Formula for Running a Successful Hotel - A case study - Part 2 – Mind over Matter
1. What's Your Story?
A place must have what I call a 'story' about it. You can call it history or legacy. The 1887 born Raffles Singapore has been the grand old lady of the East. From witnessing the Japanese occupation of Singapore to becoming the transit camp for the prisoners of war, from being the birthplace of the Singapore Sling or the preferred hideout for some of the world's finest authors to being the subject or setting of some films and novels, The Raffles is full of awe-inspiring lore. Similarly, The Imperial in New Delhi was a participant-observer to the saga of India's independence. In fact, annals of history show that the Declaration of Independence may have been signed at this grand hotel which became part of Edwin Lutyens' vision for New Delhi as the new capital of India.
A rich past lends an outstanding personality to a hotel. The history helps weave a web of stories in which the guests can be fascinatingly ensnared and with the fabric of which many a PR yarn is spun. One of the hotels I worked for was one of India's grand old men having witnessed the Freedom Struggle and having been part of the Raj era. We reaped an interesting harvest of this rich legacy from seeds sown in that time. Not only did the loaded past fluff us up with a sense of pride, making us feel as if we had been a part of it, our guests loved it to – holding meetings in the room where the Partition treaty was signed, banqueting in the Royal Ballroom where the Earls, Knights and the Indian Rajas and Ranis had waltzed, eating with perhaps the same heirloom silverware that the blue-bloodied had partied in.
Elsewhere, hotels have named suites after eminent writers who stayed in them; so there is a Maugham, Kipling, Christie suite. Coco Chanel and Rockefeller made virtually their homes in luxury hotels. There are cakes named after celebrities who loved the presentation or perhaps gardens on the premises christened after the famous feet that tread upon its grounds.
Rokeby Manor, a mountain town landmark, was built in mid 19th century by a British officer serving in the Raj era with its name taken from one of the lovely writings of Sir Walter Scott. It was bought and managed by Frederick 'Pahari' Wilson, a controversial adventurer and entrepreneur, who became the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's classic story, "The Man Who Would Be King." Towards the end of the Century Rokeby Manor was bought by Rev. J.S. Woodside, one of the founders of the legendary Woodstock School. And by 1930, it enjoyed yet another twist in its tale by being bought by the Women's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church who ran it as a boarding house for young missionary ladies who were studying Urdu and Hindi at the Landour Language School. Rokeby Manor remained a missionary guest house for the better part of the 20th Century. Today the heritage building with hugely interesting strings of stories in its history and origin is run as a contemporary mountain resort with all the mod-cons yet steeped in the deliciousness of its decadent past. The intelligently restored resort (which has not been structurally changed as it is against the law in the hill town it is located in) retains its old-world charm, showcases its pock-marked origin of prestige with pride and offers delightful anecdotal features for guests to soak themselves in.
Rokeby's intriguing legacy lends an air of mystery to it, taking back guests to a time when colonial officers, renegade soldiers of fortune and pious miss sahibs lived under one roof. The guests can still enjoy a piece of history in this heritage building with elaborate brick arches and niches, intricate stone walls, real wood floors and beams and cozy fireplaces carefully restored.
Lesson – Every place has its unique, what I call, 'story.' How it came about? What slices of history has it shared in a common past! There may be an heirloom spin about the owners or the notable guests. So, be very proud if there is a 'story' from the annals of time that you can tell and then go ahead and tell it with a sense of flair and relish. Your guests are going to love it.
Not all hotels have the privilege to have been landmarks and milestones in the history of the world. Still, there are unusual facets and delectable twists and turns that make the tapestry of its birth and life worthy enough to be talked about and rejoiced in.
So find your mojo and use it to the best optimum way possible; both for yourself and the guest.
2. Activity or many-a-times even non-activity
Perched at the highest altitude in the region, Rokeby Manor offers jaw-dropping views of the great Himalayas above and the enchanting Doon Valley below. Besides, at that height, you are so close to nature that your sounds mingle well with that of the flora and fauna nestling in the area; the air is refreshingly unadulterated and soothing to your senses; and the spirit naturally cheerful, relaxed and in a recuperative state of self-healing.
