At a conference in Delhi a few weeks ago, somebody thrust a microphone into my face and asked me what I thought luxury really was. I considered giving a suitably diplomatic response but my impulse control isn’t what it used to be, so I just told the truth.
“Luxury,” I said, “is just another synonym for bullshit.”
I wasn’t trying to be outrageous. I was simply being honest. Ask any insider within the so-called ‘luxury’ business and you will be told that – except for a few companies that have artisanal traditions – it is all about premium. If handbag A costs (say) ₹10,000 then how can you charge ₹60,000 for handbag B, even though it is exactly the same product, made with the same materials at exactly the same cost, using the same mass-manufacturing industrial process?
You do it by attaching a label to handbag B. That label is what gets you the premium. The same handbag is suddenly endowed with glamour, snob appeal and desirability only because the label is so coveted.
Companies spend money, not on the products, but on publicising the label (“building the brand”), so that a mediocre industrial product can command the premium of an artisanal designer item.
There is one exception to the “most so-called luxury is bullshit” rule. And that is the hotel industry. You can create a great hotel brand and demand a premium for it. But you can’t base it only on image.
A guest at a hotel will be able to tell, within a day of checking in, whether or not you are offering a luxury experience. If the room is awkwardly designed, if the hot water in the bathroom comes and goes, if the food is bad, if your laundry is not delivered on time or if it takes you too long to check in, then no matter how many millions have been spent building the brand, no guest will regard the hotel as luxurious.
But once you get past a certain level of service, what does luxury mean in the context of the hotel business?
In the old days it didn’t matter so much to Indians because there were only two major players. The Taj stood for Indian warmth and hospitality while Oberoi offered you a more international experience.
But now, not only have both chains moved away from those positions, there are too many new players in a market that is much more competitive than before.
ITC, the youngest of the three major Indian chains, struggled since its birth, in the late 70s, to find an identity for itself. It got landed with the ‘great Indian food’ niche without ever seeking it and then longed to go beyond the biryani-kebab image.
Over the last few years, it found a new slot as the Green Chain (in keeping with its corporate parent’s initiatives), which has won it many global plaudits, but has left me a little cold. I admire a hotel chain that recycles its water, generates its own natural energy etc.But when I choose a hotel, I look for comfort, if not luxury.
I imagine that ITC Hotels reached a similar conclusion about guest preferences. So, while all the greenness stuff is intact, the company has spent a long time putting together various initiatives to create a new philosophy: Intelligent Luxury. (It’s my phrase, I am not sure they like it!)
The surprising thing about the new initiative is how international and on-trend it is. All over the world, questions are being asked about luxury. How ethical is it? What is the source of the products? Are local products being preferred to those needlessly transported over great distances? (The whole carbon miles thing.)
Another set of concerns relates to the backlash against conspicuous consumption. Just as the fashion world respects a tasteful Hermes-Chanel approach to design, so guests at hotels are tiring of visible extravagance, gold and glitz.
Now that luxury no longer means excess (in fact, it means the opposite: discretion), ITC is focussing on the little things that elevate the experience. For instance, anybody who has addressed a conference at a hotel ballroom will tell you that the audience is sleepy and sluggish at the post-lunch session. The main reason is the nature of hotel buffets, which are much too rich. So ITC’s conference menus include Alert Meets, scientifically designed to reduce sluggishness. There’s a similar menu in room service to do the opposite: help guests sleep.
At breakfast, the juices are cold-pressed, the buffet include nuts and foods with anti-oxidant properties. And at every hotel, locally sourced ingredients must constitute at least 40 per cent of the food products bought by the kitchen.
Another programme seeks to reduce the reliance on refined flour and re-introduce the traditional Indian grains (jowar, ragi etc.) that have been edged out of the market. Breaking with the tendency of all Indian hotels to push expensive (i.e. high mark-up) bottled water, ITC insists that each property bottles fresh water (infused with wellness herbs and branded SunyaAqua) and serves it free of charge to guests.
Many of these changes are already underway. So, at many ITC hotels, you will be offered gluten-free menus, warned about fish that are endangered by over-fishing, pushed towards healthier foods and made conscious of the neighbourhood and its treasures because of the reliance on local sourcing.
An extension of the new philosophy is the concept of ‘local love’. A decade ago, I stayed at an ITC Hotel in Hyderabad and was appalled to discover that the Indian restaurant did not serve Hyderabadi (or for that matter Andhra) food. “It is a Dum-Pukht,” I was told. “And our guests come for the Dum-Pukht menu.”
For somebody who lives in Delhi (where the original Dum-Pukht is), it seemed foolish to have flown for two-and-a-half hours to Hyderabad to eat a kakori kebab that I got at the Maurya anyway. But that was the policy then: all-India restaurant brands with identical menus across the chain.
All that has now changed. Each hotel has to think local. A substantial chunk of the menu (especially at the coffee shop and in room service) has to consist of local specialties benchmarked against the best local version available outside the hotel. Should a guest want to eat the real thing at a dhaba or a standalone restaurant, the hotel will have a Food Sherpa whose job it will be to guide guests to famous restaurants in each city.
If you want the Dum-Pukht biryani at the ITC Sonar in Kolkata, you will get it. But you will also get the delicious local biryani (with potatoes and a chop on the side). In Mumbai, you will be offered the hard-to-find-in-restaurants food of such Gujarati communities as the Bohras.
Though he says that the shift to Intelligent Luxury is really an aggregation of initiatives launched by different individuals across the chain, there’s no doubt that the concept has been refined and codified by one man: Nakul Anand. (With the backing of YC Deveshwar, ITC’s Chairman.)
Anand spent many years heading ITC’s hotel division before being elevated to the board of directors of the parent company where hotels are among his responsibilities. An ITC Hotels lifer (he joined the company straight out of college), Anand has transformed ITC’s image from an ‘also-ran’ hotel chain to one that is in the same league as Taj and Oberoi.
His original challenge was to build on the ‘kebab & curry’ image while simultaneously aiming for the luxury sector. “Responsible Luxury”, the slogan for the company’s green initiatives, which he pushed over the last decade, worked well as a differentiator but his real contribution took the form of the opening of contemporary new properties (the Grand Bharat resort in Gurugram, ITC Gardenia in Bengaluru and most notably, the precedent-shattering Grand Chola in Chennai) and the growth of non-Indian restaurants (Ottimo, Tian, Edo etc.) In terms of market perceptions of luxury, the top ITC hotels now command a premium.
But I imagine that Anand is smart enough to recognise that global perceptions of luxury are changing and that discerning customers in India are also repelled by excess. The language ITC uses these days – local sourcing, ancient grains, cold-pressed, gluten-free, antioxidant-rich, carb-light – is refreshingly international. You hear standalone restaurateurs and perhaps, the odd foreign hotel (Andaz) talk in those terms. But most Indian hotels are still to embrace the global trend towards this kind of luxury.
Anand knows how leery I am of ‘responsible luxury’, so when we had lunch last week, he asked if I had revised my opinion in the light of ITC’s new initiatives. “This is what I mean by responsible luxury,” he said.
“No, it isn’t”, I responded. “This is something entirely different. This is intelligent luxury. Or luxury with depth. And I do hope you can pull it off.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We are already well on our way.”
And indeed they are.
From HT Brunch, May 14, 2016
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