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The Staff Of Dreams

It is now almost an article of faith among hoteliers that Asia has the best service. Within the continent, Thai service is terrific. But the future belongs to India. Vir Sanghvi tells more...

india Updated: Feb 07, 2009, 19:37 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

I have always been told that one of the distinctive features of the Internet is that it is an interactive medium. This sounds okay in theory, but ever since I’ve launched my personal website, (, I’ve discovered what it means in real terms.

Each day, I spend a considerable amount of time answering questions and responding to comments from people who have logged on to the site. As I am a relative stranger to the Internet and the site has only been launched recently with a minimum of publicity or fuss, I had imagined that I would be lucky to get a question or two a day. On the contrary. Though I don’t necessarily publish everything that comes in (especially not the stuff that consists only of compliments; to those of you who have sent such messages to me, many thanks, but it is too embarrassing to actually go ahead and publish some of the stuff on the site), I’m a little staggered by the size of the response.

Nor do I seem to be the only one getting a response on the Net. On the HT site, we’ve launched a series of blogs by editors, which have also got a fantastic response (if you are interested in food, then check out my colleague Samar Halarnkar’s very popular food blog on the site), and many, many comments.

Because features so many different things, not all of the questions are about food. But a surprisingly large number are. They range from follow-ups to last week’s Rude Food on biryani, to questions like “I am going to Singapore next week: where should I eat?” to “which is the best hotel in India?”

I try and answer them as best as I can but some deserve longer and more thoughtful responses. I was particularly intrigued by a question from somebody who works in the hotel industry. He asked whether I subscribed to the view that Thai service was the best and how I rated service standards in India.

It’s a good question and I responded by saying that I would devote this week’s Rude Food to it. So here goes.
It is now almost an article of faith among hoteliers that Asia has the best service. This is not a flip judgement but one that has been arrived at through a process of elimination. All over Europe, salaries are so high that staff levels have been cut to the bare minimum. Many years ago when I was in Copenhagen, my hotel, the Arne Jacobsen-designed SAS Royal had no room service at all. Press the room service button on the phone and you were connected to a nearby branch of Domino’s pizza. Housekeeping at this large hotel seemed to consist of half a dozen maids who were clearly of Indian origin.

Denmark is probably a worst-case example but the same is true to varying degrees of most of Europe. Even luxury hotels in Switzerland will not offer proper room service at night. It is too expensive to keep a chef on duty so all you will get is cold food. This is as true of France. A few months ago, I checked into the luxuriously appointed Hyatt at Paris Airport and was astonished to discover that if I wanted to eat after 10 pm, they would serve me cold smoked salmon and a packet of potato crisps.

America is a little better because it does, at least, have a tradition of service. But the mad downsizing and cost-cutting of the last decade has led to a situation where hotels have trimmed staff-to-guest ratios. For instance, even at expensive hotels (say, New York’s Waldorf Astoria), most guests are expected to wheel their own suitcases. There are few bellboys and they take ages to turn up.

In these circumstances, Asia with its low salaries, has an obvious advantage. Staff-to-guest ratios in Asia are among the highest in the world. You constantly have a sense of being pampered or looked after at Asian luxury hotels. When you call the operator from your room, the phone is picked up at once. (At the Waldorf, you get a recorded message saying, “All our operators are busy, please stay on the line…”)

But my sense is that this is changing. As Asia prospers, attitudes to service also alter. The prime example of this is Singapore. Fifteen years ago, service at Singapore hotels was efficient and friendly. Now, it can be terrible. Last year, I stayed at the Sheraton Towers on Scotts Road, a hotel I remembered fondly from a decade ago. Perhaps they were just busy in the week I was there but service was non-existent. A few years ago I walked out of a restaurant at the Swissotel Stamford (the old Westin Stamford) because nobody would bother to serve the food.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you stay at the Four Seasons or the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore, service can be excellent. But you have to pay a lot of money to get any kind of service in Singapore.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is increasingly true of much of Asia. The service in the Philippines can be crap. Taiwan has no sense of service. Neither does South Korea. And Japan is so expensive that the graciousness of the service is neutralised by the relatively low levels of staffing.

Say all this to international hoteliers and they will respond that some of the changes are cultural. The overseas Chinese, it is now clear, have no interest in working in the service side of the hotel industry. That’s why service can be so bad in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In Malaysia and Singapore, you will find fewer and fewer efficient Chinese servers and receptionists. The bellboys were always Indians or Malays but now even the rest of the service has been taken over by these communities. Oddly enough, the one exception is mainland China where the locals have no problem in providing good service.

But hoteliers say that Thailand remains an island of excellence. Service comes naturally to Thais and they have a smiling graciousness that few other nations can match. They’re also willing to work quite hard. Shops stay open till late and hotel staff will never complain no matter what you ask of them.

I agree. But my guess is that India is now ready to overtake Thailand.

This is a controversial point of view. But think of the disadvantages of the Thai hotel industry: the staff speak very poor English, educational standards are much lower than they would be in equivalent jobs in India and the cultural climate encourages the blind following of systems and procedures rather than any exercise of initiative.

Last week, at the magnificent Udaivilas in Udaipur, I asked Torsten van Dullemen, the general manager, what he thought of service in India. Torsten has worked at some of the world’s great hotels, many of them in London (the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, One Aldwych, the Capital, the Savoy etc) and is a fan of Asian service even though he understands the strengths of the Western approach.

Torsten’s hotel regularly appears on lists of the world’s five best hotels (and has even been top of the Travel + Leisure list) and he reckons that while the spectacular nature of the property, the vision that Biki Oberoi brought to the creation of the Vilas hotels and the Oberoi culture all have something to do with it, it is the service that steals the show.
Hoteliers will tell you that when Biki opened the Vilases he broke with traditional ideas of service, hired well educated young people to multi-task (from waiting tables to checking you in) and imposed a flat management structure. (At the first Vilas, Rajvilas, everyone on the staff called Vikram Oberoi, the general manager, by his first name).

Torsten reckons that this is the strength of the Vilases. Ratios are high (over three staff per room) but what struck me at once was the sophistication of everybody I dealt with. These were people who understood systems but knew when to go beyond them and could think rapidly on their feet. Unlike the older generation of hotel staff who are often either too surly or too obsequious, the young people at Udaivilas had the balance perfectly right. They lacked the smiley-smiley graciousness of the Thais but they had the sharp intelligence that only Indians can bring to the profession.

I think the Oberois are on to something. The average age of the staff at Udaivilas is 23 or 24. When they grow older, they become managers at other Oberoi properties. So, there is a constant stream of well educated, enthusiastic young people ready to take the places of those who move on. (The Taj has done something similar with its Palace Services concept.)

Torsten’s point was that India has the potential to provide the best service in the world because of the individual initiatives and discretion that staff are capable of. He is right. I also noticed how much at ease the Udaivilas staff were with service. Though so many of them were public school educated, they had no cultural hang-ups about laying tables or carrying bags.

So to go back to where we started. The answer to the man who very kindly posted his question on is: Thai service is terrific. But the future belongs to India.

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