The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: As you grow older, your taste in hotels changes
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi looks back on his own adventures at his favourite hotels, and how growing older has changed how he looks at them.vir sanghvi Updated: Jun 06, 2018 09:03 IST
How can you tell when a traveller is getting old? Well, I’ll give you my own example. I can tell how the style and pace of my travels has changed by looking at the hotels I choose.
When I was much younger, the hotel was never part of the adventure. You arrived in a strange city and set out to discover it. The hotel mattered only to the extent that you needed a clean, safe and comfortable place to rest your head at the end of an exhausting day.
Like many young people, I was suspicious of hotels in that era. I believed they existed to keep you from exploring the city or region and understanding the people, the food, or the culture. So I never ate in hotels. I shunned any recommendations that the hotel might offer believing that these were either tourist traps or that the guy offering the recommendation was getting a kickback from the places he was sending people to.
Even then, there were people who went further and treated hotels as the enemy, preferring home stays, bed and breakfasts or tourist hostels. I was never one of them. I liked my comforts and my privacy. But, like them, I retained a vaguely antagonistic attitude to hotels and the people who worked in them.
But the time I had reached my thirties, my attitude to hotels had changed . I was no longer hostile to hotels but much more picky when it came to dealing with them. For instance, I always stayed at the wonderful Siam Intercontinental in Bangkok because it had acres of gardens in the centre of town. But I never made the mistake of eating there or letting the concierge recommend some tourist trap restaurant.
But, by then, something new had happened. Because, I imagine, there were many people like me who disdained the standard Sheraton-Intercontinental-Hilton style hotel, men like Ian Schrager invented a new kind of hotel. It went by many names: hip hotel, art hotel, smart hotel, boutique hotel, trendy hotel, etc.
But the basic idea was this: make the hotel seem fashionable. In the 1980s, and 1990s, I stayed at all of Schrager’s hotels in New York: from a tiny room at the Paramount to a Loft Suite at the Royalton. I loved them all.
What was I responding to?
Looking back, I’d guess that I liked the idea of exclusivity. (You had to know where the Royalton was; there was no signboard.) I liked the hipness quotient: the bellboys wore designer uniforms and many of the staff were out of work actors. I liked the thoughtfulness: the Royalton was the first hotel to have music players and VCR’s in every room along with a library of movies and music. (And they sent you popcorn while you watched your movie.)
And I liked the air of outrageousness: the video library had hardcore porn. (This shouldn’t have been shocking: even motels offer porn on their in-house movie menus in the US – but it seemed daring all the same.)
The advent of the hip hotel transformed my attitude to hotels. Now, they did not just become places where you rested between travel adventures. They became the adventure.
Many of the ideas that Schrager, Andre Balazs, Jason Pomeranc and others introduced to the hotel business soon went mainstream. Everyone started getting designers to do staff uniforms, front office staff (both men and women) were chosen because they looked like out-of-work actors. Philippe Starck, who designed the Royalton, began working for the mainstream companies, entertainment devices (from VCRs to DVD players to today’s multi-media options) became standard fixtures in many hotels etc. Starwood even built a whole chain as a sort of corporate version of the hip hotel and called it W.
But as time went on, I began to tire of the hip hotels. With each visit I started to notice the flaws in the original concept. Usually hip hotels had small rooms and fashionable public areas. But I began to want larger rooms and started to avoid the public areas.
I wanted more light in my room: hip hotels were usually badly lit. At one stage that had not mattered --- it was impossible to read in the low light of the rooms at Morgans, one of Schrager’s first hotel --- but now, it does.
And when it comes to the corporate hip hotels, I just find them too self-conscious. I guess it is part of growing old. But sometimes I just want to relax in a hotel. If I want to hear loud dance music, I’ll go to a club, not to the lobby of my hotel.
So now, I have a new favourite. European-style grand hotels.
These are, typically, hotels that are at least fifty years old (if not more), are architecturally interesting and are distinguished by the excellence of the service.
