Luxury Hotels in India
Five-star hotels with pedigrees in India offer extraordinary hospitality.
“An ancient cultural protocol of equating the guest with God differentiates India from the rest of the globe,” says Raymond Bickson, CEO of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces. Indeed, the hospitality business in India has opened its arms to global travelers—including the recent influx of business travelers—with properties and services that are uniquely Indian and unrivaled worldwide.
Business travel in India has grown from an $11 billion industry to $23 billion in the past decade. The country’s tourism ministry projections show that by 2015, India will have more than a quarter-million luxury hotel rooms, with luxury commanding a whopping 48 percent of total demand. That’s when leading U.S. hoteliers will debut and announce top-end brands, such as the W and Conrad. Right now they offer only upscale Hiltons, Sheratons and midmarket offerings such as Aloft (see sidebar).
Even without a Waldorf Astoria or a Mandarin Oriental, India has one of the world’s most unusual luxury hotel landscapes. Brands such as Oberoi, Taj, Leela, the ITC Luxury Collection and the Park—built by a league of Indian hoteliers—are now ranked among the globe’s best. Last year, American readers of Travel + Leisure rated the Oberoi’s Vanyavilas, in Ranthambhore, as the world’s best hotel. In the past 10 years, Bengaluru hotels alone have hosted more than 100 visiting heads of state in the global IT capital. Like the two most recent American presidents before him, Barack Obama chose to stay at the ITC Maurya, New Delhi and dine at the Bukhara, India’s most internationally awarded restaurant. (The Presidential Platter, commemorating Bill Clinton’s 2006 visit, has been ordered by more than 10,000 diners.)
Smoothing Transportation Bumps
India’s trillion-dollar economy has America, Inc., jetting in—but things choke up after the visitors arrive. Executives who get caught in intense traffic, a symptom of India’s 8.5 percent growth, can lose time, patience and the determination to clinch their next deal in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Each month, the capital alone adds 5,000 cars to its already clogged roads. But rather than throw up their hands in defeat, Indian luxury hoteliers are fixing these fault lines.
The Taj’s fleet of quiet Falcon jets, equipped with a satellite phone and office essentials, is available to fly you in from a meeting in Germany or Shanghai. ITC’s rooftop helipads enable you to land directly atop your hotel in Bengaluru or Chennai. When the Leela Palace Kempinski’s chauffeur closes your limo door in Bengaluru, you’ll find yourself in a GPS-tracked office, complete with cell phone, laptop chargers and a menu. The Park Hotel, Hyderabad offers a work desk and a prop-up bed-desk. At all Oberois, the butler hands over an airport departure form, with all your details filled in neatly, before you leave to catch your flight home.
All the Amenities
Each luxury brand (with rooms priced at $450–800 per night) offers butlers trained to Buckingham Palace standards. They unpack bags, unobtrusively refresh cappuccinos during in-room meetings and arrange for yacht rides. When the guestroom phone rings, in-room intuitive technology silences the TV. Onsite spas ease chaos with calming, 5,000-year-old ayurvedic treatments. In the lobby, concierges with gold keys (awarded by elite organization Les Clefs d’Or) displayed on their lapels offer meaningful details about selecting pashminas and Makaibari tea.
Each hotel offers a distinct suite of leisure and business experiences. Since 1903, when India’s flagship Taj Mahal Palace hotel debuted in Mumbai, the Taj has been “reinventing tradition.” Last year, in Hyderabad, India’s second Silicon Valley, the Taj Group unveiled its 26th luxury property, the opulently refurbished Taj Falaknuma Palace. Inside is the world’s longest dining table, set in a hall of astounding acoustics. A CEO’s proclamation can glide down the 98-foot royal table and reach the 101st guest without the help of a mike.
Both these Taj hotels belong to the $64 billion Tata Group, whose worldly acquisitions (including Jaguar–Land Rover) make business headlines. The chain has five Masala restaurants, where contemporary Indian cuisine is cooked in heart-friendly olive oil upon request. Soon American guests will wake up to the familiar smell of Starbucks (courtesy of a joint venture with Tata Coffee, Asia’s largest publicly traded coffee grower).
With more women flying in on business trips, the ITC group has created EVA, a dedicated floor or wing for single female travelers with gender-conscious services. Luggage is unpacked by female butlers, and complimentary cocktails and canapés are served on the EVA floor each evening. And if you wish to step out in a traditional Indian sari, your butler can have a blouse stitched to order and book reliable transport to take you to a bazaar.
Eco-consciousness is also brewing. “Almost 70 percent of Americans choose hotels based on environment friendliness,” notes Nakul Anand, executive director of ITC. Responsible luxury is the credo at all eight ITC-branded hotels, which set an eco-trend by merging indulgence and sustainability. Rather than burden guests with dos and don’ts about showers and fresh linens, the group has greened its energy, supply and vendor chain.
Today ITC Sonar Kolkata is the world’s first hotel with carbon credits, and the ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru is the world’s largest hotel with a platinum eco-rating from the international Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) organization. “We get the maximum kudos from Americans,” says Anand. Cisco was the first company to partner with Gardenia’s Green Banquets, which cut farm-to-fork distance to 60 miles.
As India prospers, new El Dorados have also drawn Americans. NH6, a busy highway, connects Delhi with Gurgaon, the India headquarters of Coke, Motorola, Gillette and Deloitte. The newly opened Oberoi, Gurgaon, though located in this concrete jungle, is hidden in a custom-built forest. Its 189-square-foot guestrooms are among the largest offered by any city hotel in the world.
