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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The Sheratons and Hiltons can squat, but they’re being evicted

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about two styles of hoteliering - the traditional, and the chains.

more lifestyle Updated: Sep 13, 2017 09:02 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
The Taste with Vir Sanghvi,Vir Sanghvi,Vir Sanghvi Column
The Taj in Mumbai - The Taj Group has a mixed record in India, Vir says.

Only if you are above 50, will the name, Arthur Hailey, mean anything to you. But when I was at school, he was the bestselling author of his time churning out airport bestsellers with such titles as Airport, Wheels and Strong Medicine.

One such bestseller (from the Sixties) was called Hotel (later made into a really bad Hollywood movie with Rod Taylor and then, an even worse TV show). It told the story (and give me some leeway here: I am relying on my memory of something I read decades ago) of an old-style grand hotel in New Orleans that risked being taken over by a Conrad Hilton-like figure.

In this day and age, the battle between the old hotel and the modern chains may make less sense. But Hailey treated it as an epic clash of two styles of hoteliering. The guys who ran the Hotel of the title were the heroes, committed to upholding traditional notions of hoteliering. The villain was the guy who ran the Hilton-style hotel chain; he was portrayed as a fellow who would destroy the charm of the hotel and turn it into a room-factory. (In the book, the hotel was conveniently bought at the end by a Kindly Benefactor who saved it; in the movie, it was pulled down.)

There was a time in the Sixties when guests and hoteliers alike, made much of the distinction between grand hotels and American-style business hotels.

If you went to Paris, for instance, then there were only a few hotels that a discerning traveller could stay at: The Ritz, the Crillon, the Meurice, the George V and a few others. (The French media portrayed Hilton as a villain.) In London, it had to be the Savoy, the Ritz, the Berkeley, Claridges, The Connaught, Grosvenor House or the Dorchester. In New York, it was The Plaza, The Sherry Netherland, the St Regis, the Carlyle, The Pierre and a couple of others.

By the Seventies, however, the distinctions had begun to blur. In London, Trust Houses, which ran Grosvenor House, was taken over by a pushy entrepreneur called Charles Forte who pulled all its properties downmarket and, eventually, mostly wrecked them. (Forte tried to take over the Savoy group as well but failed, and eventually his own empire was taken over and sold off.)

The St Regis, once a hallmark of old New York, passed into the hands of the giant ITT corporation which added ‘Sheraton’ to its name, destroying, at a stroke, the distinction between the old grand hotels and the chain-run room-factories. (The Waldorf Astoria had been owned by Hilton for decades but the company had the sense not to add Hilton to its name.)

The Waldorf Astoria in New York City. ( Shutterstock )

Over time, the distinction between grand and new became less and less relevant as the newer luxury chains emerged:The Four Season, Ritz Carlton, etc. And then, when the designer/boutique hotels (the Ace, the Mercer, the Royalton, etc.) took over, the hotel world became much more complex.

But a funny thing has happened in the 21st Century. Guests want to stay in grand hotels again. They are fed up of identical modern hotels with no sense of place. The great American brands of the 1970s (Sheraton, Hilton, Intercontinental, etc.) have all been pushed into the mid-market category. Guests who can afford to pay luxury prices want hotels that are hip (the boutique hotels or Andaz or W) or those that seem special. Often, history is a huge plus. Newness can be a disadvantage.

One problem with the grand hotels of old was that they were not always efficiently run. The chain hotels may have lacked charm or class, but they were usually systems-driven. That problem has now been overcome in a variety of ways. Some are run by well-managed luxury mini-chains. The Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester Collection has Paris’s Plaza-Athenee and Meurice, Rome’s Eden, the eponymous Dorchester in London and a few more.

Other grand hotels are run by larger chains who, nevertheless, preserve their original character. Paris’s George V is now a Four Seasons. So is Lisbon’s The Ritz. The Ritz in Madrid is run by Mandarin Oriental as is London’s Hyde Park Hotel (one of the hotels that Charles Forte had nearly destroyed in his time). The Savoy in London is run by Fairmont. The Pierre in New York was run by the Four Seasons for a while before the Taj took over.