At one stage, it was tempting to see them as a counterpoint to American chain hotels but that distinction is collapsing because so many of them are now run (and run very well) by the big international chains. And the chains have sometimes taken old buildings and successfully converted them into grand hotels, even though the buildings were originally meant for some other purpose.
I am writing this from Seville in Spain where I am staying at the Adolfo XIII, one of Spain’s greatest and grandest hotels, which is nearly a century old. It is one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever stayed at: it was built as a hotel but looks like a palace. I have been here for five days now and I still manage to discover something lovely and new about the hotel each day.
But what makes the Adolfo XIII and other grand hotels special is that they become your accomplices in your travel adventures. Whenever I book myself into a grand hotel, I make it a point to mail the Head Concierge in advance and to ask for restaurant bookings and tips on where to go and what to do.
At the Alfonso XIII, Antonio Morilla, the head concierge is brilliant. He managed to find me a great guide for the Alcazar (and cut through the queues) and more spectacularly, got me a personal guide for the Alhambra in nearby Granada and got me in even though there were no tickets available on the internet for the next two months. Plus Antonio thought of unusual things to do. One evening, on his own initiative, along with Carlo Suffredini, the General Manager, he got us invited to a performance by the local Symphony Orchestra at a magnificent concert hall.
It is that kind of personal touch that always makes a grand hotel seem different and special. And the more European hotels I have stayed at, the more I have come to appreciate the magic touch of the Grand Hotel Concierge.
In Lisbon in Portugal, I tell everyone to stay at The Ritz, because Nuno Neves, the concierge will hand you the keys to the city and get you into the best places. A short distance away, the Penha Longa resort is so brilliantly run that even if you have never been to Portugal before, you will be made to feel you know the region because the staff will guide you to the best places.
The Ritz is run by Four Season and Penha Longa by Ritz-Carlton so the old distinctions between chains and grand hotels seem less relevant. In Paris, the Bristol (part of a mini-chain owned by Germans) has food Concierges who will get you into any restaurant you want and will alert you to the gems that the world has still to discover.
Even the conversions can seem grand. The Park Hyatt in Siem Reap used to be the hotel De la Paix, an old property, but Hyatt has raised standards so much that it is the best hotel in the city. In Vienna, the spectacular Park Hyatt is a new hotel in an old building – I think it used to be a bank -- but it actually delivers much more of a grand hotel experience then say the Imperial, a genuinely old classic Vienna Hotel. Similarly, the Alfonso XIII is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection as is the Maria Cristina in San Sebastian, another grand hotel that rates among the best in Spain.
Somehow, in India, we have never quite mastered the art of creating grand hotels that make newcomers feel like part of the city. The Taj does this with its hotels abroad. I have no idea whether Maurice Dancer is still at the Pierre but that hotel’s Concierge service (and bear in mind that I last stayed there in 2011) is legendary. So it is with St. James Court in London. Indians and Americans like the lovely apartments next door at 51 Buckingham Gate. But the best concierges are in the main hotel: they will make London open up to you.
I guess Taj hotels in India don’t do this as successfully because they are used to Indian guests who don’t want too many adventures.
But I am beginning to sense a growing need, even among Indians, to understand new cities better. The ITC hotel in Hyderabad, the new Kohenur has state-of-the-art luxury but for me, the best part of the service was the Food Sherpa, who would not only tell you where to get the best biryani or haleem in the city but would find you a table and, if necessary, have you taken there. But then, I guess ITC can do this because the chain is so confident of its food that it doesn’t mind if you compare it to the best local version. Most Indian chains are too insecure about their own restaurants to encourage guests to go out.
I am guessing that there are more and more travellers like me who have been through the hip hotel phase and want hotels that are not only grand but also offer you the keys to the city. The foreign chains have recognized this: Hyatt is spending millions of dollars on renovating the historical Hotel Martinez in Cannes (it used to be the favourite of Indian maharajas: Dr. Karan Singh was born there!).
But Indian chains are still focusing on stuff that matters less and less.This may be a mistake .
Ultimately, guests will tire of good hotels. To make a mark, you need to run a grand hotel. Good just doesn’t cut it any longer.