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Destination India

Hotels in India will change dramatically over the next decade: Global giants are moving in, the super luxury segment is bound to grow; we’re also going to see the development of the trendy boutique hotel, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2008 10:55 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Indian hotels are suddenly all over the travel press. Shortly after the Oberoi group’s Vilas properties scored with the readers of Travel and Leisure, an American magazine, the prestigious Conde Nast Traveller magazine voted The Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay, as the best business hotel in the world and India as the second most favoured global destination. Even as our hotel industry was winning these awards, the Taj group finally began unveiling its long-awaited brand restructuring ending the confusion of many decades over Garden Resorts that had no gardens and business hotels that belonged in the budget segment.

<b1>The Taj’s restructuring comes ahead of what is expected to be a huge transformation in the Indian hotel industry. The Four Seasons in Bombay has set new standards for luxury service; an Aman property should finally open in Delhi this year; there’s said to be a W planned for Bombay’s Bandra-Kurla complex; the Ritz Carlton chain is expected; and at the lower end of the upmarket segment, we now have Courtyard by Marriott and various other mid-level global brands. Plus, the opening of the W may herald an invasion by a variety of hipper brands from the big hotel chains: Andaz by Hyatt, Aloft by Starwood (which also owns Sheraton, Westin and Meridien) and a few others.

Any frequent traveler will tell you that the hotel scene in India is vastly different in this century from the way it was in the 1990s. Then, the three big chains ruled the roost. Now, the global giants have muscled in on the action and the Indian chains have re-invented themselves: the Oberois as a sort of Amanlite with the Vilas properties, ITC as the luxury chain for city hotels and now, the biggest of them all, the Taj as a player with hotels in many categories.

My guess is that ten years from now, things will look very different again. The changes in the city hotel sector are already beginning to be visible. Once upon a time, we called everything a ‘five star hotel.’ Now we accept that this is too broad a categorisation. In Delhi, for instance, the Maurya, the Imperial, the two Taj hotels and the Oberoi are all five star but then so are the Intercontinental in Nehru Place (the old Park Royal), the Meridien, the Sheraton, New Delhi (the old Marriott in Saket) and the Radisson. But few people would regard the Maurya or the Taj in the same category as the Meridien or the Intercontinental.

So it is in Bombay. The Taj Mahal Hotel, the Four Seasons, the Oberoi and the Maratha are all five star. But surely, they belong in a different category from say, the Hyatt Regency, the Royal Meridien, the Holiday Inn or the President? A decade ago, even though many of these hotels were already around, the distinctions were not as easy to make – often the hotels themselves did not make them.

One of the two most ubiquitous trends that I have noticed in the hotel industry this decade is the growth of the super-luxury segment. Once upon a time, you divided hotels into old and new. There were people who would stay at The Savoy in London and those who would stay at the Inn On The Park (now renamed the Four Seasons); those who would stay at the Carlyle in New York or those who preferred the Helmsley Palace (now renamed the New York Palace); and in Indian terms, those who liked the Taj in Bombay and those who preferred the gleaming splendour of the Oberoi.

That distinction has now collapsed, partly because the modern hotels have elevated themselves in terms of food, facilities and service to such levels that they no longer seem like parvenus compared to the older properties. Raffles may have the heritage in Singapore but nobody would argue that the Ritz Carlton, the Four Seasons or the Shangri La are less prestigious places to stay. So it is in Delhi. It’s hard to beat the history of the Imperial but the Taj and Maurya are better hotels. In Calcutta, the Grand has the legacy but nearly every Calcutta local will advise you to stay at either the Taj Bengal or the Sonar.

The emphasis now is less on history; more on service. The Ge-orge V in Paris is one of France’s grandest hotels but few people would dispute that it did not reach its full potential till the Four Seasons took it over. The Hyde Park Hotel in London, a grand old dame, was in dire straits till it became a Mandarin Oriental.

<b2>Service takes many forms. Some of it has to do with staff to guest ratios (easy enough to manage in India where salaries are low) but much of it has to do with training and standards. At many ITC hotels, there’s a precise standard for how much the marble should shine and it is continually polished till the gleam is right. At Four Seasons hotels, maids are given a card detailing an 11-step process for turning down the beds. Guests rarely notice much of this: how fluffy the bath robes are or what the thread count in the linen is. But it all adds up to create a luxury experience.

In the old days, hoteliers tried to give you the comforts of home. Now, they want to give you an environment that is far more luxurious than anything you have at home. And because most guests at luxury hotels travel at company expense, they are delighted to get all this, effectively, at no cost to themselves.

You can argue about this – and people do all the time – but I reckon that modern luxury consists of fusing the elegance of the grandest European hotels with the high-service standards developed by Asian hotels in the 1990s. But even if you don’t agree with that assessment, there’s no doubt that the star system has lost all meaning. Take the example of France, where the government awards no five stars. Top hotels get four stars though the deluxe ones can call themselves “Four Star Luxury” (or ‘Luxe’). But only a fool would confuse the four star Ritz with the four star Holiday Inn.

