One wintry December morning, the city of Bombay got a new landmark with the opening of the Taj Mahal Hotel. It was the culmination of a visionary's dream. Jamsetji Tata, the founder of the Tata group, wanted to give Bombay a magnificent hotel, the finest in the country.
The remarkably luxurious hotel with 30 private suites cum apartments and 350 double and single rooms boasted of electrical lights, passenger lifts and refrigeration — things unheard of at the time. The innovations were a result of Jamsetji Tata’s visits to major international cities in his endeavour to offer guests the comfort that was on par with the best in the world.
Hundred years later, the management is walking the global road once again. The world has changed significantly; India has embraced globalisation, along with other countries. The scale of operations in the company has increased. From one hotel in Bombay, the Taj group has gone on to 53 in India and 12 at various international destinations.
To maintain its status as the very best hotel chain across the globe, the Taj group is preparing to equip itself to meet the challenges of the next 100 years. "The challenge for an organisation that has a tradition of a 100 years lies in how to revisit what you do and improve it so that you do not become stagnant, that you keep up with the trends in the world today," says Raymond Bickson, managing director of Indian Hotels.
The Taj is already present in most of the key Indian cities and the scope for domestic growth is limited. Outside India, it has hotels in Sri Lanka, Dubai, Oman, Nepal, UK and Maldives. Now the company seeks to expand its vision. "The Taj brand is a high profile business for the group. We want to become important global players in the hospitality industry and leverage the Tata brand on an international scale," says Mr Bickson.
Mr Bickson ticks off the target expansion list: "From India we move westwards to the Indian Ocean (Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles), then there is Africa and the key gateway cities like London, New York, Shanghai and Beijing." The Australasian and Gulf markets are also opportunity regions.
The success of the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa in Maldives has boosted the confidence of the management, reinforcing that they can compete with the best international brands. For the Taj group, it is the prototype resort of the future. They have already signed agreements for Mauritius and Seychelles and will soon set up a similar property in Sri Lanka.
Mr Bickson avers, "Our strategy to be asset-light will allow us to move in quickly. We are looking at management contracts. Four Seasons works on the same model. They have many hotels around the world but own only a few. But the level and standard of service is the same everywhere. That is what we are trying to do too."
His vision for Indian Hotels is to be atop the pyramid of the hotel business today and a benchmark in the luxury segment among brands such as Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton. "These are aspirational brands and we want to be among them."
According to Mr Bickson, the attributes for a successful global hotel group include emphasis on core competence and the basics of the service or the product. "You must focus on a few key points that will help reach the goal," he says. The legendary Taj hospitality forms the core competence for Indian Hotels while the key focus areas are renovation, brand building, technology and people training.
Globalisation, like most important matters, begins at home. As the luxury hotels constitute over 70 per cent of the company’s profits and attract international guests, the focus is increasingly on revving up the product and the service.
"In the last five years, some of our competitors have raised the benchmark for luxury. We feel that the quickest way to showcase our hotels is to renovate our luxury palaces," says Mr Bickson.
The Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, Mumbai, Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, Rambagh Palace, Jaipur, and Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, are being refurbished and repositioned in the first step to building the Taj as a global preferred brand. They offer global luxury standards and best practises. Luxurious state-of-art spas are replacing the old-fashioned health club concept. A personalised butler service seeks to evoke the lifestyle of the erstwhile Indian maharajas.
The ongoing revolution in cuisine has been accompanied by innovations as well. Though the Taj group was the first to introduce international cuisine in India, today, its food and beverages business is competing with free standing, niche restaurants. Thus, new concepts such as contemporary Indian cuisine have been introduced. Internationally recognised chefs and restaurants will also be introduced into the Taj properties.
She is the Taj
"The name Taj evokes luxury, splendour, warmth and hospitality. And that’s what we want to offer to anyone who stays with us," emphasises Mr Bickson.
The challenge in this is that the Taj brand appears on diverse properties from the luxurious Taj Mahal in Delhi to the touristy Taj Gateway in Chiplun. "These products are dissimilar or of very different service standards. The brand does not have a very clear cut luxury connotation," says Ajoy Misra, senior vice president, sales and marketing. "Also, in terms of image, what the brand stands for today may not necessarily be what we want it to stand for in the future".
