Did you see Hotel India on BBC 2 this week? If not, you missed a treat. The programme took us behind the scenes at the renowned Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai where 1,500 staff attend to the needs of well-heeled guests occupying its 500 rooms. As others have already observed, the show followed a similar format to the fascinating documentary, Inside Claridge’s, though obviously with a very different backdrop. Watching junior members of the hotel team line up for inspection by the head housekeeper at the start of their working day was reminiscent of the “below stairs” routine in English country houses before the First World War, when a wealthy family could afford to employ dozens of long-serving staff who each had a very precise position in the pecking order and very specific duties. Market forces and our higher wages make it well nigh impossible to match such a generous staff-to-guest ratio here in Britain, where talented individuals often have to juggle many responsibilities, but in the best places you can see a similar pride in delivering perfect service.
According to the Office of National Statistics, visits to the UK by overseas residents were a record 16.4 million between January and June this year, some 8% up on the same period last year. This is excellent news.
So how did this happen? I suspect our friends at VisitBritain, the national tourist board, will claim at least some of the credit. After all, their existence is predicated on measurable results so any increase in visitor spend helps to justify the public funding they receive.
My own view is that a combination of many positive factors has contributed to this success story: Global coverage of the 2012 games, the Royal Wedding, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, fair weather, stable economic conditions, calamities elsewhere (such as the Costa Concordia disaster, which put some people off taking a cruise), the ever-improving standards of food and accommodation Britain has to offer, our ever-improving hospitality skills, curiosity triggered by the Downton Abbey series (older readers will remember how the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in the 1980s encouraged thousands of Americans to sample the life of an English aristocrat by staying at a luxury country house hotel) and countless other factors… and yes, better marketing too.
Just imagine what could happen if the BHA’s campaign, to see VAT on hotel accommodation and tourist attractions reduced to a level similar to that applied throughout most of Europe, were to succeed. Then we’d even be able to add competitive prices to the list above.
There is often some teasing or ribaldry in our office whenever I make a table reservation, the joke being that I dine out quite a lot.
In my defence, these meals are not all about my own nourishment – which I can easily satisfy with basic skills at home – but I do find that conversation over lunch or dinner is so much better than other types of meetings when there are business relationships to be forged. It’s also a nice excuse to use some of the hotels in Pride of Britain a bit more, even if the host venue is indirectly paying for it through their membership fee.
The dining table is the perfect setting for a free flowing conversation. You can ask almost anything, and find out what is important to your guests while dropping in the things you want them know along the way. You don’t have to worry about how long the ‘meeting’ will take because the progression of courses indicates how close you are to the end. And a glass of wine is, of course, an excellent conversational lubricant. In this way lasting friendships can begin, as well as very useful business partnerships.
Restaurateurs sometimes think that dining out is driven by the desire to eat wonderful food. It isn’t. Any more than a game of golf is for the purpose of getting a ball into a hole in the ground. Meals out are a contrivance for private conversations that simply wouldn’t happen in other circumstances. Great food is an additional bonus, all the same.
One of my daughters once asked, when she was much younger and I was working for another company, if I actually got paid just to go out for lunch every day. “Of course not” I replied “I get paid for the things I say between mouthfuls”.