How do you know that a restaurant is any good? What makes a hotel seem like the sort of place you would like to go to? One answer is personal experience. But the truth is that most of us have already formed a picture of a restaurant before we decide to go there. And many of us who have never even visited a property already have a view about it. You don’t need to go to Udaivilas or Vanyavilas to know that they are among the world’s best resorts. You probably have an opinion about the spectacular ITC Grand Chola even if you have never been to the hotel.
The secret is not advertising: nobody I know forms an image of a hotel just from an ad. Nobody goes to a hotel restaurant because it is advertised. More often than not we tend to base our judgements on what we read.
So the PR people at hotel chains are often the most important and least talked about component of the image-building team. They are required to be low-profile because they deal only with journos. But some of them are surprisingly effective.
Here’s my guide to the secret image-makers at India’s top hotel chains.
Ask any discerning foreign travel agent (or travel writer) to name India’s top hotel group and they will name the Oberoi group. (Fifteen or twenty years ago they would have said the Taj).
This is a) because the Oberoi runs wonderful hotels but also b) because it has the most excellent PR. It is led by Bikki Oberoi himself but is executed by Silki Sehgal, the group’s head of PR whose is the one name that foreign travel writers recognise. This is not to say she’s not plugged into the Indian media as well. But one reason why the Oberoi group is viewed abroad as India’s leading high quality chain is because of Silki and the PR team.
Mention must also be made of Silki’s predecessor, the outstanding Ketaki Narain, and of the various unit PR people. Mallika Dasgupta at the Gurgaon Oberoi is probably the single best PR of any hotel in the country.
The Taj group is going through a bad patch and this has reflected on the PR team (in my view, the strongest part of the Taj’s workforce). Three years ago they invited me to address Taj salespeople, PR heads and their theoretical PR agency at a conference at the Land’s End. I told them that I thought the Taj had lost its way and its outstanding PR people were wasting their time, doing trouble-shooting for the failures of the management (the Delhi Taj controversy, the Sea Rock problems, etc.) when they should be out promoting the hotels and restaurants.
At that stage, they all looked shocked. But since there is now a recognition within the company that the Taj is in trouble, those views have virtually become the received wisdom throughout the chain.
The Taj has a truly exceptional head of PR in Raakhee Lalwani. And Sanjukta Roy in the South is well-liked and admired. Of the unit PR’s, Nikhila Palat in Bombay is terrific. And judging by the last couple of months, the management changes have helped this PR team do the job it is supposed to. Fingers crossed!
For years, ITC has had the worst PR in the business. Nobody abroad had heard of it and it never measured up to Taj and Oberoi in prestige. A succession of useless PR people ensured it was seen as a kabab-and-biryani chain.
Under the Nakul Anand-Deepak Haksar management team, that has changed so dramatically, that even I am surprised by the speed of the transformation. It helps, I guess, that such outstanding properties as the Gardenia in Bangalore, the Grand Chola in Chennai and the Grand Bharat outside Delhi have made the chain seem stylish. And the new breed of restaurants (Tian in Delhi, Pan Asian and Ottimo in Chennai, Edo in Bangalore, etc.) have made it easier to sell the chain to a sceptical media.
The change in reputation is largely a consequence of the work put in by the top management but it has been brilliantly communicated by Bindu Pannikar who not only handles the image-building, social media-interactions and gives direction to the press outreach but is also behind the wonderful chef-and-food videos that ITC runs on the internal TV channels at its properties.
Even before the Leela became a truly national chain, it had an image that was in excess of the reality largely because of the charisma of its founder, Captain CP Krishnan Nair. The Chairman was a walking advertisement for the chain and all PR interactions were guided by him personally. Now that he had passed away, his sons (Vivek and the more gregarious Dinesh) keep that tradition alive as does the group’s President Rajeev Kaul, one of India’s most experienced and best-liked hoteliers.
This leaves the PR department with little to do. But when a turnaround is in progress --- as with the Leela Gurgaon which General Manager Michel Koopman has transformed into an F&B hub – then unit PR’s, like the excellent Nidhi Verma. have an important role.