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The best of hospitality

Every now and then, I sit back and wonder why hotels and airlines don’t listen more to frequent travellers.

Most of us have great stories to tell and yet, all we get are pointless questionnaires, cunningly designed so that managers can claim that their guest satisfaction scores are high.

 

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I have noticed over the last few months.

 

Domestic airlines: Frankly, when it comes to economy class, I don’t think there is much to choose. All domestic airlines offer roughly the same level of discomfort. The only way to decide which flight to take is to look for the cheapest fare.

 

   There is a difference in business class, though. I find that Vistara has the most comfortable seats, the best crew (usually) and (easily) the best food.

 

But here’s the irony: Vistara Business Class is usually cheaper than Air India or Jet Business Class and even then, it sells fewer Club Class seats than even Air India, let alone Jet.

 

   What accounts for this?

 

   Well, as a long time Jet loyalist, I will usually still take Jet over Vistara. The reason is simple enough: ground handling.

 

   Most of us who have been flying Jet Business Class for years receive a level of personalised service from the ground staff that no other airline can match. At Mumbai airport, the staff will go out of their way to accommodate regular passengers. Their perfect guest recognition skills provide an unparalleled comfort factor. The staff in Delhi is nearly as good and though there are some airports where staff is useless (Pune) or where the service is not consistent (Bengaluru), Jet’s premium passengers will usually receive outstanding ground service.

 

   Vistara uses the same ground handling outfit as Air India, and most of its counter staff is impersonal and indifferent. There is very little sense of hospitality on the ground.

 

   So, despite spending more on premium passengers (including a very nice lounge in Delhi) and on better meals while charging lower fares, Vistara will find it nearly impossible to lure away Jet loyalists.

 

International airlines: Unless it is terribly inconvenient, I try and stick to the same international airlines. I use Thai for travel to the East (though not to Singapore because Singapore Airlines is far, far superior) because the ground handling in Delhi is outstanding, the flights are comfortable and Bangkok is well-connected to all of Asia’s airports.

 

   Otherwise, I’ll take Jet to London (as I think most premium passengers would) or Air India to wherever possible.

 

   Ok, I can hear the gasps of astonishment, already. Almost everyone I know looks at me as though I am mad when I say that I will always take an Air India flight over British Airways, Air France or any American airline.

 

   There are several reasons. First of all, I don’t think most frequent travellers care about things like food (though Air India food is better than, say Air France) or the number of movies on the in-flight entertainment system. We care about comfort and Air India’s Dreamliners are extremely comfortable aircrafts. We care about on-time performance and in the last year, I have not been on a single long-haul Air India flight that has been delayed.

 

   But most of all, I travel Air India because I hate changing planes. Ever since India exported its hub to Dubai and made Emirates our de facto national carrier, Indians have had to fly to Dubai and hang around at the overcrowded Emirates lounge to catch connecting flights to nearly everywhere.

 

   With Air India, you get on the plane, go to sleep and when you wake up, you’ve reached. I have taken Air India non-stop flights to Madrid, Vienna, New York, Rome, San Francisco, Chicago and several other places over the last few years, and I have no major complaints.

 

   I do have some minor issues though. There is a certain level of sloppiness on-board. Air India used to serve very drinkable wines in business class including a nice vintage port. Now, it serves really cheap wines. Nobody who pays a business class fare expects to get the basic Sula wines on board. On my last flight from Madrid, the crew broke the corkscrew so they couldn’t open the wine. The port has vanished. So have the menus – often they don’t even bother to uplift them.

 

   All of this is easy enough to set right and as an Air India loyalist, I hope they do make the effort.

 

   (This applies only to business class. I don’t recommend Air India First.)

 

 "Of the domestic chains, I think there is no doubt that the Oberois are in a different league when it comes to luxury."

Airports: I am not a fan of the domestic terminal in Mumbai. It is a badly designed mid-market shopping mall masquerading as an airport. Delhi airport is a million times better.

 

   On the whole, the CISF has upped its standards everywhere except for Mumbai where they are just lazy. They don’t open enough gates, they make people queue up for too long to get in, have arbitrary rules at the security check and senior officers are unwilling to pay heed to passenger complaints.

