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A many-pillared storey
Business Standard - 20 Oct 2012

Conservative  Chennai is getting a luxury makeover, and leading the charge is India's largest  - and arguably grandest - city hotel

A  map to accompany the key card, a captive mine in Italy to supply 10 lakh sq ft  of travertine marble, a parikrama around the Chola-era inspired building before  you enter its portals, a grand staircase that, if not the largest, is certainly  the widest in any hotel in the country and which, when not serving as a  background for giddy tourists posing for photographs, is meant to awe. ITC's  Grand Chola is unashamedly India's largest hotel with 600 keys, 10 restaurants,  a column less hall that is 30,000 sq ft and can house 2,000 guests for a  reception, high-speed elevators that disperse 600 guests in under a minute, and  has an average room size at 625 sq ft of unabashed luxury.

But  neither numbers nor semantics do the Chennai hotel, that's part of ITC's spend  of Rs 10,000 crore on its luxury segment of hotels, justice. So much of that  would be experiential, whether room and bath amenities that belong to the  resort rather than the business hotel category, the use of technology that  personalises but also provides security features on an iPad in the room and is  the single gadget from which everything - from the use and brightness of lights  to the activation of television channels, the placing of room service orders to  the opening of the door itself - can be set in motion.

Five  years in the making on a budget of Rs 1,200 crore but with a breakeven targeted  within just two years of operation, spread over eight acres of busy Guindy,  harnessing 12.6 MW of renewable wind energy from Coimbatore, its recycled water  irrigating its extensive gardens, and a LEED Platinum certificate as the world's  largest green hotel - yet, Dipak Haksar, chief operating officer, points to the  intimate features of the building rather than its more obviously overpowering  ones, such as a façade and exterior that replicates the gopurams and mandapams  of Chola - and to the trained eye, Pandayan - architecture. "There are seven  lounges," he points out - these are somewhat cleverly positioned at different  points of the sprawling hotel, providing breaks on what could otherwise be  (very) lengthy walkways - creating little oases just when you're feeling you've  tumbled back in time and are in the pillared corridor of a thousand-year old  temple. The Chola and Pandaya rulers were rather more closely involved with the  arts and culture than their counterparts in the northern kingdoms, and their  patronage saw architecturally magnificent temples such as the Brihadeeswara in  Thanjavur turn into sangams or gathering points for learning and celebration -  a reference the hotel's Atlanta-based architects Smallwood Reynolds Stuart  & Stuart have cleverly exploited with four hotel entrances replicating the  four openings to a temple complex, and meeting points where one can transit  from one section to the other as seamlessly as the travertine marble that  spills all over the hotel but incorporates and unites within the overall  interior as many as 57 different kinds of marble as highlights, 462 pillars,  embellishments, or architectural features.

After  some time, the accolades and approbation prove exhausting - it already has the  city's largest Italian restaurant (with an Italian chef to boot), the group's  second-largest spa (after Kaya Kalpa in Agra), and will introduce the city's  largest lounge (but also "the most fun", promises area sales and marketing  manager V Prakash), its largest (20,000 sq ft) of premium retail space, and a  presidential suite extending over 4,380 sq ft with a separate, ceremonial  entrance, three contiguous swimming pools (and three gyms) on the fifth floor,  its largest Pan Asian restaurant, and, soon, the chain's first all-vegetarian  restaurant, Royal Vega. The adrenalin levels among the staff are on a high a  month into the opening, with the top management camping in Chennai to introduce  the product across different levels - to the media, to corporate houses, and to  local Chennaikars who have given it a thumping thumbs up if the packed  restaurants (and waiting lines at Peshawri) are anything to go by.

But  - one cannot help asking, with trepidation, and apologies - all this for  Chennai? Nor is the Grand Chola the only recent luxury offering in this sleepy  gateway to the south. Last week saw the soft launch of the Park Hyatt - in the  premium if not quite the luxury category - across the street from the Grand  Chola. Overlooking the Adyar seaface, the only hotel to exploit Chennai's  location, a typically opulent Leela Palace will open its doors to the public  before Diwali. Next to it, the shell of a J W Marriott, on which work stopped  some while ago, will no doubt add to the room inventory sooner rather than  later. Idli-poppadom land seems suddenly to be on overdrive.

