Hindujas Repurpose Winston Churchill’s OWO With £1.2 Billion Into Raffles London Hotel

The Indian industrialist brothers – Srichand, Gopichand, Prakash and Ashok Hinduja, of the Hinduja Group, a multinational conglomerate with interests in oil, automobiles, banking and real estate, are making acquiring historic and heritage properties in London a game of Monopoly, buying not where the die rolls, but where their eye goes. In 2006, they bought 13-16 Carlton House Terrace, built in 1831, spread over 67,000 square feet in the City of Westminster, with Buckingham Palace close by, for £58 million from the Crown Estate and spent another £50 million in renovations before they could move in and call it home in 2011.

The brothers have since gone on to purchase Britain’s Old War Office (OWO) at Whitehall, for £1.2 billion in 2014. Designed by British architect William Young and originally completed in 1906, the OWO is a Grade II* listed building that has witnessed innumerable world-shaping events. The OWO’s 1,100 rooms and four kilometres of corridors, were used by Winston Churchill during World War II, leading Britain to wartime victory. Grand in size and stature both, with classic Edwardian baroque interiors, the OWO has since been renovated for over five years, in keeping with the rich legacy and the historical architectural elements of the building by the Hinduja Group at the helm of the 5,80,000 square feet redevelopment that cost a Gross Development Value of £1.2 billion. Interestingly, James Bond, the fictional MI6 icon of espionage, was conceived at the OWO when writer Ian Fleming worked in Britain’s Naval Intelligence Service, acting as key liaison with the department, overseeing Operation Goldeneye. As a result, the OWO has made starring appearances in 007 films like Skyfall, Spectre, License to Kill, A View to a Kill, Octopussy and No Time To Die over the years. 

Once the planning approvals came from the Westminster City Council in July 2017, Britain’s former Old War Office went from being a government building, to a mixed-use building with a 250 year lease from the date of acquisition. After being closed to the public for more than a century, the OWO, now repurposed into a luxury hotel called Raffles London at The OWO, is all set to open in the spring of 2023.

“The OWO is my greatest legacy to London for future generations to enjoy,” says Gopichand Parmanand Hinduja, co-chairman of the Hinduja Group. 

The 120 rooms and suites that comprise the OWO hotel, including a Winston Churchill Suite, have been designed by French architect and interior designer, Thierry Despont, known for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty in New York as an associate architect in the 80s and transforming landmark buildings like The Getty Centre and Maison Cartier. The 85 branded residences, a first for Raffles in Europe, come with a heady mix of history, mystery and royal glamour set in an enviable location, making them the most expensive in London to date. They are priced upwards of £7.1million for a two-bedroom residence, £10million for a two-bedroom residence designed by Albion Nord and £14.25million for a three-bedroom residence designed by Angel O’Donnell, with prices including fixtures and fittings, but not the artwork. A four-bedroom residence 5.02, on the fifth floor, is an ode to the espionage history of the building. It is accessed through the Spies Entrance, a door used by MI6 staff after covert missions, and the name has been retained from 1909 when the British Secret Service Bureau was established as a department of the War Office. It still makes for discreet arrivals and departures, but not without the 24/7 monitoring by on-site security. 

The OWO residences seem to have outperformed the Prime Central London market, with a new record for values achieved on a price per square foot basis, within months of their launch. A new benchmark of over £11,000 price per square foot was achieved on one of the unique turret residences, a four bedroom duplex. It is safe to say that the OWO residences, located in an unparalleled and iconic part of London, serviced by the Raffles team, are a coveted buy. 

Not only is the OWO the Hinduja Group’s first foray into the hospitality business, but it is also the first Raffles hotel in London, and the first Guerlain Spa in London, exclusive to the Raffles London at The OWO too.

Philippe Leboeuf, Managing Director at Raffles London at The OWO confirms the opening of the hotel, “This staggering piece of British history will be open to the public for the very first time from Spring 2023, thanks to the Hinduja’s tireless work in sensitively conserving this significant address, partnering with experts including English Heritage, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and EPR Architects. This beacon of British heritage and modern craftsmanship will also be home to Raffles first hotel in the city, Raffles London at The OWO and it’s a once in a lifetime project for the Hinduja family which will become a new icon of global hospitality. Since acquiring the OWO, the Hinduja family have overseen the meticulous restoration of Britain’s former Old War Office with a vision and commitment to preserve its heritage, all the while breathing new life into the landmark.”

The acclaimed Italian-Argentine Chef Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur (three Michelin stars) a modernist cuisine restaurant that he opened in 2006 in Menton, France, will be creating unique dining experiences set within the OWO’s most storied rooms, driven by a commitment to seasonality, local procurement, and sustainability. Chef Mauro was awarded the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in the 2022 honours list by the French government. 

“Chef Mauro is undoubtedly one of the world’s most recognised chefs, with a phenomenal  reputation and we’re excited to see him bring his experience to Raffles London at The OWO with concepts that are tailor-made for our well-travelled guests,” says Stephen Alden, CEO of Raffles & Orient Express. 

Out of the nine restaurants and bars (including a rooftop restaurant and bar with expansive views across Whitehall, The Mall and Buckingham Palace) slated to open at the OWO, Paper Moon, a family-run Italian restaurant founded by Pio Galligani and his wife Enrica Del  Rosso in Milan’s fashion district in 1977, is the first independent restaurant to have been announced so far. Paper Moon is located in a space overlooking Horse Guards Avenue. There are plans to open restaurants serving Indian, Japanese and French cuisines which are still under negotiation.

“These vibrant new restaurants will be part of the dynamic dining offer which will place The OWO as a new epicentre for London’s culinary scene, and sets the stage for an entirely new hospitality experience for visitors and Londoners,” says Madani Sow of Westminster Development Services. 

This hospitality venture is the first of its kind in scale, spend and historical relevance, with an Indian business family restoring the history of a British landmark. It remains to be seen if the billions that The OWO has been bought, acquired and repurposed for, tempts the Hinduja family enough to make hospitality another key business for their group. 

