Every hotelier will spend this New Year’s Eve Weekend in a state of dread. After the deadly Delta-led second wave passed, life was only just returning to normal. Occupancies were going up, restaurants were full, the wedding market was booming and it looked as though the worst was behind us.
Now, with the Omicron threat, hoteliers are nervous about what the future holds. For many of them, the concerns are personal as well as corporate. During the pandemic, many hotels cut salaries. At some hotels, staff were not paid for several months. And some properties laid off people permanently.
But through it all, you had to admire India’s hotel sector for still putting up a brave face and for working hard to help those worst affected by the pandemic. India’s hotels did a stellar job of providing meals and shelter to those in need, often at a time when they themselves were running at huge losses and their staff were struggling to make ends meet. But because we associate the sector with glamour, hoteliers have never got the credit they deserve.
For part of 2020, I was grounded. But in 2021, I made a conscious attempt to travel for the sake of my mental health. In the early months of the pandemic, flights had been halted and even when they resumed, I was reluctant to get on a plane and stuck to destinations I could drive to.
Later, I overcame those reservations but travel abroad was limited because it was hard to go to the West, the East was shut (it is now nearly two years since I went to Thailand; a personal record), and all you could do was travel to short-haul international destinations. So, I went to the Maldives three times, to Sri Lanka and to Dubai twice.
Watching our hotels cope with the new post-Covid reality taught me certain things. One of them was the adaptability and resilience of the Indian hotel sector. Take the Oberoi Vilas properties, among the finest resorts in the world. They were built by Biki Oberoi with foreign tourists in mind. So, I wondered: how would they cope with the total absence of international tourism?
As it turned out, they coped extremely well and were often so full that you had to book weeks ahead to get a room. Subtle changes in the service design made the hotels friendlier to domestic tourists. The butlers were more visible. Housekeeping spent longer in each room. The chefs offered many more Indian cuisine menu items. More whisky was consumed; wine sales went down. Indian guests tended to spend much more time in the hotel than foreigners did, so Oberoi General Managers changed their systems to account for this.
The original idea when the Vilases were built had been to serve very good food at simple dining room-type restaurants. But over the last few years, the Vilases have become centres of gastronomic excellence. Jaydeep Patil at Oberoi Rajvilas is one of India’s best chefs and I have never had a meal overseen by Arjun Singh Yadava at Amarvilas that has been less than excellent.
The pandemic period proved that domestic tourism had finally come of age. Like Europe or America, we can manage reasonably well without tourists from outside.
It was boom time for all resorts as Indians began holidaying with a vengeance. ITC, which most of us respect for its city hotels, found that its resorts suddenly became huge profit centres. The ITC Grand Bharat in Manesar, built with conferences in mind, became the hottest resort in the area with high average rates and full occupancies. (I tried to book for this New Year weekend. But when I called, five months ago, they were already sold out.) ITC took over the old Park Hyatt in Goa (which I had often called ‘the worst Park Hyatt in the world’ in this column) and completely turned it around. Even though renovations were in progress when I went in July, it was easily the best Goa hotel I have stayed at in a long time. Clearly, Nakul Anand’s strategy of broadening ITC Hotels’ range is paying off.
Other resorts were as surprising. I had always rated the Leela Palace Udaipur as the best value of the city’s three great hotels. (Udaivilas, the Lake Palace and the Leela) but a new chef (Simranjit Singh Thapar) has given it an edge. The Leela Jaipur, a property I knew very little about, turned out to have forty villas with private pools at rates that were lower than the Rambagh. In Mussoorie, I was impressed by the excellence of the food and service of the JW Marriott which was run to the highest standards by Sachin Mylavarapu. In Chennai, the Taj Fisherman’s Cove continued to be an old favourite.
Food and beverage was often the key to success. City hotels thrived when they managed to serve good food. The Oberoi Mumbai is still India’s best city hotel both because Udiksha Panshikar runs it so well and because Satbir Bakshi is a very good chef. In Delhi, Anupam Dasgupta (who Udiksha took over from) has turned the Leela Palace into the city’s best hotel, at least partly because he is so focussed on the restaurants. The big ticket hiring of Sameer Sehgal as the hotel’s F&B supremo is a sign of how serious the Leela is.
In Chennai, the precedent-setting ITC Grand Chola remains the best hotel in town because it has Avartana (which has done for modern South Indian food what Bukhara did for kababs). Even the nigiri sushi at the otherwise unexceptional Pan Asian at the Grand Chola was easily the best in South India.
In Mumbai, the Four Seasons would not be such a good option in a crowded market were it not for Anupam Gulati’s food. In Delhi, it is Nitesh Gandhi’s emphasis on the restaurants and on banqueting that has turned the JW Marriott into the best hotel in the area. The Maurya will always tower over other Delhi hotels as long as it has Bukhara and Dum Pukht. In Delhi, it’s the food that keeps me going back again and again to the Hyatt Regency.
Cuisine remains the easiest way to turn a hotel around. None of the various avatars of the Shangri La in Delhi worked till the hotel opened the excellent Shang Palace and the Italian Sorrento. Good hotels recognised how crucial F&B is. At Delhi’s Hyatt Regency, the management made a special effort to bring its gifted Chinese chef Zhang Hongsheng back to the China Kitchen because regulars missed his food. It honoured legendary Chef D Bungla by naming its gluten-free bread after him.The Lodhi hotel in Delhi has been revived by Rajesh Namby by getting the best out of low-profile but talented chefs.
Of course, there is still work to be done. In Mumbai, the fast-growing BKC area needs a luxury hotel. Our resorts pale in comparison to those in the Maldives; Goa looks like a very poor cousin. But what there is no getting around is this: the hotel industry faced its biggest challenge yet. It fought back magnificently. And it made India proud.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, January 2, 2022
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