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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: All about luxury, hip and trendy hotels

When they had opened, the hip hotels did not dare charge as much as the luxury hotels but over time, that has changed.

more lifestyle Updated: Dec 06, 2018 12:56 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Vir Sanghvi,The Taste with Vir Sanghvi,Schrager
A general view of the Ritz Carlton hotel in the Saudi capital Riyadh. (AFP Photo)

When I think of luxury hotels, I tend to stick to the familiar stereotypes. There are the grand hotels: in Mumbai, that list would include The Taj Mahal Hotel; in London it would be Claridges or The Ritz; in New York, the St. Regis or The Pierre. And then there is modern luxury. In Mumbai, that would be The Oberoi; in London it would be The Four Seasons; in New York, the Peninsula or the Park Hyatt.

Sometimes these categories are hard to separate. Take the case of the old Hyde Park Hotel, which was a grand hotel in its time. Except that while refurbishing it, Mandarin Oriental went for its signature style of Asian luxury with few references to the hotel’s glorious heritage. (Well, ‘glorious’ anyway till Charles Forte took it over.) It is the same with The Oriental in Bangkok.

That hotel is always sold as a grand hotel, with a history dating back decades. But it consists of two tower blocks. There is just one tiny wing (called the Author’s Wing) that has any history. And even that is mostly recent, having been rebuilt in the Seventies after a devastating fire.

Or there are grand hotels that deserve better but are run like modern American hotels by American companies. The Westins in Paris (the old Intercontinental), Rome (the Excelsior), and Madrid (the old Palace hotel) are grand old hotels that Starwood decided to run as five star (but not luxury) properties. In Venice, the wonderful old Europa and Regina was turned into a Westin and downgraded. But good sense has dawned. The hotel will now be restored to its original glory and rebranded as St. Regis.

In the late 1980s, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the former owners of Studio 54, opened the hip Morgan’s and Royalton hotels in New York. They changed hoteliering forever by creating a new kind of hotel which was stylish and trendy. The bellboys were out-of-work actors and wore designer uniforms, the staff had to look as sophisticated and stylish as the guests and while hotel designers had normally been low-profile, these hotels celebrated the people who had designed them. Andree Putman (who did Morgan’s) earned fame and The Royalton made the international career of Philippe Starck who had, till then, been known only in design circles.

By the 1990s, hip hotels were everywhere. They catered to a younger demographic, acted as though style was more important than history or service and changed an entire generation’s outlook on hoteliering.

Every hip/design hotel owes something to Schrager and Rubell’s original vision. Starwood even started the self-consciously hip W chain to produce a corporate version of that kind of hotel.

When they opened, the hip hotels did not dare charge as much as the luxury hotels but over time, that has changed. These days Starwood/Marriott prices the W Hotels close to the rates charged by the luxury St. Regis hotels. People are more than willing to pay a premium for the hipness quotient.

In the course of the last couple of years, I have stayed at many hotels around the world. I have liked some of the modern luxury properties (the Park Hyatt in Dubai is absolutely stunning; easily the best hotel in that city) but my favourites have been the grand hotels with their sense of history and the legacy of the ages.

I loved the Maria Cristina in San Sebastian, the Alfonso XIII in Seville and (most of all) the Gritti in Venice.

The Park Hyatt in Dubai is absolutely stunning; easily the best hotel in that city. ( Park Hyatt Dubai website )

But is there now a fourth category of luxury hotel? When I said I was going to Milan last month a friend recommended the Bulgari. I checked it out on the net and found it was eye-wateringly expensive. Then I got a good deal on the rate (very steep, even then) and decided to splash out.

I really did not know what to expect. The success of Philippe Starck as a distinctive hotel designer had pushed fashion brands into launching chains named after themselves. Armani, Versace, Missoni and many others all have brand extensions in the hotel sector. Would Bulgari be anything like them? And why, I wondered, did it get the highest room rates in Milan?

I am glad I chose the Bulgari because it showed me that there is a very small sliver at the top of the luxury segment that does represent a fourth category of hotel.

