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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Indian hospitality is among the best in the world

Every Western hotelier talks about the concept of Asian hospitality with envy, writes Vir Sanghvi, but Indian hospitality is among the best in the world.

more lifestyle Updated: Apr 25, 2018 11:54 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Taste with Vir Sanghvi,Vir Sanghvi,Hotels
The Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.(Shutterstock)

Ask a Western hotelier about his competitors in the rest of the world and sooner or later, he will start talking about ‘Asian hospitality’. Press him a little and he will explain what ‘Asian hospitality’ means. Apparently it involves pampering, graciousness, smiley-smiley service and huge levels of efficiency. At some stage, the Westerner will complain that at his European/American hotel, it is getting harder and harder to develop a service culture among the staff.

I understand why Western hoteliers are complaining. But I think that we sometimes forget how relatively recent a concept ‘Asian hospitality’ is. And how, one reason why Asian hotels seem more welcoming and luxurious than those in the West is not only because Asia has changed but because the West has changed even faster.

The term ‘Asian hospitality’ only came into vogue in the late 1980s. Till then, Asia (with the notable exception of India) was dominated by the big American chains. Hilton and Intercontinental had hotels in nearly every city and Sheraton was not far behind. Many of these hotels were well-run but there was nothing special about them. If you asked the American chains which their top properties were, they were more likely to brag about their European or US hotels than they were about any of their Asian properties.

My guess is that ‘Asian hospitality’ only entered the conversation when Asia got its own chains. The trendsetter was Regent which pioneered many of the features now associated with luxury hotels: large rooms, huge bathrooms, personalised service, etc. In 1988, Adrian Zecha, one of Regent’s founders, started a new company called Aman, which changed the rules of the luxury resort game.

Meanwhile, Regent had forged ahead, designing a resort in Bali’s Jimbaran Bay which was the first in the world to consist entirely of villas, each with its own swimming pool. Regent also began constructing a super-luxury hotel in New York, bringing its own brand of hospitality to America.

Unfortunately Regent’s backers ran into financial problems and the company was sold to Four Seasons, till then, a relatively low-profile Canadian hotel company. The Four Seasons opened the Bali and New York hotels and converted such trendsetting Regent hotels (such as the ones in Bangkok and Chiang Mai ) into Four Seasons properties. More significantly, it adopted Regent’s (largely Asian) take on luxury for the new hotels it opened around the world and the older ones it rebranded and upgraded (London’s workmanlike Inn on the Park, for instance; it is now called Four Seasons.)

Chao Phraya river with boat and Shangri-La hotel, in Bangkok. (Shutterstock)

By the time the financial boom of the 21st Century came around, Four Seasons had turned itself into the premier luxury brand in the world. (And it became the chain of choice for the global financial community.) The Regent legacy of Asian hospitality, now part of the Four Seasons DNA, had become the benchmark for global luxury.

It was in the 1980s that other Asian chains began expanding. There has been a Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon since 1928. But the expansion only began in earnest sixty years later in 1989 with the group taking its brand of Asian hospitality to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tokyo, Paris etc.

Mandarin Oriental is a much newer company. The original Mandarin in Hong Kong opened in 1963 and in 1974, its owners bought 49% of Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel. The expansion began in the late 1970s but the group only made its mark in this century with hotels in London (2000), Paris (2011) Las Vegas (2009) and many other cities.

And then there’s Shangri La, which occupies a space somewhere between a standard five star hotel and a Four Seasons. Owned by overseas Chinese (from Malaysia) it started out in Singapore in the 1970s but has been content so far to expand mainly in Asia (especially China). Only now has it opened a few hotels in the West including a uncharacteristically charming, historical palace-hotel in Paris.

The Asian luxury chains redefined hospitality in a way that the American chains had never quite managed. They ran better restaurants, they had larger rooms, the service was better and personalised and the impersonal blandness of the American companies was replaced with charm and pampering.

When Western hoteliers talk about ‘Asian hospitality’, they refer partly to the influence that the Asian companies have had on the global hotel scene. But they also mean the levels of service at all hotels within Asia. At most deluxe hotels in the Asian continent, you will be made to feel welcome, the staff will seem happy to serve you and rarely, if ever, will you have cause to complain.

The lobby at the Regent hotel in Beijing. (Shutterstock)

This is not necessarily true of Western hotels. And that has a lot to do with the way in which Western society has evolved in the last three decades. Most Westerners either want higher salaries or don’t want to work in hotels at all. So Western hotels will have low staff-to-guest ratios (ie: there will be fewer staff per guest) than Asian hotels. A large chunk of the staff will consist of immigrants (some of them illegal) who will be made to work for low salaries and will be less invested in their jobs. And when Westerners will offer service, they will adopt a more equal, less deferential, approach to guests than staff at Asian hotels because they live in more egalitarian societies.

For all the praise that Western hoteliers direct at Asian hospitality, I have a few reservations. The first is that outside of a few countries (Singapore, the Philippines, etc.), Asian staff often don’t speak English well which can be a problem for foreign guests. Secondly most of them are trained to follow SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). If there is a deviation from the program or if things don’t go according to plan, then they are not trained to take the initiative, to use their discretion or improvise.

Thirdly, as the countries of East Asia get richer, their citizens are becoming more and more like their counterparts in the West. The Singapore Chinese, for instance, are now too proud to offer much service.

So Singapore has also fallen back on foreign staff --- at many hotels, staff commute everyday from Malaysia. Moreover, as salaries go up (in Singapore, Hong Kong l, etc.) hotels can no longer hire that many staff and their impressive staff-to-guest ratios have begun to collapse.

India lives in a bubble. We have our own hotel industry which follows few of the rules of global hospitality. The American chains have made their presence felt in India but the Asian luxury chains have ignored us. The Peninsula tried to buy the Delhi Leela but when that fell through, the group lost interest in India. Aman’s Delhi property was a disaster and in any case, the chain is re-inventing itself under new management. Shangri La had had the worst luck in India. It gave up its Mumbai property, the Delhi hotel does not live up to the chain’s standards (through the food is very good) and the one time I stayed there, the Bangalore hotel was very badly run.

Many global chains look to India as a source of guests for their foreign properties. But the Asian chains really don’t care. Neither Mandarin Oriental or Peninsula do any PR or marketing in India because they don’t need Indian guests: there are enough Mainland Chinese travellers to fill up their hotels all over the world.

The Mandarin Hotel on November 1st 2014 in Singapore. Built in 1987, the hotel underwent a significant renovation in 2004 from H.L. Lim of LTW Design Works to update the hotel. (Shutterstock)

That said, I’m not sure it matters that much. Levels of luxury at top American/European chains now equal those of the Hong Kong/Chinese companies. And besides, I will take Indian hospitality over Asian hospitality any day.

Indian service is usually superior to Asian service because A) English is not a problem; most staff at Indian hotels can communicate well with foreign visitors. B) Indian staff have more initiative and discretion. When things go wrong, they can think on their feet and provide solutions. C) Indian managers are among the best in the world. You don’t have to take my word for it. Consider how even the big American companies are increasingly using local managers in India whereas they prefer to despatch expatriates to the rest of Asia. Or just calculate how many Indians occupy senior posts at global hotel companies. No other Asian country even comes close to india when it comes to providing managerial talent.

So yes, I admire Asian hospitality. It raised levels of luxury in the hotel business. And some Asian companies are among the world’s best.

But no, I don’t think we, in India, have anything to be embarrassed about. Indian hospitality and service can be among the best in the world.

First Published: Apr 25, 2018 11:52 IST