Gaurav Sinha launched his branding agency, Insignia, which specialises in the luxury and travel sectors, when tourism in the region was near an all-time low. The 38-year-old Indian expatriate, who has worked with chains including Jumeirah, Hilton and the Armani Hotel, talks about those dark early days and the future for luxury brands.
Why did you set up Insignia?
I was working for Hilton in Dubai, and they promoted me and asked me to move to Singapore. I was literally at a stage where I had found myself an apartment and was planning to move, and 9/11 happened. Somewhere in my guts, there was a reluctance to move, because I would have lost 12 years of equity working in the Middle East. So I very reluctantly went into business.
People don't usually set up their own business "reluctantly", do they?
There was a sense of trepidation: 9/11 had just happened, tourism was at an all-time low, there was uncertainty in the market. But at the same time, life has to progress. I had also identified a gap in the market: In my three years with Hilton, I was banging my head trying to find an agency that understood the travel industry. So I started Insignia on a wish and a prayer, off my dining table with about Dh60,000 (US$16,335) in my pocket. Eight years hence, we've done Dh140 million in turnover.
A travel and luxury branding agency in the wake of 9/11? Bold move.
In Buddhism, they say the tree that bends the most in a storm tends to survive it. We struggled in the first couple of years, and nothing came to us that easy. And eventually, we gained momentum.
What does a branding agency actually do?
There are two fundamental disciplines we offer. One is branding - which is purely etymology, identity, philosophy: Looking at the strategy that is attached to positioning a brand within a marketplace. The second is brand communication, where existing brands come to us [and] we become the creative custodians on their behalf. Some of that involves advertising, some of it involves marketing initiatives.
You worked with the Armani Hotel in Dubai. What did that involve?
We worked on making sure that the brand's localisation and the Arabic adaptations of their logos and identity worked well. Our role was to come in and look at enhancing the way the communication and language would work in Arabic.
In the wake of the recession, are luxury hotel brands such as the Burj Al Arab and the Armani Hotel still relevant?
Luxury brands will continue to flourish due to their aspirational values. Every human being has dreams and aspirations … the uber-rich continue getting richer; people still travel. So from that point of view, these brands will always retain a certain position in people's minds. As long as people have aspirations in life, luxury travel will continue to flourish.