During our recent three-week trip to India, we toured a vast area of northern and central India and the large distances meant having to change hotels every two days. This allowed us to experience and compare different hotel experiences in a short amount of time. We stayed at hotels of each of several major luxury hotel chains in India, the Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, Historic Resort Hotels, and Leela Palaces Hotels and Resorts, and spent two nights at the famous Imperial Hotel in Delhi. I was curious to find out which hotel chain was the best one because I had heard different recommendations from different people otherwise knowledgeable about travel in India. Some were urging us to stay at the Taj hotels because of the superb service offered in historic princely palaces, others swore by the Oberoi Hotels as the standard of luxury, and a very frequent world traveler had confidently stated to me that the Leela Palace hotel in Delhi was now quite superior to the Imperial (we stayed at both hotels during our trip). That is the sort of contradictory information which gets my investigative brain to go into overdrive.
Having worked as an international business executive for most of my career, I have spent thousands of nights in hotels on all continents over the course of the past 45 years. Interestingly enough, I don’t recall the names of the hotels I stayed at while traveling to India on business twenty years ago, which means that the business hotels I stayed at then did not make a very memorable impression on me (or else my memory is fading away faster than I thought). What would it be like this time around, I wondered.
A few comments about hotel rating systems might be relevant at this point. There are no world standards for hotel rating systems. People familiar with the Mobil Travel Guide (which has now become the Forbes Travel Guide) hotel rating system and the AAA diamond rating system in the United States can attest to the variety of ratings available. Individual countries have their own systems, some being part of government regulations, others being private rating systems. While there is definitely a trend towards a harmonization of standards, and there exists in some regions a multi-country rating approach such as the German five-star rating system which has now evolved into the European Hotelstar rating system, an international traveler should look to the rating authority of each country in order to understand what a “five-star” hotel means in that country, as it may have a very different meaning than elsewhere.
In India, as one might expect from the country which made bureaucracy an essential part of every minute of people’s lives, hotel ratings are determined by the regulations of the ministry of tourism. The “Guidelines” for approval and classification of hotels make for interesting reading. For example, did you know that all rated hotels in India, bar none, are required to supply each guestroom with two complimentary sealed 500ml branded bottles of water every day? Or that all rated hotels in India must provide a shower, but there is no requirement for a bathtub, even in a five star hotel? Or that all rated hotels in India must provide at least two multi-purpose (US, European, Japanese) outlets at the table level or above in each guestroom? Were you aware that all hotels rated three stars or above must provide free shoe cleaning service, ice from drinking water upon request, and must accept common credit cards? This is the sort of information which a traveler to India might wish to know.
The Indian hotel classification system is a five star system with an additional five star deluxe category, and a totally separate Heritage hotel classification, further broken down into basic, classic and grand heritage hotels. As one would expect in India, the hotels must pay ascending fees to the government depending on the rating they receive. My specific interest focused on the five star deluxe category and I read the guidelines trying to understand what would allow a hotel in India to claim a five-star deluxe status. I could find only two differences between the requirements for a five star hotel and those of a five star deluxe hotel. One difference is that a five star deluxe hotel must have an x-ray machine at the guest entrance to the hotel (readers of my blog bonvoyageurs.com will remember my comments about the value of wearing a travel vest for ease of passage thru the numerous scanners we encountered). Another requirement unique to five star deluxe hotels is that the laundry and dry cleaning facilities must be in-house rather than outsourced.
The “guidelines” for classification as a “Heritage” hotel are simpler. The main requirement is that the hotel structure must have been built before 1950 for the Heritage name, and before 1935 for the Heritage Classic or Heritage Grand classifications. The major requirement for an Heritage Grand rating is that the hotel offers both traditional and continental cuisine, a big plus for people who might wish to eat something other than Indian cuisine from time to time.
All of the hotels we lodged at while in India certainly met the requirements for five star or five star deluxe hotels, although most of them did not advertise themselves by their rating. The ratings essentially serve as a frame of reference for the minimum features a top hotel should have. Oberoi Hotels simply boast that they are the world’s best hotel brand. After staying at several Oberoi properties in India, I would not disagree. Oberoi Hotels are without doubt the best hotels in India today. Oberoi Hotels goes beyond any of the requirements of a five star rating system by adding a dimension which rating agencies should make into the basis for a six star rating, a dimension we did not experience in any of the other luxurious hotels we stayed at in India. That dimension is the customer service approach to the interactions with the guest. A five star deluxe hotel will respond extremely well to any question or issue with a guest. The oh-so-well-trained Oberoi staff will instead overwhelm you with their response. The staff at the Oberoi Hotels will not simply address an issue by resolving it to the satisfaction of the guest. The Oberoi staff will most certainly do that, but the staff will in addition move the focus quickly to a new and exciting offering which will make the guest forget he had an issue in the first place.
Our experience at the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra is a good example. We had an excellent dinner at the hotel, although when queried by the waiter at the end of the meal, my wife indicated that one of the dishes he had recommended, the chicken curry, was not much to her liking. The next thing we realized was that the chef of the whole Oberoi hotel appeared at our table saying “What can I do to make you happy?” and clearly meaning what she said. Before we knew how to respond, the Oberoi chef had organized for the chicken curry to be taken off the bill, for dessert to be complimentary, and she was offering to make my wife a special southern Indian breakfast the following morning. The lengthy conversation which followed was all about what a southern Indian breakfast consisted of and I had totally forgotten what had brought the Oberoi chef to our table in the first place. That’s six star service.
Another example would be our experience at the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur. When my wife inquired from the waiter about an unknown ingredient in a dish, the chef of the hotel immediately came out to our table, not only to answer my wife’s questions in great detail, but also to bring her samples of the ingredients in leaf as well as in ground form, presented in small dishes accompanied by a flower pot showing off the blue pottery of Jaipur (which he then gave to my wife as a gift). The flower pot now adorns our family room at home. That’s six star service!
We received stellar service in all the hotels we stayed at, but the Oberoi Hotels are indeed in a class of their own, the six star category of overwhelming service!
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