This feature first appeared in Hindustan Times on November 27th, 2022

©Rubina A Khan 2022

Business Princess Paris Hilton In Mumbai On October 19 | Hindustan Times

The most famous American platinum blonde in the world, after Marilyn Monroe of course, is hotel heiress, beauty entrepreneur, DJ and singer, Paris Hilton, who is coming to Mumbai on October 19th, her fourth trip to India so far. Fresh off closing Donatella Versace’s Spring Summer ’23 runway show in Milan as Bridal Barbie, in her favourite shade of pink (which should really be called Paris pink by now) replete with a fantasy veil, the original influencer and reality TV star of the Noughties, will be flying in to Mumbai via Dubai, to promote her latest 2022 fragrance, Ruby Rush, at a launch event to be held in the city on Thursday, October 20th. The rush for selfies with her on the night of the launch might just eclipse the fragrance for a haute second though.

The fashion forward Hilton has been in the beauty industry since 2004 when she launched her first fragrance called Paris Hilton, the success of which led to a fragrance empire of over 25 perfumes that brought in $3billion in revenues.

Hilton first came to India in September 2011 to launch her accessories and handbag line, with another trip soon after in December 2012 when she turned tables in Goa as a DJ, and December 2014. During these past trips, her itinerary wasn’t only about work. She made time to go to the Siddhivinayak temple in Prabhadevi to pray, visited Ashray, a children’s orphanage in Bandra, and partied with Bollywood stars like Salman Khan and jewellery designer and beauty entrepreneur, Queenie Singh, who’d hosted a party for Hilton on her maiden trip in 2011. “Paris is a very affectionate person. She loves people, music and fashion. She’s a star. I meet her once in a while at Cannes and she’s always very cordial,” says Queenie Singh from London.

The business princess of all things pink, glam, haute and blonde loves Indian fashion and Indian food, but regrets not being able to visit New Delhi or the Taj Mahal in Agra on her past trips as she always stayed for about three days each time. Perhaps, a visit to the monument of love is on her itinerary this time around, eight years since her last visit to India in 2014. And more so if her husband, venture capitalist Carter Reum, who she wed on November 11, 2021, in Bel Air, wearing an ethereal Oscar de la Renta wedding gown, accompanies her, given their first year anniversary is just around the corner. And, if they do make it to the Taj in Agra, it’ll be on the ‘gram.

Like she’d say, ‘That’s hot, India’s hot!’ 

This feature first appeared in Hindustan Times on October 9th, 2022

©Rubina A Khan 2022

India Tourism: How ‘Revenge Travel’ Saved The Industry | BBC

More than two years after the Covid pandemic halted travel, India’s tourism and hospitality industry is now cautiously hopeful. Independent journalist Rubina A Khan writes for the BBC on what’s driving the optimism. 

Tourism constituted almost 3% of India’s GDP and generated around 100 million jobs in 2019. But the sector was severely hit in India – like in other countries – when the pandemic struck. Only 2.74 million foreign tourists visited India in 2020 compared with 10.93 million the year before, official data shows. While the number of foreign visitors is still nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels, travel company operators and hotel industry executives say an upsurge in domestic tourists is making them more upbeat. 

After two years of being cooped up inside, Indians are now travelling with a vengeance – ‘revenge travel’, as the phenomenon is called. And many, experts say, now prefer to travel within the country instead of flying to more expensive destinations abroad. The industry is also benefiting from new trends borne of the pandemic, such as micro-holidays and workcations. Deep Kalra, founder and chairman of travel website Make My Trip, says the sector started seeing an upturn in the last quarter of 2020, and has been consistently recovering ever since. “In fact, the last three fiscal quarters have operationally been the most profitable ones for our company,” he says.

EXPLORING INDIA

Experts say the pandemic offered Indians an opportunity to explore their own country. India has always been a popular tourist destination. From historic forts and stunning palaces to dense jungles, there’s no shortage of options for visitors. But with international travel disrupted for months, more and more Indians became open to the idea of vacationing within the country, says Vishal Suri, the managing director of travel company SOTC. “The pandemic has given Indians a new-found appreciation for the outdoors,” Mr Suri says. He adds that there has been an uptick in demand for unexplored destinations – people are seeking ways to combine pilgrimages and spiritual trips with experiencing local food, cultural trails and adventure.

The pandemic also generated new trends such as staycations and workcations – combining remote working with vacations. “Travellers are now extremely comfortable with booking homestays that offer exclusivity, privacy, and the comfort of a home away from home,” says Pradeep Shetty, a senior official at the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations Of India (FHRAI). Mr Kalra from Make My Trip agrees – he says that people have warmed up to the idea of travelling within India whenever possible. “Even the travel frequency has changed and become more regular. The annual break has now turned into micro-holidays with people increasingly taking more breaks in the form of multiple weekend getaways and seasonal holiday breaks,” he says.

IMPACT ON HOSPITALITY SECTOR

This shift has turned out to be a revenue-spinner for hotels in India, as people are now willing to use the money they would normally reserve for their international vacations on better facilities domestically. Some luxury hotels dropped their prices at intervals in the pandemic, leading to a spike in bookings and short-term revenues. Puneet Chhatwal, the managing director and CEO of The Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL) – India’s largest hospitality company which operates the Taj chain of luxury hotels – says that after each successive Covid wave, the recovery was “stronger and quicker”. “The IHCL’s occupancy figures today exceed the pre-pandemic levels – a resurgence that is primarily fuelled by domestic tourism,” he adds.

Raffles Udaipur – run by international hotel chain Raffles – is situated on a private island and opened in August 2021, just months after the devastating second wave of the pandemic in India. But the hotel has seen a “healthy rate of occupancy” every month throughout its first year of operations in India, says Puneet Dhawan, the hotel’s senior vice-president for India and South Asia. “While we have no pre-pandemic metric to compare to, we have observed a steady rise in the response to our property,” he adds. Mr Dhawan says the hotel is gearing up for an even busier year ahead – starting with the tourist rush in winter and the upcoming wedding season. Mr Kalra says there are other positive signs too, such as the resumption of corporate travel – a trend that is likely to increase in the coming quarters, aiding overall recovery for the travel industry. 

