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To serve with love

Guests at deluxe hotels are not interested in corporate sameness. They want variety and amenities and they want a little local flavour.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2009, 18:29 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

I wrote last week about how deluxe hotels often ignore the food and beverage needs of their guests. I ended the column with a rant about room service. And this week, that rant continues…

Local Food: I accept that it is not always a good idea for hotels to open restaurants serving the local cuisine. There are some huge successes (Dakshin in Madras, Karavalli in Bangalore and er… I think that’s about it) but most city hotels only end up serving vastly overpriced and largely inauthentic versions of dishes that guests can find outside the hotel at prices that are much more realistic.

But that does not change the fact that when I land in a strange city I want some painless way of dipping my toes into the local waters. I may well go out to an authentic restaurant later but I do not want exactly the same food in my hotel room in Cochin that I had in Guwahati.

There are two traditional routes to fulfilling this need. The first is the coffee shop. All Far Eastern hotels will include some local food on the coffee shop menu (if they have coffee shops, that is). The second route is room service. It costs nothing to put in a section of local favourites on the room service menu or – at the very least – to make them easily available (by getting them from hotel restaurants).

When I check into a hotel in Hyderabad, do I really want to eat a Lucknawi biryani? When I am in Calcutta, home of the Nizam’s Roll, do I really want to eat some bakwas catering college take on a kathi kabab on the room service menu? When I fly into Bombay I want pav-bhaji, ragda-patice and even bhel to be easily available at my hotel. (Only the Taj seems to realise this.)

All too often room service menus have become corporate affairs, devised by committees of men in suits. Some bright spark in head office probably thinks it is a good idea to standardise all menus at all hotels across the chain. But guests are not interested in corporate sameness. They want variety and they want a little local flavour. Room Amenities: At some stage, India is going to go the way of the West where staff costs are so high that it is almost impossible to break even on room service operations unless you raise prices to absurd levels. In the West, they try and make things easier for guests (and for the hotels themselves) by placing some basic amenities in the room. Many, if not most, American hotels will provide kettles so guests can make their own tea and thus, ease the pressure on room service.

Indian hotels are following suit. The Oberoi chain began the trend and also provided interesting herbal teas. But few chains have gone as far or displayed as much imagination as the Four Seasons in Bombay where every room has an espresso machine so that guests can get excellent coffee at the touch of a button. The Four Seasons has kettles but refuses to provide the rubbish tea bags that most hotel chains (including allegedly tea-savvy Taj – shame on them!) place in the rooms. At the Four Seasons, the tea bags have been specially made for the hotel (by Dilmah in Sri Lanka) and contain the finest Darjeeling teas from top gardens. (They tried finding quality Indian tea bags but when they failed, they shipped Indian tea to Dilmah and then re-imported it back in tea bags!) No Indian hotel can compete with the Four Seasons in the quality of tea and coffee service. Why should this be so? Do we need a Canadian chain to come and tell us how to provide good tea to our guests? And we’re supposed to be a tea-drinking country!

If hotels are placing kettles in rooms, then it costs nothing very much to also place biscuits or cookies. In India, we regard a quarter plate full of sad cookies, flavoured with synthetic vanilla and covered with cling film as the ultimate way of recognising VIPs. This is out of date and plain silly. Just give the cookies to everyone. How much does it cost? I bet it is cheaper than the terrible moulded chocolates mass produced by flight kitchens that hotels place in rooms. Similarly, it is time to rethink the fruit basket. If you are going to do one, use the best fruit and make it look different. (Once again, the Four Seasons has the most interesting baskets full of exotic fruit.) Or get rid of it altogether and do what ITC does, offering a variety of different cakes, pastries, cheeses etc. The days when a guest felt flattered to get two stale bananas and three apples are long gone.

Minibar: Why, oh why, do hotels charge for minibars even in the suites? My friend Deepak Ohri has stopped charging Club Floor guests for minibar consumption at the Lebua hotel in Bangkok. And I wish other hotels would follow his example. How much is a Club Floor guest going to drink anyhow? And if you are already offering him free booze in the Club Lounge then why not extend that facility to his minibar? What little you lose in revenue (and hardly anyone makes much money on minibars anyway) will be more than offset by goodwill.

Club Lounges: Hoteliers do not understand Club Lounges. They treat them as bars with a small restaurant section attached. Or, at best, they think of the airport Club Class Lounge as a model. In fact, guests don’t want yet another bar. Think about it. You are a businessman in a strange city. You have a nice enough room where you can set up your laptop and watch CNBC or NDTV on a flat screen TV. But, at some stage, the room gets claustrophobic. You want to get out. That’s where the Club Lounge comes in. The best way to think of it is as the living room of a suite. The guest already has the bedroom. But he wants a living room where he has space to breathe.

Go to any Club Lounge abroad. You will find guests reading papers, sipping drinks, working on their computers or meeting friends. If they lived in suites, they would do all this in their living rooms. A Club Lounge is a communal living room for a hotel’s most important guests: corporate clients who will provide repeat business. It is not just a bar where you get free low food-cost snacks between 5 pm and 7 pm. But hotels don’t seem to recognise this. They are stuck in the ‘F&B outlet’ mindset.

Breakfast: Nakul Anand, who runs ITC, is that most unusual of hoteliers. He treats hoteliering as a science, reducing everything to numbers and standards. But the science comprises only the bones of his style. The flesh on the bones comes from his people management, his flair, his ability to think outside the box and his quest to find innovative solutions. I decided that Nakul was a cut above the rest when he made ITC conduct research on guests’ F&B expectations. The research showed that while some people ate dinner in the hotel and a few had lunch, the one meal that nearly all residents ate in the hotel was breakfast.

Most managers would have left it at that. But Nakul dug deeper. He discovered the preferred breakfast of most corporate guests was not, as one might imagine, eggs and bacon or even parathas and dahi. It was dosas and idlis.

This led to the ITC axiom that resident guests judge a hotel’s F&B by its South Indian breakfast. And that’s why, to this day, no hotel anywhere in the world, does better South Indian breakfasts than an ITC hotel. (If you are in Bangalore or Agra, ask for the multi-grain dosa. They haven’t got it right at the other properties yet.) Here’s my question: if Nakul can get this, why can’t other hoteliers?

Either you go the Four Seasons route and do an unusual breakfast menu of exceptional food (that menu should be a model for all hoteliers) or you get the Indian breakfasts right. Sadly, so few hotels bother with breakfast. Room Service breakfast menus have not changed in over a decade and breakfast buffets are rarely inspiring. The muesli is nearly always disgusting. Pantries: Many Indian hotels have suites with large pantries. The argument, presumably, is that if guests throw large parties, the pantry can act as a service station.

If fact, the pantries go unused most of the time. So, I have a suggestion. Why not put in a range so that it is possible to cook in the pantry? Then, at least in the suites, a chef can come and cook hot dosas or fresh eggs? It would make all the difference to the breakfast experience. That’s it for this week. More to come at another time!

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