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Antara River Cruises heralds a new era in luxury travel

Owned by Heritage River Journeys, Antara River Cruises is India’s leading luxury river cruise company that owns and operates its fleet across the Indian rivers showcasing untouched and amazing destinations. The all-inclusive warm, personalised and unmatched Antara hospitality makes it the ideal choice for top international cruising partners. TTJ speaks to the dynamic duo, Raj Singh, Founder & Chairman of the Group and Hemant Mediratta, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, Antara River Cruises, both with invaluable background and hands-on experience in luxury hospitality and who are steer guiding the company with a clear agenda and a roadmap to expand with new cruise ships and enhanced service offerings.

Prashant Nayak

Q. Tell us about Antara Luxury River Cruises?

Raj Singh: Antara, our new brand is an evolution of Heritage River Journeys, the pioneer of Indian River cruising operations for over 15 years, providing enthralling journeys (to mainly international travellers) in luxury sailings along rivers in India. Heritage River Journeys has been lauded as an experiential and luxurious and a unique way to see India and its hidden gems along riverbanks. We design, build and operate our own vessels and we wanted to further refine our hospitality services, facilities, itineraries, and ships to allow for more people, across India and overseas, to enjoy this truly immersive Indian experience, a wonderful way to explore the country’s ancient, authentic cultures. So, Antara Luxury River Cruises is the next step in the evolution of Heritage River Journeys.

Hemant Mediratta: Antara, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Antar’ meaning ‘the distinction’, became a source of inspiration for us to make a difference and take you on a journey along the spiritual rivers of India to rediscover yourself and experience the joy of spending time with your loved ones in luxury.

Antara Luxury River Cruises is a brilliant celebration of life. Cruising along India’s mystical rivers with an all-inclusive suite offering, French balconies, and expansive social spaces, plush on-board amenities, unique gastronomy experiences, wellness and sunrise yoga, and an array of activities on and off-board make Antara cruises a perfect venue for a pre-wedding retreat, milestone events like anniversaries, birthdays, spiritual retreats and family reunion while sailing on the Ganges. Excursions, village explorations, wildlife sighting, birding, nature walks, we craft each itinerary and personalise every experience to suit our guests. We strive to offer you travel experiences that not just unique but transformational.

Q. Tell us about your enriching stint in the travel and hospitality industry? 

Raj Singh: Travel and hospitality are synonymous to me as they’ve always been a part of my life right from a young age. I grew up exploring nature, learning about birds and the wildlife in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, farming in the family estate, and playing in the shadows of the visiting Emperors, Shahs and the Maharajas – these shaped my love for conservation and were my inspiration to understand and explore the stories our ancient land offers. A lawyer’s degree later, I decided to follow my passion and started my career as a tour leader. Over the years, I travelled extensively, becoming an authority on Indian flora & fauna (my works, along with a Fellow of Royal Geographical Society were published by OUP). In 1984, my love and eagerness to redefine perceptions of India and open access to witness the regions’ great wildlife, diverse geography, rich cultural dimensions and immense heritage in ways never seen before, translated to the establishment of our business that has pioneered many definitive and innovative & authentic experiences. My innate passion for offering authentic, sustainable, experiential, transformative and distinctive travel experience is relentless and I strive to keep innovating and crafting some of the finest ways to explore the region sustainably, responsibly, creating unforgettable memories in unmatched luxury. Antara Luxury River Cruises was born out of this deep sense of passion for offering an entirely new experience.

Hemant Mediratta: Most recently, I was the Sr Vice President Sales for The Oberoi Group and was an integral part of the brand for the past 16 years. Prior to this, I have worked at various positions at Hyatt International, IHG and Park Hotels. Having spent most of my working life in the luxury hospitality space I am led by my love for ‘exclusivity’, ‘indulgence’ and ‘attention to detailing’. I also enjoy experimenting with new ideas and trying new ways of doing things and hence venturing out on my own was the next logical step for me. I realised it was time for me to fuel my entrepreneurial desire and Antara Luxury River Cruise was just the right place for me. While still keeping to the hospitality sector, one of my greatest personal passion is to try and factor in some time from my schedule to address and speak at educational institutions or corporate conferences on leadership, luxury selling and entrepreneurial mind-set. Engaging with this generation that is set to lead the country is truly learning and keeps me ignited on various fronts.

