The Taj Touch

 

Raymond Bickson
Raymond Bickson became CEO of Taj Hotels in 2003. His goal is to double the hotel group’s inventory to 20,000 rooms by 2014. “We’ve opened up one hotel every six weeks for the last seven years,” he says.

 

Raymond Bickson, the CEO of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, is a busy man these days. In New York, at The Pierre, a Taj hotel, you’d think he’d have some respite. Not so. When Luxury Travel Advisor met with the Hawaiian-born Bickson, we reached the hotel’s Madison meeting room only after he had completed conversations with two associates on the way there and exchanged a smattering of handshakes.

It’s a kinetic pace for Bickson, who joined Taj in 2003 to lead India’s largest hotel group—one that has been around since 1901. However, it’s the present that has Bickson on his toes. Reframing a hotel group to exist as multiple brands is no easy undertaking. “What we launched over the last five years, and which is now being brought into fruition, is the cleaning up of our brand architecture,” Bickson says. The intent is clear: In order to better compete in the global hotel market, Taj Hotels needs to be more nimble. Bickson’s plan from the get-go was to recast Taj as not a single luxury brand, but as a multi-branded hotel group. It was necessary. “Over the last 30 to 40 years,” Bickson says, “Taj really grew to its scale of about 50 hotels. But what happened was that a lot of deals were made because they were good.” These deals involved taking on previous Holiday Inns or Marriotts, properties far from luxury. “It wasn’t structured,”Bickson says.

Now it is. While Taj is known, for the most part, by its opulent palace hotels (they have 14 such), today, the group boasts four brands: Taj, serving the luxury market; Vivanta by Taj, in the upper-upscale category; Gateway, three-star; and the no-frills Ginger brand (think Red Roof Inn). For Bickson, whose background is staunchly luxury, this was a huge challenge. He attended the famed École Hôtelière Lausanne in Switzerland; trained at such venerable hotels as Hôtel Plaza Athénée, Paris; held the position of vice president and general manager at New York’s The Mark; and also honed his craft at luxury operators Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Regent. “Launching these brands is interesting to me,” says Bickson. “It’s completely different from my luxury training.”

Bickson’s mentors in the luxury hotel realm include Aman founder Adrian Zecha; Georg Rafael, who sold his Rafael Hotels to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in 2000; and Bob Burns, who created the Regent brand. At their hotels, Bickson dabbled in all facets—from marketing to food and beverage which, he says, “helps me today because I did everything.” Particularly when it comes to incorporating a restaurant on property. “My first hotel experience after hotel school was at the Mayfair Regent of New York,” he says. “We had La Cirque—and this was 1979. The restaurant was more popular than the hotel.” An F&B experience like this, Bickson says, helps him when he is working with a Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a Michel Nischan or a Masaharu Morimoto on a restaurant concept. “All of that Nobu stuff, we were doing it way back when,” he says.

 

A deluxe Lagoon Villa at Taj Exotica Resort & Spa Maldives
A Deluxe Lagoon Villa at Taj Exotica Resort & Spa Maldives. It features a private deck with a freshwater plunge pool.

 

Part of the reason Bickson decided to segment Taj’s hotels was to capture India’s growing middle class, and, like any good CEO, he prefers answering questions with figures. “Fifty percent of India’s population is under 25,” he says. “We want share of wallet. When our customer comes out of college and takes that first job, he stays at a Ginger, then onto Gateway, then Vivanta, then Taj—it’s a natural progression.”

We asked Bickson if recasting Taj as a hotel company similar to that of a Starwood or Hilton would weaken the flagship luxury Taj brand. He does not agree. The decision to multi-brand was made not so much to alter the landscape, but to stave off competition from hotel operators looking to enter India. “We control 25 percent of the market in India,” Bickson says. “We are under attack from brands entering India today—the Starwoods, the Marriotts—that are coming in to nibble on our market share. The country needs the rooms but they are coming into our market and they can put whatever brand they want that fits into that secondary or tertiary destination. We need to be able to answer that. With our growth plan, we are confident that for the next 20-30 years we can hold our domestic dominance.”

Bickson has his own version of a five-year plan for the hotel group. “My goal is to double our inventory to 20,000 rooms by 2014,” he says. As part of his “game plan,” he’s also identified 25 major destinations and says he wants a third of his market to come from overseas. Will the plan materialize? Consider this: When Bickson joined Taj in 2003, the group comprised 62 hotels and 8,000 rooms. Today, it’s at 104 hotels and 12,000 rooms. “We’ve opened one hotel every six weeks for the last seven years,” Bickson says.

Taj Palace, Cape Town, Taj’s second venture in Africa, which opened in March, is one of them. It came on the heels of the reopening of one of the grand dames of New York, The Pierre, after a $100 million renovation, which saw the hotel shuttered for 18 months. Bickson says The Pierre is back to its rightful place as one of the preeminent hotels in Manhattan. “After spending nearly 20 years of my career in New York [15 at The Mark], I feel really comfortable with how we are positioned,” Bickson says. “We’ve made the commitment; we’re here to stay.”

In India, luxury hotel lifestyle starts and ends with two names—Taj and Oberoi. “They [Oberoi] are our biggest competitor in the luxury segment,” Bickson says, acknowledging that Leela Palaces is up and coming. However, he believes Taj still has the advantage over Oberoi. “We have been moving faster,” he says. “They are more at risk of their brand eroding or market share being eaten up by competition than us since we’ve been the most proactive.”

While Taj is looking to extend its reach in India using its multi-brand approach, Bickson is clear that, outside of India, they will only expand the five-star Taj brand—to compete, he says, with the likes of Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula Hotels, Amanresorts and Ritz-Carlton. Key to Taj is Exotica, a kind of subset of the Taj luxury brand. Exotica is a designation for all Taj hotels in resort destinations. A new Taj Exotica will open soon in Tangiers as will Taj Exotica Dubai on Palm Island, mid next year. Taj is also readying to open its first golf resort in Doha next year.

