Does a brand make a good hotel?
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Does a brand make a good hotel?

Gone are the days when all we had in India were Taj, Oberoi and ITC. Hotel branding has hit an all time low, with complicated sub-brands flooding the scene. Will two New York hotels change that, wonders Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Nov 03, 2014 00:05 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Do you sometimes long for the days when hotel branding was straightforward? Once upon a time, all that we had in India were Taj, Oberoi and ITC. And abroad, there were just Hilton, Sheraton, InterContinental and a few others.

Life was so much simpler then. But now, the Taj has three brands: Taj Hotels (luxury); Vivanta (not quite luxury, I think, but who really understands these things?); and Gateway (definitely not luxury, but I am not quite sure what). And that’s not counting Ginger, which is also a Taj brand.

The Oberois have the eponymous brand (luxury), Vilas (luxury resorts) and Tridents (apparently not luxury though it includes hotels like the one in Nariman Point which they spent decades claiming was luxury).

Abroad, it is even more complicated. Starwood has Luxury Collection (individual luxury properties of character), St Regis (confusing: modern hotels named after a heritage New York hotel that used to be a Sheraton), Sheratons (luxury properties that are not called St Regis), Westins (so much like Sheratons that they ask managers not to wear ties to remind guests that they are not actually in a Sheraton), Méridiens (meaningless: the hotels are vastly different in character), Four Points by Sheraton (three-star), W (a corporate version of the Ian Schrager-Andre Balazs kind of hip hotel) and God alone knows what else.

My head is already reeling and I haven’t yet got to the Hilton brands: Waldorf Astoria (their version of St Regis, except that the New York Waldorf is a really horrible hotel), Conrad (when Hilton was two different companies, this was the US company’s international brand), Hilton (a meaningless diminution of a once great name), Doubletree, Garden Inn, and so on.

I am actually interested in this stuff and write about it for a living and even I can’t keep up. So, what hope is there for the average guest?

Of all the international chains, the one whose branding has intrigued me the most is Hyatt.

Let’s take Hyatt Regency. According to Hyatt, this is the basic five-star brand (not unlike Trident or Vivanta) but nobody who lives in Delhi regards the Hyatt Regency as being on par with, say, the Gurgaon Vivanta.

Most people in Delhi treat it on par with the Taj Mansingh or the Oberoi, a perception helped along by its excellent F&B and banqueting.

So, I have always wondered how Hyatt’s brand architecture works. Who in his right mind would consider Bombay’s Grand Hyatt to be a better hotel than Delhi’s Hyatt Regency?

The new Park Hyatts are a statement of intent. Their New York property (above), looks like a very rich man’s apartment and redefines the category of super luxury

Is a Park Hyatt really the equivalent of a Four Seasons or a Mandarin Oriental? (And I speak as a man who has stayed at the Park Hyatt in Goa!) And what in God’s name is Hyatt doing opening hotels called Andaz – a word that you and I are familiar with, but which most Westerners cannot even pronounce correctly?

Last month, Hyatt invited me to New York to visit the brand new Park Hyatt.

At one level, the invitation made sense. The Park Hyatt is the first grand hotel to open in New York for a decade. (The Mandarin Oriental was the last.)

So, I could understand why Hyatt was inviting the world’s press to come and gape. But when I complained to Hyatt that its brand architecture left me bemused, they suggested that I spend two nights at the Andaz on Fifth Avenue to experience the brand.

I’ll start with the Andaz because it is an intriguing concept. As long-time readers of this column will know, I have been fascinated by the idea of hip hotels ever since I began to stay at the Royalton in the late 1980s.

The Royalton, like Morgan’s and the Paramount, was opened by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, erstwhile owners of the iconic 1970s disco, Studio 54.

Both Rubell and Schrager went to jail for tax fraud and when they were released took the idea behind Studio 54 and applied it to hoteliering.

They transformed old New York hotels into hip hangouts using such avant-garde designers as Andree Putman and Philippe Starck. Then Rubell died of AIDS and Schrager took the concept to London with the Sanderson and St Martins Lane.

In the process, the trendy design hotel was born. It appealed to celebrities, rock stars and wannabes like myself who did not want to stay in the sort of boring hotels that our parents used to patronise.