Q. Your definition of luxury? 

Raj Singh: Luxury is not a name, a brand, or an icon; it is the seamlessness of travel, the authenticity of cultural immersion, the transformative nature of learning, and the warmth of interactions with local peoples. For over 40 years until now we have pioneered experiential and luxury journeys throughout South Asia, meeting local experts and decision-makers, royalty and rabble.

Hemant Mediratta: Luxury is very fluid and personal. It has different meanings for each one of us. For some, it may mean five-star luxury hotels and Michelin starred restaurants, however, I believe luxury revolves around ‘Thoughtfulness’ – I get what I want, as I want it, at the time I want it. Basically, doing what you love in the best possible manner. There is a growing trend of more experiential and immersive experiences that affluent customers want. Authenticity, social purpose and experience are some of the key attributes of luxury experience in times to come.

Q. Tell us about the thrills of river cruise over contemporary cruising?

Raj Singh: The original definition of cruising stems from the golden age more than a millennia ago when travellers first sailed on small intimate vessels, filled with the excitement of the unknown, to explore the joys of traversing un-trodden paths beyond the water horizon, creating long-lasting friendships and cultural exchange along the way. This has been overtaken by colossal steel leviathans forcing bland experiences, segregation of travellers from local peoples and culture, and wasting vast quantities of all resources.

In direct contrast to this process of unsustainable extraction, by the reintroducing River Cruising to India after 100 years we’ve sought to offer a different path to rediscovering the joys of travelling by water and visiting hidden locales as witnessed in antiquity. We strive to regain all that has been lost of the original definition, to immerse, exchange, build, and create mutual resonance in exceptional journeys of learning and self-discovery by and on the water.

Hemant Mediratta: Ocean cruising is more often than not associated with large ocean cruise liners. The consequences of such large vessels carrying 1000s of guests creating a little city in itself is not all rosy. The journeys can be lengthy and privacy, exclusivity, personalisation also tend to get lost on such cruise liners.

River cruising however is different. The first cruise of my life many years ago was a River Cruise in Europe and I found it to be a ‘real immersive experience’. In the past few years, all my holidays have been river cruises, and have travelled on most rivers in Europe. The joy of slow travel, no packing and unpacking, seeing a new destination every day and the familiarity and comfort with staff members for 7-10 days is truly a luxurious experience. In a river cruise, you are on water but not far away from land, the riverscapes give you a peek into local culture and life. Especially as they stop in small villages and towns which one would normally not venture to as they are not touristy. Hence true authentic experiential travel is something that makes river cruising very unique.

Q. Challenges in the luxury cruising business especially in a market like India where cruising is yet to grow?

Raj Singh: The most important aspect here to address is the limited awareness of the concept of river cruising experience. River cruising is a relatively new concept for the Indian travellers with regards to an authentic exploration of our beautiful country, its culture, history while enjoying hospitality at its best. We believe that India has a myriad of stories set along its ancient river banks, together with unmatched hospitality and activities to rejuvenate the body and the mind, Antara offers a truly immersive experience, one that transforms and touches you at the core. We are looking forward to showcasing unchartered destinations through Antara’s unmatched hospitality.

Hemant Mediratta: Every challenge comes with opportunity. I believe our Indian consumers are looking for immersive, transformational experiences. River Cruising is a brilliant way to experience slow travel and rediscover yourself. Currently, the awareness of River Cruising in India may be low however it’s our vision to have an Antara Cruise in most navigable rivers of India. With this pioneering effort, we will be able to open a new segment of travellers and introduce Luxury River Cruising in India.

Q. Your thoughts/idea of luxury onboard Antara Cruises to provide guests with more choice, control, and personalisation?

Raj Singh: The Antara advantage of all-inclusive service aboard small luxury ships gives guests the freedom and flexibility to determine their own selections, whilst our attentive crew is always on hand to support and facilitate additional requests. All our excursions, sightseeing, birding trips, historical viewings, etc. are crafted and led by handpicked in-house specialists and experts who guide guests through these experiences. The itineraries that our travel experts create are personalised, customised, and absolutely incredible, just as our promise of unmatched hospitality.

Hemant Mediratta: Luxury is very personal and we want to encourage our guests to do what they love in the best possible manner on our ships. We have the highest staff to suite ratio so there is extreme personalisation and every experience on Antara can be individually curated for you. Our butler service ensures you are well looked after when you enjoy the riverscapes from your lavish suites or spacious sundeck or the bar. The all-inclusive cruise also ensures that you don’t have to ever think of dipping into your pocket for anything you want onboard. It’s all about carefree, relaxed, slow travel to discover yourself and create unforgettable memories on an Antara Cruise.