CHALLENGES

But despite the optimism, people in the industry say that domestic tourism alone cannot take the sector back to the pre-pandemic-level of growth. In September, India’s tourism minister said that the government was working towards the all-round revival of the tourism sector. But foreign arrivals continue to be dismal – data shows they dipped by 44.5% in 2021 compared with the year before. “India has not released a single campaign inviting the world to us. What we need is a stellar marketing strategy that excites travellers enough to choose us, especially the 60 million people that used to travel to China and aren’t today,” says Dipak Deva, managing director of the Travel Corporation of India, one of India’s best-known travel agencies. He adds that the government also needs to restore its e-visa facility – especially for countries such as the UK from where a large number of tourists visit India – as the current procedure is too cumbersome.

However, Mr Kalra feels that both domestic and international travel are “here to grow together, and not against each other”. “With international travel now returning to the fore, we are confident that in a few quarters, international travel will also be able to recover completely.”

This feature first appeared on BBC on October 7th, 2022

©Rubina A Khan 2022

RUBINA’S REVIEW | MANDARIN ORIENTAL BANGKOK’S AUTHORS’ LOUNGE AFTERNOON TEA IS DELICIOUSLY ROYAL

In the mid-nineteeth century, when Thailand was still known as Siam, a rest house established for travelling foreigners on the banks of the Menam River (Chao Praya River), became one of the greatest hotels in the world – The Oriental. The Oriental, now Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, was the first luxury hotel in the Kingdom of Siam. In 1865 the hotel’s original structure was destroyed in a fire and was replaced by the current structure in 1876. It was a Danish-born sailor, H.N. Andersen, who gave the Siamese capital a new hotel, a modern, luxurious Oriental Hotel. On 17 December 1890, His Majesty King Chulalongkorn paid a private visit to The Oriental to assess the ability of the hotel to host royal guests. The King was so impressed that he decided to accommodate the Crown Prince Nicholas of Russia, who became Tsar in 1894, at The Oriental in April 1891. It was the beginning of a long lasting relationship between the legendary hotel and Thailand’s Royal Palace. Today, 146 years later, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is a proud landmark in Bangkok, a beautiful building that links the glorious years past, present and those to come in Thailand.

The Authors’ Lounge, on the ground floor of the original Oriental Hotel, lends an old world charm, reminiscent of the early 1900s, with turn-of-the-century style wicker furniture and hand-painted fabrics, alongside framed photographs of the famous writers who have stayed at the hotel since the late nineteenth century. Apart from the telling literary history of yesteryear Siam and its people, The Authors’ Lounge is renowned for its traditional afternoon tea, and is also one of the most photographed locations in Bangkok, if not Thailand. It was a beautiful rainy afternoon, with the sun playing hide and seek, that I sat down to experience the Summer Afternoon Tea Set at the Authors’ Lounge. A beautiful hostess, Parichat, led the way and I chose a table overlooking the garden and the Chao Praya river. The distinguished jewel jade and white tones of the lounge add serenity to the regal elegance of this historic lounge.

The afternoon started off with the most delicious Earl Grey infused peach sorbet and Champagne foam, followed by the setting down of the Somerset book on the table by the elegant Pansamon – an event in itself – sliding out the most decadent pastries and savouries from the mock book, with theatrical precision and sophistication. The Prawn roll brioche bun, Spicy tuna salad wafer, Charcoal choux with smoked salmon and sunflower seed crème and Egg salad with Avruga caviar sandwich and the selection of pastries – Blackberry flower cake and coconut cloud, Green coffee bean tiramisu, tangerine marmalade and cardamom, Charlotte cake apricot, pistachio and thyme, Raspberries and yuzu New York cheesecake, Hazelnut and milk chocolate textures, Brioche feuillette, strawberries and vanilla custard – they all looked too pretty to eat, but eat I did. You could measure each sandwich and pastry and they’d be the exact same size and dimension, just like they came out of a royal kitchen for high tea. Then came the warm traditional scones with a selection of home-made jams, Devonshire clotted cream, mascarpone and butter. Everything tastes divine and it’s hard to pick a favourite from the tea set. I went with an iced coffee, instead of tea and it was just as fine, watching the rain come down, from the warm confines of the Authors’ Lounge, thinking of all those writers and travellers who stayed here before, and created literary legacies.

You need to reserve a table on Mandarin Oriental Bangkok for the Afternoon Tea and the team very graciously accommodates your food specifications. They also have an Oriental Afternoon Tea Set as well as a Vegan and Gluten-Free Afternoon Tea Set.

Through its 146 years of existence, The Oriental’s grandiose façade has greeted travellers, dignitaries and literary figures from around the world like The Prince and Princess of Wales, The Queen of Sweden, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. British spy novelist John le Carré, wrote The Honourable Schoolboy at the hotel and Barbara Cartland named one of the heroines in Sapphires in Siam after an Oriental employee. Others, like Noël Coward, simply admired the riverine views, declaring: “It is a lovely place and I am fonder of it than ever.” Joseph Conrad, the sea captain and writer, was a frequent visitor to the bar of The Oriental and Vaslav Nijinsky danced in the ballroom in 1916. Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s affinity with the literary world is best exemplified in the Authors’ Wing, which houses the Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward and James Michener Lounges. In these specially created salons, images of these literary greats are juxtaposed with scenes from The Oriental during those eras, as well as quotations from the authors’ books. Khun Ankana’s Study, also situated of The Authors’ Lounge, pays a pictorial tribute to the inimitable Ankana Kalantananda, The Oriental’s longest-serving employee who joined the hotel in 1947 and worked there for over 60 years.

The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s staff, right from Jed at the entrance to the hostesses, servers and spa staff are all marvellous and wonderful, and exemplary in their service. It’s a beautiful world they have all created inside this grand dame of a hotel in Bangkok.

Like W. Somerset Maugham said in The Mixture of Before, “Now it is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.

Rubina’s Rating: 10/10

Disclaimer: Any part of the content on the rubinaakhan.com website cannot be reproduced without prior permission and crediting the website and the author.

