As India wakes up to the potential of ethical marketing, Keshav Suri of the LaLiT group is ahead of the curve, leading the change he wants to see
LGBTQ rights activist and hotelier Keshav Suri, married his partner of ten years, Cyril Feuillebois in Paris on June 26. Suri has been instrumental in the case against Section 377 in India and has campaigned extensively for an inclusive Indian society. Hence, this is the perfect time to plug our feature on the now-married man, where he talks about wanting to improve his community and to open people’s minds.
Befitting the youngest executive director of the largest privately owned hotel chain in India, Keshav Suri wants
to “welcome one and all”. Over the last decade, he’s moved steadily toward this goal in each of the 14 properties
his family runs under the LaLiT banner, throwing open their luxurious gates to members of the LGBTQIA community, persons with disabilities, acid attack victims and more. 2018 saw the announcement of Ellie, their multicoloured mascot who “welcomes all, without any discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, gender or sexual preferences”. But it’s a story that started with something much simpler: Suri just wanted to have fun, and he wanted everyone to be able to have fun with him.
In 2011, the LaLit opened the nightclub Kitty Su in Delhi, an anthropomorphised space complete with a back story and personal eccentricities — Kitty Su is a ‘discerning woman of taste, class and distinction’. “The party and nightlife culture in the city was very different [then]. I opened the club out of my own selfish interests, to
create the kind of place where I would like to party and create an inclusive space.” The club was the first to play host to numerous inclusivity-driven parties, from drag nights to gay parties, and they did so with all the luxury and charm that comes with the Suri name. It was among the first of the LaLiT Group’s many path-breaking moves toward inclusivity in luxury hospitality, and definitely the most glamorous. “The club will be completing 7 years in August in Delhi, and we continue to be the trend setters. Kitty Su Mumbai, Chandigarh and Kitty KO Bangalore have also gained the same love in their respective cities.”
What set Kitty Su apart was its unequivocal support of marginalised lifestyles, a space almost entirely untouched by the hospitality sector at the time. Neel, 36, recounts his own attempts to find a place where he could be himself. “When I was a really young gay kid, 19 or so, there was only one gay club you could go to and you had to be really careful how you dressed. Now people are dragging [sic] and wearing gender fluid clothing; then you had to cheat. Go in and then take something off or put something on. But you couldn’t just walk in
being who you wanted to be.” Kitty Su, on the other hand, flies in famous drag artists from around the world, proudly declaring their intentions as a subversive space. As we see consumers calling for the boycott of brands over ethical concerns, often unrelated to their product, the Suris may in fact have been ahead of their time. With the rise of ethical marketing, studies in America have shown that 56 per cent of consumers stop buying from companies they believe are unethical, and 29 per cent take to social media to share their support of
ethical companies, a trend that’s picking up in India as well. It’s good to remember that the socially marginalised are consumers too, and their coin is of equal value, given the incentive to spend.
Besides their support of the LGBTQIA community, the Suris have also made more concrete changes in the way their company is run. “We have curated special events for people who are differently-abled, acid attack survivors and who belong to the LGBTQIA community. I have also hired transgenders, trained acid survivors for work and supported them to chase their dreams. DJ Aamish is a resident kitten at Kitty Su, and is India’s first and only DJ in a wheelchair. We are an equal opportunity workplace, and the group has not only hired people from the community, but also held sensitisation training sessions on the LGBTQIA community by Alex Mathew across all our properties. A fresh HR Policy on equality and diversity, with clear guidelines on handling discrimination and harassment was drafted, along with sprucing up of POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) in August 2017.” This careful rebranding blends personal experiences with business goals. “It doesn’t take much to notice that our world is not as inclusive as we would like it to be,” says Suri.
“I believe in India, it is the entrepreneurs who bring about the change, not the government. As a hotelier, I want to put India on the global tourist map. I want to change the idea of India as an unsafe place. An economy as big as India can earn about $32 billion annually from pink tourism alone; these are World Bank reports, and it is big money. I want to cash in on that. I feel it is the role of everyone to improve their community, to open people’s minds and make their country inclusive. We are certainly doing that. I don’t know if people are getting inspired or jealous, or critical; I will continue to do it.”