Vikram Oberoi, COO of the Oberoi Group—which has 18 Indian and international luxury properties—knows the angel is in details. “Every hotel can have 24-hour spas, fitness and business centers. Ultimately, it’s care that every guest remembers,” he says.
Recently, an alert Oberoi housekeeper saw a wastebasket filled with tissues and realized a guest had a cold. Replacing the tissue box was standard, but what happened next was not. She also left a lime juice, ginger and honey drink for the guest, along with this handwritten note: “This is an Indian remedy for a cold. Get well soon.”
American travelers have become part of today’s hotel blueprint. “We are tuned into offering the highest levels of comfort,” says Rajiv Kaul, president of the Leela Group. “Americans prefer air-conditioning, even in the Indian winter [Europeans prefer ambient temperatures]. At the Leela Palace Kempinski, New Delhi, we installed a four-pipe system that offers air-conditioning or heating.” Other hotels offer just one option. The Leela, Delhi, the group’s seventh luxury property, built at a cost of $405 million, is one of India’s most expensive.
An Entrée Into Local Culture
All Leela city hotels ease executives into the business environment with a weekly cocktail gathering hosted by the general manager, “so guests can meet, mingle and share insider’s tips about Indian culture, politics and bureaucracy,” says Kaul. Long-stay guests are also invited to roll up their sleeves and come to the show kitchens, where chefs demonstrate basic tandoori and intricate curries.
After-hours are anything but an afterthought at the Park Hotels’ nine properties. As younger CEOs began entering their lobbies, leisure got rebooted. As Priya Paul, chair of the chain, says: “When we started reconfiguring our hotels in the ’90s, we realized businesspeople wanted many more dimensions to their stay.”
Paul has capitalized on the most centrally located properties by turning them into funky, contemporary cocoons with strong design narratives. “We commission artists to create anything from a chair to an ashtray,” she says. This has turned the Parks into throbbing Indian modern-art museums by day and buzzing nightclubs after sundown. The group partners with the India Art Summit to offer guests an in to the next big boom: modern Indian art.
As the southern city of Chennai becomes the “Detroit of Asia” with a thriving auto industry, major hotels are creating capacity. The 204-key Hilton and the 600-key ITC Grand Chola are both close to the Olympia Tech Park. Like all ITC properties, the Chola, which opens this September, offers guests a place to sleep with Six Sigma quality standards. Says Anand, “Sleep is the core product we sell.” Under his watch, ITC has scientifically studied slumber. In addition to beds, researchers factored in sun level, the touch and feel of the bedsheets, lumens of light, the hum of the air-conditioning and the carpet odor.
So when you land at the Chola helipad, you can look forward to an ancient Indian feast and a deep sleep. Then, in the morning, you can follow the money.
International Hotels Land in India
Any hotel loyalist knows that familiarity is your best weapon against the dark. It helps you hit the light switch without spilling your glass of water on your cell phone, and it can get you from the bed to the bathroom without stubbing a toe. As Rajesh Punjabi, VP of India development for Hilton Worldwide, explains: “International travelers are acclimatized to our brands.” Right now, he’s building this acclimatization in India. “Our goal is to have more than 50 hotels, representing at least six of our nine brands.” So far, seven properties represent the Hilton, Garden Inn and DoubleTree brands in India.
Growth Opportunities Seen
Global hospitality leader Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide is on track to open its 50th hotel in India by 2012, with upscale Le Meridiens, Sheratons and Westins in Indian cities. Key openings this year include the Sheraton, Bengaluru and Le Meridien, Coimbatore, also in southern India. At an industry conference in New Delhi, Starwood’s worldwide president and CEO, Frits van Paasschen, announced that “India is second only to China in terms of our future global growth.”
As we speak, each brand is carefully calibrating its India strategy. Walk into any of the five Westins in India and you’ll get a whiff of the brand’s signature scent, White Tea, as well as a trademarked Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Shower. The meeting rooms are “clutter free”—just the same as any Westin, anywhere in the world.
Local Touches Add Appeal
It’s only when you step out of the Westin Gurgaon (locally owned by the Vatika Group) that you spot the difference. This hotel offers complimentary red-and-white-painted Radio Tuk Tuks, three-wheelers that ferry guests to the nearby mall and the Kingdom of Dreams, a live entertainment and leisure arcade specializing in Bollywood musicals.
Hilton India has also been tweaking its product for customers. The Hilton Garden Inn in Delhi has only one eatery, a restaurant-bar called the India Grill. After successful testing, VP Punjabi says, “we are taking this customized restaurant to all Garden Inns in India.”
Luxury Brands Slower To Grow
Currently, presence in the luxury sector is small for non-Indian companies, and growth has been almost sluggish. Canadian hospitality leader Four Seasons opened its Mumbai property in 2008, with a Bengaluru hotel under development and a Delhi property that will be operational by 2014. Starwood recently announced that a W will debut in 2015 in the iconic Namaste Tower in central Mumbai, though the company is keeping mum about an opening date for a St. Regis. Midmarket brands such as Aloft and Four Points by Sheraton are expected to drive Starwood’s portfolio growth.
So, too, at the Hilton, where an HHonors card might buy you a room at the Conrad sometime in 2015. Right now, Hilton India is focusing on diversity before ushering in luxury. Consider the numbers: India’s middle class is on the move; 150 million Indians travel each year within the country. They will all appreciate a clean, efficient and budget-friendly hotel—and a menu that has both pizza and tandoori chicken.