Top Paris hotels have now taken to calling themselves ‘palaces,’ arguing that to be regarded as a palace, a deluxe hotel must have a high staff to guest ratio, a sense of grandeur, a high proportion of suites (always a giveaway: a hotel with few suites can never be deluxe), and a gastronomic restaurant (which, in Paris, means two or three Michelin stars). I am not sure that all the so-called palaces actually adhere to these criteria (I stayed at Meurice this summer and while my suite was suitably grand, I wondered about the staff to guest ratio), but you can’t dispute the rates: rooms start at over US $1,000 a night, and go up and up.

The other problems with the star systems in most countries relate to outdated criteria (do you really need a business centre in the age of wi fi?) and the tendency of hoteliers to invent meaningless star ratings. To call a hotel “six star” or “seven star” as many do, is nonsense: it signifies nothing.

If the big change over the next decade is going to be the growing distinction between luxury and ordinary five star hotels, the other is going to be the development of the boutique hotel. Again, this is a matter of some dispute but I would argue that boutique hotels were invented in the mid-1980s, by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager (the former owners of New York Disco Studio 54) along with designer Andree Putman. Rubell and Schrager who had just come out of jail (for tax fraud) re-invented themselves as hoteliers by renovating New York’s Morgans Hotel in a trendy fashion so that it appealed to people who found the Hyatt-Hilton kind of property boring and the Carlyle kind of grand hotel too stuffy. Morgans had quirky furniture, designer uniforms for receptionists and (from what I remember) really dim lighting.

When the formula worked, they hired Philippe Starck to renovate the Royalton. He went further than Putman, designing a hotel that was so quirky that it became a staple of the design magazines. I stayed at the Royalton just after it had opened (Steve Rubell used to hang around in the lobby) and my overwhelming sense was that it was a destination in itself rather than a hotel from which to see New York city. (It was also the first hotel I knew of that had a video recorder in every room and a video library – certainly the first in the world to offer to send up hardcore porn videos with buckets of pop corn!)

I became a Schrager fan (Rubell died of AIDS soon after the Royalton opened) and stayed at many of his properties: the Paramount in New York, the Sanderson and Saint Martin’s Lane in London etc. But by the 1990s, everybody was building boutique hotels, many of which soon became trendier than Schrager’s own properties. I knew the trend was here to stay when Starwood opened a chain of corporate boutique hotels, called W. A corporate chain of boutique properties is an oxymoron, on par with a virgin harlot but Starwood knew its market. It described the W concept as “class for the masses” and rolled out 23 properties. Many more are on the way.

The success of W (perhaps more than the success of Schrager’s original individualistic properties) led to a flood of boutique hotels over the last decade even if trendy people professed to hate them. “You know when Marriott is doing that, it’s time to move on,” Schrager sneered in 2006 and Philippe Starck has said “they are trying to copy what we did 25 years ago. It is obsolete and ridiculous.”

Well, maybe. Except that Starck has just launched SLS Hotels, his own boutique brand, the first property of which (in Beverly Hills) will be managed by – oh dear! – Starwood. And Schrager has launched a new brand called Edition in partnership with – oh dear, dear! – Marriott.

India has escaped the boutique boom – as has China, where the first such hotel only opened this year – but with W coming, that will change. The only Indian hotelier who gets the idea of a design hotel is Priya Paul whose uber chic Park Hotels in Madras and Bangalore are the most stylish places in town but who lacks a central Bombay property and is saddled with older hotels in Delhi and Calcutta.

Indian hoteliers seeking to open boutique hotels have been handicapped by staff problems – why should a manager join a small boutique property when he could rise rapidly through the ranks of ITC, Taj or Oberoi? – but foreign chains will not have that problem.

So, as a new generation which is bored with the more mainstream hotels comes of age over the next few years, this segment will probably grow. (You tell me: would you rather stay in a typical hotel where everything looks sterile and the same or one where the rooms are designed by say, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla?) These two developments – the growth of a genuine luxury segment and a boutique/design hotel market – will probably be accompanied by a third: the development of a resort sector. For years Indian chains avoided the resort sector.

The Taj ploughed in bravely, more or less single-handedly creating Goa, Kerala and Rajasthan as destinations but ITC has stayed away. So did the Oberoi till this century when Bikki unveiled most of his Vilas properties and rewrote the rules for what was possible in India. (Hoteliers had never believed that guests would pay such high room rates.) The Taj has successfully counter-attacked in Rajasthan where it has the advantage of genuine historical properties versus the Oberoi chain’s replicas (“The Lake Palace is better than the Fake Palace”, they say about Udai Vilas at the Taj) but it has no luxury resorts in India. (Bizarrely, it runs world class resorts abroad but not at home!)

That is certain to change. Already, with India being listed as the world’s second hottest destination, hoteliers have lost millions in potential income because they are unable to offer high-priced resorts (The Oberois have made all the money.) Now ITC is finally entering the resort segment and the gossip is that the Taj has seen the light and will gut the disastrous, fatherless Taj Exotica in Goa and build a proper luxury hotel in that site.

Otherwise, foreign chains will do it for us. The Four Seasons is opening in Kerala and nearly every global hotel company of consequence is eyeing India as a potential market. After all, if people can pay room rates of US$ 1,000 in Thailand why wouldn’t they do the same in India?

The Taj rebranding is merely the first step. The hotel scene in India will change more completely than we can imagine over the next decade.