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Open season

india Updated: Jul 14, 2008 12:52 IST
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Few hotel openings can have been as eagerly awaited as the launch of Four Seasons in Bombay. Some years ago when I interviewed Bikki Oberoi for the cover of Brunch, he ended by declaring that he was so confident of his Bombay property that he challenged even Four Seasons to run a better hotel! Hoteliers all over India have been waiting to see if the Bombay Four Seasons can live up to the chain’s reputation for luxury. And scores of rich Indians, loyalists of Four Seasons properties all over the world, have been bragging that the Bombay hotel will set new standards for Indian hotels.

The wait has been more intense because of the delays. Many years ago, Four Seasons was set to make its entry into India by managing the Leela chain’s Goa property. Long after many of the renovations had been completed on the property and after such standard Four Seasons features as the signature beds had been imported, the Leela and Four Seasons fell out. The hotel did re-open but was managed by the Leela itself with a Kempinski tie-up.

Then there were two years of secret and complex negotiations with Bikki Oberoi. Neither side will provide details but apparently, Bikki was willing to let Four Seasons take over his top properties – till negotiations broke down.

When, eventually, Four Seasons announced that it would manage a new hotel in Bombay, owned by Shiv Jatia (who also owns Delhi’s Hyatt Regency), the country’s hotel industry could talk of nothing else. What would the Four Seasons chain do that was so different? Why had it agreed to manage a property that was located in Worli, on the edge of Parel, rather than in the heart of fashionable South Bombay? Would it fare better than other foreign chains that had launched in India with great fanfare but had failed to make a significant dent in the Taj-Oberoi-ITC oligopoly?

The reverence with which the Four Seasons chain is treated within the hotel business is hard for outsiders to understand. It was founded in Canada in 1960 by a man called Isidore Sharp and quickly acquired a reputation for luxury. Even so, it was hardly the gold standard for the hotel industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Sharp’s expansion out of North America was facilitated by his Inn on the Park on London’s Park Lane, next to the showy London Hilton. And while the Inn on the Park was always regarded as a good hotel, it was never spoken of in the same breath as say The Savoy or the Dorchester or Claridges.

By the 1980s however that had begun to change, especially as the Four Seasons chain expanded all over North America. In the 1990s as prosperity grew and investment bankers began taking over the world, the chain had become the favourite of the financial community.

Its values and standards reflected the new era of prosperity: the largest rooms in the business, the best service and an air of unparalleled luxury. All this came at a price of course. But Four Seasons catered to those who could afford it – and as the world economy boomed, there was no shortage of such people.

Over the last decade, Four Seasons has greatly increased its profile in Asia by buying the trend-setting Regent chain. The Regent had redefined city hotels in Asia, embodying many of the same values that Four Seasons represented in north America. After the take-over, Four Seasons changed the names of some of the existing Regent properties and profited greatly from the opening of those that were under construction at the time of the sale. For instance, the Regent was building a Bali resort that was so luxurious that every villa had its own private swimming pool. When the hotel opened as a Four Seasons it sealed the chain’s reputation for high end deluxe accommodation.

So, why has it taken Four Seasons so long to come to India? Probably because the luxury chains never believed that India could afford the high room rates they wanted. By the time they recognised that India was booming, it was too late. The best locations had gone and the Indian chains – especially the Oberois who had spotted the global trend towards luxury before the others – had the market sewn up.

Of the leading luxury chains, the Ritz Carlton and Mandarin Oriental are not in India. Four Seasons has only just opened. Of the others, the Shangri La has suffered because of a disastrous choice of property. In the meantime, all the Indian chains have got their acts together. Bikki rewrote the rules of the game with his Vilas properties; the Taj has upgraded massively; and ITC’s luxury properties have the best service in India.

So, does the Four Seasons have the power to surprise us? Can its Bombay hotel, opening a full year behind schedule, really set new standards for the mature Indian hotel sector?

I spent four days at the property to try and find out.

And the answer is yes. This could well be India’s best managed hotel. It is discreet, luxurious and smoothly efficient. If you take the Taj – with its century of history, its priceless antiques and its grand suites – out of the mix, then there is no doubt that this is the best hotel in Bombay, streets ahead of everything else.

It’s early days yet. But it looks as though Bikki has lost his challenge.

Judging by the first few weeks of its operations, the Bombay Four Seasons will follow the pattern of the rest of Asia. In nearly every city where the chain operates, it has the highest room rates (in terms of the rate actually paid rather than the published rate) and is beaten only by the grand heritage properties. So in Bangkok, the Four Seasons cannot charge as much as The Oriental; in Singapore, it is second to Raffles (though it does better than the Ritz Carlton or Mandarin Oriental); and in Hong Kong, the Peninsula has the edge.

India will be no exception. I’m not sure it can charge as much as Bombay’s Taj (the old wing) but I reckon it will beat everyone else on a consistent basis. (Unless of course the global bear market continues and the investment bankers who are its lifeblood begin to cut costs). And that’s despite the location which is less than ideal.

What’s so special about Bombay’s Four Seasons?

Well, let’s start with the things it is not. Unlike say, the two Taj luxury hotels, it does not set out to be the living room of Bombay. There is no grand lobby where everyone meets. The Four Seasons lobby is small, no more than a place for guests to confer with the concierge before going up to their rooms. Similarly, there is no attempt to create a rival to 360 or the Shamiana. The hotel doesn’t want the buzz of the local jet set. It has – get this! – no coffee shop at all. Residents will be fed at all times of day and night. But if a local wants to drop in for a sandwich at midnight, he is better off going elsewhere. This is a hotel that is focused on creating a discreet, luxurious ambience for its resident guests.