©Rubina A Khan 2022

RUBINA’S REVIEW | BANGKOK MARRIOTT HOTEL THE SURAWONGSE IS MODERN LUXURY WITH A THAI HEART

Night views of the city of Bangkok from the Yao Rooftop Bar at the Bangkok Marriott Hotel The Surawongse

The Bangkok Marriott Hotel The Surawongse on Thanon Surawong in the Bang Rak district of Bangkok opened in April 2018. Bang Rak is one of the fifty provinces (khet) of Bangkok, that lies on the eastern bank of the Chao Praya river, and it is rich in multicultural Thai history, with the British Club, the Neilson Hays Library and the mixed-use, pixelated skyscraper, the King Power Mahanakhon building in the area. The contemporary high-rise hotel, a 40-minute drive from Suvarnabhumi aiport, is the first Marriott hotel in Bangkok to offer a combination of 303 guest rooms, suites and residential suites from one to three bedrooms for short and long-term stays, making it a very popular choice for both leisure and business travellers, and as a wedding destination, given it won the International Hotel Award for the Best Wedding Venue for Thailand in 2020. The tree-lined, sun-dappled neighbourhood of Surawong equipoises vintage and contemporary Bangkok culture with a steady pace, with exciting stand-alone cafes, bars, restaurants, tailoring shops and foot spas that you can discover walking around, without the noise and traffic snarls of the very busy Sukhumvit, which I had experienced on my first trip to Bangkok on work, for a Bollywood film. I walked in the rain and a thunderstorm on my very first evening out in Bangkok their time around, not of my own volition of course, and drenched as I was, I still found the area of Surawong charming and beautiful.

As you step inside the hotel, the most intoxicating aroma of fresh, Thai jasmine flowers embraces your person in the lobby – a beautiful way fo saying ‘Welcome to Thailand’ without any words. The check-in is seamless and very quick, as are the lifts and the speed of their wi-fi. The hotel’s design is modern, minimalistic and discreetly luxurious, with a hark back to traditional Thai culture in its hand-painted walls and glass murals of Thai country and court life in its design story. There’s a gallery in the lobby that displays authentic Thai hand crafts, alongside some beautiful bronze sculptures. Floor to celling windows in the rooms add length and breadth to them, as do the varied shades of grey furnishings and glass murals in the one bedroom residential suite, that also comes with a washer and dryer right by the entrance of the room. It is an important addition to the in-room amenities in the times we live in. The bathrooms are spacious, with rain showers, ensuite bath tubs and ample counter space. The housekeeping and hygiene standards of the hotel are faultlessly stellar and a top priority for them – the kitchen, living area, bedroom and bathroom looked as good as new every day of my stay and it was very impressive as cleanliness in a non-negotiable factor for me when booking a hotel. The one bedroom residential suite starts at THB 7886 per night including taxes, equivalent to INR 17,400 or USD 223 approximately. My room was a haven of peace and calm, where I could hear my own thoughts at my pace, through the blurred lines of reality, drinking my sweet Thai coffee with three shots of espresso – something I created to balance the dominant sweet flavour.

The breakfast at the Praya Kitchen is just the best, with every kind of food imaginable for a global palate. You can get in some cardio first thing in the morning just walking around the restaurant, getting your breakfast items, and there is nothing you could want at breakfast that they don’t have, including Indian. I used to look forward to going down to Praya on the third floor for breakfast every day. I loved their Truffle Scrambled Eggs, fresh coconut water, carrot juice and Thai milk coffee every morning. And I picked and grazed on other dishes. The soft and pillowy croissants were made from riceberry flour, a rice variety manmade in 2002 by the Rice Science Center at the Kasetsart University in Thailand, which is a cross breed of fragrant black rice and jasmine rice, resulting in a deep purple whole grain rice, also known as Forge Husband or Khao Leum Pua from the Tak province. Riceberry is rich in antioxidants, fibre and Omega 3 fats and is considered a Thai super grain. The Praya Kitchen’s buffet dinner, Thursday to Sunday, serves up delicious Thai street and Western food, from Som Tam salad, Yellow Thai curry with crabmeat, Pasta with Bamboo Shoot Beef Ragout, Ribeye Steak with Pepper Sauce, Beef Fried Rice in Chilli Oil, Goose liver foie gras to spicy Beef Chilly Thai style to fresh Phuket lobster and my favourite dessert, Tub Tim Grob. The Praya Kitchen is the busiest at breakfast and during the dinner buffet, but the attentive staff make it an absolute pleasure for every diner with their affable and responsive presence, every single time.

Hand-painted mural on the Praya Kitchen wall at the Bangkok Marriott Hotel The Surawongse

The Infinity Pool, a good size for a city hotel, is on the 18th floor, with stunning views of the city during the day and at night. The Quan Spa too is on the same floor, as is the 24-hour gym and the kids clubroom. I loved the Aroma Fusion treatment with Rose Oil (a very healing and therapeutic blend) and my therapist was incredible. Interestingly, the oils used for the Aroma Fusion treatment are decided by the time of day – so given my time was mid-afternoon, I was prescribed the Rose Oil. The Muay Thai treatment, very popular with Thai boxers, is their signature therapy, which I will definitely try the next time I am in Bangkok.

The striking King Power Mahanakhon building is a short 13-minute walk away from the Marriott Surawongse, where you can go up to the 76th floor in a lift that takes you there in 47 seconds, and then get on another hydraulic glass lift that takes you to the 78th floor where you can walk all over Bangkok, on a glass tray, 314 metres above ground. Walking on glass is not as easy as walking on the ground people, and if you’re afraid of heights or glass cracking under your feet, it’s a no-go. I walked, but barely! The views from up there are breathtaking and so worth the fear of walking on glass, a terrifying thrill to say the least! Interestingly, the Thai name for Bangkok, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, is actually a short form of the capital’s full name, which is almost a sentence to describe the city than a name: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet. The Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun temples are 15-minute cab rides away from the hotel, as is the Iconsiam shopping mall, with queues outside the Louis Vuitton and Hermes stores. The hotel also runs a complimentary regular shuttle van service to Sala Daeng BTS skytrain station for its guests. The Marriott Surawongse has a 101 Things To Do in and around the hotel in every room, which is a thoughtful cultural touch towards its guests. It’s a google concierge on paper that outlines the neighbourhood and Bangkok for you that’s rather helpful in a country where English is a conversational barrier.

