If you’ve been drafted over to Chennai for business, but aren’t too sure how to negotiate your way around the busy Indian port, we’ve got it covered. Well, we say we, Gerrit Kristen is the man in the know – the line manager for Bengal Tigers Line heads over to Chennai every two months and shares his guide to the city below.
1. How often do you travel to Chennai and who do you fly with?
I travel there every two months for two nights and I fly with Singapore Airlines. It’s a four-hour flight. Sometimes, I go to Cochin and Bangalore on the same trip and I’ll use the local airline, Jet Airways. Another interesting way to travel within India is to take the overnight sleeper train. I’ve done it once from Cochin to Bangalore and it was an exciting experience.
2. One thing everyone ought to know about Chennai:
Chennai is one of the four big metropolis business ports in India so it is always very busy.
3. How quickly can you get a visa?
It is quite a hassle to get a visa so it’s best to do it online at least one and a half weeks in advance. The High Commission of India in Singapore no longer accepts applications except in urgent cases. Get a multi-entry business visa if you can and never ever try to get a visa on arrival; you will get sent back.
4. Fastest way into the city?
I’m very lucky; my company’s driver usually picks me up at the airport. If you don’t have a driver, I would recommend arranging airport transfers with the hotel. Within the city, it’s OK to get around in a taxi as most locals speak English reasonably well. All taxis go by the meter and are fairly reliable. The main commercial areas in Chennai are George Town and Parry’s Corner.
5. When are the good and bad times to visit Chennai?
I would avoid going there during the monsoon period from June to August. The city gets flooded easily so it’s not easy to get around. India does have quite a number of public holidays so remember to check before going.
Cricket is an extremely popular sport in India and every cricket match seems to be a big event. The national cricket players are major stars in the country and are as highly regarded as Bollywood celebrities. If you want to learn more about their culture and have time to spare, go and see a cricket match.
6. Hotels you recommend:
I like the Taj Club House Chennai (+91 44 6631 3131) as it has a luxury resort feel. The Taj Group has hotels all around India and they are all of a high standard. For the short-term business traveller, I recommend the Hyatt Regency Chennai (+91 44 6100 1234). They do a good breakfast, provide fast internet connection and their prices are lower than the Taj.
7. What’s the dress code for meetings?
Just a shirt, tie and trousers will do. Normally I don’t wear a jacket but it depends on who I’m meeting.
8. Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
In general, Indians are very proud of their country. They are aware of the shortcomings of their country but they want to hear, especially from an outsider’s point of view, that they are doing well. If you’re meeting them for the first time, it’s advisable to keep conversations positive rather than discuss, for example, the road conditions. Choose your words wisely and don’t be too critical. They want to be respected by others. If they complain about something, it’s OK to agree with them but don’t be too harsh with your words.
9. You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
When I stay at the Hyatt, I usually take clients to one of the six in-house restaurants. They have everything from Indian to Italian and other European cuisines so my clients have plenty of options. Another place I like is Rajdhani (+91 44 2846 4422) in Express Avenue. The vegetarian restaurant serves delicious Indian food and has a nice ambience.
Indian food can be quite spicy so always ask your clients or the servers for recommendations. If I order spicy food I will always request a lassi to help ease my stomach. The most popular breakfast and snack is idli and sambar: a savoury rice cake and sauce.
A word of caution: be mindful about where you eat because water used to wash or cook the food may sometimes be unclean and can cause an upset stomach.
10. Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
Liquor licenses are hard to come by in India as individuals are not allowed to open a bar. There are some standalone wine shops called Tasmac, which are run by the government, where you can have a drink but nothing fancy. I usually go for beer; the local beer, Kingfisher, is quite good and refreshing.
Most expats usually go to the hotel bars or get drinks at the restaurant they’re dining in. Blend, the bar in Taj, has a resort-like atmosphere and the crowd is more laid-back whereas the 365 AS in Hyatt has a business crowd. There are nightclubs in almost every five-star hotel where you may get hassled.
11. Any unsafe areas to avoid?
Chennai is a very safe place but I would avoid going out alone at night. If you really have to, ask a local to accompany you.
12. You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
India was colonised by many countries in the past so there are lots of well-maintained old Portuguese and British colonial buildings to look at. Chennai, in particular, combines colonial buildings and Indian buildings very well.
A very impressive place to visit is the Santhome Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later rebuilt in Gothic style by the British in the 19th century. Another historical place that’s worth a visit is Fort St George which was built by the British East India Company. An Indian monument to see is the Valluvar Kottam, which was built in honour of respected Indian poet Thiruvalluvar.
To relax, go to Marina Beach. It is the world’s second longest beach and is usually very lively. On the weekends, families go there to fly kites, play cricket and they always seem to be having some sort of small celebration.
13. Gifts to take home for family and friends?
There are many malls in Chennai like Express Avenue and Phoenix Market City. If you are willing to brave the crowds, a good market to buy spices at is Pondy Bazaar. You can also buy silk sarees there.
14. How long before your flight do you really need to be at Chennai International Airport?
At least two and a half hours. The airport is not very efficient. They often have problems with the booking system where they cannot locate your name or ticket and you have to wait. Usually after passing immigration, I only have an hour left so I just go straight to the lounge.
The airport is quite new and has plenty of shops and restaurants. International flights terminate at Anna Terminal and domestic flights at Kamraj Terminal; both are quite close to the city.