50 years of Savera: Untold stories of highs and lows with the woman who changed everything
In 1977, 17-year-old Nina Reddy got her first glimpse of Savera. “It was over the wall of New Woodlands, which was next door,” she recalls. At the time, she was a teenager living in Hyderabad — on a college excursion with her classmates.
She might have laughed back then, if you had told her that one day she would be running its operations.
As Chennai’s first four-star hotel turns 50 this weekend, we get a glimpse of the evolution of this landmark property through the lens of the woman who is the visible driving force behind it. Not that she imagined this property would go on to become the pivot of her life’s purpose when she casually asked her father-in-law Shyamsundar Reddy (who co-founded it with his brothers) one day in the early ’90s, “Can I help?”
He put her on to housekeeper Usha Ramalingam, who would become her first coach in the business of hospitality, mainly because as Nina recalls, “She was one of the only three women who worked at the hotel, among a few hundred men.” But it quickly became evident to Nina from the growing resistance of male-dominated staff that she would have to fast progress from a position of privilege as a family member to a doyen in administration, if she wanted to be taken seriously. And so, she wasted no time. “Within the first four years of my joining, I upped the number of women on the staff by about 15 to 20 per cent,” the now Joint Managing Director recalls. “This wasn’t just a question of equal opportunity,” she elaborates, “but I recognised early on that we were not going to increase our number of female guests at the hotel if all the employees were male.”
Later, she used her background of education in Political Science and Sociology to lay a focus on changes in work culture. For better employee engagement, she recalls, “We did away with the divisions in the cafeteria that made people sit by rank.” To bring in newer avenues of income, reinvention of the space became the next order of priority for the hotel that had once been a prime shooting destination for actors like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. From vegetarian restaurant Chariot, which became Sparks in the ’90s and is now present day Bay 146 — pub goers who frequent the latter for its thriving indie music scene every Friday might find it hard to believe that the avatar of the first discotheque at Savera (Chakra) — once hosted cabaret performances over the weekend and served as the launchpad for none other than Usha Uthup!
Funnily enough, Nina does not trace her business smarts back to an MBA. Instead, she roots them in the tiny ventures she started with her friends — long before she understood the real world definition of profit and loss. “At 10, I set up a home library with a few friends and at 12, a group of us organised drama productions in my parent’s car shed ticketed at `5 paise a person,” she remembers. We aren’t surprised when she adds, there was always full attendance because apart from bagging a plump role and organising the event, she also unknowingly helmed a whole publicity network that spread the word.
Nina’s love for fitness led to the start of Body Lyrics (the in-house fitness studio) which although on the property, is available to public as well. “These days, I have a yoga instructor come home and I also head to the OMR thrice a week with my cycling group Babes on Wheels,” she tells us. You have to smile at the name, especially after she elaborates, “Most of us in the group are over 50.” The gents in the group are allowed the prefix ‘Boyz’ on Wheels.
However, all ventures aside — Savera has always been a food-driven hotel. And Nina’s memories have, over the years intertwined with old restaurants revamped, trending cuisines and special occasions. “The first date I had with my husband Vijaykumar during our courtship period, he packed kebabs from Minar (opened in 1979) and we had the most delicious meal on Marina Beach,” she remembers with a hint of nostalgia. Many will remember Minar as one of their most memorable dining spaces between ghazals and Mughalai cuisine on the rooftop, not to mention the gorgeous view. Some of the newer entrants include Malgudi, with its traditional flavours of South India and The Brew Room, a hip café which boasts eight brewing methods and is in fact managed by the next generation of entrepreneurs in family.
As for plans for the next decade and beyond, they are already underway. Nina reveals, she plans to do this through the expansion of their existing restaurants and cafés in other cities, as well as by way of franchise. “We have The Brew Room in Delhi, Malgudi in Hyderabad and a few Amaravathis (a part of Shyam’s Hospitality owned by her husband Vijaykumar and brother Ravikumar) in Chennai — all franchised,” she shares. This is apart from her more long-term plan of jumping on board the sustainable living movement and starting an eco-resort on the ECR. “I want to have a farm with animals on it from where we’ll source the milk for our restaurants,” she says, looking ahead. But this is not an idea in the distant future, she assures us, “We’re going to be sourcing the animals later this year."
The lowest point in Nina Reddy’s career came with an accident on New Year’s eve of 2007 at the hotel. A makeshift stage built on top of the swimming pool collapsed, resulting in the deaths of three youngsters that night. A night that Nina will never forget. “I was there that night and it still traumatises me every time I think about it,” she recalls.
In the midst of crisis and mass criticism, advisors suggested she go into hiding, move to her family home in Hyderabad or silently fly abroad for her safety. Instead she moved into Savera the next day. “I knew I would be more useful at the hotel where the morale was low and everything was crumbling,” she says. When she was not in the hotel, she was with the families who lost their loved ones, visiting their homes to console them along with brother-in-law Ravikumar Reddy. “It was only about emotional support in those first weeks after the accident, not the business or validating where I was the night of the accident,” she says.
The next step was financial support by way of compensation to the families and the final step, she remembers, “was to integrate our staff into a new way of thinking — accepting responsibility instead of shying away from it”. On a personal front, Nina tells us, “That night was life changing for me.” Apart from upping our safety protocols, the accident permanently changed the course of her administration, “It made me very clear about how I was going to lead. I didn’t care about what anyone thought after that — if I made a decision, that was it.”
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