Imagine going on a river safari down the Chambal to track endangered gharial in its natural habitat. Or a trek through dense rainforests in Coorg and a pottery class back at the hotel. And if you find yourself in the Andamans, there's always night kayaking into the thick mangroves with your path lit with glowing phytoplankton. Want to see Delhi differently? You can sail over the city in a hot air balloon. Or in Rishikesh, practice intense yoga with the arresting Himalayas as the backdrop.
It's time to escape your comfort zone and pepper travels with "A-ah" experiences that are now on offer at your favourite hotel. Standardised, impersonal holidays are passe. Hotels are taking guests out of their rooms and providing experiences that give guests a sense of neighbourhood and destination. The trend, say hoteliers, is mainly driven by millennial travellers looking for authentic experiences seeped in local culture and gastronomy.
Vijay Wanchoo, Senior Executive Vice President and General Manager, The Imperial, New Delhi, calls it transformational hospitality. "It's the element that makes the guests' holiday a fabulous memory and urges him or her to come back to us," he says.
Travel, say hoteliers, is no longer about staying in a nice room. Customers want to learn, see, taste and, most of all, do something new. It's no surprise that transformative experiences, sustainable development, local community and intimate hotels sit at the very heart of the newly unveiled The Postcard Hotels & Resorts. "The mission statement of my company is building experiential luxury hotels," says Kapil Chopra, Founder & CEO, The Postcard Hotels. The brand (its hotels will have no more than 8 to 50 rooms) has three hotels in Goa offering local experiences right from the cuisine to the property design. "Guests want to pick smaller hotels over large chains and ultra-immersive experiences," says Chopra.
Pic: Senior Executive Chef Manisha Bhasin with some guests on a food trail in the Walled City of Delhi to sample delicious street food
So, at any of the three Postcard Hotels in Goa, don't just think beach, party, shack... At The Postcard Moira in North Goa, take a two-hour walking tour of the area. And since Chopra believes that small is big, The Postcard Velha, set in a two-acre estate overlooking 300 acres of coconut plantations, has just eight rooms. At The Postcard Cuelim, explore the 350-year-old chapel "inside" the hotel. And, of course, dig into authentic Goan cuisine cooked by a Goan housewife. "That's experiential - and transformative - hospitality for you," he says.
Stephanie D'silva, Director, Marketing, Four Seasons Hotel, Mumbai, stresses the importance of connecting guests with the local culture. "It's often gifts that don't fit in a box that are most treasured. And for us those gifts come to life through the local experiences we offer," she says. Besides a host of culinary experiences, Four Seasons offers an insight into Mumbai's Dabbawalas, the iconic lunchbox delivery men. "Lunch Like a Local" takes guests behind the scenes and gives them a ring-side view of how the tiffin code system and deliveries of Dabbawalas work. This is followed by a lunch prepared by a Four Seasons chef and served in a personalised tiffin, the kind in which Dabbawalas deliver food. Says D'silva: "Our experiences are tuned to the pulse of the city, yet are globally relevant."
Since festivals are all about our cultural ethos, The Imperial in New Delhi organised a Diwali mela as well as a Christmas carnival for guests last year. There's more. The 5,000 works of colonial art in the hotel are showcased to guests in curated art tours. "We want to give them a slice of India to take back home," says Wangchoo.
Andaz Delhi too believes in celebrating the neighbourhood. Skip to another resort hotel in Delhi, The Roseate, and embrace local surprises. The hotel organises visits to an organic farm with its chefs and takes you to an artist's workshop for a session on metal sculpting. Guests can sign up for iRide - that's a Segway tour of Delhi's Rajpath - or get a bird's eye view of Delhi on a balloon safari. If you're a guest at Roseate House, take a Joy Ride that is exclusive to the hotel and takes you whizzing around Aerocity, where the hotel is located, in a quirky golf cart.
"Both hotels offer localised experiences for our cosmopolitan audience. The plan is to get guests to soak in the city and help foreign guests acquaint themselves with Indian culture," says Kush Kapoor, Area General Manager, Roseate Hotels & Resorts. According to him, both hotels (they sit close to Delhi-Gurgaon corporate hubs) are mostly sold out, thanks to these offerings which are drawing in families. "This has resulted in a major shift in guest profiles over weekends," says Kapoor.
The newly-launched Oberoi Experiences also offers different perspectives of cities where the brand's hotels/resorts are located. Among the many experiences that guests are picking from is The Material Girl Tour at The Oberoi in Delhi that takes shopaholics to best markets in the city while the Mystic Delhi experience is a whirlwind tour of well-known temples, gurdwaras and cathedrals. In touristy Agra, couples staying at The Oberoi Amarvilas can renew their wedding vows and be blessed by a Hindu priest at the Jodha Mahal temple. In Mumbai, The Oberoi offers a two-hour Heritage Walk, apart from trips to the city's famous Chor Bazaar and Kala Ghoda that is home to the city's finest art galleries and museums.
Andaz Hotels' philosophy globally is to create experiences through cultural expressions. Shikha Singh, Director, Sales & Marketing, Andaz Delhi, says: "We help guests get to know their surroundings more intimately so that they leave feeling like locals." So, Andaz Delhi has culled hundreds of reasons to love Delhi. The book - 401 Reasons to Fall in Love with Delhi by travel writer Fiona Caulfield - is placed in each guestroom. The book tells the story of Delhi and what makes it tick. Each of the hotel's 401 guestrooms and suites flaunt a unique artwork that's an interpretation of one of the book's 401 reasons. Guests can join in photowalks conducted every month (in collaboration with a cultural insider) around these reasons.
ITC, on its part, has taken the food route in Delhi. Its top chefs play "food sherpas" and take guests on gastronomic journeys to the city's popular dining destinations. So, a guest can join Senior Executive Chef Manisha Bhasin on a food trail in the Walled City to sample delicious street food. Or they could do a walk-about of Delhi's Connaught Place to discover some of the oldest restaurants in the capital accompanied by the chefs of the hotel.
From its 'Local Love' menus - with dishes culled from the city or region - to concierge services that offer curated city experiences, luxe properties of ITC Hotels offer it all. So, at ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru, guests can ride custom-built cycles for families and pedal their way through the heritage locations.
Taj Platinum Innercircle guests can choose from more than 20 unique experiences from culinary escapades at local markets with chefs in Goa to private guided tours of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. A dinner in the rainforest at Taj Madikeri in Coorg is highly recommended.
At The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, you walk into history. A Heritage Walk with the palace historian brings one face to face with the lives of the Nizams who once lived here. The walk is followed by an indulgent Nizam's Afternoon Tea ritual.
As hotels go full-steam experiential to stay ahead in the hospitality game, travellers can count on holidays that are more immersive, adventurous and memorable.
The writer is Editor, The Luxe Log, a luxury and lifestyle website