East is east, but when it comes to the Indian hospitality industry, Western hospitality brands have become shining examples to emulate. These brands have not only contributed to the industry by adding value to the economy, but they’ve also set trends and expanded across the board.

American brand Hyatt Hotels Corporation, for example, may have started its journey in India in 1983 with the launch of the Hyatt Regency Delhi, but it has since exemplified how to adopt the best of local culture, and, pandemic or not, it has no intention of changing tack. Says Hyatt’s CEO and president Mark Hoplamazian: “As we continue to execute our strategy of growing where our guests and customers want to be, India remains a critical market for Hyatt.”

What is the Marriott culture? It is “take care of your people so that they can take care of their guests,” Menon explains. What that means, says Rakesh Sarna, the former president of the Hyatt-Americas, is that the service culture in older legacy brands has been one that bordered on subservience, whereas in modern American brands it was about respect but not servitude.

Since 2005, Hyatt has added 29 hotels to its portfolio in India. Following the global acquisition of Two Roads Hospitality, it added two Alila properties—Alila Diwa Goa and Alila Fort Bishangarh, Jaipur—to the India portfolio in 2018, says Hyatt vice president and country head Sunjae Sharma.

But the role of western, and especially American hotels, has more to do with than just planting flags and expanding presence. Rajeev Menon, president for Marriott International Inc. for Asia Pacific (excluding Greater China), which has over 7,500 hotels worldwide, says that the India journey started 21 years ago with the opening of the Goa Marriott Resort & Spa and then later the JW Marriott Mumbai in Juhu, and the Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre in Powai. “The hotel in Juhu was designed so that you walked in and saw the ocean. There was an all-day dining concept with a champagne buffet, an Italian restaurant, and a nightclub called Enigma,” Menon says.

The convention centre in Powai pushed the envelope on meeting space with its 15-acre property and floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a lake.

“Today, the Marriott has grown to become the largest player in India with 125 hotels and another 50 in development, and from day one that has been driven by the Marriott culture which is in every one of its markets,” he adds.

What is the Marriott culture? It is “take care of your people so that they can take care of their guests,” Menon explains. What that means, says Rakesh Sarna, the former president of the Hyatt-Americas, is that the service culture in older legacy brands has been one that bordered on subservience, whereas in modern American brands it was about respect but not servitude.

Menon describes it thus: “At the Ritz Carlton [a part of the Marriott group], the credo was that there were ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” He adds: “I would eat with my associates in the cafe and they could include house-keeping staff or chefs with no levels and that built comfort.”

The other elements that western brands brought in included modern food and beverage (F&B) concepts. The La Piazza at the Hyatt Regency in New Delhi, which is around 25 years old, brought an authentic Italian experience to diners in India, while China House at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai won awards for its genuine offerings. “Innovative food and beverage concepts, that included the Hyatt China House brand or La Piazza, meant a massive F&B impact,” Sarna says.

For example, while many Indian hotels had a patisserie or pastry shop model, the Marriott launched a coffee shop or “Baking Company” model that served as coffee shop, book shop, sandwich house, and a grab-and-go fixture, all at once. It became wildly popular with the Marriott launching as many as 12 such locations within hotels across India. They also made it a point to keep Michelin starred chefs such as Sergi Arola and Akira Back visiting regularly for serious diners. More recently, Marriott on Wheels has been delivering food to customers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Image : Graphics by Rahul Sharma.

Loyalty programmes are the other driving feature for business for many foreign operators. For example, Marriott’s Bonvoy programme has 145 million members globally and as many as 3 million in India. Similarly, the Hyatt comes with incentives beyond restaurants and spa treatments.

“To this end, we offer ‘The Hyatt Dining Club’. An India-first innovation, HDC is a simple and smart lifestyle rewards programme. Its simplicity is reflected in its structure: there are no tiers or points, and one annual fee provides benefits and discounts at all Hyatt hotels across India,” says Sharma.

For those who own or want to own hotels, it also encompasses bragging rights when it comes to foreign brands. Arun Saraf, managing director of Juniper Hotels, picked Hyatt as a franchise over others because “Hyatt always adopted an approach that kept the owners and its customers paramount. Hyatt’s functioning is responsive and offering more complete than running merely as a business or booking engine,” he says.

Saraf goes on to say that a lot of brands, at some point in their lifecycle, get busy with adding numbers to their hotel chain and, therefore, tend to miss addressing their stakeholders, both at the micro and macro levels. “Even though it’s a prominent global brand, it is agile and swift to communicate and understands the needs of the owner and its customers.”

Or, as Hoplamazian says in context of the last nine months, “In addition, we will see businesses put more emphasis on colleague and customer well-being, even more so than before the pandemic. Integrating well-being into company culture and offerings will give businesses who get it right a competitive advantage.”

(The story originally appeared in Fortune India's February 2021 issue).

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