Views of the pixelated, mixed-use skyscraper, Mahanakhon, from the infinity pool of the Bangkok Marriott Hotel The Surawongse

Watching the sun go down on Bangkok from the Yao Rooftop Bar, Bangkok’s first Chinese influenced restaurant and bar, on the 33rd floor of the hotel will have you taking selfies against the stunning skyline with sweeping views of the Chao Praya river and the Mahanakhon, toasting your life. The bar is busy, the music heady and the menus are lit – they light up on touch and that’s a genius move because no one wants to read a menu full of Cantonese and Shanghainese delicacies in the dark. The retro Chinese themed Yao rooftop vibe is all about endless dumplings, dimsums and drinks, delicious living at its best, with a Thai summer breeze caressing your every move.

The hotel is situated diagonally across the privately-funded 101-year-old Neilson Hays Library, founded in 1869, that’s been designed in a neoclassical style by Italian architects, Mario Tamagno and Giovanni Ferrero. The library houses 20,000 books, with a variety of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, with new titles every month and it has one of the largest collections of English language titles in Bangkok. The library seeks to promote English literacy in the country and encourage a love for literature, particularly among younger generations. It is also the oldest non-profit organisation in Thailand and you can support it with 100THB to use the library’s facilities. It has events ranging from musical performances to cultural conversations for both children and adults. It has a cafe the same compound too, Palam Palam, which means “sweet taste” in Thai. The British Club of Bangkok, a private members’ Club on Thanon Surawong, founded in 1903 as a British businessmen and diplomats’ club, but has since developed over the past century to become a social, sports & cultural centre for the English-speaking community in Bangkok, is also a short walk from the hotel. The British Club organises tours on request.

This was an Eat, Sleep, Seek, Shoot and Spa trip to Thailand for me and the exemplary service at the Bangkok Marriott Hotel The Surawongse made it a flawlessly memorable experience.

Rubina’s Rating: 9/10

Disclaimer: Any part of the content on the rubinaakhan.com website cannot be reproduced without prior permission and crediting the website and the author.

©Rubina A Khan 2022

Writing My First Book, Adventures Through Covid, Grounded Me, Says Author Parris Fotias

Luxury and austerity, antithetical as they are, have never existed in the world as intimately as during the pandemic. Inexplicable, but true, like most things during this time. Parris Fotias, Regional Sales Director, Dorchester Collection hotels, was flying back home to Sydney from a work trip to Mumbai in February 2020 when COVID-19 hit, a nightmare that the world is yet to wake up from. His work life entailed checking in and out of airports and the most luxurious hotels in the world, including nine of the Dorchester Collection that have played architectural parts in films and Netflix series, and are stars in themselves. One cannot think of a London without The Dorchester and 45, Park Lane, Los Angeles without The Beverly Hills and the Bel Air, Paris sans the geranium dotted façade of The Plaza Athenee and Le Meurice, Italy without Hotel Eden Rome and Principe Di Savoia, or the beautiful English countryside without Coworth Park in Ascot. A confined Parris didn’t just work from home, he played from home too. He wrote a book – his first – Adventures Through Covid: The Art of Subconscious Travel In A Transcendental State that was published in July 2021. His ability to make people laugh in these times through his words, strung together like a bejeweled necklace of hilarious gems is literary art. Rather outré for a jet-setting luxury hotelier you might think, but not if you know Parris, who’s a contemporary Greek Coeus, with an enviable humour to match.

Rubina A Khan converses, albeit digitally, with the luxury hotelier and first time author, Parris Fotias in Sydney:

While the world was grappling with lockdowns, covid news and stagnation, you wrote a book – Adventures Through Covid: The Art of Subconscious Travel in a Transcendental State! How did the idea to write one in such bleak and dire times come by – whilst you were barbecuing at home in Sydney or in one of the umpteen hand-washing or shower sessions at home? 
To be completely honest, I never consciously set out to write a book. The idea to start writing was initially born upon my return to Australia on February 29th, 2020 from Mumbai, India, which as of writing, is still my last international trip. Throughout the month or March, as the severity of COVID-19 became apparent, I felt compelled to reach out to as many of my clients as possible, just to check in on their wellbeing. So, I started sending them a weekly email and by the beginning of April, this had somehow morphed into a Dear Diary episodic series. At first, I tried to keep each entry short and sweet, but then found I myself compelled to share my own frustrations at being grounded and in lockdown. I also began referencing many long forgotten travel journals, regaling my new found audience with anecdotes from past trips. By the time I realised what was happening, it was December and I had been writing for almost nine months.

Adventures Through Covid vacillates from sardonic to dry humour at its best, but your writing is authentic to each chapter. Is the humour an extension of your personality?
I think most who know me well would say that humour does play a big role in my life and that it is an extension of my personality. Not to say that I always try to be amusing, but more often than not, I do try and find the funny side of most things. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence”.

The situations in the book are real to your life in Australia, but the writing commingles beautifully with the fictional reactions to each odd hurdle created by the pandemic at your home and at work
One of the things I attempted to do was to make each entry relevant. I would pick a topic that had made an impression on me and would begin writing. I also tried to weave in personal experiences into the narrative that held relevance to what I was preaching about. I am just fortunate that I had enough entertaining tales that I could incorporate and keep the reader amused.

For someone who lived in and out of airports, traveling to some of the most glamorous cities in the world on work as the Regional Sales Director of the Dorchester Collection hotels, you have expressed your stifling existence very ably through your book. Was it a release to do so? Did the writing help you cope?
Absolutely! Writing has always been a passion of mine but one that I have neglected for many years. Being able to indulge and write again helped me forget about what was happening in the outside world for a while. Yet, it was far more than just a guilty pleasure, it was definitely cathartic. It became a form of therapy, allowing me to express my frustrations which then led to conversations and discussions. And, it also grounded me. The entire process allowed me to remember how very fortunate I have been to travel for a living and visit so many amazing destinations. It made me realise that travel is indeed a privilege and one that should never be taken for granted.

