The Art of Business Travel talks with Singapore-based jetset banker Vishal Oberoi about hotel perfection, travel loyalty, rude porters, and his favourite Hong Kong haunts.
Where’s home and where do you reside?
I reside in Singapore as of now. However, the “where’s home” part is quite tricky; I’m Indian by ethnicity, raised in the U.A.E., went to school in Philadelphia, worked in New York City, then moved to Asia, first to Hong Kong and now Singapore. I guess home is wherever I am at the moment.
How many times do you travel each year? What proportion is work and play?
At least five trips a quarter. Mostly for work, but my wife and I like to make sure we achieve a few of our travel goals each year.
Biggest travel pet hate?
Flight delays AFTER you’ve boarded the plane, which is extremely inconvenient. I used to hate those winding immigration/TSA lines back while I was travelling to and within the United States, but we hardly come across such issues at most of the uber-efficient airports in Asia Pacific. I think now it would have to be inconvenient airport transfers, specifically where the airport is so far from the center of town like Tokyo Narita and Jakarta; and the need to check-in luggage during short trips because you’re carrying your preferred ‘eau de toilette’ or shaving cream.
Emirates (EK). There’s something about those shiny wood panel interiors, cabin lighting and warm ambiance that makes me feel right at home while up in the air. Albeit this is probably because I was raised in Dubai and have seen Emirates grow from scratch. The nearly-free wifi on board, as well as complimentary pick-up and drop-off chauffeur drive for first and business class passengers are real value adds which I haven’t seen in many other airlines. The chauffeur driven cars are really comfortable and most also offer wifi. The service was a real life saver when I was trying to switch between Moscow airports that are over an hour apart. I especially love Emirates’ A380 business class product for long-haul. I mean, who doesn’t love a 24 hour cocktail lounge at 30,000 feet on a long flight to New York, eh?
By far, Singapore’s Changi Airport.; it’s an ideal airport for frequent business travellers. It’s not overwhelmingly large like Dubai International so nothing ever feels too far, and you can’t beat how efficiently they get you in, out and on your way. Also, when things do go slightly off track (and it’s extremely rare), they do their best to rectify things. On one occasion, we had a late night arrival in Changi after a long flight, and our bags took a little bit longer than usual to hit the conveyor belt. They gave all the passengers a free travel adapter to apologize for the delay.
Who has Asia-Pacific’s best business class product?
Singapore Airlines (SQ) – especially on their new long-haul cabins on the 777-300 and the A380. I had some of my best mid-air naps on SQ A380s to London and Mumbai. Their dining options are delectable and I would definitely recommend their Book The Cook feature, where you can pre-order your first/business class meal up to 48 hours before your flight (and if you do, try the Lobster Thermidor).
“There’s something about those shiny wood panel interiors, cabin lighting and warm ambiance that makes me feel right at home while up in the air.”
Tell us about your most recent flight.
A rather uneventful and brief Korean Air flight from Seoul to Tokyo. A comfortable and brief one. Looking forward to flying back to Singapore tomorrow on SQ.
How can we be better air travellers?
Adapt as you travel more, be intuitive and aware of your surroundings and finally, always be considerate to fellow travellers. Let’s face it, when at the airport, we’re all in this together and everyone wants to be on their way as quickly as possible. Travel can be fun at times, but there are certain elements of it which can be quite a pain. The more you can minimize the pain and sail through it efficiently, the better it is for yourself and others. I know this is lame, but I get a simple thrill when I walk through security and it doesn’t “beep” (I bet I sound like Monica Geller from Friends). But to me, it means I get done faster, and so does the line behind me. Also, more people need to start checking-in online. It baffles me that in a world where mobile phones are starting to look like an extension of people’s palms, we still have long lines at airport check-in. And finally, gents, please shower, especially before a medium or long-haul flight. It’s basic courtesy!
Which loyalty programs do you belong to and what are your tier levels?
Emirates Skywards and Hilton Honors (both Gold), and recently Singapore Airline’s Krisflyer. I’m also on an array of hotel loyalty programs including Ritz Carlton Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport and Taj Innercircle, which are honestly more rewarding in my opinion these days than frequent flyer programs.
How important are loyalty programs when it comes to making travel decisions?
Quite a bit, but more for the perks of status rather than the actual miles. Anyway most savvy travellers today earn a majority of their redeemable miles through credit card programs today vis-à-vis actual flights. When it comes to tier status, it’s really a matter of “is the juice worth the squeeze”. For example, I just hit Elite Silver on Krisflyer but there are no “real” benefits apart from priority waitlisting and bonus miles on future flight bookings. Big whoop! In contrast, Cathay Pacific’s (CX) Marco Polo and Emirates Skywards start to give you lounge access, priority boarding etcetera as soon as you hit Silver. On SQ, you need to wait for Gold before any tangible benefits kick in. So I’m more likely to fly Singapore Airlines because I like their product rather than for the loyalty program they offer.
How do you feel loyalty programs are changing and what should they be doing to maintain top tier customers?
While they were always a bit draconian and aloof, I think they’re starting to listen to customers now and standardize their offerings a bit more. Competition and alliances has definitely helped with this. However, airline loyalty programs have a lot to learn from hotel loyalty programs.
“More people need to start checking-in online. It baffles me that in a world where mobile phones are starting to look like an extension of people’s palms, we still have long lines at airport check-in”
What’s your favourite hotel?
