When less is more...
Few hotel openings have been as eagerly awaited as the launch of the Delhi Aman. The anticipation has to do with Aman Resorts’ global image. Vir Sanghvi tells more...india Updated: May 02, 2009 20:00 IST
An English friend of mine who visited the New Delhi Aman before it opened told me that he thought the property would win every international design and architecture award this year.
My friend did not necessarily mean this as a compliment. He tends to prefer homely and comfortable places to the stark minimalism of the Aman. But there was no doubt, he said, that the Aman was unlike every other hotel he had stayed in.
As it should be.
Few hotel openings have been as eagerly awaited as the launch of the Delhi Aman. The anticipation has to do with Aman Resorts’ global image. The chain was founded by Adrian Zecha, a former journalist (Time magazine and then the Asia Magazine) and trend-setting hotelier (the original Regent Hotels) almost by accident.
Zecha decided to build a villa for himself on a secluded beach in Phuket in Thailand but discovered that he needed to buy a large plot to get access to the beach. So he persuaded other rich friends to join up in the purchase and all of them built villas. Then, they decided that as they needed some infrastructural services, they might as well build a small hotel on the rest of the property.
That complex became Amanpuri and opened in the late 1980s. It earned a reputation as being the jetset’s resort of choice especially after Zecha and his friends began renting out their villas when they were not in residence.
A few years later Zecha decided to open more Amans in his native Indonesia. His Bali properties (Amankila, Amandari etc) cemented Aman’s reputation as the world’s finest resort chain. More properties followed: in America, in the Philippines, in Bhutan etc. But they never advertised and remained exclusively out of reach for most people.
The key may have been price. Room rates at most Amans begin, typically, at around US $750 or so and then shoot upwards. Moreover, a typical Aman property has very few rooms: most have less than 50 or so. Consequently, only the very rich or the well-connected get in.
Aman has become such a cult among the global jetset that a whole breed of so-called Aman junkies has developed. These are people who are so devoted to Aman and to Zecha’s vision that they dutifully visit every one of his properties and plan all their vacations around Aman resorts. Needless to say, Aman junkies are rich by definition.
Because Aman is a resort company, there has been much excitement over its move into city hotels. The first city hotel opened in Beijing over a year ago but because it is located near the summer palace and not in the heart of the city, it is a cross between a resort and a full-fledged city hotel.
That makes the Delhi Aman the company’s first real city hotel. And that’s why the global hoteliering community has been waiting to see what it is like. Can Zecha translate the Aman philosophy from resorts to city hotels? Will travellers be willing to pay his high prices for non-vacation stays? And what will he do that is so different from, say, a Four Seasons or a Ritz Carlton?
It will take time for the answers to all of those questions to emerge. But here are some preliminary observations. The first thing you notice about the Aman is that it does not look like a hotel. There are only around 67 rooms spread around a vast area of which only 39 are now functional. The rest will be in a second wing and will resemble apartments rather than hotel rooms. So the Delhi Aman lacks the buzz of a big city hotel and resembles a design museum which you can only visit by invitation.
The second thing that strikes you is that the emphasis is on starkness not luxury. The décor focuses on space – at least in the public areas – rather than plushness. So everything strikes you as being tasteful and expensive but it does not seem to have the five star hotel obsession with luxury. Nor is the property brand conscious. The glasses may be Reidel but the plates may well be from Indonesia. The phones are by Beetel and the room toiletries are by Kama, not by some fancy Western brand.
My third observation – and I have to say that nobody else seemed to share it – was that the suites reminded me of the Delhi of the 1960s. The furniture is simple and wooden and the overall air is of a tasteful Delhi bungalow from my childhood. There are no overstuffed sofas, no shawls flung over the upholstery, no thick carpets etc. Even the en suite plunge pools manage to look functional rather than lavish.
So is it different from every other city hotel? Yes it is. Is it a trendy boutique hotel? No it isn’t. The emphasis is on timelessness rather than fashion.
And will it work? I think it will. There are enough rich people who are fed up of the standard luxury hotel suite. And Aman has the extras these people look for (most rooms and suites have plunge pools, the house champagne is artisanal and specially bottled for Aman, the salon is run by Hong Kong’s Kim Robinson, the gym is state of the art with excellent trainers etc.).
The restaurants differ from those at nearly every other Aman property because they are large and aim to attract local clientele. (Resort restaurants are usually open only to guests). The Aman restaurant does perfectly acceptable Thai (though I have not tasted the Indian food which is also on the menu) and is doing well but it is hardly a breakthrough in restaurant terms. The Japanese counter deserves to do better because the food is excellent and perhaps it will if it ditches the set menus (at Rs 6,000 or Rs 7,000 per head at dinner) and does more a la carte.
My two favourites of the F&B operations are first, the tapas bar at the bottom of the Lodhi restaurant where the décor, food and service are all outstanding (and I have now been three times) and second, the wine list which is truly exceptional, sourcing unusual bottles from small producers and selling them at reasonable rates. My own view is that the formal part of the Lodhi restaurant needs to be better lit but no doubt Aman knows what it’s doing.
It’s not entirely fair to judge a hotel in the first month of its operation so I won’t come to any conclusions. But there are obvious areas of improvement. Room service can be shambolic, housekeeping facilities are erratic and operations in general can be streamlined. The staff are young, bright, friendly and enthusiastic so this should not be a problem.
I also think that while it’s all very well to be stark and minimalist, there are a few design flaws in the suites. It is impossible to find a comfortable chair from which to watch TV – at Aman Resorts they discourage you from watching TV but Aman needs to realise that guests in city hotels like to keep in touch. I think the bathrooms are odd with not enough of a division between the bathtub and the shower stall.
But these are minor criticisms and most concern things that will be ironed out. On the whole, this is probably the first of a new generation of luxury hotels. My guess is that it will be an influential hotel and other chains will start stealing many of its ideas.
But we have the original. And it’s here in Delhi.