Heritage on a platter
Guests love heritage hotels, and India has plenty of these to offer. However, what is the trick to keep them coming back for more?
By Vinita Bhatia
An air of mystery and charm surrounds the numerous palaces that dot India’s landscape. They give a glimpse into the life of royalty and an era where no luxury was too ostentatious or impossible.
It is no wonder then that travellers, international and national, can never get enough of them. Many of these palaces have now been converted into heritage hotels and are more than happy to showcase their historical charisma.
FEEDING MIXED DESIRES
A varied mix of travellers visit these heritage hotels, from travellers wanting to deep dive into historical elements in an opulent setting, to millennials who want to soak up the local culture with Instagrammable visuals, yet with a cosmopolitan environment. Meeting this dichotomy in expectations can be quite challenging, as hotel operators managing these properties cannot touch the palace’s core architecture and design.
Explaining how she has managed to crack this code for Umaid Bhawan, which is managed by Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris, general manager, Mehrnavaz Avari said that they have retained the art deco style of the property but have also ensured that it is not overtly Indian in its styling as a palace, so that it meets the sensibilities of all guest profiles.
“We have not tried to put various Rajasthani elements and make it colourful; instead, it has a very serene environment. However, we offer a cache of experiences that guests can pick and choose from, because we understand that not everyone will partake in everything,” she elaborated.
There is a quaint high tea service on offer for those guests who like to luxuriate to the tinkle of fine bone china while selecting treats like New England scones from a delicate cake stand or piping hot kachori and samosa coming straight from the kitchen. In the evening, there is a cultural programme, which people can partake in.
“We introduced the live performance of a santoor and tabla during breakfast service, to infuse a sense of calmness and also give guests an insight about the culture of the city they are in,”Avari stated.
That aside, Umaid Bhawan also has fun activities within a recreation room for kids, because often they are ignored at heritage hotels, which are steeped in history and grandeur. To ensure the little ones do not get bored or feel lost in the magnificence of the surroundings, the palace has fun activities like peacock hunting, feed and ride the horses.
“We are trying to dispel the notion that heritage hotels are only fascinating palaces with impeccable service and interesting background. We want to highlight that these places can cater to all sorts of guests and are fun places to stay in,” said Avari.
Mehrnavaz Avari, general manager, Umaid Bhawan Palace.
To stay relevant while maintaining their historical charm, heritage hotels like Umaid Bhawan also have customised options for guests. “For newly-weds, in addition to a couple massage and dip in the romantic pool, we arrange a private dinner on the terrace with special elements to make their trip to our property memorable. That helps heritage hotels stay authentic, because that is the kind of care that royal families would take care of their own guests, a legacy we have tried to imbibe,” Avari said.
This explains that why the hotel, which does not have, shopping outlets on its property, arranges for pop-up bazaars. This way international guests who would like to get a feel of Rajasthani culture can shop at their own convenience.
Interestingly, Avari has realised that since the locals of Rajasthan have been exposed to tourism for a long time, they are very enthusiastic to share details about their tradition, food and culture with guests, especially the international travellers. Hospitality is well inculcated in them, and it is important to extend this to the associates as well, and train them to treat all associates respectfully.
“It is important to reinforce in the team that guests visiting a heritage hotel expect a certain level of service. We don’t technically differentiate between an international or domestic guest, but keep reiterating the larger philosophy every guest should be treated as royalty. Right from the salutation to the service sequence, everything must people feel a king or queen here, rather than they are just visiting a hotel,” she added.
To ensure that heritages hotels exude high service standards it is imperative that it registers equally high employee satisfaction rates. Engaging with local talent to leverage their know-how about the nearby areas and culture can be very beneficial.
In the past, before 2005, Avari said that companies managing Umaid Bhawan before Taj felt that having local staff was a disadvantage and suggested replacing he entire staff. However, the Maharaja put his foot down and insisted that his staff would stay.
“Essentially, I don’t think people realise the strength of local talent. We have people who have been associated with the royal family for generations and they are our biggest strength. They may not have the best language skills or other hotel-related skillsets that you might see in some city hotel, but what they genuinely have service from the heart. They really put their heart and soul in sincerely caring for the guests,” Avari averred.
In her opinion, operators need to have a mix of local talent as well as experienced associates and create programmes that allow the two to learn from each other. Umaid Bhawan has undertaken various such associate assimilation initiatives for its 250-strong workforce, especially since a significant portion of them are youth from other cities with limited entertainment options. Hence, for these trainees and youngsters, it organises DJ nights every alternate month so they can let their hair down and stay engaged. For the more family-oriented associates, once a year, they are allowed to bring their family members to visit the palace.
It also has an annual day where the Maharaja addresses the staff and gives out certificates of appreciation and awards. Ultimately, if the staff is satisfied, they will ensure that the guest is satisfied.
In addition to caring for its associates, Avari also felt that heritage hotel chains should be flexible when it comes to meeting guest expectations, rather than always following the rulebook. Most brands have their set of rules and regulations with a lengthy list of dos and don’ts, which increase when one is going to higher levels of luxury.
“We are very clear – we never every say no to any guest for anything, as long as it is not illegal or unethical. Even if a guest asks for something a little outrageous, we think it through, discuss options and give them a reply. But essentially our team will never ever just tell a guest that this is not possible,” she added.
This is pertinent because ultimately while history will attract the travellers to heritage hotels, it will be their authentic experiences that will make them recommend it to more people in their network, and also make them revisit it. And that is the kind of story-telling involvement that every hotel worth its salt would like to have with its guest.