When the world was busy looking at how Nestle botched up in their Facebook page, something interesting happened even in India. Again, partly on Facebook.

To sum it up, a cyclist was turned away from Bangalore’s plush 7-star hotel, The Leela, because he was not in a car! Anita Bora blogged about it in detail, last week.

But there are other interesting observations too.

The discussion was primarily on a forum, Bikeszone, where, on last count, it is a 8 page thread with tons of hate messages against Leela.

From there, people started posting updates and hate comments on Leela’s Facebook page.

leela-fb1leela-fb2Leela was forced to issue an apology which they posted on Facebook, as a note.

It was well worded and well intentioned too, but the explanation was not fully accepted by many of the fans/ forum members. At one point, Leela even wrote, “i take back my words .. and apologise again .. its sort of getting difficult with us constantly being bombarded .. please empathise’

There was widespread criticism on the Bikeszone forum about messages being deleted from the Facebook page, which could have riled the protesters further. But, a Leela employee (Venkat Shankarnarayan, Assistant Manager – Web Business Development, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts) dared to join the forum and posted an apology directly.

Things were going smoothly for Mr. Venkat Shankarnarayan…people in the forum were glad that he came out and posted an apology, before something bizarre happened!

One of the users clicked on Venkat’s newly-created profile and happened to see what he wrote under, ‘My Goal’. He had actually written, ‘kick ur mutherfuckin ass…’ and with great wisdom, the user had taken a screenshot of his profile, before Venkat had a chance to change it!

The crowd turned its ire on the man, understandably, and wrote a mail to his boss, who they found out via LinkedIn, along with the screenshot!

It is one hell of a fascinating case study, actually.

It started with a cyclist not allowed entry into a 7 star hotel. The discussion was predominantly around discretionary policies of the hotel, how Indians with no cars are treated, racism and how these status symbol hotels treat people with 2 wheelers.

Then, Leela intervened, both on Facebook and on the forum, directly – great move, even if the reason (security) was not bought by the protesters.

After a flurry of responses to the official statement, someone found the ‘Goal’ in the official responder’s profile and the discussion turned against him, almost personally, equating that with Leela’s general outlook, since that person posted his message in an open forum, as an official from Leela! His profile may be personal, as he calls it, but his post was official!

The discussion reached journalists from Times of India and Indian Express – Times of India’s Rajesh Kalra did a story on the imbroglio and the forum members noticed a particularly abusive comment by a user named ‘Joy’.

Finally, it looks like Leela is reconsidering its no-cycles-allowed policy, according to latest updates in the forum.

So, bikers have literally forced a 7-star hotel to change rules, for good. It hasn’t happened yet, but given the kind of relentless pressure they have put on Leela’s management using online tools, it seems like a good example to have a proactive and consistent social media policy, so that such issues can be addressed before they blow out of proportion.

Strangely, the person who commented on the forum has the designation of, ‘Assistant Manager – Web Business Development’. The business part of web may not be best suited to handle PR, online or offline, as this example shows!

Leela seems to have acted reasonably fast, but the kind of messages they sent seem wrong and not in line with the kind of points raised in the forum. It’s a rather generic apology and even adds that the security guard in question may be taken to task – which seems massively unfair since he was just following Leela’s policies!

But again, Leela is a private hotel and they can set any kind of rules they want as long as it is not deemed illegal. But, in these days of expensive cycles, urban cycling movements/ groups and the eco-friendly topics they open up for discussion, it is sad to see a hotel of Leela’s caliber not taking this thought proactively and create a USP out of it.

As I had blogged before, Mantri’s ‘India’s largest mall in Bangalore’ could have used the number of cars it can accommodate in the parking lot as a USP, simply because it is a burning topic right now, from the city’s point of view. Taco Bell and the size of the mall itself could become stale USPs very soon, but the fact that they thought about the parking will remain a USP forever!

In Leela’s case, it was an opportunity staring at them – I do understand that such policy changes will take time and effort, but the opportunity is still out there for the hotel!



16 thoughts on “The curious case of Leela and the cycle!

