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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The Mumbai floods remind us that sometimes, 5 star hotels can be inclusive

5 star hotels are known for the exclusivity, but the Mumbai floods have reminded Vir Sanghvi of the two occasions when they opened their doors to the stranded.

vir sanghvi Updated: Aug 31, 2017 16:43 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Vir Sanghvi,The Taste with Vir Sanghvi,Mumbai Floods
A file photo of the Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway of India in Mumbai.(Santosh Harhare/HT Photo)

Let’s face it, five star hotels are not meant to be inclusive or egalitarian. They are expensive and most people cannot afford them. And yet there are times when hotels can rise above their everyday roles and help people in times of crisis. I have two memories that have stayed with me.

The first relates to the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. I worked in Calcutta in those days. The Ananda Bazar Patrika office was in the centre of the city and to get home I had to drive through Chowringhee, Calcutta’s most famous main street. My car had just entered Chowringhee when we noticed that a mob was rioting in the middle of the road, burning cars and assaulting passersby.

The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata.

It was too late to turn back but my driver, with great presence of mind, turned left and drove into the Oberoi Grand. The hotel staff knew that there was violence on the main road and had deployed security guards all around the property. So they were surprised to see me walk into the lobby.

I explained that there was no way I could get home. Not to worry, they said. They had room availability. And without asking me to check in, submit a credit card or anything, they led to me a room. They found accommodation for my driver too. As the evening went on, other shell-shocked people sought refuge at the Grand. Not one of them was turned away.

We stayed at the Grand for a few days till things returned to normal. The staff had no way of getting home either so they stayed at the hotel too. There were no supplies of fresh food or drink but they managed somehow. In that pre-mobile phone era, many members of staff were unable to contact their own families (Calcutta’s landline phone system was notoriously bad). But they put aside their own concerns and looked after guests.

A few days later, when things returned to normal, we left the Grand. The hotel sent the bill for my stay to Ananda Bazar Patrika (who, to their credit, paid it without asking a single question.) But many of the others who had sought shelter were not charged at all.

Twenty-five years later, the Grand is still my favourite hotel in Calcutta. It epitomises the warmth and generousness that Calcutta is famous for.

A second memory relates to 2005 when Mumbai was flooded out and several people died. I was working out of the old HT office in Mahim and when the rain got too much, decided that it made sense to head to the Grand Hyatt, where I was staying. I wrote in detail about the experience at the time but essentially what happened was this: All the routes were blocked by cars that had broken down in the waterlogged streets so my taxi-driver and I got out and started walking even as the rain pelted down with a terrifying intensity.The water level continued to rise and by the time I got near the Hyatt, I was only able to breathe if I stood on tip toe because the water level had reached my face. At one stage I even began to wonder if I would make it out of the flood alive. (I later discovered that people did drown; it was a full fledged flood.)

The Grand Hyatt in Mumbai.

When I got to the Hyatt I asked them to find a room for my taxi-driver which they did. But I was more impressed by the way in which the hotel had placed beach loungers, mattresses, blankets, towels and the like in the lobby. Anyone who wanted shelter at the Hyatt was welcome. Later, as the crowds grew, they opened up a banquet room and served coffee and sandwiches to everyone free of charge.

Till that point, I had not been a great fan of the Grand Hyatt. (A decade ago, it was a strange, cold, impersonal hotel; it has only become a very good hotel in the last few years.) But I was staggered by the manner in which the staff rose to the occasion. Not one person was turned away. And not one member of staff slept that night.

There were horror stories about other hotels in suburban Mumbai. (South Mumbai received much less rain that day.) Some had increased their rates to make money out of the crisis. A few of those huddled at the Grand Hyatt told me how they had been thrown out by the Intercontinental, near the airport. (That hotel has since ceased to be an Intercontinental.)

Why bother to say you are in the hospitality industry, I thought to myself, if you behave like this? The mark of a good hotel is not how it treats guests in good times but how it behaves in times of crisis.

I thought back to those 2005 floods when I read a shocking Facebook post from Yogi Trivedi, Adjunct Professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. Trivedi was in Mumbai, with his students on the day of the latest floods and was booked at the Intercontinental on Marine Drive. Though the floods of 2017 were nowhere near as bad as the killer floods of 2005, many people were still stranded in the city.

Trivedi and his students were told that there were no rooms for them at the Intercontinental, because, he says, the hotel had to make “room for local politicians and government officials” though he had been assured that rooms would be kept for them.Trivedi complained to the Operations Manager. According to his post, the Operations Manager replied, “That’s how it is. It’s all about the revenue. I don’t care what my staff promised you. That’s not how it works. We have given your rooms away. It is how we make a buck.”

His students, cold and wet from the rain, huddled in the lobby. The hotel staff, he says, “on his (the Operations Manager) orders refused to offer the students a pillow or a blanket. Heck, not even a towel to cover themselves as they slept.”

Trivedi was angry but helpless. He writes that he will never be “able to talk of Indian hospitality in that light again. My image of it in this context has been shattered to pieces.”

The Intercontinental at Marine Drive, Mumbai.

The story was so horrifying that somebody picked it up from Facebook and tweeted it. Which is how I saw it. I tweeted how appalled I was and as others joined in we tweeted to Intercontinental, asking for a response. They must have their own version, I believed. But if there was, no clarification forthcoming. I tweeted, we would assume the story was true. Why would students from the Columbia School of Journalism try to malign the Intercontinental for no reason at all?

There was no response from Intercontinental. Not even one tweet.

By this stage, the story had gone viral. There was a full-fledged social media storm. Angry tweeters demanded an explanation. We got nothing.

Then, the story hit the websites. The Quint reported that it had also got no response from the hotel.

Several hours after the social media uproar had been raging,Intercontinental finally tweeted to deny everything -- in general terms.( They also responded to The Quint.)

No guest with a confirmed reservation had been turned away, they insisted. There were no politicians in the hotel that night. Guests who huddled in the lobby had been looked after.

Why had they taken ten hours to get this explanation together?

They were doing due diligence, they said.

Which may have worked as an excuse except that Trivedi had been tweeting to them in real time and they had been replying to him. And he had been posting photos of his students, huddled uncomfortably in the lobby on social media.

So why wait so long before even acknowledging the huge social media storm?

No idea.

But this, for what it’s worth, is their eventual response. It is possible they are right and that the professor and his students lied and made the whole thing up.

I leave it to you to decide.

Fortunately other hotels covered themselves in glory on that day. The Hyatt Regency (a different hotel from the Grand Hyatt where I stayed in 2005) offered shelter to anyone who wanted it providing blankets, towels, free water, coffee, etc. It even laid on a free shuttle service to the airport for those who were stranded.

The Hyatt Regency in Mumbai.

The Sofitel closed its speciality restaurants, ran a special 24-hour buffet at a much lower price than normal at the coffee shop and opened up its spa to anyone who wanted to spend the night – at no charge.

So I guess its wrong to tar all hotels with the same brush. Many rose to the occasion and helped people in need. They are the ones I will remember. As for those who did not, I will never stay in any of them ever again.

First Published: Aug 31, 2017 15:13 IST