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Toto-We're Not In Kansas Anymore

A Conversation with John Arzarian, Jr., Associate Principal with Lohan Anderson.

Monday, March 13, 2006
Marion Edward
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Toto-We're Not In Kansas Anymore

It's midnight…pitch black except for the airport lights outlining the runway. You go through the usual customs rituals, exhausted having been traveling non-stop for 24 hours. Leaving the immigration area, you are startled to see hordes, crowds of people, awaiting their returning families and/or arriving visitors. Hotel drivers sport numerous signs with arriving guests' names…they are so numerous that it takes you about 20 minutes to sort through the waving placards. Finally, you meet your driver and are immersed into the oppressive heat of Mumbai (Bombay). It's now about 2:00 AM but swarms of people are out and about, just as though it's a business day. Welcome to India!

"That was my introduction to India and we've been running with it ever since," recalls architect, John Arzarian, Associate Principal with Lohan Anderson. "India projects an outstanding first impression," Arzarian says.

How did he embark upon this adventure: through connections, specifically, via an introduction from Hyatt's Pritzker family to their personal friend and Indian business visionary, Arun Saraf.

"Ten years ago," Arzarian recalls, "Saraf anticipated the current hotel boom in India. He wanted to build a modern hotel in Mumbai for an India of the future which he envisaged as offering hospitality to European, Chinese as well as American guests." Arzarian signed on and soon discovered how important the "family" and a sense of "relationship" are to the conduct of business in India. "To attempt to do business in this country without relationships is very difficult," Arzarian admits.

"I was invited to a wedding of the son of my current client, the Jatia family," Arzarian narrates. "The son was brought in on a white horse. There was a parade down the street. Festivities went on for six days. Weddings are great occasions for festivities for family and friends. Sometimes a stadium is rented for the numbers of people invited, but whatever form it takes, you are taken care of with endless meals and parties for an entire week. Celebrations can be held in two different cities if the families come from great distances."

India is a curious, unknown, often misunderstood destination and culture to many Americans. Visually, India is startling. It's a land of contrasts: there's tremendous poverty and numbers of people spilling into Mumbai. India is on the radar screen of the hospitality industry, however, with significant investment:

  • India is reviving its past. Arzarian explains: "The return to historic Indian names: Mumbai/Bombay; Chenai/Madras are examples of this…they want to reclaim their heritage. Most striking to me in terms of memorializing this trend is the recent opening of Swaminarayan Akshardham temple outside Delhi. Built on 30 acres, it's a unique complex of Indian art and culture. It's amazing! Not only do the people want to revive their culture for themselves; they also want to show the world the quantity and quality of Indian art which is the work of artisans still today."

  • "Hotels fill the country's coffers with room and tax revenues, liquor licenses, jobs, etc. When the Grand Hyatt opened a few years ago, it was an elaborate occasion because this hotel provided employment for 1200-1500 people."

  • "Hospitality is a great industry for India because the people are accustomed to dining out as a family at all hours of the night in notable hotel restaurants. Indian hotel restaurants, unlike the USA (in which you might have a great breakfast and lunch business but not necessarily evening meals), are the preferred location for families to dine, even with little children, as late as 10 PM. Dining is an activity that's important to the family, the community, the city, and the culture. That's one reason for the emphasis on restaurant and hotel design."

    Although Arzarian notes there is a sea of change in US hotel/restaurant design trends, similar to what's been popular for years in India, Arzarian says the international luxury collections of Hyatt, Four Seasons, Marriott and Intercontinental have cultivated this trend abroad for years.

  • Hyatt has a very cutting edge design philosophy in terms of interiors for restaurants. They certainly embrace doing a modern building that attracts business travelers.

  • "According to the person you might have spoken with last," Arzarian shares, 10,000 people are moving to Mumbai a week. The population numbers 15-20 million by anyone's count.

  • "Pune is a smaller destination than Mumbai, but a mighty one whose growth has been spurred on by technology. It's becoming the IT center of India due to its adjacency to a wide range of local universities," Arzarian judges.

  • "Bollywood is the locale for celebrities/jet setters and home to the staggering number of movies made each year in India," Arzarian comments: "More people see movies in India than any place else in the world. They're a very large piece of the culture"

"Of all the places I have been, all the work I have done, the relationship with the team of this international group of designers and the project team, is most gratifying." Arzarian muses. "They come from Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. and all are respectful in discussions…it's like a mini United Nations. They might be working on a restaurant in Tokyo, or our project, but there is never any grandstanding. People exchange ideas because of their interest in the project. I find it a very pleasant experience and just love the people with whom I work. They are some of the best people I've met in the industry!" Arzarian declares.

Continuing, Arzarian explains: "Part of the Indian culture is that you treat everybody with respect. You might disagree during a meeting, but, generally, wait until the end of the meeting to convey an opinion privately to the owner without any negativity. If the owner decides that point of view is correct, he'll discuss it with the group."

It's no small matter to do a presentation in India! There could be 10, 15, even 30 people present. "The owners like to inform all involved in the project," comments Arzarian, "at least from my perspective. There's a tremendous learning curve from the owner to the structural engineer."

Things have changed in the ten years Arzarian has been traveling to India. "The people with whom I am working today are very creative and intelligent. They know what they are looking for and know how to answer questions. Our clients have already built hotels and they only hire astute people. Just as the Chinese have their Feng Shui, so the Indian people have Vastu. They may bring in a High Priest to review the design and it is possible that the design may need to be reworked if something seems inappropriate.

"There are some people in your life that you meet and never forget. Bernd Chorengel, president of Hyatt International is a person I love being around because he is so invigorating and so interested in the whole industry. He wants everything to be new and fresh. Every project is unique and he challenges us to think ten years in advance to position Hyatt on the forefront of design, accommodations and amenities. I don't use the word genius loosely, but when you meet a person as creative as Bernd Chorengel who has been responsible for the growth of Hyatt International over the past 25 years, you make every effort to express his vision.

Isadore Sharp of Four Seasons is one of the great gentlemen I have met in my career: he's one of the kindest and most considerate persons I have ever met in my life. You cannot help but be charmed by this man. I'll never forget when I was doing a presentation for the company in Toronto, he actually stopped the presentation twice to thank me for the work I did on the model and the design. I was like melted chocolate. It turned out, his profession was architecture. Nevertheless, it was highly unusual to have something like this happen."

"It was gratifying he understood my presentation: I didn't have to labor over it. Four Seasons knew the direction they wanted to take: keep it fresh, keep it alive. This will be the first Four Seasons in India. At the signing of the agreement, they had a little formal ceremony by the owner, and the Prime Minister of Canada who was visiting China, came to India to be present for it."

"Both Chorengel and Sharp have an attitude in the way they do things and that is reflected in the buildings they create-there is a synergy and sense of culture. You know what you are going to experience when you stay in one of their hotels. They hire the best designers in the world. When you say the words, Hyatt, or Four Seasons, there's an intangible concept that everyone recognizes."

"Whether you are changed or not by a visit to India, it remains to be seen that you'd be challenged not to be affected by a visit to Katmandu or Nepal. Just a view of the Himalayas is one of those lifetime experiences. Teeming humanity in India's cities does change you.

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