Hospitality is a serious business, and with the emergence of high-spending corporate travellers, the stakes at plush hotels have gone up further. Hotels have been offering suites for decades but changes in people's tastes and preferences are prompting them to take a relook.
Oberoi Hotels & Resorts launched Suite Experiences in 2014. This is a product designed for guests who want to experience bespoke stays. At Deluxe Suite at The Oberoi, New Delhi, there is a large living area with a powder room, a state-of-the-art pantry, a king-size bed and a bathroom with top-end Italian marble.
The suites' private balconies give sweeping views of Delhi Golf Course and Humayun's Tomb, and room dining service is provided by an immaculately turned out butler (there is 24-hour butler service for each suite). The living area - which can primarily be used to conduct work meetings or entertain guests - has Lutyens' style furnishings and an oak wood writing desk. A number of suites also have Victorian or Art Deco theme. The Oberoi says its suite occupancy has been seeing a growth of 15 per cent a year over the past four years.
Over the years, there has been a big change in the way hospitality players look at luxury suites, says Sunjae Sharma, Vice-president, India Operations at Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. In the past, the volume of high-spending corporate travellers was small and erratic and so CXOs, chairmen and presidents of multinationals or domestic corporations didn't have a wide variety of choices. Now, the multiplying needs of the corporate sector for stays at higher price points has led to unprecedented expansion in the space. Hotel chains have been quick to sense the opportunity and guests today have more options than ever. "They are no longer considered mere business transactions. The focus is on the overall experience, going beyond opulence. The designs have changed and become minimal," says Sharma of Hyatt.
"With a wide range of suites on offer, one is spoilt for choice. Each of our suites is interpreted by some of the best interior designers. Exquisite pieces of art adorn the walls and every piece of furniture is a carefully chosen masterpiece," says Rohit Khosla, Executive Vice-president, Operations, North & West India at Taj Hotels and Resorts, adding that "there has been an increase in demand for suites from Indian travellers and long stayers."
Typically, suites are booked for more than two-three nights, while Presidential suites, which are notches above the regular suites, are for longer stays. Hotels in upscale category and above tend to have at least one Presidential Suite, an ideal choice for heads of states, premiers and global celebrities. The Kohinoor Suite at The Oberoi, New Delhi, for instance, has played host to Queen Mathilde of Belgium, Giorgio Armani, Australia's former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, and also members of The Beatles. The luxurious Tata suite at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, named after the founder Jamsetji Tata, highlights the art and architecture of British India, and has a 12-seater boardroom, an entertainment centre, a formal dining room, and an informal living room, apart from living spaces, a gym and a spa.
In spite of the cut-throat competition, hospitality companies are not following the proverbial cookie-cutter approach with suites. "The Presidential suites are a waste," says Tristan Beau de Lomenie, Director of Operations, AccorHotels - Luxe India. "Because it's unused space. I'd rather have smaller suites than a Presidential suite. They are occupied (only) occasionally because they are too big. My Presidential suite is occupied by long-staying guests. The short-term use of the Presidential suite is more on the leisure side than on the corporate side. I haven't seen CEOs or senior (executives) going for Presidential suites," he says.
de Lomenie might have a point. The suites in business and leisure hotels feed into each other in some ways. Business hotels see a high percentage of CEOs and C-suite executives booking suites to host high-powered meetings, but when travelling with family, they prefer to book suites in leisure destinations where they can redeem loyalty points earned during their stay at business hotels, and vice versa.
Besides having fairly different products from each other, hotel chains have suites within their brand portfolio that are like chalk and cheese.
Fredrik Blomqvist, General Manager at Four Seasons Hotel, Bengaluru, says valets and standby butler services are outdated. "It's part of the past. We are moving away from it. We give all the services at fingertips. We have 24-hour room service, apart from valet, dining, pressing and other services. In every hotel, we have a different car fleet. We are looking at our limousine fleet at the moment. It's not about quantity but quality and getting the guests right," he says.
In India, Hyatt Hotels is present in 18 places, and each set-up has a distinct environment and socio-cultural aspect. It doesn't follow a standard inventory format for luxury suites and instead curates them keeping in mind the locale, property features and the destination.
Each brand is playing on its strengths. Homegrown chains lay stress on traditional art and decor and a mix of continental and Indian cuisine while foreign brands are emphasising on their place of origin to attract travellers from that part of the world. Take for instance Sofitel, a French-oriented brand from AccorHotels. Its look and feel is European and contemporary and it offers food and beverages that go with it. "American brands attract American customers. We are very strong in Europe. Customers coming from Europe predominately choose our hotels," says AccorHotels' de Lomenie.
A key shift has been the growing demand for personalisation as a result of adoption of technology. At Hilton Hotels, for instance, a digital key allows guests to use their smartphone as a room key, the digital check-in service lets guests select the exact room they want based on interactive floor plans and Google Maps API. "In improving our luxury suite offerings, we've had to ensure that we give guests unique experiences, which translate into 'Instagrammable moments'," says Daniel Welk, Vice-president, Luxury and Lifestyle, Asia Pacific, Hilton.
"Technology has made it easier to provide bespoke experiences. At Hyatt Regency, Delhi, we have introduced car check-ins for our regular patrons since business travellers are always in a rush and need quick and smooth check-in and check-out," says Hyatt's Sharma.
The rise in demand is prompting hotels to invest more in suites. Historically, the luxury properties of Ritz-Carlton, Taj Hotels and The Leela Hotels had 20-25 per cent as suites in their total inventory. For upscale and upper-upscale brands (such as JW Marriott, Park Hyatt, Le Meridien, Pullman), the figure was 10-15 per cent. There has been a change in the trend of late.
In AccorHotels India's 50-hotel network, six brands offer suites with a total inventory of 280, which account for 10-15 per cent of the inventory in these hotels, in line with the industry average. "The demand for suites is getting bigger to an extent that if my hotel's (Pullman's) 25-30 per cent inventory is suites, I will be able to fulfil the demand better. There's a demand for long stays (at suites) and our hotels are not equipped to meet that entire demand. The trend would be to build more suites and reach 25 per cent of the inventory. I see this as a global trend," says de Lomenie.
The corporate travel market in India is expected to clock the fastest growth globally over the next five years, and business travel spending is estimated to treble to $90 billion by 2030, a report by consultancy KPMG and FCM Travel Solutions said last year. The luxury suites segment is likely to be a small fraction of this market but it will surely be the frontrunner in terms of the pace of growth.