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The true allure of boutique hotels

The allure of a luxury boutique hotel lies as much in its story as it does in the bespoke experiences that it has on offer

The Old Harbour Hotel in Fort Kochi, an over-200-year-old building, was once Kerala’s oldest hotel
The Old Harbour Hotel in Fort Kochi, an over-200-year-old building, was once Kerala’s oldest hotel

Sanjay Narang’s past life as Mumbai’s best known hospitality mogul was a good one by most standards. He ran successful businesses (Mars Restaurants and Skygourmet, which he built with his sister Rachna), had rich and powerful friends, and dated a beauty queen.

Today, he lives in his “dream home”, perched on a hillside, close to the cantonment town of Landour, near Mussoorie. A short walk from his house is Rokeby Manor, an old guest house that Narang, 52, converted into a luxury hotel a few years ago. The breakfast spread is simple and homely, and the 12 rooms at Rokeby are well appointed. There is a three-bedroom cottage on the property as well. The obvious attempts to keep the wood and stone structure true to its original form ensure that it continues to look and feel like a 19th century manor. The service may not be what you’d expect at a five-star hotel, but it is warm and friendly. One look at the cedar-covered hills outside and it’s clear that the place is special.

Back in 2005, despite his seemingly perfect life in Mumbai, Narang wanted to leave the city. He had recently returned from a visit to his old school, Woodstock, near Landour. “I was missing it, so I went back again as soon as I got the opportunity,” says Narang. “I thought after a few trips, the nostalgia would wear off, but each time I came back, I loved it more and more. So I guess if you find a place where you want to be, you find a way to be there,” he says.

Narang sold a majority of his businesses, (India Hospitality Corp bought Mars Restaurants and Skygourmet from Narang and his investors for $110 million in 2007) moved to Landour, and began working on community initiatives, including some projects to renovate sections of his old school. During one of these projects in 2011, he came across an old, run-down guest house called Rokeby Manor. Its proprietor asked Narang if he would like to buy it. It was a house that was built by a certain Captain GN Cauthy on a two-acre plot of land in 1840 and named after one of Sir Walter Scott’s poems. “It sounded interesting, so I said yes,” says Narang. From that point on, the intuitive hotelier in him took over.

“We wanted to restore the building into what it was originally built as. So we extracted the history, created a nice story around it and started off, without any marketing,” he says. Ninety people worked on restoring the property, including Narang’s sister Rachna, who designed the interiors. “We had it running in four months.”

It took almost a year for Rokeby Manor to become a destination of choice for the eclectic traveller, ticking off all the boxes that form the fundamentals of a luxury boutique hotel: Small, fashionable and uniquely located. But to straitjacket the definition of such a hotel to just three attributes would be incorrect. Even Tripadvisor.com, the dependable confidant of the modern traveller, does not attempt to define it explicitly. “We don’t have a specific definition for a category such as boutique hotels,” says Nikhil Ganju, head, Tripadvisor India. This isn’t because the category isn’t important. To the contrary. “If you follow our Travellers’ Choice Awards, you’ll see that over the years, more than 50 percent of the properties that are featured across categories in those awards are in the standalone boutique hotel segment,” says Ganju.
 
The basis for the shift in preference for boutique hotels, according to him, lies in the fact that, “Luxury is no longer only about having a well-appointed, luxurious room. It’s also about the ability to create unique and special experiences.”

These experiences, as is evident from Narang’s story, are influenced in large part by the stories of the people who create these hotels. This holds true not just for the hotel’s origins but occasionally even its services. In Rokeby’s case, one of the many services on offer is a meeting with Landour’s most famous resident, Ruskin Bond, who is also Narang’s neighbour.

Sanjay Narang
Sanjay Narang

So call them boutique hotels or luxury lodging, or even luxury home-stays: The hotels mentioned in this story are representative of the many variations of a boutique luxury experience. Be it a small hotel in Mumbai that, despite lacking the frills usually associated with a luxury hotel, strives to provide its guests with an authentic experience of the city or a surreal desert fortress that takes traditional Rajasthani hospitality to a whole new level. They don’t all cost the same, neither are the creature comforts on offer consistent across these five properties. These hotels are simply united by the passion-fuelled journeys of their owners, and by the fact that they are all, even within a group or a category, unique.

Take, for instance, the Old Harbour Hotel in Fort Kochi. The over-200-year-old building was once Kerala’s oldest hotel. It was then converted to be used as a residence for the executives of the tea-broking firm that owned it till the year 2000. This was when a 34-year-old Fort Kochi resident named Edgar Pinto bought the property.

“I grew up around this place,” says Pinto, now 49, who previously worked in the oil and gas arm of security systems conglomerate Tyco International in the Middle East. “I had seen the building since I was a child and so, when I returned, I acquired it and decided to restore the building.”

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Rokeby Manor was an old guest house in Landour, Mussoorie, which Sanjay Narang converted into a luxury hotel a few years ago

It wasn’t going to be easy. In order to restore the building, says Pinto, “We had to take out a lot of additions that the previous residents had made to the property.” Almost 100 trucks of debris had to be taken out. They had old photographs of the property to assist them in the restoration. More importantly, says Pinto, he had a team of people who were passionate about restoration and genuinely interested in the value of the building’s architectural heritage.