While there are games and activities – mind to board games, ride on the thrilling ATV, excursions to some fascinating places around – it is the so-called non-activities that turn up the excitement quotient. Rokeby takes these to a heightened level as you rejoice in simply relaxing in the lap of scenic luxury casting a faraway look at the majestic mountains, sighting a range of interesting birds, getting on a botanical exploration of the lovely flowers, herbs, trees and shrubs, trekking around labyrinthine walks that take you through historic churches, somber cemeteries, quaint curio and antique shops, strangely named bazaars of four shops and roadside cafes that have seen the birth of many a writer or musician.
Lesson – While working with one of India's oldest hotels, I along with the Art & Antiquity Manager delighted in giving an art tour of the in-house galleries to the discerning guests. That the hotel houses a large collection of lithographs and period artefacts made for such an inspired walk-through and a splendid activity.
Jules Undersea Lodge in Florida, world's only underwater hotel that guests have to 'dive' 21FT. to enter offers an experience which breaks away from every other tried and tested mould. Yes, there is the mandatory scuba diving, but living amidst sea life, dining with the sharks and reading your favourite piece of literature while being watched by a floating whale here or a sea horse there is a matchless experience that will stay with you forever. By delivering a fresh pizza to you through a diving delivery man, the Lodge turns something banal into bombastic.
At the other end of the continuum, Ananda in the Himalayas – arguably the best Destination Spa Resort in the world – urges you to rediscover yourself in its tranquil surroundings. At the mountain resort, just meditating, watching the skyline, strolling around the hillscape make for such alleviated levels of pleasure and contentment.
Therefore, whatever kind of place that you may run and wherever it may be located, ensure that there are things to ensnare your guests and entrap them in the homegrown or locational string of activities or non-activities.
3. Sweat the small Stuff
One of the legendary hoteliers is known to send his staff – from the General Manager to the Doorman – into a maniacal tizzy every time he plans to visit one of his hotels. Even after having successfully created, managed and run award-winning hotels in India and overseas, the Gentleman is known to have a keen eye of observation and will not let pass a crookedly placed rose stem in a vase, a spot of dust in the inner fold of a guest compendium, an otherwise sparkly-shiny glass with just two tell-tale blotches of dried drops of water that escaped the steward's attention, the serif missed out by the designer in the Ad. copy, the words dropped unwittingly by the Guest Relations girl from the standard greeting – you get the picture! This expectation of perfection percolates down from the Top Dog through the managers to the rest of the employees, making the Brand one of the most highly regarded globally.
It really appeals to me when Hoteliers pay attention to detail and sweat over the tiniest of stuff. Landour as a hill town is battered by rain in monsoon and snow in winter with the moisture from both wreaking havoc for prolonged periods. In such conditions, to have a resident musty smell and somewhat damp interiors is only natural. The General Manager warned me about the possibility of the weather-triggered offensive odour even before I had made reservations for my stay; but I was surprised to be met with a welcome toastiness and the subtle scent of the forest. Before you are set to arrive, and they are sending you your reservation confirmation, out of an established practice the hotel will forewarn you about the challenges of a hilly location, dampness, musty smell etc. etc. But by the time you land and are led into your cozy quarters, they have done everything in their hands to obliterate those issues to the best of their ability, using Dehumidifiers in monsoons, Scent boxes and bespoke fragrances to take away any sign of squalidness.
One is quite wary of the hotel bread baskets where all the breads are not of the same quality and freshness. Likewise, with the butter dish which may have been passed around all too many times. So, while lunching at Emily's I was pleasantly surprised to find the crispness and flavour of even the cumin bread sticks retained in the cradle of Rokeby's baked goodies. The same basic goodness ran through the gamut of things. The pastas were cooked just right to hold their bite and the sauce was fresh, aromatic and left a delish after-taste. The biscotti at teatime held forth its crunch. The tea, itself, held on to its authenticity whether it was the milky, rich biscuit – brown broth relished in India or the subtle, light, green variant that has been taking the world by storm. In the rooms too, there have been elaborate deliberations about the linen and the light, about warmth and the wonderful view that each angle offers. I am a sucker for attention to detail and it was satisfying to see a lot of thought given to even the little things.