Then, there are other points of difference. It does not have a loyalty card. There is no special programme for regulars. The idea is that everybody gets the same luxury experience. Once you are there, you are entitled to the same treatment as a movie star or a corporate titan.

There are no butlers. The Four Seasons philosophy is that butlers insulate guests from the rest of the hotel so the concierge provides some of the services that butlers normally handle. And for every thing else, there are the many hotel facilities. If you want a suit pressed, you call laundry. If you want your baggage picked up, you call reception. There is no single number for all services.

Why does the Four Seasons think it can get away with this? Three reasons: The first is room size. With the exception of the old rooms at the Taj, these are the largest rooms in Bombay. The majority of rooms fall in the deluxe category (rates are around ten per cent higher than the Taj or the Oberoi), and are 527 sq feet. (There are a few 388 sq feet superior rooms but these are rarely offered for sale, having been snapped up by companies on long contracts). The basic suites (not the deluxe ones which are larger) are 947 sq feet.

Nobody offers rooms this size. What’s more, they look large. The space is intelligently allocated, the bathrooms are huge and the rooms are thoughtfully designed. So you get lots of space for your money.

The second reason is hotel size. Even after all its rooms are operational (they are being opened in phases), the hotel will have only 202 guest rooms. That allows for a certain level of familiarity as far as the staff are concerned. The hotel has a phenomenal guest recognition system anyway but its small size allows the management to personalise the guest experience.

The third reason is the sheer excellence of the service. You would expect Four Seasons to get the furnishings right (those comfortable beds, the thick bath robes, the down duvets, the 42-inch LCD TVs, the deep bathtubs etc.), but the attention to detail is phenomenal. All the tea is sourced from the best Darjeeling estates. Every chicken is free range (from a farm in Coimbatore) and actually tastes like chicken. The eggs are from Keggs. The croissants are the best in India. The key system works more smoothly than I’ve ever known one to. The lobby is subtly fragranced with a delicate perfume. The flowers are unusual hybrid orchids. Every single facility, furnishing or food is the best that is available in the market.

Plus, they never stop pampering you. All hotels put fruit baskets in the rooms. But Four Seasons actually changes the fruit each day depending on what’s available. You don’t get the standard mango, apple, banana basket. One day you may get a bunch of sweet, juicy grapes. The next day you could get two large bowls of fresh berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries etc) with another bowl of fresh cream.

Many hotels now send a dessert plate to the rooms in the evenings. But Four Seasons varies the formula with flair. It could be a huge plate of French cheeses one day, a box of unusual charcuterie the next, and a tray with three large bowls of flavoured crème brulees on the third day. Eat the freebies and you could cut out dinner altogether.

It’s hard to put into words but like the best luxury hotels, service at the Bombay Four Seasons is a state of mind. There’s always a sense of having the whole hotel on call at any time (a massage at 8 pm? No problem. Great Chinese food at 1.30 am? Just phone room service!) and a sense that nothing is impossible.

The Four Seasons philosophy is to pay extra attention to employees on the grounds that the guest can’t have a great stay unless the staff are happy and content. Much of the hotel’s excellence comes from the quality of the recruitment. But there’s also great training. Employees were sent off to work at other Four Seasons properties around the world before the hotel opened and even today, they are constantly being trained: they have to attend classes on tea, on wine and other aspects of the luxury trade. Most telling of all, I thought, was the buffet at the staff cafeteria (which is free for all employees). There was the usual dal-chawal-sabzi of course. But there were also sushi and fine Italian pasta. The hotel wants its staff to understand the food served at its restaurants.

I was reminded of Bangkok’s Oriental where the Bombay Four Seasons’ manager, Armando Kraenzlin once worked. The Oriental is not a very good looking hotel. Most rooms are in ugly tower blocks. But the ambience inside the property is so luxurious that you don’t notice the exterior. Four Seasons is a good looking hotel but it is one that reveals its mysteries slowly. At first glance, the tiny lobby and the public areas seem nice enough but not particularly impressive. It’s only once you’ve spent a night or two in the property that you get sucked into the air of luxury that it engenders.

I thought that the food was great but we’ll have to see how it plays with Bombay guests. The Italian restaurant is so authentic that you wonder if they should up the pasta content and throw in the Escalope Milanese-Osso Buco kind of dish that’s worked so well for the Oberoi. Certainly, it’s bizarre that’s there’s no beef served anywhere in the hotel.

The Chinese restaurant breaks with Bombay precedent to give Sichuan a miss and concentrates on delicate Cantonese flavours. It’s working well at the moment but we’ll have to see if, six months down the line, Bombay guests tire of some of the sweetness of the dishes. The Indian restaurant has outstanding kababs and light, distinctive food. My favourite though is the Japanese. This is Trad-Jap, not the Nobu-inspired menu of Wasabi, but it is incredibly good.

My guess is that once the hotel opens fully and fills up, the restaurants will follow the pattern of Four Seasons restaurants elsewhere and cater mainly to hotel guests.

So, has Four Seasons changed the paradigm for Indian hotels? Well, it won’t have the obvious impact of Bikki Oberoi’s two great bangs: the Regent-inspired make-over of the chain’s hotels in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Aman-inspired launch of the Vilas properties. If you look at the Bombay Four Seasons, you won’t think, at first glance, that it is very different from our home-grown luxury hotels.

Its distinctive features are subtle and not immediately apparent. It has raised standards of service and luxury to levels that were previously unknown in India. It has taken the typical guest experiences at a five star hotel and turned it into something special, surprising and more elegant.

Some of this is, I think, due to the personality of Kraenzlin and the passion he brings to the job. If he can build on the momentum of the first few weeks, then the Four Seasons has truly conquered Bombay.