Travel is indeed a privilege. What did you abhor the most about your forced confinement in the first lockdown? 
The lack of spontaneity is what troubled me the most. Not being able to make that last-minute decision to head out to dinner or catch up with friends. We were definitely just existing day to day, and not living our lives during that period.

Who read the first draft of your book? And what did he/ she/ they say?
As I mentioned above, the concept was originally a Dear Diary email episodic series so, I would hasten to say that my clients were the ones who read the first draft of my book. They were the ones who encouraged me to keep on writing and by sharing their own tales and stories with me, inspired me to relive adventures that I had not thought about in years.

How come you decided to self-publish the book? With your stellar grasp on the language and your bereft-of-emotion prose (which is remarkable given you were low-key venting!) persuading the reader to keep turning the pages till the end, you should have got a publisher! 
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2021 that I even considered publishing Adventures Through Covid and so my rationale at the time was simple. This pandemic would be done and dusted by the middle of the year. As mine is a topical story relating to the pandemic, I needed to fast track the process and get my book published as quickly as possible before everyone got on with their lives and forgot about COVID-19. So I decided to self-publish. Yes, hindsight is a wonderful thing and had I known then what I know now, I would have gotten a publisher!

What is your favourite part about the writing process? Did you write a page everyday? Was there a method to the creation of the chapters?
That is a tough question. I would say that what I loved the most was when I was able to incorporate an anecdote or memory from my past, into whatever topic I was waxing lyrical on that particular week, making it relevant to others. It was a weekly diary entry so I would write every week. Sometimes I would get an idea at the start of the week and would work on it a little every day. Other times, I would struggle to come up with a relevant topic and would have to write everything on a Friday morning which is when I tended to send it out to clients.

Has writing the book been the most satisfactory aspect of life in the lockdown? 
I won’t lie, writing and publishing a book was a personal milestone that was extremely satisfactory – something that I have always wanted to accomplish. Yet I always abide by the saying that one must make your favourite experience your next one. To this point, I found so much joy in creating new memories with my family during lockdown. This included tuning in, singing & dancing to Hot Dub Time Machine – the world’s first Time Travelling DJ every Saturday night, and preparing Sunday lunch where we would head outside and spend a few hours, forgetting about the world for a while.

Who were you reading whilst writing your book? And who are some of your preferred authors right now?
My favourite authors include Christos Tsiolkas, Anne Rice & Jeffrey Eugenides, although I will say that I normally read whilst travelling. I also enjoy a lot of non-fiction and during the writing process I was reading Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century by American journalist Josh Rogin, which is both fascinating and terrifying.

Have you travelled since the release of the book in July 2021 and where? What feels like the most freeing aspect of life today?
I have only made two trips since the release of the book in mid-2021. One was a work trip to Melbourne at the end of 2021 and the other was a weekend away just a few weeks ago in January 2022 to the Southern Highlands to attend my cousins 50th Birthday party. But since mid February, I am back to travelling regularly for work, new variants withstanding of course. The most freeing aspect of life today is being able to visit friends, family and clients without too many restrictions. And, being able to head out to the amazing restaurants and bars that we have in Sydney.

From writing press releases for the Dorchester Collection Group to publishing your first book in the thick of the lockdown when everyone was at breaking point, you need to write another book this year given the pandemic rages on… what do you think? 
One never knows!  Now that I have whet my writing appetite, the skies the limit.

Adventures Through Covid is available to purchase on Amazon

©Rubina A Khan 2022

Mumbai’s Money Is Moving In Realty, Despite The Calamitous Second Wave In India

Mumbai’s got money and it’s moving in realty, despite the Maharashtra government not extending the stamp duty waiver on property registrations in March earlier this year. INR 420 CR was collected in stamp duties in June 2021 as 7,850 properties were registered in the month compared to 5,640 units registered in June 2019, indicating a growth of 39 percent. However, in May 2021, INR 268 CR was collected in stamp duties due to the calamitous second wave across India – which was roughly half of the INR 534 CR collected in May 2019. Evidently, people have been buying property in Mumbai, albeit in an undefined, heterogeneous pattern. 

In fact, prices have increased too, if you can call a slash in prices from a sharp 30% in 2020 to a 20% in 2021. Actor Ajay Devgan bought a bungalow in June spread over 5000 square feet in Juhu, Mumbai for INR 47.5 crore (which would have sold for over INR 60 CR easy, pre-Covid) and he paid a stamp duty of INR 2.37 crore on the purchase. A South Mumbai apartment that was priced at 15 CR went on to sell at 9 CR in the first phase of the pandemic in 2020 with the stamp duty waiver, but commands a selling price of 11 CR now. The reason for the upswing in the most expensive, not to mention glamorous city in India, is that builders and developers have smaller inventories now and they are trying to make some cash whilst the demand is still on the rise, given the pandemic has made forecasts and predictability highly unreliable and inaccurate during these times. Who would’ve thought there’d be 7,850 property buys in a strained and stretched economy, right? Even though it is not a seller’s market, the seller is making some kind of profit. 

But property sells in North Mumbai are taking place in a very contrasting pattern to the realty index in South Mumbai. No, it has nothing to do with Bollywood’s residential dominance in the ‘burbs. In Bandra West, a two-bedroom apartment, measuring a 1000 square feet, that lists for INR 4.5 CR, sells at INR 4CR. Clearly the 20% drop in listing prices in South Mumbai are not at play in North Mumbai as there is a paucity of developments in the suburbs and the supply does not match the extensive demand, yet. So, the seller is more rigid with the pricing and gets whatever he/she asks for without having to conform to the South Mumbai pricing index. 

