January 2011 | Philip Chacko

Jewel in the Chennai crown

Vijay Shrikent, general manager, Vivanta by Taj - Connemara, elaborates on the property's blend of colonial allure and contemporary amenities

Dapper and soft-spoken, Vijay Shrikent is not the kind of person to go overboard or get loud about anything. But turn the light on the hospitality icon he oversees and the general manager of the Taj Connemara (or Vivanta by Taj – Connemara, to give its rebranded, modern name) cannot stop singing the praises of a property that stands apart with its blend of colonial allure and contemporary amenities.
 
The Connemara is a standout property in the rebranded Taj bouquet of hospitality offerings. Like its Vivanta siblings, it focuses on delivering ‘premium hotel experiences with imagination, energy and efficiency’. This heritage structure was built in 1854 and named Imperial Hotel, renamed Albany in 1886, and called the Connemara in 1890.
 
Mr Shrikent knows all this and more, as he reveals in this interview with Philip Chacko, in which he talks about the many charms of the hotel.
 
The Connemara, with its traditions and history, has always been a strong brand. What’s the logic of having this brand supplanted by the Vivanta tag? What are the advantages of such a move?
The Taj brand architecture is fundamental to the way our business strategy unfolds. This includes becoming a significant global brand by creating differentiated brands across different customer segments. The Credit Suisse Research Institute recently ranked Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces among the top 27 global great brands of tomorrow, and cited one of the key enablers for the Taj’s transformation and proliferation as the building of our different brands to help the company grow market share across segments.
 
Vivanta was born of a series of extensive customer understanding studies; it recognises the emergence of distinct psychographic (which are attributes relating to personality, values, attitudes, interests or lifestyles) segments and constantly evolving consumer needs. Vivanta by Taj is designed to appeal to the cosmopolitan global traveller who, rather than the typical hotel stay experience, appreciates new experiences and pleasant surprises. It’s the flavour of contemporary luxury, laced with cool informality and the charming hospitality that the Taj is renowned for.
 
We have in place an aggressive expansion programme to see the Vivanta brand grow organically to more than 30 hotels with over 5,000 rooms over the next couple of years. This will support our objective of achieving growth through dominance in the Indian market.
 
What are the standout features of the Connemara? How does it compare with other properties in the Vivanta basket?

The Connemara is Chennai’s only heritage hotel. Built in 1854, it has the art deco look and is today infused with the spirited style of Vivanta by Taj. Some of the standout features of our property are its central location; our lobby, which has a unique blend of the chic and the classic; spacious, well-appointed rooms with high ceilings and a distinct colonial character; and our beautiful poolside, which is set amid lush greenery. Additionally, the artefacts in our property and rooms lend an interesting heritage touch to the hotel.
 
Vivanta by Taj offers a variety of options for the refined traveller across metropolitan India, in commercially important centres as well as some of the best-loved vacation spots in the country. Vivanta challenges the expectations that guests have of a hotel. Innovative cuisine concepts, the smart use of technology and our inclination to constantly engage and energise our guests add up to make Vivanta the new standard in hospitality services in India.
 
In this spirit and by retaining its singular charm, the Connemara is Chennai in all its colonial brilliance. We have a fresh new vibe that complements the tradition that has always been our hallmark. We believe that we meet every expectation of the seasoned traveller.
 
What is the Indian-foreigner ratio in the number of guests the Connemara receives? Where do you focus your attention when it comes to attracting and retaining guests?
We have a good mix of Indian and foreign nationals, averaging almost an equal number across the year. With all the new room inventory coming into Chennai, we follow a very robust ‘key account management’ process that involves strategies and action plans to aggressively target competition accounts, consciously protect retention accounts and progressively look for new accounts.
 
Building relationships is our company’s core competency and drives us to make a mark in the market. We have conducted in-depth research and created separate service designs for each of our market segments, since all of them have their own special needs, requirements and preferences.
 