  1. Hey ,

    I really don’t know how Leela handled the facebook thing , so wouldnt comment on that.

    But one thing, isnt a private organisation allowed to set its own rules.
    Social media is a powerful tool, but would hate to see some people bend it to their convenience , create a lots of noise and we will soon have a glorified , digital form of mobocracy

  2. bernardo: Absolutely – it is a private organization and they have every right to deny permission based on any rule they set. However, they should also be cognizant of the fact that, doing so, they may alienate a set of current/ prospective customers and that may perhaps not go down well with a hotel brand. If they had chosen to stick to their guns of denying permission to cycles (on whatever ground), they should also know how to convey that across (no matter how angry the mob is, online) in as sane, polite and clear tone as possible and leave it at that.

    In Leela’s case, they seem to want both – the cyclists and the policy of not allowing cycles. They should ideally choose a side and stick to it. They chose the alter their policy, but it perhaps came late – and now it seems like an aftermath of the online protests.

    1. 4 years later and they are still snooty as hell. Worse, they make false promises on Twitter. See this thread to know what I’m talking about: https://twitter.com/rumananazarali/status/436930551866339329

      What I cannot understand, is if I respect the dress code, pay for services, why can I not be given parking privileges for my vehicle? If they are worried about ‘status’ at least make a provision to park at another gate or wherever the Leela employees park their two wheelers!

      It is discriminatiry, and it is madness in a country like India where the so-called elite guests will anyway see bikes n potholes and what not once they drive out of the foyer :p

  3. Karthik, thanks for writing about this.

    Leela Should have done the following.

    1) Sporadic responses are no good. They should have personally gotten in touch with Anita and thereafter posted an apology. Get the problem at its roots and then go around posting stuff online.
    2) They should have communicated to their employees of what was happening and who all were in charge to response.
    3) It is inevitable, Companies will have to start training their employees on the importance on keeping their online presence clean.

  4. Almost every hi-fi hotel worth its salt in West has a dress code. You are not allowed inside without a minimum of dress code – jacket, suit, tie etc. Would you consider that as discrimination?

    Many don’t allow autorickshaws inside the hotel premises. They are N-star for their looks, presentation etc. So what is wrong if they want to maintain that cycle is not a 7-star thing. If you really want to use cycle, then why do you care for a 7-star hotel in the first place? The dhaba has much tastier food anyways ๐Ÿ™‚

    I am not siding Leela, but just trying to help you understand this world. We (society) create somethings (like Leela) for certain purpose (pomp and show), then we should not mess it (cycles).

  5. shashi: Glad you brought dress code into the discussion – can’t agree more. As I sad in my earlier comment – it’s a private organization and they have every right to do what they deem fit for their brand. But, they should also perhaps stick to their guns when there’s an online mob calling them names.

    If they seem to have a logical argument for not allowing cycles inside, they could simply state that and move on. But their argument (security) was not bought by the discussion forum members and was called illogical. Now, it is a matter of opinion, between the 2 groups. The Hotel, if it’s firm in their stand, should stick to it and move on – but also be aware that they have antagonized/ alienated one group and may lose a tiny fraction of their business from this action.

    Now, if they antagonize beggars – no issues, they’re not losing customers. But cyclists? There are full-fledged cycling groups in metros and many people buy cycles that are as expensive as laptops and bikes! So, it’s no wonder that Leela took an estimate of the purchasing power of the affluent, city-bred cyclist and not just the aam-junta cyclist who could be a daily wage earner. So, they had to tread a dicey line – and that resultant confusion showed in their apology and messaging.

    A mob is a mob, online or offline. Online, it can grow faster and spread its wings too. It may have a reason – right or wrong. But brands need to do assess the situation they are in, take quick decisions and stick to it. Amidst all this, they also need to see if they’re on the right side or the wrong, going by established, commonly accepted parameters. If they seem to be on the wrong, chances are they won’t last long in the war with the mob.

  6. I really doubt that Leela survives on cyclists, no offense meant. I am myself not a Leela kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be aware of how society works. How many of the Leela customers will actually read any of the online stuff? And how many of them will actually stop going to Leela.