The Bulgari is not a grand hotel. It has under 60 rooms. It is not a hotel with a history. It is a converted church and monastery but the hotel does not draw attention to its antiquity. It is only when you ask that you learn that the restaurant was once the main church hall and that some of the rooms were occupied by nuns.

And yet, it is not modern. Though it was built at the beginning of this century, it has an air of timelessness. Most surprisingly, for a hotel named after a luxury brand, it is not hip or trendy.

I asked Attilio Marro, who now heads operations for all Bulgari Hotels, why the hotel did not scream ‘Bulgari’ the way that a Versace Hotel constantly reminds you of the brand’s core identity (or essential vulgarity, depending on your perspective).

The Bulgari family approached Marriott Hotels in 2004 about partnering with them in a chain of hotels. ( Bulgari website )

The answer was obvious enough but I hadn’t quite worked it out till he explained it to me. Armani, Versace etc. are fashion brands. Fashion changes with each season and each collection. Bulgari is a jewellery brand. And jewellery is built to be timeless: ideally, it should be passed on from one generation to the next.

The Bulgari family approached Marriott Hotels in 2004 about partnering with them in a chain of hotels. The idea was to pattern the hotels not on any Bulgari design but on the core values of the brand: high quality materials, brilliance of design, an ability to last through the ages, etc.

Marriott agreed and the first hotel was built in Milan (the only one I have been to). The idea was to make it small and personalised. (Though I think they messed up by not building enough suites in relation to the rooms at such an upmarket property.)

How would regular Bulgari customers live? What kind of furniture would they have in their homes?Those were the kinds of questions they asked themselves.

Eventually they built a hotel where every cup and tea spoon was specially designed to the highest standards. The walls were much thicker than the average hotel wall so you had total privacy. As far as possible the doors to the rooms never faced each other. All the furniture was designed for the hotel by a top quality designer of residential furniture. The bathrooms were built to be large and spacious. The food is in the hands of a Michelin three star chef. In Milan and most other Bulgaris it is a Niko Romito. .

For all this detailing, the hotel is deliberately informal and understated in its elegance. The residential feel is the signature of the hotel. If you want to take off your shoes and sit by the fireplace in the area just off the lobby (as many guests do in the winter), the staff will encourage you.

Add personalised service to all this and you have some idea of why the hotel is always full despite the rates.

Not only are staff knowledgeable, helpful and charming, they go the extra mile. My wife asked the concierge for directions to a salon. The concierge didn’t just give her a map, she walked her there. I began to worry about my Uber (the Bulgari is on a private road) and one of the doormen, noting my concern, dashed off into the main road and found the driver.

The Bulgari is deliberately informal and understated in its elegance. ( Bulgari website )

I am not sure what category of luxury all of this falls into. I told Attilio of the old adage that a deluxe hotel must always be aspirational, like a dream for its guests and he looked dubious. That didn’t hold true of the Bulgari, he said, because many of the guests were so wealthy that there was nothing aspirational about any hotel as far as they were concerned. He had been to some of their homes and realised that his hotel, for all its teak, marble and luxury materials, did not match up to what they were used to every day.

All this constitutes a category of luxury that is hard to define. I asked Sandeep Walia who looks after the Marriott/Starwood luxury properties in Western Europe where the Bulgaris rank in their universe. Marriott/Starwood now has so many luxury brands that it is hard to keep count: St. Regis, Luxury Collection, Ritz-Carlton, W, Edition (a hip hotel brands started by Marriott in collaboration with Ian Schrager which updates the old hipness formula for this era) and many, many others.

Sandeep is justly proud of all the company’s brands but says that Bulgari is so exclusive and so special, it is like the Jeweler of Hospitality. Even as the Bulgari chain expands, he says, certain elements will stay the same: the furniture will still be top-line residential and will come from the same designer, the food will be handled by Niko and what they regard as the common thread of the hotels ( Contemporary, Refined, Luxurious and Easy) will continue.

It is a new dimension to luxury: the hotel that wants to be a piece of jewellery. But then, that’s the thing about the hotel business. Nothing ever stays the same. New ideas and new concepts keep being invented.

First Published: Nov 07, 2018 09:57 IST