Hyderabad was once known as the center of India's pearl, gemstone and textile trade, but these days it's earning a reputation for a different precious commodity—silicon, as in Silicon Valley. Located in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, "Cyberabad" is poised to trump Bangalore, thanks to its growing Hitec City, a quickly multiplying development of office parks located off the city's arterial road in the hills of the northwest.
Over the past 12 years, numerous MNCs, including Google, Facebook, Oracle, Convergys, Deloitte and Dell, as well as Microsoft's biggest facility outside the U.S. and its first in India, have set up shop, seeking cost-effective outsourcing solutions for information technology from Hyderabad's sharp and highly motivated talent pool. In addition to IT, biotech and pharmaceutical companies have descended, and Hyderabad is also home to the Telugu film industry, known popularly as "Tollywood." Direct international flights on major carriers and a new international airport have followed suit, and the result is a modern and dynamic metropolis.
Evidence of Hyderabad's push toward innovation can be felt the moment a traveler touches down in Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, which opened in 2008. The first of its kind in India, the LEED-certified structure features a curvilinear roof and uses natural light and ventilation to maximum effect. Its one integrated terminal for both domestic and international travel is a 20-minute ride from Hitec City.
Airlines manage six business-class lounges in the domestic and international security hold area, and there are three VIP lounges at the departure, arrival and remote gates on the ground level. The airport also boasts the country's first paid and independent lounges, which are open to all passengers for a fee. These independently-run lounges help mitigate the effects of overnight travel, with services like baggage hold with pickup and delivery, limo service, a business center, gym, and 28 rooms with a shower and TV, and even a "fish reflexology" center for a quick (and somewhat quirky) foot massage pre-flight.
At first glimpse, Hyderabad's cityscape appears to be a diamond in the rough. An overpass from the airport carries travelers past a vista in constant state of construction. Once inside the city, perpetually clogged roads crammed with auto-riks, honking cars and diesel motorcycles are visual symbols of Hyderabad's fierce expansion.
The city population has swelled to 3.8 million, though many put the number at 6 million for all of greater Hyderabad. Roads lined with storefronts selling everything from fine jewelry to phone cards take you to the center of town, where famed landmark Charminar sits, a 16th-century monument with four minarets, as well as the best views of the city. Past the city center, toward Hitec City previews Hyderabad's burgeoning bourgeois future with malls, a Hard Rock Café and Starbucks-style coffee shops.
Hyderabad's history as a liberal center of commerce dates to its era of the Asaf Jahi Dynasty ruled by the Nizam, or administrator of the state, which took place over a period of 200 years, up until India gained independence from Britain. After the Mughal Empire fell in the area, the Muslim Nizams became known for their refinement and opulence—according to Time magazine, the seventh Nizam was the richest man in the world in 1940—and their liberal policies allowed them to retain good ties to the East India Company.
Today, Hyderabad's value proposition lies in the passion of its work force. With many major universities and technological learning institutions, including the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad has a history of turning out highly-skilled workers in the IT industry, many of whom made their way west in the '70s, '80s and '90s to Silicon Valley, creating a mini diaspora, owing to a sort of obsession with the States.
"When Hyderabadi parents go to the temples, they pray first for a visa for their child," says Varun Adibhatla, a native of Hyderabad who now lives in New York City. This track record in the States led many U.S. companies back to the heart of the talent well as they sought cost-cutting measures. As outsourcing proved effective, more companies flooded in, wooed by major tax incentives from the state government to seduce MNCs away from other hubs in Bangalore and Mumbai.
A ride through the hills of Hitec City, which stands for Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy, at 3 a.m. on any given morning, exemplifies Hyderabad's highly motivated corporate culture, as workers truck in and out at the beginning and ending of shifts. Convergys, the first multinational contact service provider to set up and operate wholly-owned contact centers from India, was an early Hitec City tenant and now employs 1,100 workers in its 200,000-square-foot facility. "We chose India because of the country's vast talent base and a large, skilled, English-speaking IT work force. Based on the positive experiences we had with our contact center operations and with the Indian government, educational institutions and vendors, we opened our R&D center in Hyderabad in 2004," says Nanette Bentley, senior manager of media relations.
A little like a royal enclave overlooking a valley below, HITEC City has multiple office parks, interconnected by a few main roads. It's separated into individual campuses, such as L&T Infocity, which offers multi-tenant facilities like Cyber Towers, home to Oracle, GE Capital and Microsoft, and built-to-suit facilities for Dell, Motorola, Deloitte and HSBC.
A wealth of manpower and low-cost infrastructure make the area even more attractive: around 28 percent of software professionals in India hail from Andhra Pradesh, and real estate prices are 30 percent cheaper than in Bangalore and 50 percent lower than in Mumbai. Reaching saturation, high-tech offices have now grown further out into the Madhapur and Gachibowli districts.
