When the France-based Accor group calls itself ‘the world’s leading hotel operator and the market leader in Europe’, positioning itself above the mostly Anglo-Saxon chains that entered India in the vanguard, it isn’t making too tall a claim. With 4,400 properties in 92 countries, a total of 5,30,000 rooms, it is big enough to put American supersizing to shame.
Which would be why I raise my eyebrows, but can hardly raise a smirk when they announce their intention to be India’s leading international hotel operator as soon as 2015. They already have 480 hotels in the Asia Pacific.
Internationally, Accor’s portfolio spans a dozen brands (some with multiple flavours); from luxurious Sofitel to pared-down Formule 1, seven have plans for India. Two of these are close relations: mid-market premier Mercure itself and the upscale Grand Mercure (its sole representative, in Bengaluru, an all-suite property). The upscale Pullman is most interesting, with each property interpreting the brand values uniquely in architecture and offerings, consciously eschewing a uniform identity. Most familiar are value brand Ibis and upper mid-scale Novotel, the brand reinvented recently. Least-priced but not least exciting is Formule 1, which leads the low-cost segment in Europe and has ambitions to topple the likes of Ginger.
The first to arrive was Ibis in 2006. First of the second wave, actually, Accor’s first foray in the last century not having gone so well, necessitating a pull-out and subsequent re-entry with Inter-Globe (of IndiGo). This year, Accor will add a round dozen, bringing its numbers to 23 for 2012. The plan counts 90 properties by 2015, a scant nine years later!
It’s well on its way to realising its vision, with a record five properties inaugurated in April: Sofitel KBC in Mumbai, Pullman Gurgaon Central Park (Accor’s 500th property in the Asia Pacific, obviously the key growth market), Novotel Bengaluru Techpark (an Ibis already at the same address made it India’s first combo property), Ibis Bengaluru Hosur Road and Ibis Nashik and Formule 1 Greater Noida. The Sofitel, Pullman and Formule 1 are all maiden properties.
They avow an interesting — and extremely pragmatic — mix of French flair and Indian rootedness. For the well-travelled guest, the Novotel Techpark’s Chez Nous bar has a fancy espresso machine and chai-tinis, while the Pullman’s La Riviera speciality restaurant boasts a Vinoteca showcasing exotic cheeses and wines. Yet for the global wanderer coming home to roost, the Pullman Gurgaon’s lobby showcases installations by contemporary Indian artists and Formule 1’s vending machine has hot curry meals, not just a cold sandwich. The Art Nouveau bones of the Sofitel KBC Mumbai are fleshed out by paisleys and elephants, the vegetarian restaurant (Tuskers) a bold move and one surprisingly overlooked by homegrown competitors; the doorman greets you with a ‘Bonjour Namaskar’.
However, what impresses me on visits to most Accor properties in India are the intangible extras, beyond concrete fixtures and facilities, suggesting thoughtful anticipation of guests’ priorities. Sure, some manifest as tangibles, like Formule 1’s bed, easily best in class and many mattresses ahead of some ‘betters’; more often, it is the intention behind the incarnation that makes the brand memorable.
Women guests at Novotel Bengaluru Techparkcan enjoy La Femme Rooms, equipped with not just bath and hygiene amenities, but women’s magazines, a silk robe and chocolates — as well as the more pragmatic additions of extra security by way of a video door phone and a helping hand at the airport, should they want it.
The on-the-go breakfast station at Novotel is a feature that should make competition wake up. It is so easy (and economical) to grab a warm muffin or fresh green apple as you cross the lobby. Many hotels offer free breakfast; few serve it so conveniently. The Ibis Techpark in Bengaluru serves breakfast 0400 to 1230 — which suits early departures as well as late check-ins recovering from a red-eye ride. Stock-it-yourself mini fridges — not glorified minibars — are complemented by the signature Ibis ice dispensers on each floor. In similar vein, perhaps, Formule 1 (which only puts bottled water in guestrooms) is toying with the idea of tea and coffee stations in the lift lobby on each floor. The ‘little things’ that make brand loyalty a no-brainer.
At the Pullman, whoever greets you at the door also checks you into your room and shows you around, if you wish — the ‘greeter’ is a universal role at this brand, where all employees right up to the level of director wear pins with only their first name and a restaurant manager is happy to book you a spa appointment. The simplicity, at the guest’s end, is priceless.
Even extras at a price are novelties to India, yet make perfect common sense. Budget brand Formule 1 has a shoe-shine machine; the vending machine dispenses food as well as essentials you forgot to pack: toothpaste, shampoo, feminine hygiene products. And at this rock-bottom price, Wi-Fi is still free.
Rooms on the Pullman’s executive floor are no larger than regular ones, in a market where extra square footage often costs several thousand rupees. It’s the amenities that upgrade — double the pillow menu; a choice of room fragrance to nod off to; a digital frame to hold a loved one’s face, placed before you check in; a ‘quiet’ button that lights up prominently to alert staff way down the corridor to cocoon your room in a silent zone.
Novotel’s Premier Lounge has a meeting room available gratis to Premier guests for two hours daily. Other tricks of the trade, like the combo property of Ibis and Novotel Techpark, make as much sense for the hotel as guests. Instead of housing mid-rung and senior executives in different properties and then transporting them to a third venue, corporate groups can have them sleep cheek by jowl, at different price points as befits their designations, and hold meetings in the same building in the morning.
Even what everyone does, Accor seems bent on doing better. Mid-scale onwards, most hotel rooms have more furniture than a bed. But rooms at Accor hotels are actual functional living spaces, not just bedrooms with a desk. Not for Novotel or Pullman the designer knock-off chaise longue that greets your derriere with discomfort; the sofa really makes working in your room as comfortable as lounging. The ergonomics are impressive even in little brother Formule 1 — in rooms no larger than a ship’s cabin, there is innovative hanging space for clothes; a desk; space-pod lighting controls in the headboard; a high-tech shower in the prefab bathroom; soundproof windows and restful rather than ‘youthful’ colours.
Indian flavours, where some international brands (Westin, Hyatt, Marriott) cede ground to homegrown chains, are a plat du jour at Accor, making sure no Indian guest can miss the taste of home. Even the pared-down Formule 1 includes a hot breakfast of paratha or upma and a buffet of dal-chawal-roti-sabzi-chicken-gulabjamun for dinner (until a third-party restaurant opens). The Mercure Lavasa has Indian and Mediterranean as twin specialities at its ‘12th Main’ restaurant: aloo jeera and polenta terrine, nalli nihari alongside risotto gambretti. At Pullman and Novotel, the five live stations include an Indian alongside pizza (both) and duck ovens (Pullman). Plus, Pullman’s staff cannot stop talking about their plans for the Indian speciality restaurant — first to showcase the Creole specialities of Pondicherry outside that location. Even the lower-rung Ibis makes a point of its bharani upon bharani of homemade pickles. Speaking of homemade, not only are Pullman’s breakfast juices freshly squeezed, but cocktail mixers, ketchups, jams and chutneys are all made from scratch.
It all makes for a rather refreshing change — and makes Accor one to watch in the next decade.
- Sofitel from Rs 9,000
- Pullman from Rs 7,250
- Grand Mercure from Rs 5,314
- Novotel from Rs 6,499
- Mercure from Rs 2,551
- IBIS from Rs 4,499
- Formule 1 from Rs 2,112 (both doubles and triples)