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The hotels built in the Seventies and Eighties are in trouble

At the end of last year, the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai celebrated 125 years of its existence.

For a grand hotel like the Taj, history is a distinct advantage. It is the same story with say, The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata or the West End in Bangalore. Old hotels have a certain charm and guests like the idea of staying at a hotel that received guests through the centuries.


So, even hotels that are not really that old pretend that their history dates back decades. The Oriental in Bangkok likes to suggest that it was around when Joseph Conrad was travelling through Asia. And indeed there was a hotel on that site. But today’s Oriental consists of two modern tower blocks and a small ‘historical’ wing which houses a few suites and a tea room. So it is with Raffles in Singapore which had a glorious history but re-opened after extensive refurbishment a few decades ago as a sort of theme park version of a historical hotel with vast areas devoted to tourists and casual visitors. When I was last in Singapore, Raffles had closed again for renovation and I have no idea how the new avatar will preserve the “historic hotel” image.


   Sometimes old hotels try and expand in a way that does not encroach on the legacy.  The Peninsula in Hong Kong has added new structures that merge smoothly with the original building. Most palace hotels have carefully concealed modern structures. When the Taj took over Udaipur’s Lake Palace, it built new floors and added around fifty rooms (doubling the hotel’s existing capacity) so skilfully that most visitors to the property believe that all of the hotel is centuries old. (Nobody tells them that half the rooms are located in structures built in the 1970s.)


   But while the grand historic hotels can get away with pretty much anything, it is the hotels built in the last third of the 20th Century that face the most difficulty. When the global hotel explosion began in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, notions of luxury were very different. The new hotels (usually run by American brands) focussed on building great public areas with lots of restaurants and worked on the assumption that guests would spend relatively little time in their rooms and certainly, very little time in the bathroom.


   By the late 1980s, that conception of luxury had been overturned. Guests began to regard large rooms as an integral component of deluxe hotels. Whereas once, a modern luxury hotel room could be 25 square metres, guests now expected 40 to 50 square metres or nearly double the size.


   Within the trade, the bathroom came to be seen as the real indicator of luxury.  The larger the bathroom, the more luxurious the hotel. Bathroom fittings also became a luxury parameter. A true luxury hotel had to have a large shower stall, a separate bathtub and, if possible, two sinks. Gone were the days, when a hotel could offer one sink and a shower on top of a small bath-tub and still claim to be a luxury property.


   The new wave of luxury hotels that opened all over the world from the mid-1980s onwards (in India, The Oberoi, Bombay, was the first of this new generation), made the existing so-called luxury hotels seem cheap and downmarket.


   In London, the Hilton on Park Lane had been regarded as one of the smarter places to stay. As the newer hotels opened, the Hilton slipped down to the middle of the market. The Intercontinental next door which opened in the mid 1970s, was already out of date by the mid-1980s. It is now easily the worst London hotel I have ever stayed in. So it was with the Sheraton Park Tower, a landmark building when it opened in the 1970s – it now feels (from the inside) like a Holiday Inn in a suburb of Riyadh.


   Some London hotels tried to adapt. The Inn on the Park used to get lower rates than the Hilton next door.  But it closed, was completely rebuilt from inside and re-opened as the Four Seasons. It now gets rates that are double those of the London Hilton. Some did not care. The Londonderry, on the same stretch of Park Lane, was pulled down and re-opened as the Metropolitan.


   In Paris, the old Hilton which had once been the first stop for visiting American executives went steadily downmarket to the extent that it is now not a Hilton at all but is run by Accor to much lower standards as a mid-market Pullman. The Oberois came to the same conclusion about the Oberoi Sheraton in Mumbai (opened in 1973); it went through many name changes before becoming a Trident, the Oberoi group’s second brand.


"The Bangkok hotel that has always fascinated me was built as the Peninsula, then became The Regent in the 1980s, changed its name to the Four Seasons in the 1990s and is now run by its owner Bill Heinecke as part of his Anantara group." 

   In a sense, the Taj has done that too. The new wing of the Mumbai Taj (built in 1972) is now pretty much the low-budget option. Guests in the old wing even have their own check-in, separate from the tower wing. The President (opened as an independent property in 1973 and then taken over by the Taj) is now in the awkward position where it is not a luxury hotel but still wants to position itself higher than the middle of the market.


