From grand to hip: How the luxury hotel sector is evolving in India

As W and Andaz come to India, the luxury hotel sector evolves
Andaz Delhi, the first Indian Andaz, is the Hyatt Hotels’ response to the hip-lifestyle hotel category
Andaz Delhi, the first Indian Andaz, is the Hyatt Hotels’ response to the hip-lifestyle hotel category
Updated on Mar 02, 2017 09:47 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByVir Sanghvi

I am always fascinated by how trends in hoteliering change. Once upon a time, there was the grand hotel. This was, usually, an impressive structure built decades ago that prided itself on its heritage and offered formal service, with a single dining room and a bar. (Think of Claridges in London, The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata or the Taj Mahal in Mumbai.)

Then, in the ’60s, American-style hotels flooded the world thanks to such chains as Hilton, Intercontinental and Sheraton. These were modern buildings with less formal service, many speciality restaurants, 24-hour room service and a coffee shop that served hamburgers. (Think of the Oberoi Intercontinental in Delhi, the London Hilton on Park Lane or the Sheraton Hong Kong in Kowloon).

From all accounts, the first Indian W has rocked Goa this season
From all accounts, the first Indian W has rocked Goa this season

The grand hotels struggled to adapt and most were forced to accept some of the conveniences of the American-style hotels (extensive room service menus, for example). But broadly, the distinction survived. A guest who was used to, say, The Carlyle in New York would never consider staying at a nearby Hilton. A regular at the Mumbai Taj would insist on staying in the old building and would refuse to shift to the modern Intercontinental wing. 

The distinction only collapsed in the ’90s with the rise of the modern luxury hotel. Such hotels lacked the heritage and history of the world’s grand hotels. And they were usually modern constructions. But unlike say, the Hiltons and Sheratons of old, they had huge rooms (about twice the size of the standard hotel room), expensive fittings (they even bragged about the thread count in their bed sheets) and first-rate service. Sometimes they also had good restaurants (often outsourced to celebrity chefs) but gourmet cuisine was not an integral part of their appeal.

The rise of this kind of hotel coincided with the creation of a global financial community: super-bankers and private equity investors who rushed from capital to capital and traders who saw the whole world as one giant market. These people were too rich for the average Hilton and too driven to appreciate the stately pace of say, Paris’s Le Bristol or London’s Claridges. They preferred chains that seemed more dynamic and less stuffy but were nevertheless, reassuringly expensive. The Four Seasons chain made its reputation servicing this kind of customer and Ritz-Carlton had a similar appeal.

 Eventually, everything merged. For instance, the Four Seasons took over Paris’s venerable Georges V Hotel and preserved its grand character while improving the service.

Giant corporations bought grand hotels and used their names to build global chains of modern hotels. The St Regis is one of New York’s oldest luxury hotels. But the mammoth Starwood chain (owner of Sheraton, Meridien, Westin etc.) turned its name into a brand, opening new St Regis properties in major capitals. The Hilton chain took another New York property, Waldorf Astoria and turned it into yet another luxury brand using its name for newly-constructed hotels, which were nothing like the original.

 Today, the idea of a grand hotel managed by its owner survives only in a few European cities. (And Biki Oberoi runs one of the world’s last great owner-managed hotel companies). Most grand hotels are owned by rich men (Mohamed Al-Fayed, the Sultan of Brunei, Prince Al-Waleed, etc.) who treat them as trophy properties.

Biki Oberoi runs one of the world’s last great owner-managed hotel companies
Biki Oberoi runs one of the world’s last great owner-managed hotel companies

The bulk of the world’s hotel sector is controlled by huge chains, which run sub-chains at different price points. For instance, Marriott (which recently bought Starwood) may operate perfectly ordinary Marriott hotels in many cities. But it also owns the Ritz-Carlton and Bulgari luxury brands.

 In the late ’80s, changing demographics led to the first stirrings of a revolt against the conventional, corporate idea of a hotel. Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, who had run Studio 54, the trendy New York disco in the ’70s, took over failing New York hotels and refashioned them as hip and trendy places. Three New York properties – Morgans, the Royalton and the Paramount – set off a revolution in hoteliering and by the time Schrager opened The Sanderson hotel in London (Rubell had died in the interim), the term ‘hip hotel’ had come into common use.