Gosh, it’s so tough to pick one. For business travel, I really like a few of the Ritz Carltons, particularly the ones in DIFC Dubai and on Financial Street in Beijing. Both are quintessential business hotels and strike the ideal balance of luxury, comfort, location and efficiency. I also love the old world charm of The Dorchester in London, the Shangri-La in Paris and the Taj West End in Bangalore. They are charming, historic buildings that have received a brilliant makeover to adapt to the needs of a modern day traveller. I also think some of the hotels in India have carved a niche for themselves when it comes to luxury, and going the extra mile, like the Taj and Oberoi properties, specifically Amarvilas and Udaivilas for the latter. For pleasure travel, we like quick Asian getaways and frequent two particular Conrad properties – in Bali and Rangali Island Maldives – which are two of our favourite escapes from the hustle and bustle of it all.
What’s the last hotel you stayed in?
Grand Hyatt Tokyo, which is in the heart of the action, Roppongi Hills. It’s an awesome property and they’ve really done their customer research to figure out what travellers really want, right from the important stuff to the little things like extra amenities (a can of shaving foam instead of the usual lame cream, deodorant, after shave which you don’t see everywhere).
What’s your worst ever hotel experience?
A property in Johannesburg which is part of a reputed hotel chain (I won’t name it but let’s just say it rhymes with Blintercontinental). I flew in on the red-eye and had meetings through the morning so was anticipating a quick check-in process. Unfortunately, they messed up my pre-booking and said the room wouldn’t be ready for a few hours. The front desk was rude, unapologetic and unwilling to make any amends. When they finally did get me to my room, it smelt like wet carpet and cigarette smoke (non-smoking room, mind you). I also had an imposing staff member who took it upon himself to give me an elaborate and unnecessary “room tour”, and then demand a tip with an outstretched hand and the words “Now, what can you do for me, sir”. Jeez!
Tell us some of your travel rituals
I like to catch a hearty and early breakfast at the hotel before I set out. When I’m on business travel, this is usually my main meal of the day with the rest of them being quick bites on the run. I carry a bit of local currency pertinent to my destination before departing, or get it exchanged at the departing airport. A number of times I’ve landed in a city and the currency exchange center there has been closed, and I’ve needed cash for something. I also try and optimize my travel experience by scheduling work calls for when I will be at the lounge, and working on papers or mails while I’m on the flight so that I can send them out as soon as I arrive and am connected. Before departing, keep a few key phone numbers and addresses (if relevant, in the local language) loaded on your phone, such as your hotel or local contact. If you need it upon arrival, you don’t want to be fumbling around for it, or hunting down wifi to google it.
What are we likely to find in your carry on?
Mints, noise cancelling headphones, my Kindle, a travel adapter, a pen to fill out forms, a safety pin to switch SIM cards on my iPhone, Xanax if it’s a long-haul flight, and of course, the irreplaceable phone charger.
How important is technology when you travel?
Charging ports on planes are becoming rather common, but free onboard wifi is the real winner for me.
What’s your secret for handling jetlag?
Beyond the standard tuning of the body clock to the place I’m going by managing on board sleep, I find that staying hydrated helps a lot. Also, if I have a late evening arrival into the city, I try my best to make sure I catch a workout before bed and therefore try to pick a hotel that has a 24-hour gym. The workout helps me sleep better, keeps me energized the next day, and kills jetlag much quicker.
What’s your favourite city in Asia Pacific? Give us three things business travellers can’t miss there.
Hong Kong, without a doubt. Love the ability to execute in-town check-in and the airport express to HKIA, which we desperately need in Singapore. Hit a little hideout bar called The Chinnery at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. Grab a spicy chicken curry washed down with a chilled beer in one of their pewter mugs. Business lunch at Café Grey at Upper House, also a brilliant hotel. Also, grab a cocktail or single malt at Stockton, the hidden speakeasy on Wyndham Street. Finally, don’t miss the opportunity to hit up one of Hong Kong’s private kitchens.
“When they finally did get me to my room, it smelt like wet carpet and cigarette smoke (non-smoking room, mind you). I also had an imposing staff member who took it upon himself to give me an elaborate and unnecessary “room tour”, and then demand a tip with an outstretched hand and the words “Now, what can you do for me, sir”.”
How do you like to get around in a foreign city? Do you use car apps like Uber or do you prefer to go with taxis or public transport?
I love the convenience of Uber, and I use it rather frequently wherever it’s offered. Alternatively I prefer taxis to public transportation, except in cities where it makes more sense to take the subway, like New York City. I prefer walking whenever possible and like to pick hotels which are in the thick of the action.
What do you miss most when you travel?
My wife, if she isn’t travelling with me. She’s the ideal travel companion and I miss her tons when I’m traveling solo.
How do you stay in touch with family and friends from the road?
Do you have any golden rules when it comes to staying safe and well when travelling for business?
Research ahead to learn about common tourist traps and scams in the city you are visiting, like touts who pretend they are taxi drivers or pre-paid SIM card scams. When on a long-haul flight, walk about and stretch whenever you can. Also, I prefer drinking fresh juices and water to alcohol when on a flight. It keeps you more energized, and ready to go once you arrive. Unless of course I’m coming home, in which case, some Pinot Noir please?