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A many-pillared storey

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

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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. ’s is unashamedly India’s largest hotel with 600 keys, 10 restaurants, a columnless 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 , 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 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, — 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.

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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 ), 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 preempting 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 , is going to catalyse the 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.

ART OF THE MATTER

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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