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Chain reaction

If the distinction between ‘grand’ hotels and ‘modern’ hotels is eroding, it’s because modern luxury chains are taking over grand old hotels and running them to the highest standards.

entertainment Updated: Mar 06, 2010 18:09 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Within the hotel business, deluxe hotels used to be divided into two basic categories. There were the grand old hotels. And then there were the fancy new ones. Both were good: the hotel you chose depended on the sort of experience you preferred.

For instance, if you went to Bombay in the 1980s, you had the choice of the grand old Taj Mahal Hotel or the swanky new Oberoi at Nariman Point. Some people liked the Taj. Others preferred the Oberoi. There was no objective ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Often, there was a cultural clash between the values that the grand hotel represented and slick efficiency of the modern groups. Arthur Hailey’s 1960s bestselling novel Hotel (later made into a TV series and a movie with Rod Taylor) focused on an attempted take-over of a grand old hotel by a Hilton-style corporation. (In the end, a kindly millionaire bought the grand hotel and preserved its character.)

In England, the conflict played itself out again and again in the 1960s and 1970s, often with the same characters at the centre of each drama. The prime mover of each saga was usually a man called Charles Forte, an Italian immigrant who had gone from selling ice-cream to running milk bars to building cheap hotels to eventually merging with Trust Houses, an English company which ran such grand hotels as London’s Grosvenor House. Soon after the merger, Forte forced out the management of Trust Houses and took over the new company.

Trust Houses Forte (as it was then called) then became the leading operator of five star hotels in the UK, eventually extending its empire overseas, taking over such legendary hotels as Paris’s Plaza Athenee. Despite Forte’s commercial success, he was regarded with scorn by the British establishment, which sneered when he said things like “if you slice smoked salmon very thinly, not only will you get more slices from a side of salmon but it will also taste better.”

Forte ignored the snubs and set his sights on the greatest prize of all, the Savoy group which, at the time, owned London’s top hotels: The Savoy, The Berkeley, Claridges, the Connaught etc. Inevitably, he was derided as a jumped-up little ice-cream seller who was trying to get his grubby little hands on the crown jewels.

When Forte offered to meet Sir Hugh Wontner, a colourful figure who ran the Savoy group, so that they could seal the deal over a handshake, Wontner responded: “Shake hands with that man? I’d probably have to count my fingers afterwards.”

The battle between Forte and the Savoy group went on for years. But by then, both England and the hotel business had changed. Forte was seen as one of the leading entrepreneurs in Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution (he became Lord Forte and genuflected whenever Thatcher’s name was mentioned) and the Savoy group began to be seen as a cosy old boys’ club where the management failed to maximise profits. (No doubt they did not slice the salmon thinly enough.)

Eventually however, the distinction between the old grand hotels and the modern properties began to collapse. For instance, the McAlpine construction family owned two hotels on London’s Park Lane. One was the venerable old Dorchester and the other was the Inn on the Park, managed for the McAlpines by the Canadian Four Seasons group. (Eventually the hotel became the Four Seasons, London.)

Though both hotels had the same owners, the McAlpines liked to keep the management and the positioning of the properties separate. But by the late Seventies, this made less and less sense. The Dorchester was a sloppy rundown property (which the Sultan of Brunei later bought) while the Inn on the Park was one of London’s best run hotels.

As the old distinctions began to break down, the older chains tried hard to recover. The Dorchester spent part of the Eighties relaunching itself on the basis of its food, relentlessly pushing its Executive Chef, Anton Mosimann.

And Charles Forte’s son Rocco, who took over running the company, revitalised the image of his tired, rundown old Hyde Park Hotel (potentially one of London’s greatest hotels) by farming out its restaurant to Marco Pierre White, the first of Britain’s great bad boy chefs. (Gordon Ramsay used to be his assistant.)

Now, the situation is so complex that none of the old rules applies. For a start, the old family-run companies are largely dead (though of course, there are notable exceptions: the Oberois, the Peninsula group etc.) and even those companies where family shareholding dominates (the Hyatt, for instance, is controlled by the Pritzker family) are run by professional managers as global corporations.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK. Not only did Charles Forte never get to own the Savoy but his son Rocco lost the whole company to the media group Granada after a hostile take-over. Granada broke up Trust Houses Forte and sold the hotels. The Savoy group was also broken up and its properties taken over by a mixture of investment banks and large corporations.
As this process continued, the global luxury chains emerged.

The Four Seasons suddenly upped its image and became a global player. The Ritz-Carlton emerged as a rival to the Four Seasons. In Asia, Mandarin Oriental transformed itself into a global chain, leveraging the reputation of the two great hotels that it took its name from, Hong Kong’s Mandarin and Bangkok’s The Oriental. Hong Kong’s Peninsula also began the process of becoming an international player.

Not to be outdone, the big corporations entered the luxury segment. Starwood (which grew out of the merger of Sheraton with other chains) started the luxury collection and leveraged the St Regis brand (after the New York Hotel). Hilton promoted its Waldorf Astoria (named after the terrible but famous New York property). Marriott used Ritz-Carlton to hit the same segment.

Now, the distinction between the old grand hotels and the modern ones is almost meaningless. Take some Indian examples. By rights, Calcutta’s Grand should be the jewel in the Oberoi crown: it has the history, grandeur, tradition, etc. But the Oberois do not make much of it and hardly anybody regards it as Calcutta’s best hotel. (ITC Sonar usually wins that accolade.) In Madras, the Connemara is one of South India’s two great historic hotels.