To oversee renovations, he sought the services of Swiss architect Karl Damschen who has lived in Kochi for over three decades. He had previously worked on restoring the Niraamaya Surya Samudra resort in Kovalam. The resort is a Relais & Châteaux property, part of a collection of some of the finest boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants in the world.
 
Since he had no prior experience in the hospitality business, Pinto based his judgement on his experiences as a luxury traveller. “I visited luxury hotels around the world, and the rooms in most of them felt almost the same,” he says. “I wanted to build a place that was unique and impossible to replicate.” So it became imperative that his hotel “feel different”. This was kept in mind even in the case of something as innocuous as a keycard. “We have big, heavy bronze keys,” he says, with some satisfaction. And it went on to more noticeable things. “Then you open the door to your room and there’s either a huge four-poster bed in a room, or there’s some interesting art piece, wooden floors… the works.” One of the rooms has a kerosene fan that is nearly a century old, he points out, while some of the others have the works of contemporary Malayali painter Bose Krishnamachari. Importantly, for its owner, each of the 13 rooms at the Old Harbour Hotel offer a unique aesthetic.

The idea is to appeal to a traveller who is looking to go beyond the standard ‘nice room in a luxury hotel’. Tripadvisor.com’s Ganju is himself a member of this growing tribe. “When I stay at some of these smaller boutique hotels, I encounter travellers who are mature and discerning,” says Ganju. “These are travellers who have seen what is on offer in the luxury segment and are looking for something new.”

The travellers, not unlike the hotels, are tricky to define. They range from young millennials who may not consider the standard luxury experience exciting enough, to older, well-heeled individuals who have been there and done the five-star experience many times over. And their numbers are increasing.

It is no surprise then, says Ganju, that these properties are also charging prices that rival those of the larger luxury chains. “Something like a Raas Haveli can cost you the equivalent of an Oberoi property,” he says.

Sidharth Singh and wife Rashmi built the 10-room all-suite Mihir Garh hotel in Rajasthan
Sidharth Singh and wife Rashmi built the 10-room all-suite Mihir Garh hotel in Rajasthan

The Raas Haveli is a 40-room hotel in the old city of Jodhpur. It has large open spaces which provide a majestic view of Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort looming over it. Brothers Nikhilendra and Dhananjay Singh (kinsmen of the erstwhile Maharaja of Jodhpur), along with their English investors, developed the property, having acquired it from a Rajput ‘Thakur’ (chieftain) in 2007. Nikhilendra did not know much about building hotels. He compensated for it by having a good eye for property. “I instinctively knew that it was a great site,” he says of the haveli.

Inexperience had its own rewards. It enabled them to look at the hotel as consumers rather than hoteliers, says Nikhilendra. “I knew I wanted to build something new in a contemporary style with a fresh take on heritage hotels, but I didn’t know how,” he says. So they hired architects who drew up 30 different design options for the property before the brothers decided on what best fit their vision.

It has become an oasis in the old city but its creators are now taking the ‘’Raas Experience’’ outside its walls. Raas Haveli’s blue customised autorickshaw has ferried its guests around Jodhpur’s winding lanes for some years now. They have already begun renovating step wells and other spaces close to the property. “We don’t want it to be an isolated pocket, we want the experience out on the streets,” says Nikhilendra.

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Mihir Garh sits on a six-metre-high sand dune—the highest point in the area and offers panoramic views of the open desert

About 50 km from Raas, in a lonely corner of the Thar Desert, dotted with shrubbery, another experience awaits in the form of a luxurious faux fortress. The 10-room all-suite Mihir Garh hotel sits on a six-metre-high sand dune, which is the highest point in the area and offers panoramic views of the open desert. Unlike many of Rajasthan’s most famous hotels, Mihir Garh wasn’t built centuries ago.

“There was this burning desire to create something special,” says Sidharth Singh, who built the hotel with his wife Rashmi between 2007 and 2009. One of only nine Relais & Châteaux properties in India, the hotel looks almost surreal with its smooth curved lines, battlements and turrets, one of which actually houses a jacuzzi.

Sidharth Singh’s forebearers were awarded the ‘Rohet Jagir’ under the Maharaja of Jodhpur in 1622 for bravery in battle. He was one of the early entrants into the heritage hotel space in Rajasthan, with their first hotel, Rohet Garh. “It is a heritage hotel in the classic sense of the word,” he says. Rohet Garh has been in operation since 1990, before which neither Sidharth nor his wife had any professional experience of running a hotel. “We lived and learnt,” says Sidharth, “and grew with the hotel.”

The 23-acre plot of land on which it stands today was asking for a hotel to come up on it, he says. By 2007, they began work on it and unlike most people, the couple wanted to do it all by themselves. The role of the professionals was limited to the broad structural aspects of the building. “We literally drew it out for them,” says Sidharth. With Mihir Garh, the couple wanted to pay tribute to the region of Marwar in Rajasthan, which consists of Jodhpur and the region to the west of the city. “Everything from the rugs, the furniture, the furnishings, fabrics, everything is from Marwar,” he says. So much so, that the couple did not even go to Jaipur for the material. The suites at the hotel measure about 1,700 square feet. “There are courtyards and terraces, with little plunge pools or jacuzzis with each suite,” says Sidharth.

