Features

Banglaore: Rush hour

1 Nov 2005 by Alex McWhirter
Bangalore city scape
Bangalore, in the southern state of Karnataka, has become the software capital of India. Known as India's garden city, Bangalore's fortunes took off when IT firms set up shop some 20 years ago to escape the crippling costs and congestion of Mumbai and Delhi. The firms were lured hundreds of miles south by the temperate climate; Bangalore is situated on a plateau with a daytime temperature in October of 25OC as against 30–35OC for Mumbai or Delhi. There was also the enticing factor of a highly skilled, English-speaking labour force – a direct consequence of the government's decision to concentrate its telecoms and defence research there in the 1960s. Bangalore is not the India of clichés. Arriving by air, travellers can spot huge areas which have been cleared for future development. Once on the ground, shopping malls with international branded goods, swanky business parks and gleaming call centres are visible everywhere, linked to the outside world by enormous roof-mounted satellite dishes. Signs cluttering the main roads point to the locations of well-known firms like AOL, Aviva, Dell, GE (General Electric), Google, Microsoft, Reuters and Tesco. All told, they are generating £3.3 billion a year for the local economy. Staff work around the clock taking orders and finding solutions for customers of US, UK and other Western firms based thousands of miles away in Europe and North America. Discipline and cleanliness within the multinational business parks is of a high order. I also saw at least one brand-new private hospital (built in the style of a palace), which is, no doubt, soliciting for business from wealthy Western patients. As it has become a major player in the software market with US multinationals, Bangalore city's population has risen from two million a decade ago to over six million today. The pace of life is fast. Says expat interior design consultant Carlito Lo Sosito: "Coming here from Singapore I thought the pace of life would be slower. But it's actually more hectic, and the opportunities here are fantastic because the market is growing." Bangalore has become a victim of its own success, with the infrastructure on the ground not keeping pace. The local authority has not invested enough in the road network, and the airport (conveniently located six miles from downtown) can get crowded. A new airport is planned but its opening could be years away. So multinational firms work in state-of-the-art buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Dallas or Atlanta, and yet they are surrounded by the infrastructure of a developing country. In particular, poor surface connections mean it's a trial to get from one part of town to another. Rickshaws, tiny cars, ancient buses and trucks fight for space over single track, potholed, dusty roads with the further hazard of the odd sacred cow disrupting proceedings.  Even in the off-peak period it can take 40 to 50 minutes to drive the 10 or so kilometres from the airport to the business parks and office towers that start at Whitefield and run through to Electronics City. The problems in getting around are beginning to dissuade some companies. Lo Sosito says: "One of the main gripes to living here is the infrastructure. A few firms are looking at alternatives to Bangalore like Hyderabad, Chennai or Pune." Red tape and bureaucracy can also slow things down. Indian firms have the most experience in dealing with the local government, and expats find matters more complicated, with weeks needed to sort out simple matters such as a certificate of occupancy, which is needed before a company can move into a new office building. Yet Bangalore's main growth shows no sign of slowing. The Indian government's recent "open skies" policy (international air services had previously been restricted to protect national carrier Air India) has helped by opening up better connections between Bangalore and the outside world. National carriers Air India and Indian Airlines already operate various international routes, while Lufthansa has been operating to Frankfurt, Qatar Airways to Doha and Gulf Air to Bahrain. They have now been joined by newcomers providing direct flights and good connections to Europe, the US and southeast Asia. The latest big development is the launch on October 30 of a five-times weekly service by British Airways from London Heathrow. At the same time, Air France has begun flying five times a week from Paris CDG while fellow Skyteam alliance members Northwest and KLM have started a joint daily service from Amsterdam. Heading east, there are now five flights a week with Singapore Airlines to Singapore, from where passengers can connect to Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo along with Australia and New Zealand. Tan Chik Quee, senior VP for West Africa and Asia, says: "SIA is committed to opening new vistas for business and leisure tourism in India. This new service will meet the growing demand for travel to this technology capital." There is also a daily link to Bangkok with Thai and a three-times weekly service to Kuala Lumpur, from where similar transfers (to those offered by SIA) are available. Domestic services were liberalised some years ago, and Bangalore is linked to major cities with regular flights operated by Jet Airways, Air Sahara, Indian Airlines and budget carrier Kingfisher, among others. But having more flights is of little use if business passengers have nowhere to stay. There is now a desperate shortage of four and five-star hotels and room rates have rocketed by 42 per cent over the last year. It means that short-notice bookings are problematic and hotel rates are at levels you would associate with London more than India. According to global travel agency chain BTI, Bangalore's hotel rates are the third-highest in the world after Moscow and Rome. BTI's CEO in India, Vijay Chadda says: "This is hardly surprising as hotels in Bangalore get whatever prices they want since demand far outstrips supply." Carlito Lo Sosito agrees: "Even smaller, less comfortable hotels can now get away with charging an arm and a leg. We have clients coming to visit us here and we have to tell them to let us know at least a week ahead otherwise we won't be able to accommodate them." At the top end even more notice might be needed. When I tried booking the Leela Palace Kempinski and Taj Residency online for a stay in November, I had to give three weeks' notice to find a vacancy. Finding no room in Bangalore forces some companies to accommodate employees and guests in a growing number of service apartment blocks. As you might expect there's a shortage of these too. Says Lo Sosito: "I had to make a quick decision when I was looking for my apartment as the few available ones were being quickly snapped up by companies." Fed up with the room shortage, software firm Infosys has just built its own 500-room facility, called Le Terrace, on its campus. Technology firm Wipro also has a 100-room facility and plans to build another soon. A spokesperson for a major firm says: "It's not just the [lack of] availability of rooms. We also want the guests closer to our campus because of poor roads." If all else fails, staff members are forced to stay in neighbouring cities. Lo Sosito explains: "I've heard stories where executives are forced to stay 300 miles away in Hyderabad and fly here for their meetings." Others may stay 200 miles away in Chennai and commute to their work in Bangalore. The city's best hotels for business people are the Leela Palace, the ITC Hotel Windsor Sheraton & Towers, Taj, The Oberoi and Royal Orchid. Of these, the spectacular Leela Palace – modelled after a palace in nearby Mysore and a member of luxury Indian hotel group Leela – is generally recognised as the best hotel in Bangalore, if not the whole of India. It opened four years ago and cost £53 million. Located between the airport and downtown, Leela's rates reflect both its quality and the current room shortage. The hotel's sales  executive Amit Reddy says: "Our rates range between £198 and £255 with the average price being £226 plus an additional 10 per cent tax. 90 per cent of our business is corporate." Although Bangalore is receiving the lion's share of a massive £1.31 billion being spent by the big chains on hotel development in India over the next five years, it will be some time before the chronic room shortage is eased. The first addition of new business accommodation comes next April when the 256-room Leela Palace opens a new 101-room wing. More will start arriving from 2007, with Asian chain Shangri-La to open three new properties (including a value-for-money Traders hotel) totalling 1,000 rooms. US chain Marriott will also open on a 14-acre development. Other properties in the pipeline for the next few years include two from US chain Hyatt and two Sheraton hotels funded by tobacco firm ITC. But if Bangalore continues to boom, then even these extra rooms won't be enough.

Getting there

Bangalore is served by British Airways from Heathrow. See accompanying text for other options. Return fares with BA First class £5,241, business class £2,497, World Traveller Plus £910, economy class £490.
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