But the Taj would much rather push the modern Taj Coromandel. When rich people have tried to string grand hotels together, the results have not always been great. The Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester group includes the Dorchester, the Meurice, the Plaza Athenee (both in Paris) and now the New York Palace.

I’ve stayed in two of the properties (the Dorchester and the Meurice) and both were sloppily run. On the other hand, corporations have often done better. The highest room rates in New York today are earned by the St Regis which is part of the Starwood empire.
As the St Regis example demonstrates, good management can revitalise an old property.

Two months ago I stayed at The Berkeley in London, part of the old Savoy group, and loved the experience. It is a beautiful hotel, efficiently run by its new owners and better than it ever was in Sir Hugh Wontner’s time. But the real surprise was the old Hyde Park Hotel, opposite the Berkeley. This grand London institution had been destroyed by the British. I was last there in 1990 and it reminded me of a Bournemouth boarding house gone to seed.

In 1996, after the break-up of the Forte empire, Asia found its chance to set right what the British had screwed up. Mandarin Oriental took it over, renamed it Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and spent millions refurbishing it. Then, they threw in service that recalled the excellence of the chain’s Bangkok and Hong Kong properties.

When I stayed there this February, I was astonished by how complete the transformation has been. From the moment you enter, the wow factor takes over: neither Charles nor Rocco nor the generations of Brits who ran the hotel before them had the imagination to design interiors that are both warm and luxurious at the same time.

As you would expect from the Mandarin group, the rooms are elegant and thoughtfully designed, but the reason I reckon it is probably London’s best hotel today is the calibre of the service. People who know Asian hotels well will recognise the symptoms. The Mandarin Oriental throws more staff into the lobby area than any other London hotel. So, from the moment you enter, you are enveloped by the warmth of the hospitality.

There are usually two doormen. There are at least three or four bellboys near the entrance. There is always a greeter in the lobby area to welcome you and reception is full of staff so that you never feel you have to wait to check in or out.

I checked out at lunch-time when nearly everybody else checks out so it was no surprise to see three or four guests ahead of me at reception. I decided to wait. Within seconds, a receptionist had left the desk, found me in the lobby, asked what I needed, and located a free computer to handle the check out.

Such levels of service are almost unheard of at busy London hotels because staff costs are high and most properties skimp on the number of employees. But at the Mandarin, service was perfect even though the hotel was full. If you rang for an adapter, it was at your door in five minutes. Suits were pressed and returned in twenty minutes even if you said they could take an hour.

What’s more, there was an air of classy warmth about the hotel. One of my bugbears is the amount some hotels charge for water. At the Mandarin they put a bottle by your bedside. When it runs out, most people pick up another one from the mini bar at vast cost. Late one night when I had drunk up my bottle, I decided to call housekeeping to ask if they would sent another one. Within four minutes, there was somebody at the door with six bottles – without charge.

When I was checking out, I noticed I had been charged for room service breakfast on the last day even though this was included in my rate. I pointed this out to the cashier. He did not even bother to say “I will check.” He just deleted the charge at once. These are small things. (How much can mineral water cost, even at inflated hotel rates? The breakfast was just £50.) But they are indicative of a state of mind and a sense of hospitality.

While I loved the Mandarin Oriental for its elegance, warmth and Asian level of service, the hotel has other advantages. There is the location (on the other side of the road from Harvey Nichols and next to the shops of Brompton Road), the view (Hyde Park) and the hipness factor – the bar is less trendy than it once was but it gets so full that, on weekends, they stop non-residents from using it.

Foliage, the French restaurant, used to have a Michelin star but now two three-star chefs will take over the food (and Foliage will close). New York’s Daniel Boulud will open Bar Boulud, a large brasserie, and most awaited of all, Heston Blumenthal will finally open a restaurant outside of Bray. (No more fighting for reservations at the Fat Duck and driving to Bray.)

Which brings us back to where we started. Once upon a time, if a chain like Mandarin Oriental came to London, it would have been treated with suspicion (as our own Taj group was when it opened St James’s Court – one reason why the hotel never took off, even before the Taj turned it into a glorified Holiday Inn). It might even have had to construct a new building as Hilton, Sheraton, Intercontinental and Four Seasons all had to do in London.

But now, the old rules are dead. The distinction between grand and modern is eroding. (What is Raj Vilas? Is it grand? Is it new? And so on.) Service is fast becoming the key. Guests recognise that all deluxe hotels offer roughly the same features and the same fittings. It is only the efficiency and the warmth of the service that distinguishes one hotel from the other.

My guess is that the future will see modern luxury chains take over more grand old hotels and run them to the highest standards. We’ve seen it happen in India already. The West End was always Bangalore’s greatest hotel but it never reached its full potential till the Taj took it over. Ditto for the Malabar in Cochin.

When I look around India and I see so many wonderful old hotels with great locations that have gone to seed because of poor management, I wonder why the owners don’t just hand them over to professional hotel companies. I can think of at least one very grand hotel in Delhi that would benefit from professional management. And what of the Ashok? Can you imagine what it would be like if it were run by Ritz-Carlton or Mandarin Oriental? It will happen. One day.