One of the more ambitious projects Bickson raves about is Taj’s Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, just outside the Forbidden City. The 106-room hotel will be in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, when the site closes at 4 p.m., hotel guests will still be able to roam the grounds. The hotel is expected to open next year and rival, Bickson hopes, Aman’s Summer Palace (he likes to joke that the Summer Palace, albeit a great hotel, is outside the city). It will be Taj’s first China venture.

 

The Taj Exotica Goa’s Presidential Villa
The Taj Exotica Goa’s Presidential Villa has a private pool and private garden.

 

Spirit of Service

While the growth of Taj is on an accelerated schedule, ensuring that the group’s luxury service paradigm doesn’t err and its amenities aren’t skimped on is an utmost concern of Bickson’s. “Many times, guests stay in luxury hotels because of the surroundings and services, which they don’t have at home,” he says. “But today, cars have better stereo systems than many hotels. So, the hotel stay is made up of experiences.” He, always the numbers man, points to a recent survey that stated, on average, a guest comes in contact with staff 42 times a day, whether it’s a room service delivery or merely a pass-by in the hall. “That’s 42 opportunities or moments of truth where the experience is made and your brand determined,” he says.

What the Taj brand has is a century’s worth of history, culture and belief that the guest should be treated with almost deity-like respect. “It’s part of the Taj DNA,” Bickson says. “Service is not a bad word, it’s something people do from their heart.”

 

 

November 2008 Mumbai Attacks

 

Taj Hotels’ flagship Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai has an illustrious history. The hotel was originally built and opened in 1903 by Jamshedji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, because he, like other Indians, was continually discriminated against and not allowed into city hotels. Over a century later, in November 2008, when armed gunmen attacked Mumbai, the hotel, unfortunately, was one of their targets.

 

Raymond Bickson, CEO of Taj Hotels, who has his office in the hotel, was there that fateful day along with his wife. He recounts the events. “When I came down, the terrorists were in the lobby, while my wife was upstairs on the 19th floor. I came out and our general manager, who lost his entire family in the attack, was across the lobby and there was smoke and glass everywhere. He yelled at me to get out of the lobby, that the attackers were coming back. So, I went back to my office. The next day at 11 a.m., I was rescued and taken out by 14 commandos.”

 

Sixteen employees were killed during the attack and there were 31 victims altogether. “Some of the staff at the hotel had made a human chain to direct the guests out,” Bickson says. “They were mowed down by the terrorists...true heroes. It’s unbelievable what happened that day. Today, we have our own security company and also a homeland security academy that trains security personnel. We also have marshals in the hotels like you’d find in the air. That’s what travel is today.”

 

 

A Hawaii native, Bickson compares his service philosophy to that of the Aloha spirit—a welcoming attitude that prevails in Taj properties. “That’s what we bring to the luxury market,” he says. Taj has its own training modules called “Building Bridges,” which instill in staff the service culture of the brand. “It’s about understanding the sense of a destination,” Bickson says, “and understanding the culture of what Taj is—making sure the Taj culture is evidenced in the experience. We want guests to be able to identify and say, ‘Yes, this is a Taj hotel.’”

 

Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur
Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur is in the middle of Lake Pichola. Bickson says it’s the second-most photographed building in India after the Taj Mahal in Agra.

 

That’s the challenge of introducing the Taj brand to new people, Bickson says. “We feel we have a great advantage here.” Taj’s history of maharajas and as a carriage trade gives them a leg up. Their backing by parent company Tata Group, the largest private corporate group in India (it accounts for close to 6 percent of India’s GDP), gives Taj leverage that few hotel companies have. “We can spend $100 million on a renovation and shut down The Pierre just to enter New York,” Bickson says. “It puts us on a footing with Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons and St. Regis.”

The future of Taj appears bright. Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, India, will open this fall, while Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Phuket, an all-villa resort, should open next year. Bickson is also determined to spread the group through key partnerships. Tata Group owns luxury car brands Jaguar and Range Rover, making those a perfect leveraging opportunity for the Taj brand (Taj offers free valet parking to customers who arrive at a U.S. Taj hotel—San Francisco’s Campton Place, Taj Boston and The Pierre—in a Jaguar for dinner or an overnight stay). Taj also has a joint venture with &Beyond, which allows it to promote Taj Safaris, its collection of luxury wildlife lodges. It also has a marketing alliance with Okura Hotels in Japan since Taj isn’t represented there, as well as partnerships with Silversea Cruises and Victoria-Jungfrau Collection.

Bickson is also looking to expand the Taj brand through possible acquisitions. While it already owns a 10 percent stake in Orient-Express Hotels (Bickson says there are no plans to acquire more), other hotels have been eyed for possible inclusion under the Taj flag, including The Drake in Chicago, the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans and The Watergate in Washington, D.C., which was just scooped up in May for $45 million by a real estate investment firm (Bickson says he just met with the new owners).

Due back in India the next day, Bickson’s New York schedule is filled and hectic. As we descended to The Pierre’s newly redone lobby—of course, not before a brief encounter with another Bickson acquaintance—we reflected on the hotel’s new Le Caprice restaurant, lobby bar Two E and the famous tango scene from the film Scent of a Woman, which was shot in the hotel’s Cotillion Ballroom. The Pierre is indeed back, commanding its rightful place on 61st Street and 5th Avenue. “It’s like the Frank Sinatra tune,” Bickson says. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

 

The Sajjan Niwas Suite
The Sajjan Niwas Suite at Taj Lake Palace. The bedroom is decorated with frescoes depicting the Hindu deity Krishna.