Four seasons could well be India’s best managed hotel
Few hotel openings can have been as eagerly awaited as the launch of Four Seasons in Bombay. Some years ago when I interviewed Bikki Oberoi for the cover of Brunch, he ended by declaring that he was so confident of his Bombay property that he challenged even Four Seasons to run a better hotel! Hoteliers all over India have been waiting to see if the Bombay Four Seasons can live up to the chain’s reputation for luxury.
And scores of rich Indians, loyalists of Four Seasons properties all over the world, have been bragging that the Bombay hotel will set new standards for Indian hotels.
The wait has been more intense because of the delays. Many years ago, Four Seasons was set to make its entry into India by managing the Leela chain’s Goa property. Long after many of the renovations had been completed on the property and after such standard Four Seasons features as the signature beds had been imported, the Leela and Four Seasons fell out. The hotel did re-open but was managed by the Leela itself with a Kempinski tie-up.
Then there were two years of secret and complex negotiations with Bikki Oberoi. Neither side will provide details but apparently, Bikki was willing to let Four Seasons take over his top properties – till negotiations broke down.
When, eventually, Four Seasons announced that it would manage a new hotel in Bombay, owned by Shiv Jatia (who also owns Delhi’s Hyatt Regency), the country’s hotel industry could talk of nothing else. What would the Four Seasons chain do that was so different? Why had it agreed to manage a property that was located in Worli, on the edge of Parel, rather than in the heart of fashionable South Bombay? Would it fare better than other foreign chains that had launched in India with great fanfare but had failed to make a significant dent in the Taj-Oberoi-ITC oligopoly?
The reverence with which the Four Seasons chain is treated within the hotel business is hard for outsiders to understand. It was founded in Canada in 1960 by a man called Isidore Sharp and quickly acquired a reputation for luxury. Even so, it was hardly the gold standard for the hotel industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Sharp’s expansion out of North America was facilitated by his Inn on the Park on London’s Park Lane, next to the showy London Hilton. And while the Inn on the Park was always regarded as a good hotel, it was never spoken of in the same breath as say The Savoy or the Dorchester or Claridges.
By the 1980s however that had begun to change, especially as the Four Seasons chain expanded all over North America. In the 1990s as prosperity grew and investment bankers began taking over the world, the chain had become the favourite of the financial community.
Its values and standards reflected the new era of prosperity: the largest rooms in the business, the best service and an air of unparalleled luxury. All this came at a price of course. But Four Seasons catered to those who could afford it – and as the world economy boomed, there was no shortage of such people.
Over the last decade, Four Seasons has greatly increased its profile in Asia by buying the trend-setting Regent chain. The Regent had redefined city hotels in Asia, embodying many of the same values that Four Seasons represented in north America. After the take-over, Four Seasons changed the names of some of the existing Regent properties and profited greatly from the opening of those that were under construction at the time of the sale. For instance, the Regent was building a Bali resort that was so luxurious that every villa had its own private swimming pool. When the hotel opened as a Four Seasons it sealed the chain’s reputation for high end deluxe accommodation.
“Judging by the first few weeks of its operations, the Bombay Four Seasons will follow the pattern of the rest of Asia.”
So, why has it taken Four Seasons so long to come to India? Probably because the luxury chains never believed that India could afford the high room rates they wanted. By the time they recognised that India was booming, it was too late. The best locations had gone and the Indian chains – especially the Oberois who had spotted the global trend towards luxury before the others – had the market sewn up.
Of the leading luxury chains, the Ritz Carlton and Mandarin Oriental are not in India. Four Seasons has only just opened. Of the others, the Shangri La has suffered because of a disastrous choice of property. In the meantime, all the Indian chains have got their acts together. Bikki rewrote the rules of the game with his Vilas properties; the Taj has upgraded massively; and ITC’s luxury properties have the best service in India.
So, does the Four Seasons have the power to surprise us? Can its Bombay hotel, opening a full year behind schedule, really set new standards for the mature Indian hotel sector?
I spent four days at the property to try and find out.
And the answer is yes. This could well be India’s best managed hotel. It is discreet, luxurious and smoothly efficient. If you take the Taj – with its century of history, its priceless antiques and its grand suites – out of the mix, then there is no doubt that this is the best hotel in Bombay, streets ahead of everything else.
It’s early days yet. But it looks as though Bikki has lost his challenge.Judging by the first few weeks of its operations, the Bombay Four Seasons will follow the pattern of the rest of Asia. In nearly every city where the chain operates, it has the highest room rates (in terms of the rate actually paid rather than the published rate) and is beaten only by the grand heritage properties. So in Bangkok, the Four Seasons cannot charge as much as The Oriental; in Singapore, it is second to Raffles (though it does better than the Ritz Carlton or Mandarin Oriental); and in Hong Kong, the Peninsula has the edge.