Recently, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had set off a dampener with its proposal to increase property tax by at least 14 percent based on ready reckoner rates as on April 1, 2021. Property tax rates are calculated based on the ready reckoner rates of 2015 in Mumbai and the BMC wanted to revise the rates following the current ready reckoner rate. But on June 18th, the Maharashtra government announced that there would be no change in property tax till the pandemic continued, as it did not seem fair to burden people with an increase in the tax. The announcement didn’t just come as a huge relief to home-owners and stakeholders, but assuaged buyer sentiments, leading to a spike in buys in June. It remains to be seen what the next 6 months of 2021 will bring to the realty table, and at what cost, and more importantly, will a structured buying and selling pattern emerge from it all? 

This feature first appeared in Gulf News on July 20th, 2021

©Rubina A Khan 2021

RUBINA’S RADAR – THE UNEDITED LIVE INTERVIEW SERIES

Hi everyone! On January 20th, 2021, I started a new series of live conversations called RUBINA’S RADAR – UNEDITED – on Instagram and Youtube with couturier Rohit Bal, a legend on India’s fashion landscape. It’s been two months since, and twelve interviews thus far, with some of the most legendary international icons and visionaries from the worlds of fashion, film, sports, luxury travel, business and then some…

There’s more coming up, so tune in every week by following me on Instagram: @rubinaakhan.inc and subscribing to my YouTube channel: World Of Rubina Khan

Thank you! Stay safe!

Love, Rubina

©Rubina A Khan 2021

Mumbai’s Realty Buys On A High | Gulf News

One of the world’s most desirable real estate markets, Mumbai, is open for business in the new world. But, is anyone really interested in buying anything aside from essentials, groceries, masks and maybe some peace of mind under clear blue skies and warm, aureate sunshine right now? Yes, they are – and they’re buying real estate, not Chanel! Well, Chanel masks to be honest, not couture.

Mumbai’s realty buys are on a momentous high, never mind all the financial despondency that’s engulfing the world. Who are these cash-on-deck people with the flux of money that are buying in such an indeterminable financial climate? Not whimsical buyers for sure, as the realty business is no place for fiscal braggadocio or investment buys right now. People who have been on the market for a buy are closing deals swiftly, as are the indecisive fencers. And why ever would they not, given apartments in Worli in South Mumbai are selling at INR 6.2 CR today versus the initial asking price of INR 9.5 CR, and a 10 CR apartment is available for a negotiable INR 8.5 CR and new developments are being offered, and purchased, at INR 9.5 CR from the original price of INR 15CR in midtown Mumbai? Incredulous, but true.

“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore,” said author and humourist Mark Twain and that holds true for Mumbai’s realty buyers of high-rises built on land, and reclaimed land. During Covid19, buyers are seeking balconies and private terraces that are the new amenities today, instead of gyms and swimming pools, and if a luxe apartment has either, it’s a singing deal straight to the bank. Photographs, virtual tours and a final show-around – when everything is almost set in stone between the realtor and the buyer – but not without seriously vetting of the buyer prior – is the new order of the realty business in Mumbai.

One of the primary reasons for the astounding spike in buys is the sharp reduction in the stamp duty levied on the sales of apartments from 5% to 2% from September 1 to December 31, 2020 and 3% from January 1 to March 31, 2021 by the Maharashtra state government, as a relief measure for the real estate, commercial transport, agriculture and fisheries sector, that have been hard-hit by the lockdown over the past six months, and counting. Otherwise, the stamp duty in the state is 5% and 4% in urban and rural areas respectively, apart from the 1% surcharge in urban areas and 1% zila parishad cess in rural areas. Investors offloading their inventories in developments that they had bought high in, is also adding to the dramatic depreciation in prices across Mumbai as they’re being compelled to sell low, strengthening the buyer’s position furthermore. Mumbai’s realty business is no longer a simple or a compound process, but a variable, with only one constant that it is a buyer’s market, and has been for a while now. 

Luxury rentals too, both residential and commercial, have seen a stark downswing of 20-30% reductions in the city. Residential properties going for INR 2,50,000 per month pre-Covid19 are available for INR 1,60,000 per month and a 2000 square feet commercial space on Marine Drive that commanded INR 6,50,000 per month will in all likelihood find it difficult to get even INR 4,00,000 today given the negligible human footfall in the largely residential sea-facing block.

The Kala Ghoda area in downtown Mumbai commanded fashionably high commercial rents pre Covid19 for the last decade ever since fashion designer Sabyasachi opened his flagship store in 2010. Up until then, Kala Ghoda was an arts and museum nucleus, but Sabyasachi’s arrival inadvertently turned it into Mumbai’s fashion precinct with every fashion label in India opening shop here. Despite the high rents, some adjusted, some not, designers are still holding on to their stores because of the business of Indian weddings and in a bid to stay relevant on the fashion marquee, all the while keeping the rental business in the area brisk and sharp. A 1500 square feet store here, at the end of Rampart Row towards Lion Gate, was upwards of INR 3,50,000 and is now available for INR 2,00,000 and a INR 10,00,000 per month commercial space can be rented for INR 7,00,000. Rental deposits that were upwards of six months or more are now at a flexible three months odd and the lock-in period too has gone from a standard three years to a variable one or two.

Realtors in Mumbai have struck gold during the last six months of the lockdown as compared to the past financial year because of the collapsing prices and the reduced stamp duty that is acting as an incentive, enabling and accelerating the buys. The demand for ready homes versus under-development / under-construction properties is predominant. The recent demolition of actress Kangana Ranaut’s property in Mumbai on the grounds of illegal construction within 24 hours of giving her notice of the same (the case is in the Bombay High Court) has further deterred under-construction sales. No one is willing to risk the bulldozers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for any irregularities in their homes and prefer MahaRERA and BMC compliant properties with all the legalities in place.

With the grand realty depreciations, temptation to buy low and rent lower is rife in the city where there’s more sea than land. To quote Shakespeare, “I would give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground.”