The Pierre in New York. ( Taj Hotels )

In today’s market, a grand hotel, especially one run to global luxury standards, can usually command a premium in the market. Visitors to Hong Kong like to say they stayed at the Peninsula or The Mandarin. In Bangkok, the Oriental remains the city’s most famous hotel. In Delhi, wealthy foreigners will gravitate towards The Imperial because of its history. If you can afford it, why would you stay at a Sheraton in Zurich when there is room at the Baur au Lac?

Except that not all grand hotels are really historical.The best example of a manufactured grand hotel is Bangkok’s The Oriental. There is a small historic wing (though this was largely rebuilt after a fire in the Seventies) but apart from that, the hotel consists of two modern tower blocks. And yet, it used to get away with selling itself as a heritage property because its legendary General Manager Kurt Wachtveitl believed he was running a European-style grand hotel. And because Kurt believed this so intensely, he made his staff believe it. From the moment you stepped into the Oriental, you felt you had been transported to a gentler era. (“Luxury is a dream,” Kurt once famously said.)

Unfortunately all this depends on the General Manager. Once Kurt retired, the Oriental lost its lustre. I’ve only stayed there once under the new regime and I won’t be going back. Many other guests I have spoken to echo this thought.

And the management has to work hard to keep the hotel competitive.Take The Oberoi Grand, one of the East’s great hotels. The Oberois took the property for granted and general managers spent all their time managing trade unions (this is Calcutta, after all) . Then the threat from the impending arrival of the Taj in 1987 forced them to get their act together and redo the hotel completely.The transformed Grand is still the best hotel in Calcutta, thirty years after the refit.

The Oberoi Grand in Calcutta.

Then there is Singapore’s Raffles, a genuinely old hotel with a history behind it. But when it re-opened in the 1990s, after renovations, it had been turned into a theme park, with storms of tourists rushing through the public areas and drinking Singapore Slings at a recreation of the famous Long Bar that would have made Walt Disney proud. I am told they are rethinking the concept again but for many guests --- myself included – Raffles is now a bit of a joke.

In India, our own Taj group has a mixed record. It renovated and refreshed the historic West End in Bangalore when it took it over from Spencer’s in the mid-1980s. But since then, it has never worried too much about it. The West End has acres and acres of gardens in the centre of Bangalore and less than a hundred rooms so it is potentially one of the world’s greatest hotels. But as long as the Taj gets reasonably high room rates, it doesn’t really care that the West End has dropped off everyone’s radar.

The Connemara, the greatest heritage hotel in Chennai was destroyed by the Taj’s vandalism. The chain took it over from Spencer’s and turned it into a business hotel first arguing, foolishly, that there was no room for another luxury hotel in Chennai (apart from their own Taj Coromandel) and then watching helplessly as the likes of the Park Hyatt and the Grand Chola came up. Now the Taj is finally renovating the Connemara and hopefully they will restore it to its rightful place.

The ITC Grand Chola in Chennai.

But mostly, grand hotels suffer from what I call the Kurt problem. Just as the Oriental depended too much on Kurt Wachtveitl’s role as General Manager, other hotels owe their success and failure to their managers. I doubt if Delhi’s Imperial could have been restored without Pierre Jochem. Mandarin Oriental turned the Hyde Park Hotel in London around because of Liam Lambert’s vision and skills. The Bombay Taj is always wobbly when its General Managers manage to survive only because they are favourites of the boss.

Which takes us back to Arthur Hailey. Would I stay in a grand hotel over a modern one? Yes, I think so. I would even pay more for a slice of history. And because I travel so much and am so fed up of cookie cutter hotels, I’ll take a hotel with character and a sense of place even if the service is not top-notch.The chains realise this. So Starwood turned St Regis into a brand, using the name for new hotels in the hope of borrowing some of the glory of the New York original. Likewise with Hilton and Waldorf Astoria.

But just ripping off the names is not enough. Hotels are meant to be experiences and expressions of heritage. A room factory can never be a great hotel. Fortunately, that’s a view that more and more people are coming around too, once again.

First Published: Sep 13, 2017 08:57 IST