When Rupert Murdoch wants a treadmill installed in his hotel suite, or when a body-conscious Bollywood star must have an egg-white omelet at 4 a.m., the Taj Hotel Group's new cadre of "royal attachés" are the first responders, addressing every conceivable high-end emergency. They whipped up the eggs and the cardio equipment without batting an eyelid. But their guests' particular demands raise questions about the current state of luxury hospitality: No yolk? Exercise? Are contemporary VIPs too puritanical for Indian-style indulgence? While the maharaja of Jaipur once traveled to London with immense urns forged from pure silver, filled with Ganges water for his ablutions, many of today's elite travelers are democratic types, embarrassed by lavish displays. Those who can afford a suite at a Taj hotel are more likely to be workaholic executives than princes spoiled rotten.
Anupam Guha lays on an in-suite birthday party. (Courtesy of the Pierre-Taj Hotels)
The hotel chain's American flagship, the Pierre in New York, has hit on a concept that manages both to enhance the maharaja factor and tone down the ostentation for the self-effacing rich. The attachés are a new breed of butler, providing invisible, intensely personalized service. Trained in India and selected from among thousands of highly skilled candidates there, they are prepared either to play up the pomp or to vanish into the impeccable woodwork in any of the Pierre's most expensive suites.
Luxury service can too easily become a gaudy gimmick in hotels. What discerning guests really want are the perfectly executed basics: Niagara-like water pressure in the shower, exquisite coffee, snappy wireless, and a comfortable mattress-not heart-shaped rose-petal displays on the bed or intrusive visits from a phalanx of fawning servants. In many cases, what they want most is to be left alone-until they want something, at which point they want it yesterday. Anyone lucky enough to have been a guest in an Indian palace, where staff make life easy in a cheerful, dignified manner, knows that the human touch is what India does best. Service is woven into the fabric of the residence, into the rhythm of the day. Clothes tossed absentmindedly on the bed materialize clean and starched. A pot of Darjeeling is just what one wanted in the late afternoon, though the thought hadn't occurred to one until it arrived.
The Taj butlers, who are described as "attachés" at the Pierre in deference to American egalitarian sensibilities, have honed their intuitive skills by waiting on royalty, heads of state, and CEOs. "We are trained to figure out what the guests want before the guests themselves know," one of them, Anupam Guha, tells me with evident pride. When Bill Clinton stayed at the Taj in Delhi, Guha ventured to him that, having been educated at Oxford, the American president might enjoy some strong Assam tea. Indeed, he did, and sipped it daily on a garden terrace. Such anticipatory service is the aim of Guha, Sujoy Choudhury, and Rishabh Jain, the three young attachés at the Pierre. They will unpack and pack for guests-there can be no greater luxury than having someone else manage that chore-fill a suite with hand-selected music and books pre-check-in, and even arrange for an in-room birthday party for a child, complete with presents.
They will serve you dinner-grand or homey-in your suite, too. On the fabulous end of the spectrum, the Royal Indian Extravagance is a banquet unsurpassed in any Indian restaurant in America. The canapés include shrimp and mango mini-martini cones, and avocado pani puris with spiced vodka. Some of the recipes, inherited from Indian royal palaces that the Taj group took over, appear on the menu as "Closely guarded secrets of ancient India's culinary repertoire." These include the Shikampuri kebab, from Hyderabad, and kid-lamb biryani, dishes that have inspired medieval poetry and present-day overeating. But it's each to his own at the Taj. For Puritans of any ethnicity, the attachés will gladly, and at a moment's notice, whisk up some egg whites.