What Makes a Hotel Iconic? Defining Moments and Unique Renderings!

In the increasingly competitive landscape of luxury Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, some hotels stand apart with a hallowed iconic status, which perhaps is the apex badge of honour in the hospitality constellation. Their fabled reputations are magnets drawing discerning travellers, seeking a hotel with that “X” factor that heightens the romance of travel, setting the stage for unforgettable experiences. 

As per Oxford dictionary, iconic is regarded as a representative symbol, or as worthy of veneration and especially acknowledged for distinctive excellence.

In my four decades plus journey with luxury hotels, I have been fortunate to be General Manager of two iconic grande dames – The Mena House Oberoi, Cairo (135 year-old palace with sweeping vistas of the great pyramids of Giza) and the legendary Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. Both these hotels were century plus old palaces with stunning location and views, great architectural beauty and design, historical significance capturing the grandeur of a bygone era. Later, I was also privileged to launch The Leela Palace Udaipur (rated in 2019 by Travel and Leisure, US as Top Luxury hotel in the world) and award winning The Leela Palace New Delhi – both of which could also qualify as modern icons, since they have redefined luxury hospitality benchmarks.

However, aside from the historical significance and heritage, what separates the grande dames from their peers was their amazing emotional connect, cultural impact and lasting legacy – a confluence of magic, mystery and magnificence which made them deeply beloved of guests around the world.

So, what all does it take to climb the totem pole from being a “Great” hotel to “Legendary” to becoming “Iconic”?

  • Rich History, heritage and influence: Iconic hotels have stood the test of time, garnering a rich personal history and heritage. The Taj Mahal, Mumbai and The Waldorf Astoria, New York have shaped trends, set new standards, pioneered new concepts, introduced innovative amenities, or created unique experiences for guests.  For nearly a century, these icons have been trend setters with a lasting impact and stand tall today as enduring symbols for luxury hospitality.
  • Signature Architectural and design: Iconic hotels typically feature unique and striking architecture and design aesthetic which makes them instantly recognizable, visually distinctive and memorable – historical building (The Fullerton, Singapore), Grand palace (The Taj, Umaid Bhavan) or a modern skyscraper (Burj al Arab, Dubai) that push the boundaries of convention and imagination.
  • Legendary service: Service delivery is a key component to providing exceptional experiences and delighting guests. Iconic hotels, to preserve their hard-earned reputation for service excellence, emphasize more on staff selection and training for proactive, intuitive service which is personalized to each guest, creating a sense of exclusivity and old-world charm.
  • Beacon of luxury and elegance: A defining feature of iconic hotels is their deep commitment to luxury and elegance, showcasing extraordinary physical attributes- from opulent furnishings to lavish décor, grand lobbies, exquisite accommodations, spectacular spas, and world class amenities. Iconic hotels have long remained symbols of timeless elegance and an enduring refence for luxury, grandeur and sophistication, e.g. The Dorchester, London, Hotel de Criliion, Paris and The Peninsula, Hong Kong.
  • Strong emotional connect: Hotels after all are not just pretty inanimate buildings. As living shrines of hospitality, service excellence, luxury and elegance, they evoke strong emotions in guests. Iconic hotels occupy not just mind space but also heart space. I have seen weddings postponed only because the Crystal Room at The Taj Mahal Mumbai was not available. The event cannot be held elsewhere as this was the sole venue for their family weddings for 3 generations!!
    Iconic hotels also have the ability to stir up a range of powerful feelings in guests of awe, nostalgia, enchantment and inspiration – magically transporting them to another realm e.g. the Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur and Leela Palace Udaipur where on arrival you feel as if you have stepped into a charmed fairy tale world.
  • Cultural Impact and lasting legacy: Extensively featured in popular media, literature or art, these hotels become woven into the fabric of the community as landmarks in their cities, admired for their contribution to the local culture and heritage. The Ritz in Paris is synonymous with Parisian luxury and sophistication and has been immortalized in countless movies, books and works of art and music, making it a cultural icon and a must visit destination for travellers seeking a taste of city’s glamourous past. The Taj Mahal, Mumbai has a formidable art collection which chronicles the story of Indian masters of modern art and is the undisputed cultural ambassador of the city.
  • Celebrity guests and anecdotes: Ultimately a hotel is only as good as the guests it serves and having attended to the rich and famous for decades, these iconic hotels have built an adoring celebrity fan club. Their anecdotes continue to perpetuate their fame and iconic status, as evidenced by Spencer Tracy’s legendary endorsement of The Savoy, London “When I die, I would rather go to The Savoy than heaven “and Mandarin Oriental’s long running “I am a fan” advertising campaign. Also it is customary to christen hotel suites after famous guests who have stayed there  – Churchill and Montogmery suites at Mena House, Cairo; Somerset Maugham at The Oriental, Bangkok; Coco Chanel suite at The Ritz, Paris.
  • Signature experiences: Many iconic hotels curate unique, unforgettable experiences and enchanting signature rituals to forge unforgettable memories for their guests – e.g. the airport pick up in a Rolls Royce at The Peninsula, Hong Kong; rose petal shower welcome at Leela Palace, Udaipur; the evening Ganga Aarti at Ananda in the Himalayas.
  • Epicurean excellence: Known for their exceptional dining experiences (Michelin rated restaurants) and celebrated bars which often have been the birthplace of much loved signature cocktails (Singapore Sling at Raffles, Singapore and Bloody Mary at St Regis, New York); elaborate rituals and ceremonies (afternoon tea at Hotel de Crillion, Paris) or the daily 6.30pm champagne ritual at St Regis (of opening the bottle using a sabre, instead of popping the cork).

Iconic hotels are much more than just places to stay. They are distinguished and celebrated hospitality landmarks, beacons of excellence, symbols of luxury, and destinations in their own right. They have defined and transformed the landscapes of their respective cities, etching an indelible mark onto the world stage – much revered by discerning guests, industry professionals and the wider public.


Rajiv Kaul is an eminent hotelier who has worked extensively across the hospitality industry. Trained at Oberoi Hotels, under the watchful eyes of none other than PRS Oberoi, Kaul also worked at The Taj Mahal, Mumbai for a while and then became President, Leela Hotels and Palaces.

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