Genpact, a business process management provider that grew as an independent business unit of GE capital, came to Hyderabad in 1997 to gain a more diversified business continuity plan. "We were drawn to Hyderabad by less competition, a great talent pool and support from the state government," says KNK Venkataraman, who runs Genpact's IT services business in Hyderabad. Eighty percent of the high-end technology work is done from its three offices in Hyderabad, including collections, customer service, IT service and software services. Key clients include GSK, Nissan, Cadbury, DPSG, Delphi and Walgreens. Low costs are key to the company's continued success. "When the company opened its Remote Operations Center to provide companies with uninterrupted, secured application and infrastructure monitoring, it was able to reduce its clients' infrastructure management budgets by 25 percent," Venkataraman says.
Historic, charming and shopper-friendly, Hyderabad has much to explore for the bargain-hungry tourist, from Kalanjali for traditional Indian textiles to Shilparamam, the "Wal-Mart" of ethnic shopping, where local artisans from all over the country come to sell their crafts. As the longtime center of jewelry artisanship, it's easy to find a dazzling array, from inexpensive bangles to ornate vintage pieces with rare gemstones and pearls. Swati Pearls & Jewellers has two floors of showcases, from simple freshwater earrings to elaborate vintage estate pieces. Those seeking a little more bling for their buck will find dozens of homemade jewelry storefronts in the downtown bazaar near Charminar.
Travelers hoping to make the most of their visit to India might want to consider extending their stay with a tour by award-winning customized tour provider Greaves. Run by an Indian family, Greaves has specialized in bespoke tours of India for 30 years, and can provide exclusive experiences such as shopping trips with a local expert, insider tours of local homes, and special dinners at one of Hyderabad's forts, even VIP meet and greets at the airport.
"Through relationships at the airports, we're able to meet clients right on the jetway as soon as they get off the plane. We have someone assist them through customs and immigration with bags, so the total experience is seamless and comfortable," says Greaves owner Carole Gambeta. Another exciting perk Greaves can offer travelers is use of its private eight-seat plane. "We'll plan multi-city excursions that would be otherwise impossible in the short amount of time business travelers often have." Tours are often surprisingly affordable. A seven-day excursion, including use of the plane and stays at five-star properties such as Taj and Oberoi, runs $5,600.
Hotel options are plentiful in Hyderabad. Many of the top chains have moved in post-Cyberabad, or are now heralding plans for builds in the next few years. Conveniently located in Hitec City, The Westin Hyderabad Mindspace has 427 guest rooms or suites and 3,600 square feet of meeting space. Novotel, located at the airport, is a business-traveler-friendly favorite, with flexible workstations in rooms and Wi-Fi.
Closer to the heart of the city, the new The Park Hyderabad is a visual playground for the well-traveled aesthete. It's the first LEED Gold-certified hotel in India, and its exterior is based on the Indian jali, a reference to the heritage of jewelry making in Hyderabad. Signature suites designed by local Indian fashion designers, world-class restaurants showcasing authentic local delicacies, and a spa with treatments featuring gemstone therapy make it a great place for travelers seeking a truer taste of India, pre- and post-meetings.
For more of Hyderabad's history firsthand, book one of the 60 fully restored rooms in the just-opened Versailles-esque Taj Falaknuma Palace, once a residence of the Nizam. Fairmont will open properties in 2012, Holiday Inn in 2014 and Crowne Plaza in 2015.
Throughout the centuries, the Nizams were renowned for their well-appointed feasts and passion for good food. "The variety of cuisines to be sampled is also huge, with Hyderabad being the origin of the world-famous biryani and several places serving authentic local and south Indian cuisines. These will be something new for the foreign palate, given that what is usually marketed as Indian food abroad is mainly north Indian cuisine," says Ajay Sreebhashyam, a senior consultant at a large multinational consulting firm in Hyderabad. Paradise restaurant in nearby Secunderabad is a favorite for local cuisine.
The establishment of a significant nightlife scene within the Hitech City area is still in relative infancy. "Expats tend to frequent pubs such as 10 Downing Street, Firangi Paani, Ahala, along with the Hard Rock Café, and the chain of Xtreme Sports Bars. Popular nightclubs are Syn, Ahala, Touch, Liquids, the Lounge at The Park hotel, and Carbon," Sreebhashyam says.
While much of the life of everyday Hyderabad is best experienced browsing the bazaar-style marketplace near Charminar, sipping on a sweet, thick Irani chai at a typical kaayf, or café, there are many sites to take in around town. On the must-see list: the Salar Jung Museum, teeming with more than 40,000 pieces of art, textiles, jewelry and crafts from Europe, Asia and the Far East; Chowmahalla Palace, which draws visitors for a glimpse of how the Nizam entertained royal guests; and Golkonda Fort, which offers a first-person look into the famed start of Hyderabad and now has a stunning sound and light show at night due to its excellent acoustics.
A crossroads and a wellspring, Hyderabad represents the swelling tide of business in India. It is replete with history, but with eyes firmly gazing toward the future.