It's not yet 10am, but the temperature has already topped 90ºF and the dusty, pot-hole-ridden city streets have been bustling for several hours with motorised rickshaws, 40-year-old buses laden with thousands of work-bound people and motorbikes carrying entire, precariously balanced families. The occasional screech of brakes can be heard as a vehicle swerves dramatically to avoid a laid-back holy cow wandering across the road at her leisure, and the air is filled with a warm, spicy aroma - as well as the not-so-pleasant smell of open drains. Everywhere one looks there is colour - saris made of bright green, yellow, red, pink or blue fabrics drape the thin bodies of women.
Alien as it may seem to Westerners, there is nothing unusual about this scene. It's a typical day in Udaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan. And Paul Hageman, the British general manager of the city's luxury 143-room Trident hotel, loves it. "I was first approached about coming to work in India in 1994 and wasn't sure about it, so came to have a look," he says. "I couldn't believe it - the colour, smells, religion and culture completely zapped me. I was hooked by it immediately and still am."
It was East India Hotels that headhunted Hageman from the UK, initially to manage its Trident hotel in Agra before moving him to open the Udaipur property in 1997.
"Bicky Oberoi [who owns East India Hotels] could see that international chains such as Marriott and Inter-Continental were beginning to move into India and he understood that he would need to reposition his properties to compete with them in future," says Hageman.
Oberoi was correct. Despite the recent economic crisis across most of Asia, experts believe India is shaping up for a period of prolonged expansion. This is, in part, sparked by the forecast that visitor numbers will increase by 4% to 5% annually over the next 10 to 15 years, according to Harsh Varma, regional representative of the World Tourism Organisation.
The international chains have already earmarked India as a potential market. At Marriott International, vice-president Asia Ed Hubenette talks not only about the likely increase in international visitors to India but also about the growing demand from the domestic market for hotel rooms. "Of India's population of 970 million, 30 to 40 million people are now earning more than $30,000 a year. There's clearly a huge and growing middle class there and I can only see domestic business and leisure travel moving in one direction."
Marriott has three branded properties in India, but it is taking on another management contract in Goa in August, with three other properties set to join the chain in Mumbai within the next two years. "And we're also about to go into Delhi and Madras," says Hubenette. "I think within two to three years we'll have 10 properties in India and our ultimate goal is to get all our brands well-represented across the country."
Aggressive expansion is the aim of franchising chain Choice Hotels International. It has 17 properties in its network in India but has set a target of increasing this to 30 by 2001. "And even when we get to that number, we'll only just have scratched the surface of the country," says Edwina Korallus, Choice vice-president sales and marketing Asia Pacific. "Our expansion will undoubtedly continue thereafter."
Other chains with significant expansion in mind include Granada-owned Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts and domestic operators Indian Hotels and East India Hotels, which are both planning properties in the four-star market as well as their traditional five-star domain.
While all this expansion is taking place, there is a management change to be orchestrated, something hotel owners are recognising and using British managers to remedy. "Traditionally, Indian hotel managers have had a dictatorial style, with other staff being given little responsibility," says Hageman. "Mr Oberoi realised he had to introduce a modern team-based approach to his hotels to succeed. I had a strong track record in people management and in hotel branding with Crest Hotels -Êthat's why I was brought in."
Hageman's story has a familiar ring to it for Nigel Grocock, another Brit, who was recruited as general manager of the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi at the beginning of this year. He explains that, just like East India Hotels, the Taj Group recognised international competition was on the way and that it needed a fresh approach to management to meet the challenge.
"The Taj Group had never employed an expatriate general manager before me, but it had the foresight to see that with international chains on the expansion trail, it needed to bring in people who had worked in the international arena," says Grocock. "I've worked in South Africa, Fiji, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and China, which is why they hired me."
Grocock and Hageman may work for competitor organisations, but when they talk about their jobs and the changes they believe they need to implement at their hotels, their language is almost identical. Both say their focus is on multi-skilling staff, encouraging them to take the initiative and on improving productivity. "People here are used to being dealt with by autocratic management, so they aren't used to taking responsibility and coming up with ideas to improve systems," says Grocock. "I see it as my job to give staff the confidence to manage themselves and their jobs."