The group has recently commissioned Landor Associates to ideate on the brand architecture. The issues being debated include bringing about a change in the existing strategic business units, changing the personality of the basic brand (should it be associated with only some hotels?) and the branding of future international acquisitions under the Taj flagship. Mr Misra hopes to get these answers and more by early 2004.
Alongside, Mr Misra is focusing on creating awareness in key and emerging markets, and raising levels in existing markets. The marketing and sales team have been strengthened overseas and are supplemented by PR agencies. "We need to strengthen what the brand stands for in terms of quality and luxury," he adds.
Mr Misra believes that globally, the Taj should be reinforced as an international luxury hotel with an Indian soul and touch to it, though the degree of Indianness would vary in each country. "Our target segment, globally, is the frequent individual traveller who seeks that mix of warmth and efficiency," says Mr Misra.
A room with more than just a view
Technology is adding new dimensions and increasing efficiency in the hospitality business. "A room is essentially a plain vanilla product. We are trying to add in differentiators through technology. While front-end systems lead to customer satisfaction and product differentiation, the back-end leads to process efficiency and cost savings," says Prakash Shukla, vice president, technology, and chief information officer.
In the last three years, the Taj group has focused on creating the infrastructure and platforms to drive efficiency at both the front and back end. A Wide Area Network (WAN) now connects all properties allowing for better communications and incorporation of centralised reservation and customer applications. The Taj is also the first chain in the world to have wireless Internet access in most properties. Technology is also helping them capture guest trends and preferences to provide more personalised services.
The star in the technology arena for the Taj, is the interactive system being rolled out in the heritage wing of the Taj, Mumbai. A 42-inch plasma display with surround sound, a personal computer with a wireless keyboard, digital streaming movies or mp3 music gives the guest his private entertainment centre. A cutting edge of product development in hotels, the facility is offered by a select few, like the Dorchester group.
The group is leveraging IT resources in the Tata group to benchmark against the best globally. The Wildfire project, a value driven model catering to what Mr Bickson considers a greatly under-served market is based on design and technology. It is utilitarian but contemporary in efficiency and looks. Coming up in areas such as IT parks and industrial towns, the model is scaleable as well as replicable in emerging markets like Afghanistan and Iraq.
The movers and shakers
"While infrastructure and technology can move this industry, it is the people who make it run," says Bernard Martyris, vice president, HR.
To this end, Mr Martyris is focusing on three key issues. The first is upgrading the bench strength. "A different mind and skill set is required to go global in the hospitality industry." Positions that call for a global make up have been identified.
The global manager’s position is crucial to such a set up. Global managers bring with them first-hand experience of global quality and luxury. This leads to cross learning and builds confidence that the group can compete with the best in the world.
Mr Martyris is also working on creating a talent pool of people who will be as comfortable working in Shanghai as in New York or Mumbai. According to Mr Martyris, global managers should be able to understand the nuances of international business, to build a team of people from different cultures and most importantly, to imbibe the Tata culture of compassion and concern. They should be a people's people and culturally sensitive.
High calibre international general managers are being brought into India and underpinned with one or two top Indian managers to enable mentoring. In this way, when the expatriate manager moves to another property, one of the Indian managers can move into his position. About 12 expatriates have already been brought in. An interesting twist to this strategy is to bring in the best global manager who is also an Indian.
Mentoring is followed up with training. The intellectual input involves sending executives for the Harvard general manager programme. "Working with an expatriate combined with intellectual training from Harvard can completely change the way people think," says Mr Martyris. The final building block is for young managers to gain overseas work experience when an international property opens up.
Mr Martyris is working on bringing an international mix of senior executives into Indian Hotels. Their induction and cultural integration are critical areas.
In all this, the biggest challenge lies in managing the internal system. The mentoring process or the buddy system was started to counter the anxiety within the company. A Personal Development Plan (PDP) for individuals provides the road map for their career growth. A talent management process is also in place with the help of which every individual has been charted according to potential and ability, and is groomed accordingly. "My greatest conviction is that it is not salaries that drive people at work but learning and career goals," concludes Mr Martyris.
With people, products and properties being groomed on this footing, the Taj is ready to take on the globe. Circa 2103, the Taj may well be the jewel not only in India’s, but in the world's crown as well.
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