Raymond Bickson is a hotelier of the globalised universe. The 48-year-old American, who recently succeeded RK Krishna Kumar as the managing director of Indian Hotels, has travelled the world during an outstanding 30-year professional career in the hospitality business.
Mr Bickson, a native of Hawaii, joined Indian Hotels, the owners of the renowned Taj Group, in January 2003 as chief operating officer of its luxury hotels division. Prior to that he was the general manager of The Mark, New York, now owned by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
Mr Bickson honed his skills in luxury hotels across Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. He started with the Berlin Hilton in 1973 and has worked in a variety of exotic locations in, among many countries, France, Switzerland, the United States, Australia and China.
Mr Bicksons academic credentials are just as impressive. He has studied at the Goethe Institute in Berlin, the Universite de Sorbonne in Paris, Ecole hôtelière in Lausanne, and Cornell University in New York, taking in languages, culture, hotel services, cooking, and financial management. He is also a graduate of the Harvard Business School.
Voted a top-10 hotel manager by Leaders magazine in 1997 and 2000 and best hotel general manager by Gallivanter's Guide in 2000, Mr Bickson was nominated for the 2002 independent hotelier of the world award by Hotels magazine.
"The Taj is at an inflection point and Bickson is the right person to be at the helm," said Krishna Kumar while handing over the baton. In this interview with Christabelle Noronha, Mr Bickson talks about the company's multiple plans for the future.
You have taken over the mantle of managing director just as the Taj has completed 100 years. What are your short-term plans? Where do you see growth coming from?
Our commitment is to make the Taj a byword for luxury and the Taj Mahal a synonym for splendour. We understand the priorities of premium marketing and we intend to serve them in India and abroad. As part of the strategy set during the last three years, we will be looking at the Tajs brand architecture. We need to take advantage of the significant value of the Taj brand.
While we have a diverse portfolio, which includes many types of products, the Taj name represents the high end of our products. We will have the Taj brand and, then, segments of various types within this brand. It may be, for instance, Gateway by Taj or Residency by Taj. We won't necessarily carry the Taj name up front.
We would like to have an international outlook. Beyond the brand architecture, our strategy includes re-launching our luxury properties to project the international image of what the Taj is. Basically, there are two ways we want to look at growth.
Locally, our expansion for growth will be through our extension of the brand. We have the Taj Wellington Mews as our first foray into luxury residences. That's being opened here in Mumbai in March 2004. This is a completely new brand extension that we are undertaking.
Another area we are planning to get into in a major way is spas, which is a $14-billion global industry today. We want to take advantage of this market. We will be adding 16 spas to our stable over the next three years (currently, we have six). Spas can contribute up to 15 per cent to the total revenue of the hotel; its a big business. People always talk about spas in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. But the best luxury spas today are in India; we offer meditation, yoga, aromatherapy
Will these spas have a separate Taj branding?
We want to create a destination spa for Taj under a Taj brand. Then we may be able to take our special Taj spa menu and incorporate it into all our different spas. We will be taking advantage of being in India, the ayurveda aspect and all that. We will be weaving a whole package into our spa services.
Another component of our strategy involves value-driven hotels (we call this Project Wildfire). It's a new concept where we operate value products in specific locations: religious sites, next to railway stations, next to technology parks. We have the technology to offer a room at under Rs 1,000 a day in what would essentially be no-frills hotels.
These hotels, modular in design, can be built quickly. They can have up to 100 rooms in a detailed and planned structure, with IT infrastructure that other hotel companies don't have. Our first Wildfire project should be coming up in Bangalore within the next six months.
Yet another of our expansion initiatives is with regard to India's wildlife parks. For this we have signed an agreement with the Conservation Corporation of Africa, one of the world's most successful conservation companies. We are going to undertake our first project in this sphere in Ranthambore. Well have luxury tents and such; it affords us a unique opportunity to offer a specialised wildlife experience. The first of these will be up and running next year.
What about global expansion?
If you look at the events of last year, it was a very difficult period. We had the travel advisories, then the impact of 9/11. Global expansion will allow us access to a larger distribution of clientele; it will also give us a more synchronous kind of portfolio. If, for example, the Asian market is down, the European market will be up.
We cannot remain a big regional player if we want to survive in the next century. We have to go beyond Indian shores; we have to take our hospitality expertise to the global marketplace. We are interested in the ASEAN countries, and we are hugely interested in having closer relations with China.
We believe there's a huge amount to be learned from China. Its a country we believe we have to be in, especially so given the proximity of the place. It's a calling card for Tata companies in general, and the Taj will be an image for Tata, making us a globally known player. We are looking at acquisitions there of clusters of small hotels. There are other opportunities, too, in North America, Asia, Europe, South America and Africa.
In which segment would these hotels be?
What about the financial restructuring of the company?
We are in practically every corner of India right now. We need to strengthen our balance sheet by taking idle assets that are unproductive and re-deploy them to make the company more manageable. Our goal is to reduce our number of companies a process that has already started from 60 to 30 in the next year.
How much of a role does technology play in the hospitality business?
We will continue working towards being EVA (economic value added) positive; we hope to get there in the next three years. One of the other things we will be pursuing is the quest for quality through the Tata Business Excellency Model (TBEM), not just pushing this through the luxury hotels but across the entire organisation.
The goal is to drive TBEM through the entire organisation within the next year. We are working with McKinsey to see how we can become more efficient, by looking at the way we do business and finding where we can have economies of scale in the current setup.
Most companies recognise the need to be customer-centric. How does Indian Hotels plan to make this part of its business and its mission?
In order to make the Taj a product and a service that customers aspire to, we need to make it a byword for luxury. The Taj brand will strive to deliver to its guests a sense of discovery. We recognise the importance of the human spirit and the human soul in caring for others. This is what has sustained us and made us successful in the first 100 years of our existence.
What we want to give our guests is luxury, not just comfort. Luxury is an unanticipated pleasure, luxury is embedded in a world of uniqueness, it is dreading the idea that you have to leave. Luxury is a dream and a memory. If you look at the hospitality business around the world, it's the luxury and budget hotels that are doing well. We are at the top end of the marketplace, which is the luxury hotels, and that's where we need to position ourselves.
We will have to keep ourselves informed on global issues. The company has to be market driven; it has to be responsive to the financials, to its shareholders. We have to be firm on staying competitive and always make sure we are one step ahead of our competitors. We need to understand the importance of third-party endorsements and we need to focus on branding to establish values and experiences.
One of the areas where the Taj has started taking a leadership role is in promoting India as a destination; we have to work with other Indian hotel companies on this front. India gets 2.4 million visitors a year, whereas Hawaii attracts 7 million and New York City 38-40 million. India has a wealth of travel experiences to offer. We have to work together, all of us along with the government, to improve our tourism industry. We need to make India a global tourist destination.
Has the Taj taken any initiatives in this direction?
What's your definition of success?
And in business?
You always seem to be smiling. Is there anything that annoys you?