Mussoorie has always been one of the most sought after hill stations in India, yes, right from the time of The Raj when it was given a choice epithet of 'Queen of the Hills' by the English rulers. So much so, that it has faced the ravages of overkill – too much construction, too many shops, too many hotels of all shapes and sizes, too much commercialization. So, for the discerning traveller seeking quality, quietude and an overly pleasant stay without other tourists and locals stepping in his way all the time, places like Rokeby Manor offer the perfect respite. Secluded alcove in the bazaar of madness, a serene oasis of calm with thoughtful little touches all over the place, Rokeby Manor is an island of charm, character and comfort.
Lesson – When dealing with a people-centric industry, even the smallest of demands, desires and likes of guests become significantly important. As hoteliers, we must keep in mind a layered pyramid of guest wants, quite like the Maslow's pyramid, putting in aspects from the most basic (such as cleanliness or running hot water or trained staff) to the very exquisite (dinner on a romantically lit dhow with performance by a violinist or bespoke wine served under the shadow of the Sphinx). And it becomes our 'karma' to ensure that each need is met with guest satisfaction and delight.
4. Your Unique Selling Proposition
In the crowded market place of hospitality, with a multitude brands essentially selling the same thing, it becomes imperative to have a Unique Selling Proposition; that unquantifiable yet tangible special facet.
Rokeby has attitude and atmosphere. It is a modern resort with a forward-looking strategy, yet it is warmly ensconced in a time-warp of the awe and magnificence of a bygone era. Rokeby rests comfortably on the cusp of old and new and in fact tries to create a fine balance between the two. The old staircase and most doors and windows are from the original setting. Waste wood from wood mills in Dehradun Valley has been recycled as Reception wall and desk.
The rooms and areas of the Lodge, though orderly placed, have not been messed up with and have been creatively used. For instance you chance upon the Business Centre just as you climb up the old staircase on way to the main restaurant. A lot of old wooden flooring has been retained and not much of the original structure has been touched. Lime mortar, which was the original plaster, has been chipped in places all around to expose the rock-brick facade. A lot of books and artefacts are specially sourced antiques bought from either the old curio shops tucked away in the various nooks in town or London.
"The USP of Rokeby Manor is that it offers an escape from the maddening crowd, peace of mind and a secure feeling that one gets from living in a mountain home," says Narang who counts "innovation and passion" amongst his two premier brand strengths. "There are no half measures in how we do things," insists Sanjay Narang.
Narang retains his Brand USP by encouraging individuality in his staff and developing personalities. He says the important thing is to "Identify right people. I don't mean technical qualifications; I mean good people and good human beings. Technical skills can be taught. We don't want to have a cookie-cutter formula. My people should have a strong character. Sometimes passion, zeal and sincerity are more important than flawless training and perfect skills." Perhaps this is why Rokeby can be labelled under 'quintessential places of charm' away from the assembly-line sameness, commonly found in the ho-hum of hotels that abound.
This lends a unique personality to the hotel, transporting guests back to the time when the British officers of the Raj period and the missionaries lived in Mussoorie, at one time an alternate Summer Capital for the English rulers of the erstwhile Colony. Yet, the hotel leaves no stone unturned to serve the finest wine or cheese or seafood to the discerning palate in a surrounding beset with all modern features.
Lesson - There are hotels around the globe that hold on to their uniqueness dearly and with a lot of pride. The Peninsula in Hong Kong, The Oriental in Bangkok, Le Bristol in Paris, Cipriani in Venice, Amankila in Bali – all are gems that stand out and above on account of their individuality.
So, whether it is intrinsic elegance, locational vantage point, helicopter shuttle service from the hotel's rooftop helipad, a confluence of history, mystery and magnificence, a piece of geographical wonder, whatever is your magical power, hone and polish it and keep it ever gleaming in a perpetual state of readiness.