Sinha says.
The tools used to engage an audience have fast evolved since the turn of the century and Sinha says today’s promotional mix is “very holistic”, encompassing traditional media such as newspapers and television, with digital aspects, including podcasts and social media.
But he warns social media can be detrimental for luxury brands, which need to more carefully choose when and how they engage on websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“The market has lost their manners a little bit,” he says. “We have to re-inject the etiquette in how one engages the target market [and] how you look at creating deep dialogue, as opposed to constant conversations. That means your strategic posture has to be very well defined and that’s usually a manifestation of what a brand’s DNA is.”
For his clients, social media is a learning tool as much as a marketing tool.
“In the luxury segment social media... should be used as your eyes and ears, not always your mouth,” Sinha says. “What people don’t do effectively is learn from social media, as opposed to injecting tactical distress messaging.
“[Using] a social forum I believe lacks etiquette, so what organisations need to do is look at social media and understand how consumers are building affinities, how their consumption patterns evolve, how dynamic that is, how the inter-connectivity is evolving in regards to how a community works within the context of social media.
“There’s a lot of data mining to be done, there’s a lot of intelligence gathering that one needs to do and it’s about turning that into effective knowledge, knowledge that you can monetise for your business, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you just advertise.”
In fact, Sinha argues that luxury is actually about disconnection.
“There’s a principle of closed doors as opposed to open doors that needs to be discussed for luxury when it comes to social media platforms,” he says.
“The world will say things like ‘to be completely connected and wired all the time, is your ultimate position of power’... but if I asked ‘what is the ultimate luxury destination’ [the answer] is absolute disconnection. You know you’re in a position of power when somebody with a white glove will bring you a piece of paper and say ‘I’ve got something important for you to read’, it’s not the red light blinking on your BlackBerry which is going to position you in a luxury space.
“So when you look at it like that I think we have to look at social media with delicate hands; broad brush strokes lead to mediocre results in my opinion.”
The definition of luxury also is evolving, Sinha says, with new and established brands creating different value propositions that open up their doors to a broader customer base.
“Luxury today is not about exclusivity, it’s about inclusivity,” Sinha says. “Luxury is becoming more deconstructed, it is more approachable, it’s more conversational, and that’s progressive luxury. That’s the language which we need to embrace, and we need to understand that tomorrow’s travellers will seek more of that than the traditional vocabulary of defining who you are.”
Dubai has been a fertile city for Insignia, with no shortage of luxury hotels, spas and restaurants to market. Occupancy rates and average room prices are among the healthiest in the world’s major cities.
“We are very blessed with the standards that we see in Dubai,” Sinha says.
The number of hotels and restaurants in Dubai and the region will only grow, particularly in the lead up to the World Expo 2020 in Dubai as well as the emirate’s stated aim to double the number of tourists to 20 million annually by the end of the decade.
Already working with Dubai Tourism, Sinha is hopeful Insignia will play a role in creating more “innovative and exciting experiences”.
“I think the Expo 2020 win for us is a significant landmark when it comes to Dubai and its impression on the world,” he says. “We hope to steer some of the impact of what Expo 2020 is meant to do with some of the hospitality brands.
“We have a nominal voice within the corridors of power, so to say, and I’m hoping that we can make that stronger.”
The maturation of the hospitality and tourism industry in the region also has led Sinha to develop the Tourism Marketing Council — the first multi-national tourism board in the Middle East, where about 12 million people work in travel and hospitality.
Sinha hopes to launch the first phase, an Arabian chapter, by the end of the year, with up to eight executives on the board and three membership tiers to ensure junior employees and start-ups also can participate.
The council will help to formulate regulations, promote tourism and act as an advocate for the industry.
Sinha envisages a series of TED-like talks and events, plus roundtable discussions and white papers.
He will also apply to become an affiliate of the World Trade Organisation to add authenticity to the council.
In addition, the plan is eventually it add several chapters in India, Asia and other areas, in a bid to become an international body.
“What I was very keen to do is build a small community of travel professionals with the key stewards and captains of industry on board to improve the intelligence and the opportunities for individuals within the hospitality industry or the travel industry, to better their prospects,” Sinha says.
“It’s also about raising the standards of the way things are done in the industry here and that could lead to ... in five years launching awards, a recognition programme that rewards excellence in service at a regional level.
“Plus the Arabian world is getting more and more important for the rest of the world. For even the rest of the world to learn how the travel and tourism industry here works is going to benefit everybody.”
The idea for Insignia was born out of Sinha’s frustration during his years working as a marketing executive for Hilton Hotels & Resorts across the Middle East and Asia.
“I struggled to find agencies who understood how to sell experiences; they all knew how to sell products but selling experiences, especially luxury experiences, [requires] a certain skill set and a discipline and expertise that is essential to make that happen,” he says.
“We’ve grown organically; there’s been no strategic sort of thrust in regards to the way the agency has grown.
“As the business grew we had clients who had offices in London who would call us for meetings there and we would look at enriching or deepening our footprint in those markets, so the growth we’ve seen whether it’s Delhi, Sydney, London, Dubai and even potentially LA, has all been organic.”
Insignia was one of the very few companies to improve revenues during the global financial crisis, which Sinha says is due to the company doing “simple things really well”.
“When it comes to removing complexities on a daily basis that’s what we do the best and complexities only got more magnified during the GFC,” he says.
Revenue has continued to grow by a minimum of 10 percent each year since and 2013 was “by far the biggest revenue generating year”.
Sinha says the potential to expand to Los Angeles has become viable thanks to the UAE’s booming relevance as a tourism destination in the US.
“We never thought of the US being relevant to us as an organisation initially but now, with Emirates’ direct flights connecting to some of the key hubs in the US, it makes the Middle East a very important feeder market and that’s obviously amplifying its relevance as a market to us,” Sinha says.
“Our expertise lies in the Middle East region but at the end of the day when it comes to hospitality there are certain cues that are international cues.
“When you’re looking at trends in innovation and bridging those gaps we can do that whether we’re based here or whether we [take on] some American brands.
“I see us playing an important role in the coming years not just in the Middle East but in international markets also.”
Ten years after turning down a promotion at Hilton and becoming what he calls “a reluctant entrepreneur”, Sinha says he hasn’t lost touch with the experiences of Insignia’s initial days.
“I come to work ten years down the line thinking I’m a ten-year-old start-up,” he says. “I feel like it’s my first day in the office when I get in and I think that’s a very important aspect of being successful — to realise never take anything for granted.
“You’ve got to be extremely pro-active and energetic in making sure that what got you here is not necessarily what’s going to keep you there, so you have to innovate, you have to be future-oriented, you have to look at the next big thing.”
With new hotels, restaurants, luxurt brand outlets and tourist destinations popping up across the region on an almost weekly basis, there should be no lack of inspiration for Insignia - or its eccentric founder.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.