At first glance, Mihir Garh looks like a sand castle. The mud finish that gives the sandy texture to the fort is applied using the same technique that is used on the huts in the nearby villages, says Sidharth. Women from the neighbouring villages helped make the fireplaces for the hotel using the same dung and clay methods that they use in their homes. Mirror-work, commonly seen in the region, was also used to adorn these fireplaces.

“It was a labour of love for my parents,” says Avjijit Singh, 23, the Rohet scion who has recently returned after graduating from the École hôtelière de Lausanne. It is no coincidence then that his father’s love for horses also finds place in this new adventure. Sidharth Singh’s Marwari horse stables, located next to the hotel, are an important part of the Mihir Garh experience, but with a caveat. “We have a brilliant equestrian programme and we offer some of the best riding in the country. But for that, I need experience,” says Sidharth. He has been a longtime proponent of the conservation and protection of the rare breed of Marwari horses, distinguishable by their inward-facing ear tips. For experienced riders, the hotel offers a village safari on horseback, complete with a ‘royal picnic’ en route. Madonna reportedly took one of these horse safaris during her stay at Mihir Garh.

The Abode Bombay hotel in Colaba, Mumbai, aims to allow guests to truly experience the city
The Abode Bombay hotel in Colaba, Mumbai, aims to allow guests to truly experience the city

What is notable in the case of Mihir Garh as with other such properties is that they are in harmony with their surroundings. It is fitting then, that a hotel like Abode Bombay lies in the midst of what is arguably the heart of South Mumbai. Colaba typifies almost every characteristic of the city, including the chaos and the sheer lack of space, albeit in more aesthetically appealing surroundings. Abode Bombay fits right in. Unlike all the other hotels mentioned here, the hotel is not located in an independent building. Typically, it wouldn’t be mentioned in a luxury category but what it lacks in space and opulence, it makes up for with sheer inventiveness and spunk.

It takes up two levels of an art-deco building called Lansdowne House, on a lane that leads up to Mumbai’s iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel and the Gateway of India. Once the hotel’s enthusiastic taxi driver Husna has picked the guests up from the airport, she usually gives them a lowdown on the city while driving them to the hotel. The noise from the street outside mercifully subsides as you make your way up the wooden stairs where an illuminated sign simply reads: HOTEL.

“I wanted to create something that my friends could visit when they came to Bombay,” says Abedin Sham, 33, who runs Abode with his sister, Jumana Lokhandwala, 35. Sham, whose family ran a hotel called Regency Inn on the same two floors where Abode is now, did not find the previous hotel very inspiring. He wouldn’t recommend it to his friends because “it lacked character”.

Today, you can find either Sham or his sister Jumana, who looks after the hotel’s operations, in the central space that serves as the reception/cafe/lobby of the hotel, a part of which is dubbed: The pseudo library. “When I’m in town, if a guest wants to join me for a run in the morning or catch a movie, they’re always welcome to do so,” says Sham, who considers himself a “Colaba junkie”.

They have also created a map of Colaba which features all the places that they love to visit. “Abode means home, so we try to make all our guests feel comfortable and give them a personalised experience,” says Jumana. The aim is to let a guest truly experience the city. “Very often, when people visit a desi five-star hotel, they are insulated from what is going around them. It isn’t a culturally real experience,” says Sham.

To ensure this authenticity, Abode Bombay tries to stay local, says Sham. The antique furniture in the hotel was sourced with the help of their father Essa Sham, an art and antiquities dealer, who helped them salvage it from Mumbai’s scrapyards. “We sanded down the furniture, stripping it off the years of layering, and left it in its original condition,” says Sham. The hotel’s one-room spa employs blind masseurs. “It’s an enriching experience for both them and the guests,” says Sham. “These are people who really understand the city.”

The transition from a standard fare guest house to a 20-room boutique hotel began about two years ago, when Sham brought in Elizabeth Chapman, a former business analyst, as a consultant. An Australian architect named Sian Pascale helped design the hotel, incorporating elements of Mumbai’s Parsi, art-deco and Victorian design heritage. Its rooms are compact, though the luxury and superior luxury rooms are significantly more spacious than the tiny budget rooms. Photographs of Mumbai’s residents, both old and new hang from the bathroom walls, are propped up on the tables and adorn the walls in various rooms and corridors.

The luxury rooms look down on the same crowded street that one would look to escape while entering the building. However, from the cool comfort of the hotel, the street seems rather pleasant, and induces the guest to go out and explore. Sham has succeeded in creating a hotel that embodies both the heritage of Bombay and the energy and eclecticism of Mumbai, while providing a more authentic experience of the city. Importantly, his friends finally have a hotel that they can go visit.  

It would seem that this is where the real allure of a boutique hotel lies: In the fact that the people who create them often expand the conventional definition of luxury by looking beyond what most people consider the gold standard.

(This story appears in the 13 November, 2015 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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