    I mean, just think calmly. The cyclist who protested, in my humble opinion came right out of Utopia to decide to ‘fight it out’. Why couldn’t he simply park the cycle outside? Or just come back in the car with the client, girlfriend or whomever he wants to meet/impress later on?

    I mean, seriously, there are more important issues to focus our energies on, as well as other things of Leela and N-star hotels to look at, like waste management!

    Thanks. Just wanted to give my point in the discussion. After all, people will do what tickles their guts ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. shashi: I agree, but just look at how seriously Leela took the whole charge! That perhaps shows that they are not willing to alienate that group – it’s their decision anyway.

    From a cyclist’s point of view, why should we not consider the fact that a cycle is so small compared to a car and can hence be very easily parked in that massive hotel compound? So, asking the cycle to be parked seems silly. But, on the other hand, if the hotel considers it below its dignity to have cycles when firang guests are entering the hotel, then that is precisely what was being debated in the discussion board. The hotel has a choice – live with the self-imposed snootiness (their choice, anyway) or walk a middle path. I guess they chose the latter.

  8. I think the most important point is not weather cyclist should be allowed or what the dress code should be.

    It is realizing that one post online can lead to something bigger.

    What if it was not a cyclist, but a returning customer who wasn’t treated well. A vegetarian who was fed meat?

    Leela or any other organization needs to have a POA to deal with stuff like this. Need to educate their staff of their presence online.

  9. Whether or not cyclists are potential customers, where to park the cycle, why should a cyclist want to go to a 7-star hotel, morality of the issue, etc. are all beside the point. The main point is how did Leela react to this PR crisis. They did some things right (they reacted quickly) and they did some things wrong (not taking a firm stand, not vetting the employee who was chosen to post).

    There is a lesson here for all of us รข?? when a PR crisis strikes, it is important to get your act together and communicate quickly, decisively and with consistent messaging within the company and to outside stakeholders (general public, press, customers, investors, etc). In today’s viral world, one small issue can snowball into an unmanageable mess in no time.

  10. great…so some people through some online chatter have made a 5 star hotel embarassed on the net and allow cycles into their property!!! except these kind of things, how have the social media websites made any other change to our lives? which brand in India hss benefitted POSITIVELY from them?

  11. Mindstar: I’d say that people have started using social media better than brands because they have been slow in realizing its potential. Plus, legacy communication systems perhaps did not allow them to move faster and make use of it appropriately.

    Still, the brand pages on Facebook are a good example of how brands have started to use social media as an advantage – the point is, if the brands are online, in places like Facebook, and consistently demonstrate that they care for their customers (I hope you don’t have a problem with that part – that’s the basic necessity) whether online or offline, such instances of mob protest can be addressed not by the brands alone but by the people who have been positively influenced by brands over time.

    There is no substitute for a company or a brand’s customer centricity – if it is not, the protest can occur anywhere. Outside the company’s offices, the protest may look isolated and small. Social media is merely a tool that accentuates the activity and makes time/ distance immaterial by letting that protest take a larger than life size.

  12. Hi Karthik

    thanks for posting this, I found it a very interesting case study.

    Does anyone think that Leela could have used the traditional media rules to better effect in this case? It seems that the old rules of having a designated spokesperson and a proper reactive process in place was missing.


  13. Sapna, good point. I’m not sure if Leela did react to traditional media as well – do not recall seeing anything on print. The story did make it to Times of India online, but there doesn’t seem to be any reaction for that from Leela. They have been actively trying to contain the online damage however – that much is clear.

    But yes, that designated spokesperson and one official voice strategy seems strangely missing.

  14. Hi Karthik,

    A very interesting post and subsequent discussion.

    The point I wanted to make is that, although Leela may not loose any customers based on the cycle issue – what this episode has possibly created is a forum for all disgruntled leela clients to vent their frustration. Eventhough it has started with a relatively simple issue of a cyclist being denied entry, it can built up to being a forum for leela bashing on many other counts. Our company had a bad experience (service wise) during a event we conducted there approx. 4 years back. If such a forum would have been available I probably would’ve gone there and listed out my complaints!!

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