Note: this blog was initially posted in Feb 2020 just before the lockdown. A worthy repost.

As a travel professional, I am often asked where in the world is my fave? Typically, I reply with Southern Africa and India as my two most exciting destinations and regions. Why? Each is spectacular and offers the most jaded traveller unique and colourful new experiences; each time I discover something new and unexpected.

A few months ago, I had to resist the urge to post my every move on social media as I made an exciting return to one of the most extraordinary destinations and hotels in my thirty plus year career as an event prof. Undertaking a short, whirlwind Indian recce for a confirmed event, I had to be cautious not to give clues away, pre-launch, to a few corporate clients and potential event guests who actively follow my every social media move.

For a mid-haul incentive, looking for a stunning travel experience, hotel luxury, exciting adventure and the prerequisite wow factor, I remain one of the country’s most loyal MICE fans. My first experience of India was many years before their relatively recent economic boom as a global powerhouse. Over 30 years ago as a corporate planner, I explored the ‘Golden Triangle’ cities of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi combined with the beaches of Goa for the ultimate incentive itinerary over 6 – 7 days.

This trip was pre-digital cameras with 36 frames per roll – I cautiously clicked away but sure managed to come home with a monster bag of reels!! It remained a life-changing experience.

That one trip fired up my travel juices which led me to pursue a travel-related career – and ultimately helped me achieve my dream of marketing agency a few years later when I launched marketing and representation brand Wowbean. A chance to market my two dream destinations for a job!

With two top leading DMC contracts for India and Southern Africa – I could talk, share and inspire other events planners to consider these epic destinations. While it came to a premature end when I got lured back to an agency position, fortunately, my destination experience has served me well in creating subsequent client experiences in recent years.

Blessed with an adventurous corporate client with a quest for unique, high-end experiences for their highest achievers, India was ripe for a proposal last year resulting in an April 2020 event and my site recce last September.

We have now launched it to the winners so happy to share this little blog and a few photos.

We’re heading for a place I discovered and visited a couple of times in my Indian marketing phase about ten years ago. Having revisited the traditional Golden Triangle route and seen the explosion of development, tourism etc. – we opted to stay in the colourful Rajasthan area of Northern India but slightly off the well-trodden typical tourist path. A return to Jodhpur and the iconic and remarkable Umaid Bhawan Palace.

This hotel remains one of the most spectacular hotel experiences to date. Anxious to see nothing had deteriorated since my previous visit many years earlier, I arrived and had a huge smile. It was epic as ever.

A ‘living palace’ the size of Buckingham Palace but with only 70 rooms, it is the largest boutique hotel you’re likely to experience! Umaid Bhawan Palace is one of the world’s largest private residences. A part of the palace is managed by Taj Hotels – the other half home to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Named after Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the present owner Gaj Singh.

The hotel came to media prominence when it was taken exclusively for celebrity weddings of Elizabeth Hurley and more recently pop star bro Nick Jonas & Priyanka Chopra.

This hotel provides ‘wow’ from the very first moment you pull through the gates and offers the grandest of arrival experiences.

As a keen amateur photographer, India is one of the most colourful and glorious destinations with every moment offering the visitor jaw-dropping scenes. The traffic, animals, sights, sounds, people – no words can capture it. Most travel reviews talk of ‘sensory overload’.From the mightly Mehrangha Fort to the crazy lanes of the fabled Blue City, while a large city it feels relatively small. Jodhpur might have limited cultural sights compared to Jaipur and other Indian cities, but ample to sufficiently create an Indian introduction with a real, authentic small city experience and time to savour and experience a unique hotel and some chill time.

With three days of palatial living, soft adventure and cultural experiences and the last night in New Delhi in the highly acclaimed Oberoi, this is a remarkable incentive experience of the highest order!

For most event planners and agencies, India can be a hard sell. Typically, both leisure and corporate incentives are sold with little hard-core experience of the destination. With a myriad of incoming travel companies, outgoing tour operators offering varying experiences on a theme mostly The Golden Triangle as I did many years ago, visitors are often spellbound but exhausted at the same time.

With travel packed itineraries and the ‘Taj Mahal is a must’, a 3 – 4 night incentive programme can be a daunting experience with little time to savour a stunning hotel and savour the destination at their pace. My tips include:

  • Be radical and give your clients a gentle introduction and consider a one centre programme – and whet their appetite to return!
  • Skip Agra and the iconic Taj Mahal if a day travelling to a city with little else is not so appealing – and perhaps consider adding it as an optional stay-on extra, in their personal time, if programme allows.
  • Allow chill time and let them savour the experience at a comfortable pace and soak up the spectacular hotels and expore on their own. Not everyone is a culture vulture so a good balance.
  • Heat – it will be hot so prepare them. A good DMC will support with water and cold towels at every move. Avoid monsoon season for obvious reasons.
  • Delhi Belly – coined in India but likely in many destinations if you launch into a programme with intense spices from the offset, copious amounts of unlimited alcohol and extreme heat – plus eating from street vendors! Some commonsense planning steps, thought-out programme, odds are limited. Within the high-end corporate venues you’ll likely be using, Indian hygiene standards are high and moved with the times. But still pack the Imodium!