Q. Tell us about your cruise ships /routes and expansion plans?

Raj Singh: We design and build each of our handcrafted ships in Indian tradition, handcraft from the steel hull to the textiles in the lounge, inspired by traditional motifs, history, and naval traditions of our region. To ensure a seamless flow of the inherent Antara experience, it was time for us to rebrand, restructure, and expand. I am extremely happy to have Hemant on-board at this transformational time. Together, will be driving new business, new strategies as well as implementing infrastructure development.

Hemant Mediratta: Currently, we operate two ships Ganges Voyager 1 and Ganga Voyager 2 on the Ganga which are stationed in Kolkata and sail all the way to Varanasi and Dhaka. We will be introducing at least 2 more ships by October 21, as well as bringing new offerings and experiences in the coming months. There is active investor interest but we are well funded for now and will choose our potential investors who are like-minded and buy into our vision of what we want Antara cruises to be. We are innovating as we expand our routes and services to our guests.

Q. Tell us about your promotion plans and marketing strategies in these difficult times and even post the pandemic?

Raj Singh: We’ve been the only river cruise line to showcase the best of India by water at global river cruising standards, along with the highest levels of hospitality. We hope that through the evolution into Antara and the innovative experiences we introduce; we share the joys of sailing the country’s waterways with a wider Indian audience.

Hemant Mediratta: Domestic Travel is our immediate and near term focus. We have introduced bespoke charters. We craft the most unforgettable intimate events and incentives, ensuring your groups can connect in more meaningful ways. We offer the complete buyout of our ships for charters ranging from 2-7 nights, on itineraries that are personalised as per your requirements for a maximum of 56 guests aboard. For us, each event is an opportunity to create new moments of magic, through meticulous attention to details, tailored experiences and flawless execution. Very soon we will introduce two new concepts which would be something the industry hasn’t seen before. I can only tell you this much that we are constantly striving to delight our guests and innovate to provide a wholesome and rich experience.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your personal life? 

Raj Singh: I have seen travel, culture and wildlife change so drastically during my lifetime. I was born in the Indian Republic at a time in a city while my previous generation had lived in a Princely State all their lives with the traditions and heritage that the time encompassed. An ornithologist and naturalist, I have grown up in Keoladeo National Park, a former Royal hunting ground, and am passionate about conservation. I have seen the tide turn on the reduction of Tiger numbers, albeit the habitat loss is still ongoing. And I continue to witness all the technological advancements over the years. Recent times have shown that technology can break down barriers, create and open opportunities to learn, share and exchange, but it’s our belief you cannot substitute an actual travel (physical travel) experience to a place for a Virtual Reality visit. We believe that the journey itself is the purpose, and with Antara, we can help you realise it.

Hemant Mediratta: I come from a family of army personnel. My grandfather, my father, my uncles all of them have been senior army officers. I couldn’t clear the NDA exam so landed in hotels. Sometimes I feel, working in hotels with a strong sense of discipline, regimented processes and a unified chain of command reminds you of being in the Army.

I have been fortunate and blessed that I have worked with great leaders who have shaped me as a professional. I had the privilege of handling international sales for one of the best hotel brands in world which meant interacting with people from different cultures, nationalities and thought processes. This enhances your learning immensely, your adaptability to situations and most importantly makes you humble as you realise you are a speck in the larger scheme of things. I also had the fortune of working with a legend –PRS Oberoi. The clarity of vision, relentless obsession with quality and decisiveness are some of the many things I have learnt from him which has made me the professional I am today. It has truly been and amazing journey and I couldn’t have asked for more.

Q. Your thoughts about each other?

Raj Singh: I am extremely delighted to have Hemant on board, he comes with rich experience of building organisations and expanding and developing new markets for us. I am sure he will add tremendous value to the growth of Antara Cruises.

Hemant Mediratta: Now in my entrepreneurial journey, I get to work under Raj Singh who is one of the finest human beings I have met and is a pioneer in the river cruising world in India. Raj Singh is the pioneer of luxury river cruising, and with his deep cultural & wildlife knowledge, extensive travel experience and passion for authentic and sustainable travel experiences, he truly qualifies as the foremost avant-garde Indians defining cultural exchange agendas in the global stage today. And it’s an absolute honour and privilege to work alongside him.