 

Hotels: For much of my international (and now, domestic) travel, I remain a Hyatt loyalist. I’ve stayed in terrific Hyatt hotels in New York, Chicago, Vienna, Siem Reap, Tokyo, Seoul, and Bangkok over the last couple of years.

 

   Now, Hyatt offers great domestic options too. I have chosen Hyatt in such cities as Amritsar, Ludhiana, Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Chandigarh, and have always been satisfied.

 

   Of the domestic chains, I think there is no doubt that the Oberois are in a different league when it comes to luxury. I don’t know of any hotel chain that has worked so hard over the last couple of years to elevate the guest experience and to improve the food.

 

   Nobody can match ITC for warmth and personalisation. So, their hotels remain personal favourites though not all offer the same consistency of operational excellence. I wrote a few weeks ago about how Nakul Anand is redefining luxury at ITC hotels so I expect even better experiences in the months ahead.

 

   There are some wonderful Taj properties in the country. It has always been the one chain whose hotels have a sense of place. The best Taj hotels have class and charm and are not cookie-cutter properties.

 

   But I don’t think anyone at the company will deny – off the record, of course – that the chain is not what it used to be. I have no idea who will replace Rakesh Sarna when he leaves at the end of September, but there’s a lot that needs to be done. Sarna saved the Taj. He put out the big fires and he stemmed the losses but he is leaving before he could raise operational standards.

 

   The consequence is that the best-run Taj hotels (the two main Delhi properties, the Land’s End, Falaknuma, and others) are those where the general managers are strong. Elsewhere, the company hasn’t always been able to maintain standards.

 

   Likewise, with the food. It is all very well to say that the chain has to move beyond Hemant Oberoi and Ananda Solomon (the two top chefs who have now retired), but move to what? And under whose leadership?

 

   Had Sarna stayed, he may have sorted out the food and the operations. Now, the Taj seems set for yet another change. I hope Ratan Tata finds a good guy soon and puts him in-charge of what used to be India’s greatest hotel company.

 

Favourite hotels: People keep asking me if I have a favourite hotel in each city. Well, yes, and no. Hotels are not static. They go up and down. So my preferences keep changing.

 

   At present, this is what my list would look like. In Mumbai, the Oberoi and the BKC Trident are the best run but I have been impressed by the resurgence of the Four Seasons and the astonishing turnaround at the now first-rate St. Regis, which used to be the horrible Palladium.

 

   In Delhi, the two Leelas are outstanding and under the current team, the Taj Mansingh is back at the top. At the Maurya, the low profile Zubin Songadwala has worked miracles.

 

   In Kolkata, the Oberoi Grand is hard to beat though, of the newer hotels, the ITC Sonar is very good.

 

   In Bengaluru, my personal favourite is the ITC Windsor because of its sense of hospitality but the Ritz-Carlton is a generation ahead of the competition with its air of discreet luxury.

 

   In Chennai, I retain a soft spot for the Taj Coromandel but nothing can really come close to the ITC Grand Chola in terms of food, service and luxury.

 

   In Rajasthan, I’ll go with Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur, and Vanya Vilas, Raj Vilas and Udai Vilas in Ranthambore, Jaipur and Udaipur respectively. The outsider is the Udaipur Leela, which Rajesh Namby has turned around.

 

   And my favourite restaurant in India? No change there. Manish Mehrotra and Indian Accent are yet to be beaten.

 

 

CommentsComments

  • Arun Joshi 15 Jun 2017

    this clearly is not meant for the Economy class. jet airways is the worst with the lowest pitch and I really wouldnt recommend it for international flights unless you want a kneecap change or sciatic ailments. Air India has better food and wider (though unclean) seats and while their staff are inefficient and lazy, they can be more human than other airlines when it comes to the crunch (esp. Economy)

  • Sudha Narayanan 13 Jun 2017

    I am a hotelier basically from the Taj group of hotels.

  • Tarun Chugh 10 Jun 2017

    Bangkok is possibly the WORST airport to transit through and has long long lost its friendly 'land of smiles' label - particularly towards Indians. I stopped using Thai or airlines that transit through BKK after i saw the security, staff particularly single out and treat South asians terribly and even the restaurants are rude though we are by far the biggest spenders outspending any others by a factor of at least two. (ref tourist airports surveys) plus terrible facilities
    Singapore rules by far

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