Keith Haslam, another British general manager working in India at the Hotel Inter-Continental New Delhi, reiterates much of what his contemporaries say. He has been in his present job for just over a year, having moved with Inter-Continental from China, and has the task of transforming what was previously the Hilton New Delhi into a five-star de luxe-standard property in keeping with the rest of Inter-Continental's portfolio. This means overseeing an extensive refurbishment of the property, and the retraining of staff, he says.
"We have 444 bedrooms and 1,100 employees, so staffing levels are obviously much higher here than in a European hotel," he says. "The standard working week here is also longer than in Europe - nine-hour days and a six-day week. That means people tend to be less productive, simply because it's what they are used to. I am implementing training courses for all our people to try to improve productivity and raise service standards. And over time I'm going to be reducing staff numbers via natural attrition."
But it's not only introducing a modern style of management and upping productivity levels that provide the challenge of working in the Indian hotel industry. There are other difficulties too, say the British general managers. Most notably, perhaps, is the time it takes to order supplies.
"One needs a lot of patience to work here because things often take longer to happen than they would at home," says Haslam. "When I arrived here I had to get Inter-Continental-branded matchboxes made for the hotel. In most parts of the world that would have taken me two to three weeks, but here it took four months because there's only one city in the whole country that produces matchboxes for hotels."
Hageman talks about how far ahead he has to think about ordering food, beverage and other items. "This is a five-star hotel, so I offer guests blue cheese on the buffet and French wine to drink," he says. "But we're also bang in the middle of the Rajasthan dessert and that means I can't just pop out to the shops to get extra supplies if we run out of anything. I have to order continental wines and cheeses a year ahead to ensure they get here. That's a real challenge to forecast what guests' consumption will be in 12 months' time."
Hageman adds that, in general, he has learned to have a more relaxed attitude about time and punctuality since he has been working in India - otherwise he would have gone crazy. There is simply no point in expecting meetings with clients, suppliers, travel agents or anyone else to start on time and run to a schedule, he says. "The pace of life is entirely different here and the idea of planning ahead doesn't really exist. If you organise a meeting for 9.30am, that means it could start any time in the morning and nobody expects there to be an agenda."
Julian Groom, general manager of Le Méridien Pune, which opened in March,is a new face on the expatriate scene. He says the different sense of urgency in India is one of the national characteristics that he hashad to adapt to quickly to survive. And, he adds, he has also learnt to check up on supplies he has ordered and tasks he gives staff because "yes does not always mean yeshere". "As a general manager in India, you need to rely on your ability to problem solve and much more flexibility is required,"says Groom.
Despite the difficulties and challenges, neither Groom nor any of the other British managers working in India seems unhappy with his lot. And this is because there are also tremendous upsides to working in the country, they claim.
All of them point to the almost universally positive attitude of staff as being a breath of fresh air. They are keen to learn new skills and work on improving service standards, they say. "People here are so friendly, willing and loyal, it's incredible," says Grocock. "Where I've introduced new ideas, I've found them completely open minded and delighted to try different ways of working."
The reason for this is, perhaps, that working in the hotel industry is considered a top-flight career in India and once someone gets a job, they tend to stay with the hotel for a long time and work their way up. In fact, most of those who go into the sector are educated to at least degree level, if not higher. "Even my kitchen porters have Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees and many of my staff are better educated than I am," says Hageman.
From a personal point of view, too, living in India is enjoyable, according to all those interviewed by Caterer. Not only is there a lively expatriate social life in many of the cities, but it's also possible to establish good friendships with local people. "Many people speak English here, so communication isn't a problem as it is with some overseas postings, and the locals welcome you with open arms," says Haslam. "In fact, I tend to mix far more with local people than with expats."
As far as packages go for expatriates, the salary range is similar to the UK - between £35,000 and £55,000 for a general manager - but this is paid net and, thanks to a cheaper cost of living, money tends to go further.
But none of the Brits working in India is convinced that there will be scores of opportunities for other expatriates to follow in their footsteps. While they do all believe the hotel industry is set for significant expansion, they think most senior jobs in future will be done by Indians themselves. "Our job here is ultimately to make ourselves redundant," says Grocock. "We're here to train, coach and counsel people to international standards, so in future they do it for themselves."
Haslam supports this, emphasising the large number of talented people he has met during his spell in India. "Only those with outstanding expertise and experience will be needed from abroad - the odd general manager, a few chefs and perhaps some individuals with strong marketing skills," he says. n