For the culturally inclined, there is an alternative to the puerile phenomenon called pub hopping. It is called pandal-hopping. The time is the nine days of Durga Puja, the place Kolkata, and the experience is aesthetic. Taj Bengal, the monument to good taste, provides the means.
During the festival season, the Taj Bengal organises a trip for its residents to see some of the most innovative and artful pandals in the city. Last year, for instance, guests were awed by a structure made of dried sugarcane that housed a 40-foot idol of goddess Durga.
The same sense of the sublime envelops visitors when they enter the 11,000-square foot atrium lobby of the luxury hotel, located in the plush Alipore area. The preserved palm trees and fairy-tale starlight beams compel them to stop there until the understated detailing emerges.
The discerning visitor is sure to notice how the contemporary and the traditional are interwoven with the 1600 AD Persian carpet, Grecian urns handmade from Dholpur stone, and Bohemian crystal floor and table lamps. And there is no escaping the charm of the big stone musicians in the backdrop. Also, to counter the city’s old-world charm of antiquated buildings and crowded by-lanes, the hotel has a vertical garden that makes it an island of greenery.
Every aspect of the hotel borrows from, and adds to the heritage of Kolkata, and caters to the senses of the initiated. For instance, the hand-blasted brick blocks have been made by local artists associated with the Bengal School of Pottery and Clay Making. All the floor landings have an art piece couch, cupboard, stone chair, one puppet or another representing traditional Bengali heritage with a modern touch.
The bar, The Junction, is a tribute to the history of the Indian railways, which started in the eastern region. There are prints of vintage images of trains sourced from the Indian Railways and a telephone modelled on a rail engine.
It is no surprise, then, that the local people, who indulge in the fine life as a matter of habit, love coming to the Taj. "Almost 35 to 40 per cent of our revenues come from local people. Compared with the business in other hotels, this is unusual," says Sameer Khanna, the former general manager of Taj Bengal, and now the general manager at Taj Fisherman’s Cove, Chennai.
And because the locals are food connoisseurs, this shows in the food and beverages (F&B) part of the business. "Over 50 per cent of our business comes from the F&B section," says Rajeshwari Srinivasan, director of sales. Surinder Singh, the executive chef, says that Kolkata not only loves food but is also adventurous with its taste buds. "We have many specialty restaurants as locals are experimental. We keep changing the cuisine every six months to cater to our clients from the Bengali corporate, expatriate and business community," he says.
For instance, the hotel recently introduced cuisine from Orissa at Sonargaon, the restaurant that transports you to a Punjabi village. This is being done especially because not much is known about food from the state. There are unusual food festivals, like the Thai fest, which was accompanied by folk dance from the country, the chocolate festival, where the last supper was recreated in a chocolate box, and the Chop Suey festival, where magician PC Sorcar’s daughter made the food vamoose to the bewilderment of the chef at the launch.
The Chinese restaurant, the Chinoiserie, is considered one of the best in a city that was the first in the country to be initiated to Chinese food. The chef for this restaurant is from the Cheng Du region of China. He has become conversant in English only after joining the hotel. At the Hub, the coffee shop, which is high on the Italian cuisine, there is a chef from Italy.
All menus are introduced only after a group of local women, selected from the hotel’s client database, taste and approve the fare. "There is a lot of pressure to especially keep the vegetarian and seafood aspect of any festival right, as the local Marwari prefers vegetarian, while the Bengali knows his fish well," says Ms Srinivasan. Special care is also taken to keep trying new food for weddings at the banquet hall. "This is because most of the wedding business comes from the same circuit, usually the Marwari business community," says Mr Singh.
The banquet positioning of Taj is, in fact, the strongest, Mr Khanna says. "There is a lot of repeat business in this category that comes not only from the corporate clientele, but also from personal occasions like weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Weddings, in particular, can mean menus at a rate as high as Rs1,600-1,800 per plate. In fact, I remember, a member of the local Marwari community once spent Rs18 lakh on maintaining a glasshouse-like structure for a month for a wedding. There is a lot of money in this for us."
Weddings are such big business, that Taj even consults the purohit on potential wedding dates in the year. "We narrow down on days when all stars are shining, and inform all our offices to juggle dates if they get other banquet queries at the time," smiles Mr Khanna.
The regular corporate clientele that constitutes about 54 per cent of the occupancy on an average need not worry about getting disturbed, as the banquet hall has a grand separate entrance. Taj also gets about 10 per cent of its business from long stays, people who stay more than seven days, from Japan. "Our guests from Japan are unique to our property. They come largely for projects at the Haldia Petrochemical base," says Manoj Janardhan, quality coordinator. To take care of these customers, Taj Bengal has a Japanese directory in their rooms.
This is no surprise, considering the luxury hotel keeps updating its services in response to the profile of its clients. "For instance, we realised that our corporate travellers could change their travel plans any time. So, we have a 24-hour travel service. Then, there was a problem with connectivity for laptops. So we now have wireless connectivity available to the user," says Mr Khanna.
This has been possible at the Taj Bengal because the staff is continuously mindful of feedback from guests. Responses, whether oral or in writing, goes as data into a customer profile and is documented. "We record the preferences of our clients so they never have to remind us about anything. For instance, if we discover a guest has a problem walking, the next time he/she checks in we allot him/her a room close to the elevator," says Mr Khanna.
The service is, thus, anticipatory. Especially when a guest has had a problem, members of the staff take special care to close the gap on his/her next visit. In order to ensure that all the staffers at the Taj are updated with the requisite information and ethos, there are not only notice boards and information gathering meetings, but also skits in Bengali and Hindi. This session is called role playing. No wonder that service at the Taj Bengal is legendary. As Mr Janardhan points out, "We are known for our warmth."
So, if you plan to partake in the cheer of Kolkata this Puja, you will be warmly welcomed by the Taj Bengal. Traditionally.