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Chatwals: Hoteliers with the Midas touch
Jai Arjun Singh
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June 04, 2005

It's a story the Chatwals enjoy relating. Back in 1987, just after hotelier Sant Chatwal had purchased the Tudor Hotel in Manhattan, they found an unanticipated side benefit: a large Raphael painting was discovered hanging in the centre of one of the walls.

The painting was valued and found to be worth millions; it's still with the family, even though the hotel was sold off the very next year. "We took that as a good portent," chuckles Chatwal, now president, Hampshire Hotels and Resorts.

"It suggested to us that our operations in the area were going to be a success."

The Chatwals -- Sant and his man-about-town son Vikram -- have reason to reflect on that good omen now: just a few days ago, they finalised a deal for 300 rooms in Manhattan.

This takes their total room count in the region up from 2,500 to 2,800, the highest number by any private hotel group. And they don't shy away from talking about their achievements.

"This year the occupancy of our hotels in New York has been 93 per cent," says the senior Chatwal proudly, "That's around 10 percentage points above the average occupancy for the city."

Things have changed in other ways too. Back in 1987, Vikram was a callow 16-year-old who would take out the garbage bags every day.

Today he's playing a role in changing the focus of the business. Under him, the company's business plan has been restructured to give boutique and luxury hotels together a 50 per cent share.

His pet project these days is the haute couture line of 'Dream' hotels, the first of which opened in New York in October last year. The hotel, conceptualised by Vikram and designed by David Rockwell, is targetted at "bohemian business executives, unconventional people looking for striking, other worldly designs."

This is reflected in every aspect of the hotel, from the Serafina restaurant, which invokes the world of the great surrealist director Federico Fellini to the Ava lounge, with its French Riviera-inspired decor.

But arguably the key attraction is the Chopra Center NY done in collaboration with the celebrated physician-author Deepak Chopra. "Our feeling was that after 9/11 New York needed someone like Deepak," says Vikram.

"The healing centre adds value to the hotel -- it brings in a sense of spirituality and mysticism." There's a temptation to not take the Chatwals very seriously. One sees more of them on newspaper page 3s than in the business pages.

There's a hint of boredom, a suggestion of "starting new projects just because they can", especially in Vikram's jet-setting lifestyle: he's moved adroitly from inaugurating new hotels to escorting Bill Clinton around to participating in social causes like the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

He's even been a film star, in the broadest definition of that term -- having played the lead in the roundly vilified film One Dollar Curry. (Incidentally, another movie appearance is on the cards.)

Some of the flamboyance is on display at our interview too. Vikram comes in, gives his dad a high-five, says, "How's it going, man?" in his clipped accent.

Dad replies, "Long time no see, eh?" (They were posing for photographs with Clinton just a couple of days earlier.) The father-son duo play off each other, put on a thinly disguised veneer of seriousness, even act coy about being in front of the camera.

It's hard to say whether this is what they're really like, or whether there's an element of media-directed artifice involved. The truth, like the Raphael, probably hangs somewhere in between.

But study the picture more closely and you'll find a disconnect between image and actuality.

"Vikram and I might be very high-profile in terms of media coverage," admits Sant Chatwal, "but one of the major reasons for our success is that we're not a mom-and-pop store. In fact, we are personally involved only when it comes to the highest-level decisions -- acquisitions and so on. The business itself has a solid, professional structure -- we have a high-power executive team with a combined experience of around 500 years."

Vikram, curiously effete for a man with a playboy reputation (he was dubbed the "Turban Cowboy" by the international press, an epithet that, remarkably, he seems quite comfortable with), always seem to be looking somewhere just behind you (this fits the visionary tag though it could just as easily be eye-glaze).

He speaks in aphorisms ("you don't get the good unless you know the bad"), talks thoughtfully about the projects he's currently working on and his vision for the company.

More Dream hotels are in the offing; work is underway on one in Bangkok, while the Chatwals have already held numerous meetings to purchase property in India, to open such luxury hotels in the metros.

"We'll have to adjust the specifics of hotel design and decor to match the Indian demographic," says Vikram, "but the basic concept will stay."

He also plans to expand the bar/lounge segment for Hampshire Hotels. A 120-room luxury landmark hotel called the Lamb's Club has been earmarked for Times Square.

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