Tourism in India, domestic as well as international, has been on the upswing following the recessionary trend of the recent past. How is this being reflected in your occupancy figures? Are you engaged in selling the Connemara separately in foreign locations?
We are beginning to see occupancy figures climbing with the upswing from tourism, and this is being supplemented by occupancy from the business fraternity. It helps that the Tamil Nadu government is encouraging and supporting a diverse mix of industries, among them automobiles, information technology, leather, garments and financial services. This is a contributory factor in the optimistic outlook we have for the future.
 
Having an international trade department combined with a global sales network works to our great advantage. We share competition information received through various sources and collectively work on bringing business to our property. Being a ‘leisure-friendly’ property as well, we are able to attract
significant business from travel agents.
 
There are other initiatives that help us, such as the peacock trail we organise on weekend mornings in collaboration with an organisation called Story Trails. The peacock trail is an easy, enjoyable walk through Mylapore that comes packed with a bundle of stories about local life, gods and demons, ancient customs and traditions, and the symbols and culture of Mylapore and the erstwhile Madras.
 
What are the challenges of being in charge of a heritage property? How do you balance the need to deliver the best you can to your guests with caring for a structure that has such a storied past?
The biggest challenge is maintaining and preserving the antiquity of our property. We are constantly working on this while upgrading ourselves by reinventing our food and beverage offerings, which create an enticing food corridor by offering the best in world cuisine.
 
Technology is woven through all that we do. We have ensured that the Connemara has all the entertainment and connectivity options today’s traveller requires.
 
How do you see the Connemara evolving in the years to come? Are there potential areas for  enhancements; what about your future plans for the property?
We foresee the Connemara standing out in the clutter of competition through the sheer appeal of its elegance. All our future plans, in terms of the overall product and activities, are channelled in this direction.
 
Could you tell us some anecdotes about the Connemara?
The banquet halls at the Connemara have witnessed some of the most memorable entertainment and social evenings the city has ever hosted. In one of our halls we have a grand piano as an endearing relic of a glorious past.
 
Perhaps the oldest tradition here is the weekly lunch of the Rotary Club of Madras, which has been faithfully meeting here since May 10, 1929. And the tradition continues. We also have The Madras Book Club meetings, which have been held regularly at the Connemara over the last two decades.
 
All of this is apart from the emotive connect that the Connemara has with Chennai, its history and its people. This is a very special bond, one that gets stronger with every passing year.
 

More than a hotel

If you were to describe Connemara as you would a person, then think of it as the distinguished and avuncular elder of the family, a repository of stories of an age gone by and a raconteur with whom you can slip into easy comfort. Settled rather comfortably in the heart of Chennai, Vivanta by Taj – Connemara is far more a heritage site than a hotel. It is, in the elegant words of historian S Muthaih, a chronicler of our times, "part of the tradition of Madras".

The Connemara — as the folks in Madras (now Chennai) have come to know it — began its remarkable life way back in 1854 as the Imperial Hotel. This became the Albany in 1886 and, four years later, morphed into the Connemara, named after the title of the Baron of Connemara, Robert Bourke, the governor of Madras from 1886 to 1890 and one of the shapers of the city in its early days. Lord Connemara, as The Madras Mail of November 27, 1890, has it, "ruled the land, lived his little span and then passed away, neither unregretted nor unsung".

The Connemara has aged a lot better, becoming one of the great hotels of Asia, spoken of in the same breath as the Taj in Bombay, the Great Eastern in Calcutta, the Gale Face in Colombo and the Raffles in Singapore. Its ownership passed through different hands and its façade and interiors changed with the years, but the Connemara retained the allure that has always characterised it, enhanced by the colonial legacy of which it was born and enlivened by the city that it has embellished with its magisterial presence.

Today the Connemara is a modern hotel in every sense of the word, but this modernity is meshed with a sense of history and custom in a manner that few structures, devoted to the care and well-being of visitors and guests, can boast. The legend that once spanned the entrance of the hotel could scarcely have been better suited:

Nor fame I slight, nor for her favours call,
She comes unlooked for, if she comes at all.

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