When The Oberoi shut its doors in Delhi at the beginning of April, it marked the end of a glorious phase in India’s hospitality sector. The Delhi Oberoi was not the chain’s first hotel. By the time it opened in 1965, the company already ran (under a management contract), one of the city’s best hotels, The Oberoi Imperial (it is just The Imperial these days). It had the Simla hotels. And it had Calcutta’s best hotel, The Oberoi Grand.
But the Delhi Oberoi was special. Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi (father of the chain’s current chairman, Biki) had long wanted to build a modern American-style hotel with 24-hour room service, a coffee shop, a multiplicity of restaurants and smart, world-class service. He started on the project on a huge plot in south Delhi and then ran out of money. The shell of the hotel remained incomplete for several months till somebody told the Rai Bahadur that he could have access to US government funds to complete the project. All he needed to do was to find an American partner.
In the Sixties, you had two kinds of hotels. You had the grand dames, such as The Savoy in London, The Ritz in Paris, The Peninsula in Hong Kong or The Carlyle in New York. But you also had a new kind of American-style hotel – exactly the sort of hotel that Oberoi wanted to build in Delhi – pioneered by Conrad Hilton, who set out to build a Hilton in every major city of the world.
Eventually, Hilton kept his domestic hotel business but sold his overseas company to TWA, then one of the world’s great airlines. Hilton’s major competitor overseas was InterContinental Hotels, owned by Pan Am, TWA’s great global rival. Between the two of them, Hilton and InterContinental pretty much invented the modern international hotel.
The Rai Bahadur went to InterContinental (Hilton had its own, ultimately aborted, India project) and asked them to partner with him. They jumped at the offer, US government funds suddenly became available and the Oberoi InterContinental opened in 1965 and changed hoteliering in India forever. The Oberois went on to find other partners (such as Sheraton in Bombay in 1973), but nearly every other Indian chain, created or reinvented since 1965, was influenced by that iconic Delhi hotel.
For instance, when the Bombay Taj opened its new tower in 1972, not only did it partner with InterContinental as well, but it even used the same interior designer (Dale Keller).
We forget now that while the old Hilton-InterContinental formula consisted of grand lobbies and lots of restaurants, it also involved small rooms with tiny functional bathrooms. And yet, every single Indian hotel built between 1965 and 1986 stuck to that formula.
By the late Seventies, a newer paradigm of luxury had begun to develop in east Asia with such chains as Regent taking the lead. This focused much more on the room itself – room sizes sometimes doubled in newer properties and the tiny functional bathrooms of old were abandoned in favour of grander spaces with separate shower stalls and baths. And soon enough, large circular bathtubs and vast shower areas began to define luxury.
Biki Oberoi first brought that style of hotel to India with The Oberoi Bombay (opened in 1986) and it soon became the new standard for luxury hotels all over the world, especially after the Four Seasons bought Regent and after eastern luxury chains (Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, etc) began expanding.
Now, even Hilton concedes that its once-iconic brand means no more than a basic five star. So it is with Sheraton and the others. Luxury hotels use other brand names like Waldorf Astoria, Ritz-Carlton or St. Regis. And the Four Seasons is all luxury with no basic brand.
And that would have been the primary distinction (basic five-star v/s luxury) except for the development of the hip hotel, a trend pioneered by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell in New York in the late 1980s, with Morgans and Royalton and soon taken up by other hoteliers (André Balazs, the Kemps, etc) before being corporatised by the W chain.
As the distinctions grew more complex, the defining characteristic of a luxury hotel became the quality of the service. It was on that basis that The Oberoi, New Delhi, with its small rooms survived for so long but it was only a matter of time before Biki decided to gut the hotel and build large, new luxurious rooms.
But the more I travel, the more I realise that many of the old certainties about luxury and service are collapsing.
For instance, it is an article of faith in the hotel business that Asian service is the best because salaries are low and hotels can hire more staff per guest than hotels in Europe, Japan or the USA can. But I am no longer sure this is true.
Yes, there is a lot to be said for the grand dames of Paris (I love The Bristol) but it is the newer hotels that have world-class service (say, Le Royal Monceau) and better guest recognition. (The first time my son stayed at the Park Hyatt in Paris, he was wowed by the fact that when he went down to breakfast on his first day the waiters addressed him by name).
Nor is heritage any guarantee of quality; The Waldorf-Astoria is easily the worst five-star hotel in New York. It is the newer ones (the Four Seasons, The Peninsula and The Park Hyatt) that offer the real luxury experience.
And if service is all about staff salaries, then why do Dubai hotels have such terrible service? Perhaps I’ve been unlucky but service at the last six hotels I’ve stayed at really sucked. (I’m excluding The Oberoi because I was not anonymous there.) Grosvenor House was terrible, so were Sheraton, Hilton and Radisson properties. And the worst was the JW Marriott Marquis where I stayed last time. It is a huge hotel (1,600 rooms) with great (Indian) senior staff, but front office took 25 minutes to check me in; every time I called room service, I was kept on hold (“Your call is important to us”) and they refused to iron a shirt in under six hours no matter what express charge I offered to pay.
At the old Dubai Taj Palace (thank God, the Taj has now abandoned that hotel), the room service order-taker advised me as a fellow Indian, not to eat the parathas (“Sir, sab frozen hai”). And the bad experiences just pile up.
Perhaps I’ve just been staying at the wrong hotels in Dubai.
And if service is only about numbers, then somebody should explain the excellence of Japanese service to me. Japanese salaries are high so staff numbers are low. But the Tokyo Park Hyatt is the single most elegant hotel I have ever stayed at anywhere in the world. Period.
It wasn’t just the interiors (stunning) or the efficiency of the service. It was the air of refinement that characterised the hotel. If you were approaching the concierge desk and the concierge was busy, somebody from reception would head you off, see if they could help you instead and if they couldn’t, would then seat you on a sofa. When the concierge was free, they would come back to escort you personally to the concierge desk.
There would be different fruit in your room everyday – the sweetest little strawberries I’ve ever eaten, a porcelain plate of succulent cherries – all served individually, without any of the mixed-fruit-basket crassness favoured by Indian hotels. When you were checking out, the receptionist would come down to the porch to see you off.
If you changed currency at the cashier, they would check the bank rate and tell you that the hotel’s exchange rate was 0.35 per cent higher than the rate at a nearby bank and offer to give you the address.
Singapore used to have good service 20 years ago (and no tipping culture), but they now accept that things have gone downhill. It’s because the Chinese got so rich and became too arrogant to work as waiters or bellboys at hotels, they say. Well, then, how do you explain Japan? I stayed at two hotels (the Park Hyatt and the Andaz) both of which were staffed nearly entirely by highly educated, supremely sophisticated Japanese who provided some of the best service I’ve encountered in my life and would not accept any tips. (There is no tipping culture in Japan, though perversely, staff in Singapore now hunger after tips.)
Raymond Bickson, who ran the Taj Group for many years used to say that the greatest challenge for grand hotels was that, despite their heritage, they always ran the risk of being outclassed by newer hotels. He would give the examples of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, Singapore’s Raffles and Bangkok’s Oriental. All were great hotels in their day. But they would be nobody’s first choice these days.
Meanwhile, shed no tears for the Delhi Oberoi. When it reopens in 18 months, it will be better and classier than any luxury hotel India has ever seen.
From Biki Oberoi, we should expect nothing less.
From HT Brunch, April 24, 2016
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