This feature first appeared in Gulf News on October 2nd, 2020

©Rubina A Khan 2020

RUBINA’S RADAR: PPE FUNDRAISER FOR MUMBAI’S MEDIA PERSONNEL ON THE CORONAVIRUS FRONT LINES

A conversation with a photographer friend of mine on Coronavirus news duty every single day since March 2020, impelled me into thinking about the health risks our Indian media was being exposed to, whilst I stayed safely at home, in quarantine and the lockdown, on government orders. I often wondered how they’d power through the weeks, and now months of the reportage on the pandemic everyday, which seemed endless then, and continues unabated with its relentless savagery on humans. Everyone’s lauding the first responders and medical teams, the police, the hygienists and the cleaners, and very rightly so, but nobody seems to be taking cognisance of the indispensable and crucial work photographers, videographers and journalists are doing on the ground, outside. They’re the people bringing in the news and visuals of the virus every day, and the heart-wrenching devastation and strife it’s inflicting on humans across the world. By going out and reporting from containment and red zones, they’re risking their own lives, and livelihoods, in an extremely uncertain and broken economy and that is saying something. Everything we know about the virus, right from the whats and the hows to the vaccine developments and trials, is through the eyes and lenses of the media as everyone’s in lockdown and quarantined at home. Even as some parts of the world are opening up ever so cautiously after months of isolation and physical distancing of late, their work carries on. It is their photographs and stories that tell us what the new world looks like, how human behaviour has changed and will continue to evolve in the years to come.

On April 20th, 2020, when I heard that 53 press personnel in Mumbai had tested positive for the Coronavirus, and were incapacitated and hospitalised, I just knew I had to do something about protecting them on duty as staying safe at home or working from home wasn’t an option for them. I couldn’t bear the thought of people I know and have worked with going out to work, risking their all for their jobs, without any protection from the virus.

On April 23rd, 2020, I spearheaded a fundraiser by reaching out to my network for contributions as a collective, humane responsibility to purchase Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) as a preventive measure for Mumbai’s news photographers and media personnel covering the Corona crisis on the front lines, to shield them. I am ever so thankful to the people – from all walks of life in India – that responded promptly and empathetically towards the fundraiser with their fiscal largesse like industrialist Ness Wadia, businesswoman Natasha Poonawalla (Executive Director, Serum Institute of India, Pune), filmmaker Karan Johar (Dharma Productions), actor Amrita Arora, film costumer Ana Singh, businesswoman Eesha Sukhi and jeweller Siddharth Kasliwal (Director, The Gem Palace, Jaipur). Since then, the fundraiser has received contributions from jeweller Queenie SinghShalini Passi and filmmaker Gaurav Chawla, enabling the purchase of safety eyewear too for the media.

It is because of the financial support of these very people that the PPE’s reached Mumbai on May 5th, 2020 and were distributed to the media personnel from May 6th onwards. These PPE’s are certified by SITRA – South India Textile Research Association, Coimbatore for fabric and garment – and are for one-wear only. I feel the kindness of all the contributors needs to be highlighted and celebrated, and not go unnoticed as anonymous benefactors, because talking about them will go on to inspire many others to come forward in this crisis to help each other in our country. Every contributor has stepped up as a humanitarian to help our media community, and that is reason enough to laud any helping hand. All of them have made this little fundraiser of mine a bigger success that I ever envisaged it to be and the media community are ever so grateful for their kindness. The PPE’s and safety eyewear bought with the funds raised so far have been distributed to the Mumbai media personnel and I am in the midst of ordering more PPE’s from the second round of funding that has come around. I intend to keep raising funds to provide the PPE’s for as long as they are needed during the Corona crisis.

The PPE fundraiser has been chronicled in the Mumbai Mirror (07.05.2020 edition) and the kindness of the contributors has been sincerely appreciated. The PPE initiative was featured in the Urdu press and online, and I am grateful for people supporting the fundraiser. Encouraging words and tall praise from people I love and admire across the world has raised me up, gladdened my heart (which is rather dire nowadays!) and fuelled me to strive and do even more!

SHOBHAA DE: Rubina’ s spontaneous gesture to mobilise support and order the best quality PPE suits for media colleagues risking their lives to cover the pandemic, must be acknowledged as a gesture that led to many others following her example.

JACKIE SHROFF: The media has always been there on the forefront, come what may. The fourth estate are a brave lot and will have my respect, always. And, you keep shining Rubina!

FERN MALLIS: Rubina Khan is a Covid19 hero… as a photojournalist, she watched her colleagues out in the streets and in the trenches covering the story of this ungodly pandemic and no one had their backs… they put themselves in danger to keep us all informed. Her initiative to secure funds and thereby supply this vital press corp with all the necessary PPE’s was so smart, compassionate and right on. It’s now in its second round of providing more. Thank you Rubina from the epicenter of Coronavirus in New York City.

ANA SINGH: The press has always celebrated my work and my milestones and in this particularly grave time, I feel God chose me to give back to them and I feel grateful for the opportunity. When Rubina spoke to me about the PPE fundraiser, being a journalist and photographer herself, I got a sense of what the media personnel on the field were possibly going through and what it must feel like for them, and their families at home to work outdoors. Rubina’s empathy and concern for her colleagues made this fundraiser a success and she’s leading by example of how to get things done, even when you’re not out there on the field, without being self-serving.

ELEANOR COOKSEY: I am very proud to count Rubina as a long standing family friend. Her recent PPE fundraiser activity is testament to her diverse and unique skills; her thoughtfulness (it is too easy to forget about all those affected in different ways), her resourcefulness and her determination. Here in the UK, there have been endless discussions about how to secure adequate PPE’s with endless delays and excuses. This initiative was conceived and achieved so quickly – the funds raised and the PPE’s reaching the people who needed it in two weeks. A rare positive story amid all this fear and uncertainty.

PARRIS FOTIAS: During these surreal times where we are being constantly bombarded with fake news stories, we are more reliant than ever on responsible journalism bringing us the real facts. Yet no one really thought about the media and their fate during this pandemic. I commend Rubina for her foresight and determination to help protect her colleagues out on the front lines in Mumbai. We are all in this together so much thanks to you Rubina and your PPE fundraising efforts from Australia.

UPDATE: JUNE 2020
Ness Wadia has contributed generously towards the second round of funding end May and fashion designer Manish Malhotra and Delna Poonawalla in early June.

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©Rubina A Khan 2020