Since Dame Judy checked into ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, a slightly rose-tinted Hollywood perspective on Indian life, India has been in fashion. Despite the economic boom in India, it may be a challenging destination for some sensitive souls with the stark contrast between luxury and poverty, the haves and have-nots, being very visible.

However, younger generations are savvy travellers and more experienced with the realities of the real world than in my early days! Depending on your outlook on life and a half glass full attitude most will savour India as a rewarding, life enriching education and experience like no other. More beneficial, if MICE tourism can offer tangible benefits for the many destination needs, as a result of a group travel experience, this will leave a very positive mark for the company and guest footprint.

With sustainable and responsible tourism featuring high in corporate event planners minds, it is a destination, like Africa, which will educate, inspire, humble, motivate and leave an ever lasting travel experience memory. Tourism is very important to India and CSR programmes can be integral to an event programme and make a worthy, sincere and welcomed contribution to the incentive experience. Taj Hotels have a very credible responsibility programme and a strong DMC will support with sensitive and rewarding experiences for both local communites and the guests alike.

I hope you enjoy the photos from my last trip.

Other Highlights

Rohet House

It was the most stylish of pee breaks as we ventured out of Jodhpur to visit the local desert villages. Always eager to see new hotels, I seized the moment to have a pre-opening glimpse of Rohet House. A stunningly designed 10 room boutique bolthole on the edge of Jodhpur, perfect for leisure travellers or exclusive small group buy outs. It is the latest creation of the energetic Rohet family and their former home. They also own two other respected properties Mihir Garh and Rohet Garh. A contrast to Umaid Bhawan Palace but a charming, beautiful hotel.

Step Well Restoration

A new but old emergence since my first visit to Jodhpur. Toorji’s Step Well was built in the 1740s by Maharaja Abhaya Singh’s Queen. Submerged for nearly a century, its recent drainage, clean-up and restoration has uncovered over two hundred feet of hand carved treasure in Jodhpur’s famous Rose-Red Sand-Stone; intricate carvings of dancing elephants, medieval lion and cow water-spouts, and niches housing deities long gone. The Stepwell Cafe, owned and managed by the first luxury boutique hotel of Jodhpur Raas, was a cool spot for a drink and watch the fun the Step Well has given the young local community.

Mehrangarh Fort

The Mehrangarh Fort is one of the largest forts in India. Built in around 1459, the fort is situated 125 m above the city and is enclosed by imposing thick walls. Inside its boundaries there are several palaces known for their intricate carvings and expansive courtyards. A winding road leads to and from the city below. Umaid Bhawan Palace will cater for exclusive special evening events around the Fort after it closes to tourists. An epic location.

Raas Jodhpur

Tucked away in the heart of old Jodhpur is a little oasis. Raas Jodhpur. It could be ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ but with a very serious makeover … and younger, cooler guests! Nestled in the towering shadows of Mehrangarth Fort, this is a stylish boutique hotel for smaller, intimate events or a break from the Palace for an off site dinner.

Out of Town

Leaving the frantic city life behind for an easy one hour drive into the Thar Desert provides a real glimpse of village life. With private guides, and welcoming villagers and homes, it provides a gentle, simple glimpse of Indian rural living. My first pottery experience was a disaster so I purchased some ready made souvenirs. Groups would enjoy the drive in 4 x 4 vehicles with staggered, less obtrustive arrivals at the village experiences, concluding lunch together at a Relais & Chateaux property Mihir Garh – a beautiful, remote property before returning to Jodhpur.

10,000 meals a day

The entrance to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib bars none, so long as visitors’ heads are covered and their feet are bare. With any luck, they’ve brought a healthy appetite, because the largest Sikh temple in Delhi also serves roughly 10,000 hearty vegetarian meals each day, free of charge … to anyone! It was a fascinating experience especially exploring the kitchens and seeing a lunch prepared for the masses.

Old Delhi

New Delhi I hardly recognised. Old Delhi I did. This crazy place might be on the tourist path with adventurous Lonely Planet tourists, all taking to the peddled rickshaws via the vibrant and crazy, wire strewn lanes and alleys. But what life! It was a whirlwind but fascinating and fun. Although I did feel sorry for the poor guy peddling me. He was very happy with the tip.