The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel at Mumbai evokes mystique and romance. When it opened in 1903, it was the first building in Bombay to be lit by electricity, and the first hotel to have a laundry, and refrigeration in India. Other Taj firsts in Indian hospitality included American fans, German elevators, chandelier polishing machines, Turkish baths and English butlers. In time, the Taj had Mumbai's first-ever licensed bar — the Harbour Bar (bar licence No.1) — India's first all-day dining restaurant, its first 24-hour coffee shop and the country's first international discotheque.
The Taj is listed as one of the '1,000 places to see before you die' by the New York Times Best Seller. The hotel, the oldest and most visible symbol of the Taj group, asserted its supremacy from the very beginning. "For decades," says Ajoy Mishra, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Indian Hotels, "the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in Mumbai was a showpiece for the world. Not since the Taj Mahal in Agra was there another building that evoked so much awe, built in India."
This should come as no surprise as Jamsetji Tata, the founder of the Tata group, pursued his dream of building a world-class hotel in India with a passion. He travelled all over Europe to handpick artefacts to adorn what was undisputedly the 'finest hotel in the east'.
Later, Jamsetji Tata's sons, Sir Dorabji and Sir Ratan Tata, inherited and nurtured the Taj brand as did JRD Tata, who was the chairman of the company from the 1970s to the 1990s. Today, Mr Ratan Tata steers the brand toward new frontiers. Over the years, one thing has remained constant: its sterling service and luxury.
The list of achievements goes on. The Taj Group has one of the finest collections of art, artefacts and collectibles across hotels. The largest such collection rests in the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, Mumbai. The Taj group was the first to launch the concept of palace and heritage hotels. Recently, it launched the first truly Indian spa concept, the Jiva spas, at four of its hotels. These are signs that the group is not content to rest on its laurels; it learns from the times and constantly reinvents itself.
It was the Taj that developed Goa and Kerala as premium Indian leisure destinations. When it decided to enter Goa in the 1970s, the state was not on the tourist map. Nor were there any five-star hotels around. "Only the hippies had discovered Goa then," says Mr Misra. The company was faced with the task of convincing the foreign tourist about the merits of Goa as a seaside paradise.
The advertising sold the destination first and through it the hotel. "Nobody buys a hotel," says Mr Misra. "They buy the experience. Our campaigns were largely built around the approach of 'see India through the eyes of the Taj'. Once India was sold, the game plan changed." These pioneering efforts laid the ground for subsequent players in the hospitality industry. They also helped dispel notions of poverty, disease and lack of hygiene, that westerners harboured about India.
As the brand grew in strength and favour, the Taj Group began to expand. From just one hotel in 1971, it added two to three hotels each year. Brand communication stressed on the strength of the chain in India. 'India's first hotel chain; South Asia's largest', the slogan declared.
And, as the Taj grew, advertising messages also evolved to indicate that there was more to the Taj than its size. It became necessary to set the brand apart from the competition. Studies revealed that guests appreciated the way the Taj balanced the contemporary and the traditional with such élan. "Right from the beginning," says Mr Misra, "the Taj offered its customers a fine balance between traditional India — its hospitality, culture and service — and cutting-edge technology."
The Taj, which offered broadband Internet connections long before it became the norm elsewhere, recently became one of the first chains to offer WiFi in all its hotels. Its redesigned website has won recognition in international fora. At every stage, the brand has kept pace with advancements in technology, without losing its warmth and caring, qualities repeatedly endorsed in consumer surveys.
The need to create a more vibrant and dynamic personality for the Taj led to the much appreciated 'She is the Taj' campaign in the 1990s. Research indicated that customers saw the Taj as efficient and modern, yet traditional in its respect and care for people. It was therefore given a human personality, that of a traditional, graceful, Indian woman.
The name 'Taj Group of Hotels' was phased out in favour of 'Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces'. "We included the word 'palaces' very consciously," says Mr Misra. "We are the only hospitality chain to own and run authentic palaces. It is a differentiator."
The next item on the agenda is to augment the perception of efficiency and add new layers to its personality, while retaining the elegance of 'She is the Taj'. The 100-year-old first lady of the Indian hospitality industry will soon reveal hitherto little known facets of her personality.