While  supply seems to be pre-empting demand, Haksar echoes what most in the  hospitality segment in the city believe, that Chennai is only just getting its  due as the city of the future. It does have much to its credit, if not its  weather. It is a hub for automobile makers, IT and other services, medical  tourism, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. "The opening of the hotel," says  general manager Phillipe H Charraudeau, is going to catalyse the MICE demand."  MICE, for those not of the hospitality industry, refers to meetings,  incentives, conferences and exhibitions, a segment that requires large  banqueting areas, which even the Leela has been happy to provide, and which  brings in strong revenues. "The hotels will trigger a demand in the leisure,  business and conference segments," Leela general manager Pascal Dupuis agrees.  It is a curious coincidence that Charraudeau, Dupuis and Park Hyatt general  manager Yann Gillet are all French.

The  Park Hyatt is rather more nondescript in comparison with its competitors -  while, typically, the Grand Chola pooh-poohs peer competition, the sudden surge  in room inventory is bound to trigger a price war - but the two luxury  properties will probably clash head-on for segments of the market that could,  at least initially, eat into the existing supply, of which two other hotels,  the Park Sheraton and Fortune, are part of the ITC chain. According to at least  one analyst, the Chennai market does not yet have the depth to support the  sudden explosion in inventory, though the spread and consumption, however  tentative, of luxury in the retail space could be a signal about the city's  maturing status. 

Back  at Grand Chola, the opulence is understated but unravels, like the skin of an  onion, layer upon scintillating layer, exposing discreetly but handsomely  executed carvings over which 4,000 artisans have toiled, and which consist of  motifs taken from the eponymous Dravidian temples and Karaikudi Chettinad  houses that have inspired the overall design and consist of circular  medallions, garlands of marigolds, chakras, twin tuskers, clover leafs and  winding trails of vines. While that may be very well for the potential leisure  traveller with time he can call his own, the business traveller is altogether more  likely to respond to ITC executive director Nakul Anand's philosophy of the  hotel being in the business of sleep. As part of ITC's considerable research on  sleep (or its lack), there is a pillow menu, and aromas to ensure sound sleep  (or relieve stress while you snooze), and even, should you want to visit the  toilet in the middle of the night, stumble lights on the floor that come on and  guide you there and back.

"With  each new hotel we're setting new benchmarks, but in size, quality and luxury  the Grand Chola is the most ambitious we've undertaken," says Haksar. Prakash  hints that the noble architecture and sense of belonging it is arousing in  Chennai makes it emotionally akin to the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. And even as  Chennai gears up to gain from its and the other new hotels, Haksar adds, "The  hotel is a landmark not just for the country but for Asia."

It'll  only be a short while before we know whether the guests, jaded travellers for  the most part, agree.


It  is rare that a hotel does not clutter up its spaces with art, artefacts and  curiosities. Visitors, after all, see art as a differentiator, and hotels are  usually great repositories - whether the Taj Mahal in Mumbai or ITC Maurya in  New Delhi. Is the Grand Chola an aberration?

The  hotel's designers have opted for a minimal look and the expanse of space as the  prime design element. While the carvings and motifs are non-intrusive, there  are at least a few artworks from the group's collection that can be spotted in  occasional spaces. These include three Husains, the only "master" in the  hotel's collection so far, while Thota Tharani with five paintings and S G  Vasudev with one make up the only southern representative in the selection. The  other artists represented hear are mostly from the capital and include Paramjit  Singh, Naresh Kapuria, Manisha Gera Baswani, Gopi Gajwani, Kanchan Chander,  Vinod Sharma and others who, merit aside, lend no particular flavour to what  could have been a sangam of southern art — whether traditional or contemporary.

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