There was a time when the choice of location for a vacation was determined by the surroundings. In that more innocent era, you went to places that had something to recommend them. For instance, you chose to go to Agra to see the Taj; to Rome to see the Vatican; etc. If you went to London, then you returned with photographs of Big Ben and tales of your adventures in the Tower.
Alternatively, you chose a location for its beauty. You drove to Kasauli because the hills were lovely. You went to Matheran because it represented a change from Bombay. Or, in a really innocent era, you went to Srinagar because Kashmir is simply one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Then, about 20 years ago, as India became more affluent, our priorities changed. The hill stations that had once been the logical destinations for most holiday-makers still survived but they began to look increasingly tacky. Wanton development destroyed Darjeeling. Shimla became a hideous, overgrown place. And so on.
Even the sight-seeing holiday began to seem naive. As foreign travel became more accessible to the middle class, the chap who returned from London with pictures of Buckingham Palace started looking gauche. Most of the obvious Indian destinations – Agra, for instance – were one-offs. You could see the Taj once but the following year you wanted to go somewhere different.
Now, two new factors emerged. The first was a direct reflection of the new affluence. People went on holiday to shop. London retained a certain charm but the new, hot destinations were places like Singapore or Bangkok where the shopping was cheaper and more rewarding.
As the old hill station faded, new destinations that revolved around hotels began to predominate. Nobody goes to Goa for the natural beauty – or what’s left of it, anyway – any longer. They go for the hotels, the swimming pools, the restaurants and the chance to vacation with like-minded people. At a more elevated level, rich people go to such destination hotels as Udaipur’s Udai Vilas and Wildflower Hall in Mashobra. A tiny minority will pick a spa vacation in somewhere like Ananda in the Himalayas.
As a natural nomad, I make no value judgements about the places we choose to holiday in and the reasons behind our selections. Speaking for myself, I choose destinations for all kinds of reasons: sight-seeing, natural beauty, quality of hotel, nature of spa experience, etc. (Not shopping, though. I simply cannot understand people who shop, shop, shop all the time when they are on vacation.)
But my guess is that a new kind of motivation is emerging as holiday makers get even more jaded. I suspect that people now want to come back from vacations with a collection of unusual experiences, most of which they have never had before.
Certainly, if you look at the manner in which resort hotels are now planning their activities, the emphasis is no longer restricted to providing excellent food and top-quality accommodation. Instead, they are all in search of a wow factor; of a way of sending the guest home with an experience he has never had before.
When I was filming my TV show, Custom-Made (still repeated quite frequently on NDTV Good Times) last year, I was struck by how much the three Palace hotels run by the Taj Group in Rajasthan had invested in experiences.
If you have seen the show, then you will know about the Gangaur, a centuries-old boat that was originally used by the Maharanas of Udaipur and which is now run by the Lake Palace. Should you be willing to splash out for the privilege, the hotel will organise a champagne dinner on the boat, complete with live music, dancers and a fantasy version of what should have been the Maharaja experience in the medieval era. (I say ‘should’ because the real thing was never this glamorous.)
Similarly, the Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur and the Rambagh in Jaipur organise theme dinners on their lawns, with elaborate flower arrangements, folk music, fireworks, etc.
None of these hotels really need to do this. They are quite grand even when they do nothing. But today’s guests want to go back with experiences that they have never had before – and which presumably, none of their friends back home have ever had.
Sometimes, guests can demand adventures that seem completely out of the ordinary. When British comedian Russell Brand was at the Rambagh over the New Year, he asked the hotel to set up a romantic experience so that he could propose to his girlfriend.
The hotel arranged an outdoor dinner at the Oriental garden on the side of the Rambagh. Then, Brand and girlfriend got on to an elephant and rode it to the main lawn in the front of the hotel. They watched a fireworks display from atop the elephant and then dismounted to sit at a flower-bedecked table in the garden where champagne was served. As Brand’s girlfriend marvelled at the blanket of rose petals that covered the table, she suddenly felt something hard under the flowers. She looked closer; it was an engagement ring.
Few of us can afford the Russell Brand kind of experience but for those on a more modest budget, the Rambagh will arrange something as memorable, if not quite as over-the-top. I asked Satyajit Krishnan, the hotel’s general manager, what his priority was and he was quite clear: in an era where every hotel offers great restaurants and high quality service, the key to a memorable holiday is the once-in-a-lifetime experience and that’s what the Rambagh specialises in.
Other Indian hotels are getting there. Some have always provided unusual experiences without knowing how to package them. Over a decade ago, when the Taj had just opened its Garden Retreat on the Kerala backwaters (one of the first deluxe hotels in the region) the manager sent me and my friends on a leisurely, day-long cruise around the backwaters on a rice boat. He put a chef, waiters and several bottles of wine on the boat. We were all quite smashed by the evening but the experience has lingered in my memory after all those years.
In the Maldives, they understand that experiences are the key to creating a memorable holiday. Most hotels will organise a dolphin cruise in which you go out on a boat (stocked with champagne, etc.) looking for schools of dolphins. Not only do you usually find scores of dolphins but you also get to see a spectacular sunset from the middle of the clearest water in the world.
Last week, at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives, I had another one-off experience. The Maldives, as you probably know, is less a single country than a collection of 2,000 or so coral islands, most of them so small that you can easily walk from one end to the other without tiring yourself. Near Soneva Fushi (a half-hour speed boat ride away) is a deserted island. The hotel has built a Robinson Crusoe-like hut by the edge of the beach on the island and placed two sun-loungers next to the sea.
A picnic at the deserted island consists of the hotel dropping you off along with a picnic basket in the morning and then picking you up in the evening. For the first hour or so, it seems a little strange to be the only person on an entire island. But after that, you begin to unwind and because the surroundings are so picture-postcard like, it is impossible not to be sucked in by the natural beauty. I was so taken with the experience that I called the hotel (yes, the island has a mobile signal – which is more than Robinson Crusoe had) and asked them to delay picking me up.
I always wonder why more Indian hotels don’t pick up on the success of the experiences in the Maldives. Indian beach resorts tend to be boring and rely on the restaurants and the bars to keep guests entertained. Rarely do they demonstrate the imagination of other Asian beach resorts. For instance, at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay in Bali, they have built beautiful spa pavilions by the edge of the water where you can have your massages while the sea breeze gently wafts by.
That is the thing about experiences. Once you’ve built the hotel, adding an experience does not really cost that much. It cost Soneva Fushi very little to send me to a deserted island on a speed boat. An open-air spa pavilion is cheaper to build than a fancy air-conditioned spa. An elephant sounds exotic but does not cost very much to hire if you happen to be in Rajasthan. More than money, it takes imagination.
As guests move into the next phase of holiday-making, as they tire of eating and shopping and one luxury hotel begins to look remarkably like another, what they will look for are experiences that are far removed from their daily lives. At Soneva Fushi, one of the high spots of my stay was looking at the polar ice-cap of Mars through a telescope in the hotel’s observatory. (The Maldives have very clear skies, so you can see the stars better.) It is not cheap to build an observatory but it probably costs a lot less than building a speciality restaurant or a bar – and the experience is much more special and memorable.