Indian Hotels embarked on a new journey in September 2008 with the launch of The Gateway Hotel. “A new brand catering to the emerging set of contemporary travellers, Gateway is a part of the Taj group’s strategy to have a large footprint across India,” says Raymond Bickson, managing director and chief executive officer, Indian Hotels (IHC).
Gateway adds a new dimension not just to the Taj brand of hotels but also to the Indian travel industry by bridging the wide gap between luxury and budget travel. The product opens up the market by meeting an unfulfilled need among contemporary travellers while maintaining the standards of excellence that have been established by the Taj brand.
The need for a new brand
The survey found that there were some elements of confusion in the Taj brand portfolio. Over the last 30-35 years, as Taj expanded both domestically and internationally, almost every property had some kind of Taj association. So, while there was a Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai, and a Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, there was also a Taj Garden Retreat, Coonoor, and a Taj View Hotel, Agra. “In the customer’s mind, the Taj brand differentiation was not clear. It was getting increasingly evident that we had to move fast and restructure,” says Ajoy Misra, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Indian Hotels.
The Taj portfolio comprised three segments: luxury, business and leisure. “Earlier the brand architecture was modelled on the basis of the purpose of travel rather than the level of the hotel. Also, in luxury, which had only high-end city hotels, we added the palaces. There was a need to clean up the brand architecture,” says Jyoti Narang, erstwhile COO, Gateway Hotels.
Bringing Landor Associates on board, the Taj team took a hard look at their current brand portfolio and how they could restructure the brand to maximise brand equity. At one end of the brand pyramid was Taj (luxury) and at the other was Ginger (economy). “The space in between these was too wide, and we began to see that there were possibilities for a couple of brands in between,” says Mr Misra.
Adds Ms Narang, “I think it was felt that the market in India was expanding very quickly, and if the Taj didn’t have an offering at an upscale level, we would probably lose a business opportunity.”
The Gateway brand was positioned in that price range. The Taj owned a company called Gateway Hotels and Getaway Resorts and there was a Gateway hotel in Bangalore, so the brand was already registered. What the Taj did was to refresh the brand, transform it and re-launch it with a new personality.
The brand persona
Landor worked to create a contemporary brand personality that would give the Gateway a competitive edge, with the brand values of being crisp, courteous, dynamic, warm and consistent.
But there was a need for a brand differentiator. Ms Narang explains, “Many international hotels and chains (who haven’t come to India yet) are talking about ‘affordable chic’. But we realised that in the Indian context, the customer wanted a little more. With changing lifestyles, young India wanted to do things at its own pace, in its environment.”
This gave rise to the Gateway differentiators of fitness, flexibility and freedom. Gateway was positioned as affordable chic combined with freedom, flexibility and fitness. Products were created to address each of these facets. Fitness included active foods, 24x7 fitness centres, extended swimming pool hours and in-room yoga. Flexibility meant 24x7 service centres for laundry, breakfast, room service and business-related activities — a differentiator for an upscale brand. Through ‘Gateway explore’, guests were given the freedom to chart their own holiday itinerary.
Signature items such as Gateway wines and Gateway coffee were created. “A lot of work was done at the operational level to create product experience,” says Ms Narang. For future implementation, the team is exploring a Gateway mini bar that will include products for fitness buffs, a Gateway Fitness-Spa version, entertainment zones within the hotel and in-room music delivery.
The new logo — clean, contemporary and very international — reflects the brand personality. The colours — red and grey — denote brand attributes of warmth, dynamism and vibrancy. “The brand personality is young and contemporary. It is aimed at people who are striving for achievement, who have great potential going forward,” says Mr Misra.
The focus was on building an independent identity, on positioning Gateway with attributes and expectations independent of the Taj brand. “The hotel experience has been divided into zones, which makes for an interesting approach. The communication style is also informal, but professional,” says Ashish Gangrade, general manager, marketing, Gateway Hotels.
The advertising was built around this message through famous personalities who reflected different aspects of the brand personality. So there was Soha Ali Khan, who wanted healthy food, Rahul Sharma and Manish Arora looking for 24x7 services and Rahul Bose interested in the 24-hour fitness centre.
While Gateway is an independent brand, it remains under the umbrella of the Taj brand in terms of the loyalty programme (Taj Inner Circle) and the reservation centre. The brand is fully supported by the Taj network, using the same call centres, sales and marketing team and PR network.
“We are clearly saying that the Gateway is a new brand launched by Taj hotels, but there are synergies,” emphasises Ms Narang. “It is a part of the Taj portfolio of brands, and the fact that we have a common sales team will ensure that it is business as usual,” she adds.
In certain markets, customers will now have multiple Taj brands to choose from. For instance, in tier 1 cities, there could be both a Gateway and a Taj. Going down to tier 2 and 3 cities, there might be a Gateway and a Ginger. “We have identified major destinations where there will be a Taj and a Gateway or a Ginger. It’s a multi-pronged strategy,” says Ms Narang.
“The purpose of travel will not be the only reason why a customer stays in a certain brand or category,” says Mr Misra. “Our hotels and brands are distributed depending on whether they fit that brand proposition, price brand and category. For instance, Delhi has Taj Palace and a Ginger.”
It’s clearly been a journey of huge proportions, and there were challenges along the way. The complexity of the ownership of the properties was one of those challenges. “The launch of the Gateway brand was significant because, for the first time, we are actually launching a brand where we will rebrand existing properties, a mix of IHC-owned associate companies, joint ventures and management contracts. We have broken a paradigm and got our partners to accept rebranding as a necessary part of business going forward,” says Mr Misra.
The second challenge was training employees, changing mindsets and ensuring that every aspect of communication matched what was on the ground. Taj’s inclusive approach and its focus on direct and sustained communication activities helped the entire team to be on the same page during the journey. With e-learning modules, town hall meetings, posters and e-mailers, they reached out to every single person down the line.
Prashant Khullar, general manager, HR, Gateway Hotels, elaborates, “We developed e-learning modules, designed by Tata Interactive Systems, which took the employees through the entire guest interaction — from the time that a guest is received at the airport, through his stay and finally checkout.” To make it more interesting and retentive, two brand mascots — Fun and Do — were created to communicate the messages.
The Gateway Hotel team is happy with the initial feedback. “Customers are finding excitement in the brand, in its new look and elements. We see this brand as having huge potential across the country,” says Mr Misra. There is also buzz from prospective developers who want to be associated with the brand.
Clearly, the latest offering from the dowager duchess among hotels could turn out to be the gateway to a better and brighter future for the Taj.