Sanderson London is among the trendy hotels opened by Ian Schrager
Sanderson London is among the trendy hotels opened by Ian Schrager

Schrager used cutting-edge designers like Andrée Putman and Philippe Starck to create hotel rooms that were radically different from the Hilton-Sheraton standard and turned the lobbies into something akin to clubs. As he famously said at the time, the lobby should be the living room of the hotel. His bellboys were put into designer clothes and seemed to have been hired for their good looks. He established the practice (now an industry standard) of putting video players (and, when they were invented, DVD players) and stereo systems in the rooms and of keeping a music and movie library for guest use (his movie libraries offered hard-core porn, which has also now become an industry standard thanks to pay-per-view technology).

The cult following these early hotels engendered led others to enter that space. Some, like André Balazs, kept within the formula while others, like the British couple, Tim and Kit Kemp, opened spaces that were as cool and trendy as Schrager’s but warmer and less self-consciously ‘hip’; their wonderful Crosby Street Hotel in New York is almost the antithesis of the original Royalton.

No good idea goes uncloned. So within a few years of the boom in hip hotels, Starwood had launched its own cookie-cutter copy. Called W, it was sneered at by those who knew the originals. But because Starwood had the resources to roll the concept out globally it was W, more than any individual-centric operation, that took the idea of hip hotels around the world.

I’ve always had difficulty taking W seriously because a clone is a clone, no matter how high the marketing budget is. Nevertheless I do have to concede that in recent years, Starwood has given W a character of its own. The W in Singapore is my hotel of choice in that city (it is in Sentosa so you forget you are in Singapore, which can be a good thing), and now that the first Indian W has opened in Goa, we can all experience Starwood’s idea of corporate hipness in our own country. From all accounts, the hotel has rocked Goa this season.

So powerful is the idea of a hip hotel in the 21st century that W hotels are among Starwood’s most expensive properties (up there with St Regis). Other chains have scrambled to launch their own versions and Marriott has even tied up with Ian Schrager to launch Edition hotels. (So much for sneering at the clash between Schrager’s original concept and corporate hoteliering; eventually everything merges!)

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Earlier people chose hotels for convenience or luxury or even, snob appeal. But after the rise of the hip hotel, new factors have begun to matter: fashion quotient, style and trendiness.

Recognising that it too must enter any new category, Hyatt Hotels first took on Four Seasons/Ritz-Carlton with its Park Hyatt brand. And its response to the hip-lifestyle hotel category is Andaz. It is not, Hyatt insists, a Schrager-style concept (“we don’t run nightclubs in our lobbies”) but it does, nevertheless, seek to re-invent the idea of a hotel. And yes, part of its appeal is style and trendiness.

The first Indian Andaz has just opened in Delhi and you should go and make up your own mind about how successful Hyatt has been in its quest to refresh the traditional style of hoteliering. I went last week and was blown away.

Right from the stylish lobby and the informal check-in routine to the ‘studio’ spaces which guests can treat as living rooms or work areas, it marks a fundamental rethink of the way hotels are designed. I was particularly impressed by the standard rooms which are large, are planned with convenience in mind (plug points, reading lights etc) and do away with standard hotel furniture for a lighter, more artisanal feel.

W Singapore, like W Goa, allows one to experience Starwood’s idea of corporate hipness
W Singapore, like W Goa, allows one to experience Starwood’s idea of corporate hipness

The one restaurant that’s open (a Chinese place will open later) is so startlingly conceived that it deserves more space and I will write about it in another piece later this year.

The Delhi Andaz is a generation ahead of any other Indian hotel I have seen. It is younger and much fresher. And there’s no problem with the trendiness quotient: this is easily Delhi’s coolest hotel. 

But I am sure there will soon be imitators. That’s what the hotel industry is like. Just when you think you know what hotels are about, something new and imaginatively conceived comes along. And the old rules change all over again.

From HT Brunch, January 8, 2017

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