In an exclusive interview with the Lochaber Times, Indian hotel moguls Sanjay Narang and his sister, Rachna, share how they fell in love with the West Highlands and why they bought three local hotels on a whim.
The road along Loch Garry is remote at the best of times, but with the heavy blanket of snow that fell recently, the trip was more like a trip through the Arctic.
An icy white haze hung over the dark waters of the loch, enveloping the pines in a wintry mantle like a Christmas card.
It was easy to see why Mumbai millionaire businessman Sanjay Narang and his sister, Rachna, fell in love with the area.
In fact, they liked it so much that they each bought a house along the shore of the loch a year ago, with over 200 acres of land, from which they can oversee the transformation of the three hotels of the Highlands which they also bought for Â£ 3million.
Few of us have the financial clout that, after having experienced a disappointing stay in a hotel, allows us to purchase three in order to provide better service.
But paying Â£ 140 a night for what he claimed to be dirty rooms, cold water in the shower and microwave meals served by a carpenter didn’t impress Mr Narang and he had to do something about it.
And so the Narangs became owners of the Cluanie Inn in Glenmoriston, which retains its name; Letterfinlay Lodge, near Spean Bridge, which has been renamed The Whispering Pine Lodge, and Craigard House in Invergarry, which becomes Rokeby Manor.
The three hotels, which should reopen this spring, are now part of the Black Sheep Hotels division of the Mars group. However, Mr Narang points out that the hotel which provided such a disappointing experience is not one of them.
The businesses changed owners last May, but did not close for full renovation until October 1, because reservations had to be honored.
Since then, however, workers have worked almost around the clock on a nearly Â£ 7million renovation, rebranding and new extensions.
Trained at a school in the Himalayas, Mr. Narang studied Hospitality Management at Cornell University in the United States and established the Mars Group in 1991 – he is now a major force in the food and hospitality industry in India. .
Rachna, who also studied at Cornell University, has been responsible for the design of all hotels and restaurants in March from the start.
He told the Lochaber Times that it was last winter that he and Rachna came to the Highlands looking for a place to buy a house that could be the focal point of a new village development being built in the traditional style.
âWe came in November looking for a place in the mountains where we could create a house.
âWe basically love the mountains and were talking to some people in government. We said we were looking for a remote place and that there must be a loch, because that is Scotland, and there is snow in winter, âMr Narang told us.
Government officials introduced the couple to a Highland mountain expert and a year ago began to narrow down a shortlist that would meet the Narangs criteria for a Highland house.
âWe started driving all the way to the Highlands, and going up the A87 to Cluanie, we were like, ‘oh my gosh this is just amazing’.
âSo we tried to find land and contacted the forestry authority to see if they had any plots of land that they would be willing to sell.
âIt was while waiting to hear from them that we found the house right next to it, on Airbnb, and that we rented for a few days.
âWe had arrived late at night, along a snow-covered road that seemed to drag on forever. It was pitch black when we arrived, we couldn’t see anything, and when we got up at 7am the next day, it was still dark.
âBut when the sun came upâ¦ it was just breathtaking. We both loved it.
It was while talking with the caretaker that the couple discovered that the house they had rented was for sale.
As a result, the owners were contacted and an agreement was made for Rachna to purchase the property as a home.
Mr Narang then ended up buying the house further along the lake after an agreement was made to buy it as well and the 220 acres of land that comes with it.
“So we bought that too and that’s how we ended up with these two houses in this amazing place,” he said, adding that the idea of ââa new village was not something that he had reserved for this place.
Brother and sister then began to regularly visit their new homes in the Highlands from their London base last year.
âI started to realize that there was definitely a market here and so much business. The three hotels are almost completely renovated.
âThey were just nowhere near their potential, so we thought we would try to see what we can do.
âOur job is hospitality. We built a small resort in the Himalayas that people told us would never make any money, but it was a real success. ‘
With a management team of decades of experience overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Mars Group in India, Mr Narang says he has time to get involved in something new – hence the purchase of the hotels.
With modern staff accommodation costing over Â£ 1million and employees enjoying attractive salaries, the Narangs hope to recruit primarily locally for their hotel workforce.
âWe have a concept that is great value for money – a lot of listeners think that means being cheap, but that’s not true. The standard of accommodation is important, as is the quality of the food, but it’s more than what determines whether a hotel is a place people will return – it’s the overall service you provide to people. This is what will keep them coming back again and again.
And the couple have revealed they would be interested in expanding their new hotel business in Highland by purchasing more properties if those first three prove successful.
âThere are a large number of hotels in the Highlands that have been bought out as a lifestyle choice; English people approaching retirement and wanting to find a way to live in the Highlands.
âTheir hotels are open for six months, then closed over the winter with little money available for improvements or experience in the hospitality industry.
âWe would therefore consider developing organically with a view to acquiring hotels of this nature. ‘
As for what people can expect when they walk into the renovated hotels, Ms Narang, as interior styling manager, says each of the three properties will have their own unique look.
âIt won’t be all the typical Outlander / Braveheart decor, all the tartan rugs and the deer heads on the wall,â she said.
“We want to showcase all the history and culture of the Highlands and Scotland, the great Scots of the Enlightenment, Burns, great inventions,” she explained.
âCluanie, given its remote location, will have a more rustic, outdoor feel, while Letterfinlay will have a traditional hunting lodge flavor, but done in a more charming way.
‘Everyone will have their own unique feeling.’
Businessman Sanjay Narang grew up in the Himalayas, so recent winter weather at his new home near Invergarry reminded him of his home.
Photo Iain Ferguson, alba.photos