Akanksha Garg started her entrepreneurial foray into the travel industry at the age of 18. Since the very beginning she has championed sustainable tourism as one of her guiding business principles, evident in all of her operations even after all of these years.
Akanksha’s debut project was the Sundarban Tiger Camp, established in 2004, followed by The Riverwood Forest Retreat in Dooars, West Bengal in 2008 and The Riverwood Forest Retreat in Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh in 2013. Today, the 3 properties are part of the Waxpol Hotels and Resorts hospitality brand, of which Akanksha is Director and CEO. In recognition of her efforts, Akanksha has won numerous high-profile tourism awards. In 2008, she was awarded the TiE Tiger Award for her tourism development initiatives in the Sundarbans, the Rotary Club Award for CSR and the East India Travel Awards ‘Face of the Future’ Award in 2016.
Akanksha gets candid with us:
What was your background prior to starting your hotel business?
I started my career in hospitality; I was always fascinated by the dynamics of the industry from the age of 13. My family is in the business of manufacturing products for car care and polish – The Waxpol Industries Limited – a company established by my Grandfather post-partition. From a young age, I was taught about how the business works, people management, finances, relationships, and most importantly integrity – keeping your promises.
What is the biggest challenge you faced in your journey?
As I entered the hospitality industry at an early age, the biggest initial challenge was being taken seriously by people around me. I had two disadvantages, being a woman and being young. However, the hard work and perseverance paid off when I became a member of the committee for HRAEI (Hotel and Restaurant Association for Eastern India) (2009-2011), CII Eastern India (2008 – present) and CII National Committee for Tourism (2010-2013).
Akanksha receiving the TiE Tiger Award in 2008 for her tourism development initiatives in the Sundarbans
What have been ‘aha’ moments for you as a hotel entrepreneur?
As most of our resorts are in rural areas, the real ‘aha’ moment for me has been my time spent in the Sundarbans, seeing the quality of life improving there. Local children have started going to school for the first time, and men and women are now more financially secure and no longer dependent on fishing or honey collection as they now have secure income, compared to the past when they had no money most of the time.
At Akanksha’s properties, guests can interact with the villagers and learn about their history, customs and culture.
Is there a woman professional who has played a role in shaping your business?
For me, the inspiration to work and stay positive has always been my mother, Geetki Garg, who was the first woman from our traditional business family to make a name for herself as an interior designer. Her unfaltering support and constant inspiration has kept me constantly moving forward, ensuring that I keep my self-belief even in times of adversity, and that I never lose hope; she is my biggest source of strength and all that I am today is because of her.
On a professional level, the male figure who has played a huge role in my life and gave me the boost and knowledge that I needed to thrive in the hospitality industry was my mentor Guru Chahal (ex-Executive Director, Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation). He taught me everything about the industry, how it worked, and he is still a major source of strength.
Can you talk about the role of your family in shaping you as an entrepreneur?
My family was very traditional when I was growing up, but with time they have positively embraced change. I was the first girl in my family to go abroad to study, even though I got placed in all of the best hotel schools in India, including IHM Aurangabad, IHM Pusa, and the STEP program by The Oberoi School in 2004. None of this would have been possible if it were not for my grandfather’s and parent’s outlook on life and encouragement that I should follow my passion in life.
“I still remember the time when my father gave me money to invest in the brand, hoping that I would fail. At the time I didn’t understand, but with time it became clear – you cannot succeed without failing at first. You have to embrace failure in order to succeed.”
(L-R) Akanksha with her brother Shrey Garg, father Pravir Garg, mother Geetki Garg and grandmother, Hem Garg
What can we find you doing when you are not running your hotel?
Not only do I enjoy exploring forests and villages, interacting with locals and cooking their cuisines, I also love to travel, explore new places and unwind at the weekend by partying hard!
As a mother and an entrepreneur, it was difficult at the start to manage work-life balance. Now that my son, Kaveer, is older, he loves to come along and share his knowledge that can only come from someone of Generation Alpha.
Akanksha addressing questions at a travel and hospitality convention
Do you remember any funny or weird incident that stands out in your journey as a hotelier?
Funny – Yes, definitely. In 2004, during my internship at the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers in Mumbai, I was in the back office of the Sea Lounge Restaurant and my manager requested that I serve tea to a guest. Guess who the guest was… celebrity, Jackie Shroff! I went to serve him tea, not realising that I needed to use a strainer before pouring it, and all of the leaves came out with the water into his cup. He looked at me in a funny way and asked why I didn’t strain it. My reply was, and I still don’t know how much he believed me, “this is special tea, you have to wait for the leaves to settle before you drink it!” I didn’t get fired but I did learn one important lesson, always check what you are supposed to do before doing something for someone!
If not a hotelier, what would you have been?
An advocate for women empowerment!
Akanksha winning the East India Travel Awards ‘Face of the Future’ Award in 2016
Can you tell us something about your childhood, your family and educational background?
My childhood was fantastic. I have an adventurous father, Pravir, the perfect man who does anything! He can cook, loves gardening, can stitch, fix anything – wooden, electrical, metal – and he has always been a clear thinker, focused on his passions. I think he gets these traits from my grandfather who started the Waxpol company and married the woman that he fell in love with. My mom, Geetki, on the other hand is an interior designer and a housewife, a great cook and an amazing hugger! My younger brother, Shrey, is following my dad’s footsteps to the letter. I have a beautiful 5-year old boy, Kaveer, who is the star of the house, loves travelling and exploring new places, especially forests.
Akanksha is a single mom and dotes over her 5-year old son, Kaveer who shares her passion of exploring forests
I started school at Modern High School in Kolkata and stayed there until class 10, after which I moved to Birla High Girls due to the previous school being under the Madhyamik Board. Post-class 12, I studied at IHTTI in Switzerland and worked whilst running the Sundarban Tiger Camp in India with my dad’s help. In 2007, I moved back and began working full time, alongside expanding the company. We opened The Riverwood Forest Retreat in Dooars in 2008 and The Riverwood Forest Reserve in Pench in 2013.
What’s your favourite possession?
A note given by my grandfather when I was around 9 years old.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read or seen this week?
As I am travelling this week, interacting with the younger generations, it has been an interesting learning curve. Millennials today don’t just want to visit sights in destinations that they visit, they want to embrace local cultures and experience something unique. This is a testament to the increasing number of individuals travelling as opposed to groups. Travellers now spend more money on experiences rather than hotel rooms.