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Monday, 05 February, 2018, 11 : 16 AM [IST]

‘Sharing the marketing budget by the private industry can give lot of freedom’

When Indian travel and tourism industry is fully dependent or at the mercy of the government of the day and its funding to drive Incredible India brand marketing and promotions in overseas markets, industry leaders like Sima Patel, the first elected Chairperson of the VisitCalifornia Board, believes that sharing the marketing budget by the private industry can give lot of freedom and better control over marketing and promotional activities to the private industry. Recently in Delhi at VisitCalifornia roadshow, Patel spoke to P Krishna Kumar on the various issues related to tourism and destination marketing.

Q Madam, you are heading the VisitCalifornia Chair. Can you elaborate as to what is the mandate of the Chair and its composition?
VisitCalifornia is a body of private industry which has 17,000 assessed members. Even my four hotels are assessed businesses by VisitCalifornia. We have Universal Studios, Disney, Car rentals, hotels, etc., as members in it. We all pay into it and have a budget of USD 120 million. The Board comprises of elected Commissioners and appointed Commissioners by the Governor. The Board was governed by the California government till October, 2016. Then we got a law passed by which we got the control of the Board. I am the first elected Chairperson of the Board. It’s a two-year term, therefore I will be in office till December 2018.

Q How this private industry funded set up works better than solely government driven marketing? Even there is a proposal by the Planning agency in India for a similar model?
It gives lot of freedom when it comes to destination marketing and promotions. We started with USD 6 million budget, it kept on increasing with more private participation. Today, we have a budget of USD 120 million. We are today present in 13 countries across the globe marketing Destination California. We have divided our source markets into Tier-I, II and III brackets. India is currently our Tier-III market, which we hope will improve positions soon and become Tier-II market. We would not have been able to do all these promotional activities with government funding alone. Our government funding is very minimal. And you have to go to the government every time you want to renew the funding. For that to happen, legislature has to vote on it. The process is quite challenging. When the private industry started doing it, we have guaranteed funding as businesses are assessed every year and accordingly share of each business is calculated. Today, digital and media marketing activities are quite expensive. You cannot achieve your targets if you rely fully on government funds. You are a strong voice of the Lodging Industry in the US today.

Q You were the first Indian woman in the US to head a State Lodging industry Association, and have also been an elected member of the Tourism Commission of California since 2006. Brief us on your journey as a hotelier?
I didn’t choose hospitality as my career, but hospitality chose me. I grew up in Surat. I got married at

the age of 17 to a very conservative Gujarati family. My father-inlaw used to run a small motel in California at that time. Immediately after marriage I started working in that motel helping my father-inlaw. I learned everything on the job. Hoteliering eventually became a passion for me. Me and my husband have four hotels currently. All our hotels are in California in the Bay Area, close to the Oakland airport, etc. We will be breaking the ground for one of our largest hotel projects once I reach back. We build and manage all our hotels.

Most of the Indian hoteliers, especially Indian Patels, are in the limited service hotel segment in the US. By limited-service I mean, there is no F&B, no banqueting, etc. It is in a way easy to manage hotels. Bigger hotels are complex in management, so lot of Indians have management agreements with bigger chains like Marriott, Hilton, etc.

Our hotel company, Ridgemont Hospitality is our management wing. We manage our assets ourselves and have a good management structure with in our company.

QIndian government is quite keen to have people of Indian origin in other parts of the world come back and invest in Make in India schemes. Do you have any plans to expand your business in India?
I grew up in Surat. But I left my home town at a young age. My father once asked me to invest in Surat long ago. But my husband was raised in Africa, he is not familiar working with Indian bureaucracy and systems. So, for us ease of doing business is in the US and not here. We know how to do business in the US. Here, it will be difficult for us and will be a whole new learning for us. For us doing business here is like doing business in a foreign land. We have so much of opportunities in the US.

Q How do you plan to use your understanding about India market to grow the Indian outbound to California and the US?
California is a very strong brand and luxury travel is a huge market for us. Therefore, we are prioritising on the Indian luxury market. Students and academia is also a strong focus market for us considering California is home for around 300 universities and institutions of higher learning. With that we are keen to have a strong VFR market here for California. For millennials, California is a truly experiential destination.

Connectivity is certainly an issue, but I believe is not a deterrent. We met with the aviation panel during our visit here which was attended by Air India and Jet Airways. Air India has 6 flights a week to San Francisco now, and they have announced their plans to launch flights to Los Angeles early next year. That will be a big boost. However, one stop is also fine when it comes to long haul destinations. People generally don’t mind a stopover. I have been coming here for 38 years, and I don’t mind having a stop over in London, or Dubai. But direct connectivity is always good and will be an advantage.
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