‘Taj is set to become a true global brand’

Raymond Bickson, managing director of Indian Hotels, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about Taj’s global expansion plans and more
A traditional Indian welcome awaits guests at Taj hotels

AS the first expatriate to head a Tata group company, American national Raymond Bickson had much to celebrate about when he took over the mantle of managing director of Indian Hotels, the group’s hospitality flagship, last year.

But the job was not without its fair share of challenges and some even questioned the wisdom of selecting a rank outsider for this complex job.
However Bickson, who had been listed among the top ten hotel managers in the world, had what it took and promised to bring fresh ideas to the table. In less than a year, he has proven his detractors wrong and, using his vast international experience at building new hotels and repositioning landmark properties in the US, China and other countries, carefully charted out the 100-year-old hotel chain’s future plans to emerge as a truly global player.
TTN spoke to Bickson as he gets set to take the Taj brand to greater heights. Excerpts from an interview:
Being the first expatriate to head Indian Hotels, what has the last one year meant to you both personally and professionally?
Personally, being a resident is even more fascinating than seeing this country as a visitor while, professionally, my time at the Taj has been most rewarding.

Given your vast international experience what changes have you brought about?
As far as service is concerned, we have helped set a new style. Among others, we are working on new and authentic Ayurvedic spas, new properties, new restaurants and associations with noted global chefs such as Jean Georges, Morimoto and Michel Nischan. We have also renovated the Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and Taj West End, Bangalore. What’s more, we have new guest programmes that include, for instance, both Taj Air private jets and butlers that can travel with a guest from palace to palace.

Since your appointment is in line with the Taj group’s vision to be a global enterprise in the hospitality segment, what are your plans for the company?
We would like to have an international outlook and numerous opportunities to expand internationally are being looked at including the opening of Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Mauritius later this year. To put things in perspective, we cannot remain a big regional player if we want to survive in the next century. So we are planning to go beyond Indian shores and take our hospitality expertise to the global marketplace.

What are the thrust areas for growth and is Taj finally ready to spread its wings in the Middle East? 
We have 13 international hotels already and are looking at different opportunities to expand, either through acquisition of a cluster of hotels or individual properties, which strategically fit our portfolio. Among others, we will expand to key cities in China, Mauritius, Europe and New York as well as build new hotels in India. Of course, we are also interested in various projects in the Middle East and, hopefully, some will firm up soon.

What do you look for when deciding on opening a new international property?
Each project is looked at very carefully, whether or not it corresponds to the clear guidelines and criteria for each hotel category we have.

In real terms, how do you compare a homegrown Indian hotel chain like Taj with other international luxury brands?
The most important aspect of a brand is to have a clearly communicated and recognised brand message communicating the promise of defined services and product. And, with 100 years in the hospitality business, that’s something Taj is proud to have.

As part of its restructuring exercise, Taj is scaling down the number of properties it owns and is now more open to management contracts. How will this affect the company’s future growth?
The intention is to grow asset light and confirm a presence in key international markets which are growing feeder markets for our hotels and resorts. Clearly, speed of growth is an important aspect for us.

Can you highlight the major brand extensions including spas that Taj is working on?
Within India, our expansion for growth will be through our extension of the brand and the opening of Taj Wellington Mews in Mumbai, a completely new brand extension that we have undertaken, marked our first foray into luxury residences in the country. Besides that we are also planning to get into the business of spas, a $14-billion global industry today, in a big way. People always talk about spas in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. but most people don’t know that the best luxury spas today are in India, where we offer meditation, yoga, aromatherapy and more.
Yet another of our expansion initiatives is with regard to India’s wildlife parks. Having 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, where we’ll have luxury tents and such affording a unique opportunity to offer a specialised wildlife experience. I must add that the company’s new brand architecture will be launched soon and it will redefine the brand promise clearly.

Talking of Wellington Mews, what plans do you have to expand in this segment?
To add to Wellington Mews, 51 Buckingham Gate and Taj Palace, Dubai, we are now considering opening serviced luxury apartments in other markets both within India and abroad.

With opening on ‘indiOne’ in Bangalore, the group entered the ‘economic value’ segment of the industry with plans to set up 150 budget hotels in the country and abroad. What potential does this segment hold?
This segment holds out large potential and opportunities in metros, secondary and tertiary cities across India. After establishing our presence in the country, we may possibly be looking at options abroad at a later stage as well.

Since the concept of the ‘Smart Basic’ hotel is a new one, how did the idea of launching it come about?
A changing traveller, new concepts and needs of being more independent in a hi-tech environment all contributed in throwing up the concept.
What about the company’s plans to expand with the Exotica brand and have you identified any core areas for growth in this segment?
We will be opening a Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Mauritius in November this year and are close to signing other contracts to expand that high-end leisure resort brand.
What is the secret of Taj’s success?
Most definitely we can relate the Taj success to the success of the country.
What are Taj’s strengths and how do you plan to capitalise on it?
In India, the strong name and largest network of hotels is most important for our success. And we are now working on clear customer value proposition to strengthen the brand promise.

Where do you plan to take Taj from here?
Taj will become a true global brand with the largest network of hotels in India and well represented in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the US in five to ten years. 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 well in India and abroad.