The general managers of three of the city’s largest luxury hotels — Philippe H. Charraudeau of ITC Grand Chola, Pascal Dupuis of The Leela Palace and Yann Gillet of Park Hyatt.

It calls for healthy amounts of patience, large doses of charm, presence of mind, resourcefulness and most of all, a sense of humour that never goes a-tripping. They have it all in oodles and more: the general managers of three of the city’s largest luxury hotels — Philippe H. Charraudeau of ITC Grand Chola, Pascal Dupuis of The Leela Palace and Yann Gillet of Park Hyatt.

All from France, they arrived in the city around the middle of last year to set up, open and establish the running of their respective hotels. And in the process, have been delighted and at times disappointed, while constantly marvelling at the city they now call home.

Discovering Chennai’s quirks, its little pockets of respite and south Indian food has been a journey in progress for them and their families. “The chaotic traffic thanks to of metro rail construction,” says Mr. Charraudeau, with a rueful smile, sounding exactly like a Chennaiite. “And the garbage,” chimes in Mr. Dupuis — hitting off at city residents’ two constant woes. A bond is thereby established.

But the people, they agree, are the best. In many ways, Chennai is a discreet, unassuming sort of city. It doesn’t have the brash attitude some cities do, or the sheer display of wealth that characterize some other cities. “People are more low-key here. It’s a different system and culture,” says Mr. Charraudeau, adding, “The younger generation though is keen to eat out and party.” “The people here are amazing,” says Mr. Dupuis. “Friendly, helpful, and at the hotel, so eager to learn. It’s been a pleasure dealing with them.”

Their lives are a state of constant movement. Every few years or so, they pack their bags and move to a different country to begin the opening and running of a hotel — from scratch. Do their families mind the constant shuffles? “The children invariably miss the city they were last in. But for the most part, they adapt and enjoy. They get to see so much of the world, so many new places and people,” says Mr. Gillet. Holland, England, Malaysia, New Zealand, Saudia Arabia, Pakistan — Mr. Charraudeau has seen it all. With close to 40 years of experience in the hospitality industry, there aren’t many things that surprise him.

With runs on IIT-Madras’ pristine campus in the mornings, surfing on the beach from time to time and sampling Chettinad cuisine, Mr. Gillet is enjoying his stint in the city. For Mr. Dupuis, after his last stint in Goa, Chennai is a welcome relief. “There isn’t much to do in Goa,” he says. “It is lovely if you are a tourist. But living there can get monotonous. In Chennai, there is so much to do for recreation.” His 14-year-old daughter has re-discovered her passion for horse-riding, he says.

A hotel is a little microcosm of the world outside. Men, women and children are seen at their personal best and worst, when they are tired, angry, hungry or happy. Each guest, they say, has his or her own expectations. Understanding and catering to these is the key to running a good establishment. “For many people, their experience of a hotel connects to their experience of a city. Usually, if they love their hotel, they have a great time in the city too, and take back fond memories of it,” says Mr. Gillet.

It can’t be easy — seeing hundreds of new people every day, socialising with them, helping newcomers to a city and dealing with all the little problems that crop up in the running of the hotel. “You can’t fake it,” says Mr. Dupuis. “No guest wants to realize that when he is speaking to you, you are thinking of something else. You have to be a genuine people’s person and take an interest in all the people you meet. That is why,” he says with a smile, “on the weekend sometimes, you don’t want to speak to or meet anybody. All you want to do is stay in and relax.”

Recently, the city has exploded with new, high-end hotels and is all set to catch the lucrative MICE traffic, (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions).  “Chennai is fast becoming a hub for all kinds of sectors. It has the advantages of a large sea port and the fact that it is not too far away from other large metros,” says Mr. Charraudeau. Plus, Mr. Gillet says, the city is acquiring the tag of a party capital with the government’s decision to allow bars at five-star hotels to run round-the-clock.

So how does competition from hotels that have existed here for decades as well as those that have just come up affect them? “There is enough business for all of us,” smiles Mr. Dupuis. “If Chennai wasn’t booming, why would so many hotels continue to come up here?” he says. “The beauty about our business,” Mr. Gillet says, “is that this is no war.”

Each hotel has its own niche and role in the city. It is not just arrivals from other cities and countries that the hotels are targeting: with close to 20 restaurants between the three hotels, it will be Chennai’s residents who eat, party and spread the word to their friends and family in other towns. “We want the city to experience all that we have to offer in our hotels. It will be they who will be our ambassadors, so to speak, and recommend the hotels to others they know,” said Mr. Dupuis.

So what motivates them to pack up and see Casablanca one day, Chennai the next? “Every day is different and there is something new to be dealt with or seen, or experience,” said Mr. Charraudeau. “There are constant surprises in this business and that is invigorating.” “We are like actors,” smiles Mr. Dupuis, “we get a script for every day.” Is it the setting up and opening of a brand new hotel that gives them an adrenaline rush? “Definitely,” says Mr Charraudeau. “We are dreamers you see,” says Mr. Gillet. “We arrive at a new city with a dream. The rest of our stay goes into making that dream come true.” Mr. Charraudeau adds, “There is nothing quite like it. To watch concrete turn into marble, to experience an empty room transform into an elaborate restaurant, to see pieces of hotel come alive in front of you.

He pauses for a moment. “You know how with photographs, they once had to be soaked in a bath for the image to come out? It’s a little like that. It’s like watching a picture emerge, little by little, from what once was nothing until it becomes complete. It’s magical.”

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