   In Delhi, the much-loved Taj Mansingh has small 1978-style rooms but because of the uncertainty over the lease (now sorted out) the Taj has been unable to do very much about the dated nature of the accommodation. Perhaps it will do so now. ITC has turned the Maurya into three distinct hotels. There is the main hotel, which betrays its 1970s origins, then there is the Tower wing which is a later construction and finally there is ITC One, which is a luxury product.


   At the Oberoi group, the Chairman, Bikki Oberoi, always worried about running the Delhi Oberoi as a luxury property because it was designed in the early 1960s and the rooms were tiny. Finally, he closed it down, reduced the number of rooms, increased the size of the average room and re-opened it as a luxury property last January.


   In Bangkok, the same sort of turmoil has affected the hotels built in the 1970s. The old Siam Intercontinental had huge grounds but small rooms. A decade ago, the owners pulled it down, built the more modern Siam Kempinski and turned the grounds into the Siam Paragon mall. I gather the Dusit Thani, which is of similar vintage will also be pulled down. The old Hilton is now a hospital because it did not work as a hotel in today’s market.


   The Bangkok hotel that has always fascinated me was built as the Peninsula, then became The Regent in the 1980s, changed its name to the Four Seasons in the 1990s and is now run by its owner Bill Heinecke as part of his Anantara group. (Heinecke also owns the modern deluxe hotel next door but lets Marriott run it for him as a St Regis.)


   I stayed there just after the Four Seasons had given it up and found it unchanged. But when I went back for Christmas last year, I expected to find some drop in quality. (After all, the Four Seasons is the Four Seasons.) In fact, I enjoyed my time there more than I ever had when it was the Four Seasons.


   It is an old hotel, part of an earlier generation but because it was built as a Peninsula, rooms are large. Even so, I wondered how they got guests to stay there, when apart from the St. Regis, there is an excellent Grand Hyatt and a new Waldorf Astoria on the same street.


   The answer was personalisation. They made it a point to know everyone’s name. When I went to check in, the bellboys greeted me by name. The lobby usually had some senior member of the staff on duty, greeting guests and checking that everything was fine. The service and food were both good (which they were, to be fair, even when the hotel was the Regent and the Four Seasons) but there was a certain warmth to the hospitality which you don’t find at the newer, fancier, Bangkok hotels.


   Bangkok was a transit halt.  I was on my way to the Hua Hin Anantara (hence the choice of Anantara in Bangkok too). In hotel terms this property faces a far greater problem than the Bangkok Anantara. It was built 25 years ago when the modern resort had not been invented. Moreover, Thai Tourism does little to push Hua Hin (a seaside town) and the local hotel industry makes much of its money from large Indian weddings.


   I am not necessarily a fan of the modern beach resort (give me Chennai’s Fisherman’s Cove over some brand new Goa property, for instance). What I look for in a vacation hotel is a sense of peace along with great hospitality. The Hua Hin hotel had both but, even more than the Bangkok hotel, it had personalisation --- carried to levels I have never encountered before.


   The hotel has an in-house artist who will go to your room before your arrival and paint a portrait of you (they look for your photos on social media) on a mirror. I was stunned to see that when I arrived but not as stunned as I was when they sneaked in and did a new painting for each of the three days I was there. The rest of the personalisation (bathrobes, pillows, welcome amenities, even a small ceramic elephant with my face on its side etc.), I had seen at other hotels before but what struck me about the Anantara, Hua Hin was how everyone at the hotel always seemed to be trying harder to make the experience more special.


   And that, I think is the quality that makes a hotel stay memorable. Despite its small rooms and the problems it has faced, the Taj Mansingh seems like a luxury property because its General Manager Satyajeet Krishnan never allows his staff to stop trying. It was the same at The Oberoi New Delhi, before the renovation where Jay Rathore never let luxury standards fall despite the hotel’s physical limitations. The reason the Oriental in Bangkok with its ugly tower blocks used to be regarded as one of the world’s great hotels was because its legendary General Manager Kurt Wachtveitl ensured that the moment you walked into the hotel you felt special.


   So it was with these two Thai hotels, the general managers, Patrick Both in Bangkok and Manish Jha in Hua Hin, both make you feel that the whole hotel exists only to serve you.


   So yes, the hotels built in the Seventies and Eighties are in trouble. But a good general manager can guarantee the one thing that is more important than large rooms or fancy bathrooms: great hospitality.


   Because, ultimately, that is what the hotel business is about.


Posted On: 12 Jan 2019 03:00 PM
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