The Taste With Vir: Hoteliering is all about faceless branding these days; the great hoteliers are forgotten
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi opines how nobody remembers Conrad or Barron Hilton who created modern hoteliering. Not even their own companies. As hotel groups grow in size they forget their founders and history. They become faceless corporations.Updated: Sep 26, 2019, 14:43 IST
I am writing this from Glasgow, in a room at a hotel called the Kimpton. You probably haven’t heard of this Kimpton (or of any other Kimptons) but I am pretty sure you will in the years to come.
The original Kimpton chain was a collection of boutique hotels around America run by a man called Kimpton. Which is how I always thought of them: as American boutique hotels.
But, it turns out, a few years ago, IHG, the company that now owns InterContinental and Holiday Inn, swooped in and bought the chain. So there will now be Kimptons all over the world. This particular Kimpton is only a few months old. Everyone in Glasgow (where it is one of the city’s top hotels and is run by a first rate team) still calls it The Blythswood Square Hotel though, I imagine, as time passes on, it will be better known by its new name.
There are new Kimptons coming up all over the world and the chain will become IHG’s attempt to take on Andaz and the independent boutique hotel companies. Over time, memories of William Kimpton, who founded the original company, will fade.
The imminent eventual fate of Mr Kimpton reminded me of the Hiltons. While flying into Glasgow, I read about the death of Barron Hilton. I doubt if anyone remembers who he was now, other than his notoriety as the grandfather of Paris Hilton.
Barron was the son of Conrad Hilton who founded the Hilton chain and took American-style hoteliering to the rest of the world. He was his father’s chosen successor and though he could not stop Conrad from making mistakes (the old man foolishly sold Hilton International to TWA before Barron bought it back decades later and reunited it with the US company), he pioneered the Hilton group’s move into Las Vegas and turned it into the greatest hotel company in the world.
The Hiltons no longer own any part of Hilton. They sold it to Blackrock and though the family had longed to keep the name alive, Blackrock has shown no such enthusiasm. The Conrad Hotels, all over the world, for instance, were Barron’s creation. After the family lost control of the Hilton name in overseas markets, he opened new international hotels (run by Hilton US) and called them Conrad.
After the US and the global chains folded into one, Conrad became just another Hilton brand with no real mention of the man who created the chain. Nobody cares now that it was named for Conrad Hilton.
I guess that it is pretty much the trend in American hospitality. There is no real sense in which hotels still acknowledge the impact of the men who built the great hospitality companies. Nearly all of the founders have been forgotten.
Sometimes the old hotel companies were bought over and their legacies erased. The old Starwood was a conglomerate of hospitality brands acquired without any logic and a few created through imitation (such as the W chain). It had no guiding philosophy and no face.
Marriott, on the other hand, was a family-run business. But after the merger with Starwood I suspect that Marriott has now become too huge to be run like a family company. It is a professionally managed operation run for the benefit of shareholders ever since Bill Marriott stepped down as CEO.
IHG, itself, grew out of Holiday Inn, a company founded by Kemmons Wilson who imposed his own stamp on the brand. In 1972 he was famous enough to land on the cover of Time magazine as “The World’s Innkeeper.” In 1988, a British beer company called Bass bought the brand and more or less stamped out its origin story. Nobody remembers who Wilson was.
Even InterContinental, the other significant component of IHG, was one of the world’s pioneering hotel companies. It was owned by Pan Am and every time the airline flew to a new destination it launched a glamorous new InterContinental Hotel. The brand is dead now in India which is sad because it had a seminal role to play in the growth of our hotel industry. The Delhi Oberoi opened as an InterContinental in 1965 as did the new Taj in Mumbai in 1972.
Brands do matter in the hotel business. But I get the feeling that the founders matter less and less. People don’t necessarily want to know about the guys who created the companies. Most Indians admire the Hyatt brand (though it has got a little more low-profile these days) but do we know that it is a family-run company owned by the Pritzkers? Do we care who owns the French Accor, one of the largest operators of hotels in India?
Nor do brands always matter as much in India as they do abroad. Hilton has tried to make it in India so often that it is almost a running joke in the industry. The first Bombay Hilton project in the mid Sixties ground to a halt because somebody from headquarters thought the sea at Worli had a nasty smell. (It did.) An association with the Tatas to take over the Mumbai Taj failed. A deal with DLF fell through. An association with the Oberois ended badly. A deal with Lalit Suri collapsed.
It is now the kind of brand that people in the business may talk about but which most Indians only associate with a few mid-market hotels. I wonder what poor old Barron Hilton would have made of that.
It could be that the Indian scene is different because we have always had total continuity in our own hotel chains. The Oberois stand for three generations of hospitality without interruption. ITC Hotels has had the same owners from the time it was founded. The Taj has always built on the values of the Tata group. And till it changed hands, a few months ago, the Leela chain embodied the vision of one man: Captain Krishnan Nair.
Abroad, you find these kinds of associations only in a few high-end hotels or in the boutique sector where hoteliers like Andre Balazs and Ian Schrager are legends. But even in such cases, continuity of ownership matters less and less.The Aman group flourishes even without Adrian Zecha, who created it. There are no faces associated with Mandarin Oriental. Even Michael Kadoorie of Peninsula is not a household name outside the business.
Similarly, does anyone know who owns Ritz Carlton? (It is Marriott.) Does the Four Seasons still have Isadore Sharp’s touch? I don’t know.
But of two things, I have no doubt. Indians still like the sense of personalized hospitality and continuity.
And two: this may change. With the kind of marketing muscle that Marriott is displaying in the Indian market these days, its hotels are leaving established Indian brands panting as they try to keep up.
Perhaps, in India too hoteliering will become more about marketing than hospitality.
It is the way of the world.
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