Hotelier Harpreet Bedi strides into The Vagabond Club looking every inch the power woman. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and a high-waisted skirt, she glides across the lobby in stilettos, her public relations manager beckoning us to follow.
Bedi leads us up a restored flight of wooden stairs in the conserved 1950s Kampong Glam shophouse. She taps her master key onto a card reader, and a solid door opens to reveal a skylit suite. It’s replete with an assortment of intriguing, modern artwork, plush lounge sofas, and a bed, upon which sits a cult Rosewood mattress and 400 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets.
The room is gleaming, immaculate – so you think. Bedi immediately notices the details that need to be put in order.
She calls for a staff member. She wants a sculpture of paint tubes – made by French-born artist Arman and said to be worth a five-figure sum – to be moved. She wants an embroidered carpet to be cleaned. She could be intimidating, but her tone is polite, conversational.
It’s a good 10 minutes before she settles down. “Unfortunately for me, I see all the problems. It’s tiring,” says Bedi, who is also a lawyer.
The energetic dynamo has made everything about The Vagabond her business. She stepped in to helm hotel operations out of necessity when the general manager quit unexpectedly four years ago. Since then, Bedi has run Garcha hotels together with her husband Satinder Garcha.
“Satinder started with asking me to put up the paintings in the room. Like all good wives should,” she recalls with a glint in her eye.
Today, she is the detailed-oriented executor, he is the big-picture thinker. And they’re going from strength to strength. Currently, they are ramping up for the launch of The Whiskey Library at The Vagabond Club in October and Six Senses Maxwell in December. The pair met while working in Silicon Valley. They fell in love, wed, and now share parenting duties to four children aged 16, 10 and a pair of four-year-old twins.
If Bedi had doubts about taking over The Vagabond, she quickly realised that running a hotel is “just an extension of the home”, like “running a big house on steroids”. She works out of an office opposite the property, and spends almost 10 hours a day attending to the minutiae. She personally replies to reviews on TripAdvisor, and even engages frequent guests to give feedback.
“You think that there is magic in it, running so many rooms… But the process is just as basic as running your own house. You’ve got to make sure the food is right. You’ve got to make sure it is hot. You make sure your bed is made right. It’s the same thing,” says Bedi, the daughter of an Indian ambassador.
“It’s not that hard to run a hotel, in fact, if you are okay to fuss the details.”
It helps that the boutique hotel feels like home, peppered as it is with the Garchas’ personal touches. Travel photos taken by Satinder are on the walls of every room. The custom-built claw foot cabinetry used to store whiskey in the lounge is a product of the couple’s lively discussions.
To her, good hospitality starts with conversations – something she learnt from watching her parents host large-scale receptions. “The key thing is to make a connection with whoever you are talking to,” she says. “It’s about making anyone feel at ease.”
In this age of social media, it’s almost a lost art, one notes. The hospitality doyen shares her tips on being a great host anytime, anywhere.
Harpreet Bedi believes runnning a hotel is no different to running a big house. Photo by Jasper Yu/ Hair & Make Up by Benedict Choo
How did your parents influence your social skills?
My father was Indian ambassador to many countries, such as Poland, Greece, Ethiopia, Brazil. When I was 18, I had a gap year from boarding school. I lived in Poland with my father. My mother was on a vagabond trip, driving around the Middle East by herself. She vanished for about a year. So, I was my father’s official hostess for that year. We would have a 200-person reception once a month, and two sit-down dinners for not less than 18 people a month. I would host them. That was good training.
Share a tip on being the perfect host.
The key thing is to make a connection with whoever you are talking to. You can only make that connection, if you have frankly, traveled a lot and read a lot of history. You find a connection with someone… Where they have been, or something they like that you can relate to — just delve deep into that topic. That is a trick I learned from both my parents because they did it all the time.
How do you win over people who have a different opinion?
You have to listen. I know it’s a cliche. My son has the worst problem with this. He is 10, and he does not listen. If you don’t listen to what someone is telling you… you are never going to get anywhere. This is a terribly under-utilised tool. The world is getting too quick.
And in the end, you can only be yourself. Be authentic. Be honest. Some people will like you, and some people won’t. And that is just fine. You can’t fake it. Just be yourself, hopefully you are the kind of self that people like.
What are the little-known traits of being a successful hotelier?
You have to be really particular, dogged and persistent in fixing issues. It’s about actually coming (to the property) and consistently looking at every issue, every day – and having the ‘stick-to-itiveness’ to do it non-stop. It’s not little-known, it’s lesser-done. There are issues all the time – from the smallest things like handprints on the glass; to bigger ones, like how do you instill in your staff the quality of being genuine, the tone of language, expressions.
How do you coach your staff to be genuine?
I lead by example. Children learn from that, and so do grown-ups. They learn from how you are… how you deal. I am here every day, I am constantly on the floor. I am constantly correcting, teaching, moving, advising. Thankfully, I haven’t gotten tired of doing it.