Inevitably, the chains wanted a piece of the action. Starwood launched W, a corporate knock-off that rarely works in the US, where it has a panting, trying-hard-to-keep-up air about it.

But overseas Ws can be excellent. But even as the chains huffed and puffed, entrepreneurs took the concept forward. Andre Balazs and the Kemps (in England) reinvented the idea. Starck was succeeded by Jacques Garcia as the hip designer of choice and a host of new hotels (the Standard, the Ace etc) kept the hip spirit alive.

Inside the Park Hyatt, New York

What surprised me the most about the Fifth Avenue Andaz was that while it was hip and trendy, it also turned the Schrager formula inside-out.

At the Royalton, which had no obvious signage, you went through swing doors to discover a super-trendy world that bore no relation to the street it was on.

Rubell and Schrager invented the velvet rope at Studio 54 so they wanted you to feel that you were part of some secret society. The lobby was a design showpiece because as Schrager said, hotel lobbies were the new clubs: hangout places for the glamorous.

But Andaz is the opposite. It has large glass windows to allow people to look in and to let guests feel connected to the neighbourhood.

The most intriguing thing about the Fifth Avenue Andaz is that while it’s hip and trendy, it also turned the Ian Schrager formula inside-out

Schrager made much of his lobbies but the Andaz has a tiny, functional lobby. Schrager built small guestrooms, arguing that he wanted his guests to go out.

Andaz has large, comfortably-appointed rooms to provide a luxury experience. Schrager’s restaurant at the Royalton was packed with trendies pushing bits of arugula around their plates. Andaz has solid food and relies on local suppliers to provide the best raw materials.
Fifth Avenue Andaz has large, comfortably-appointed rooms to provide a luxury experience

The Park Hyatt brand is more difficult to define. When the first Park Hyatt opened in Chicago, the Pritzkers, the family that controls the Hyatt chain, wanted a property that was upmarket and yet, residential enough in look and feel for them to put up their rich friends and to entertain them.

That was a noble and worthy ambition but over the next two decades, the original vision was diluted to the extent that it lost all coherence.

Over the last five years or so, Hyatt has tried to rationalise its brand architecture. The current hierarchy seems to be that Hyatt Regencies are luxury hotels.

Grand Hyatts are larger luxury hotels with enough space for banquets and Park Hyatts are super luxury hotels.

This sounds great but Hyatt has legacy problems. For instance, Park Hyatt has been seen as just another Hyatt, not as a Four Seasons/Ritz Carlton league property. And though some Park Hyatts, such as the one in Tokyo, are justly famous, the concept has often been lost in translation.

So the new Park Hyatts are a statement of intent. The New York Park Hyatt, for instance, redefines the category.

The great New York hotels (the Carlyle, the Pierre, the St Regis, etc.) have history and heritage to define them.

The Asian hotels (the Mandarin, the Peninsula, and even the Four Seasons, which was designed as a Regent) derive their originality from Far-Eastern concepts of hospitality.

The challenge before the Park Hyatt was to define luxury in a New York context. It has done so by choosing a unique positioning.

It emphasises the residential nature of the accommodation: the rooms look like New York apartments rather than typical hotel rooms. And something like 82 of the hotel’s nearly 200 rooms are suites, which reinforces the apartment concept.

The Pritzker family has a reputation for art and architecture (they fund a prestigious architecture prize) so the hotel emphasises modern art.

It is not something you notice at first till you look closely. But nothing in the hotel is ordinary or standard. Every single detail, from the wooden tables at reception to the glass boxes in which they put your welcome chocolates, is custom designed.

Partly because there are over 200 works of art spread over the hotel, and the rooms exude quiet luxury, the overall effect is that you are a guest at a very rich man’s New York apartment.

I would imagine that the brief to the designer was to recreate the home of an art-loving billionaire who does not need to brag or show off.

I am not sure that Hyatt will be able to replicate the ethos of the New York property globally. But if it manages to do that, then its branding problems are over.

This is refined luxury, discreetly distilled, for the times we live in.

From HT Brunch, November 2
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First Published: Nov 01, 2014 20:22 IST