Asia is the flavour of the decade: particularly South and South-East Asia.
Things are happening here. There is a churning, a frisson of uncertainty, that intrigues and allures. This sort of excitement bubbled up in Europe in the 15th Century, launching the great voyages of the ‘Age of Discovery.’ Much of this ferment has been spiked by the second and third generations of the Asian diaspora. Recently, we had a visit by distant relatives who had come questing for their roots and, with their parents as their guides to discover the places that they had heard about as children born in far-away places. It was a romantic, Never-Never Land, quest. So wreathed-in-wonder were their expectations that they viewed even the most irksome experiences, like a stubborn and ignorant coach driver, with effervescent delight. It was almost as if they had decided “This is romantic unreality, a Harry Potter experience, where even the horrors are delightful!”
They did, however, insist on unwinding in comfort. At the end of every adventurous day, they wanted to return to hotels in which they could relax in a cosseting atmosphere and leave the spice of new and unexpected encounters behind. In particular, they preferred to choose hotels that reflected the heritage of colonial India. They seemed to revel in the nostalgia of a setting that captured a legendary age, which they had never experienced: a sort of mythical European Dream Time. They were in search of the architectural setting, not the fawning servitude of turbaned minions. In fact they found TV glimpses of the lives of our Governors in their Raj Bhavans rather comical: “Like Gilbert and Sullivan comedies” they said. They wanted to stay in places that captured the regality of the Raj Era of the movies. As one of them put it, “We’re looking for the Savoy sort of thing, particularly those in the old hill stations where the British tried to replicate the ambience of their misty isles.”
That expressed it perfectly. In the 19th and early 20th Century, a certain grandiose and slightly over-the-top hotel design had spread out of the region known as Savoie, in South-East France, bordering Switzerland and Italy. It became the epitome of luxury with a faint whiff of sybaritic decadence. As the colonial empires of Europe spread across Asia, so did local clones of the Savoy-type of hotels. In time, many of these decayed as the empires passed but then, with the rise of Asia’s newly rich, these rambling properties were gobbled up by those who felt that they were a good investment. They were. Real estate always is and if it has a basic infrastructure and a marketable reputation, it’s even better.
So, in India, our gutka grandees and teli thakurs, men of great enterprise and the movers and shakers of the continent’s emerging civilisations, bought these once envied properties, poured in their money to restore them to their perceived ambiance and then gave them out to established hotel chains to run competently. Heritage hotels, comprising converted from large palaces and even small havelis have been one of the USPs and attractions of the hospitality industry in India, especially for foreign visitors and the domestic uber-rich for a unique experience.
However, in a service industry like tourism, ‘competence’ is the keyword. Reports coming in from many parts of Asia indicate that many hotel chains are expanding so fast that they do not have enough trained staff to ensure such levels of efficiency. The result is a pitiful fall in standards, which smears the image of the whole industry. This is what we experienced in one such hotel, recently. We’ve reproduced our comments from a letter we wrote to the boss of the chain:
The valet parking was disorganised: no parking receipts. A table booked for five had been set for four and had to be re-set by us. The buffet lunch ordered had been cancelled at the last minute because of a wedding. Dishes listed on the menu were not available. A pile of dust had been left near our table and it took 28 minutes for it to be cleared after we had reported it. We had to ask twice before we were given napkins. The service was painfully slow even though there was no apparent shortage of waiters. The toilets were on a disabled-unfriendly floor below the dining room and bar. A fellow guest reported that a cubicle in the women’s loo was unspeakably dirty.
We told the owner of the property that if the management did not pull up its socks, he would suffer badly. We also said that, significantly, this chain has one more superbly run hotel in the same town. Clearly, they’ve expanded too fast and put an incompetent manager in a position he cannot handle. Given our deplorable dining experience, in which we were celebrating the 90th birthday of a friend, we have this to say to all over-ambitious chains who blight the image of the industry in a resurgent Asia: “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen!”