Mr Perfect Hospitality

Features, Front of House

When the Taj Group of Hotels decided to refresh the brand’s internal rallying cry and its position to the world early last year, the creative team of well-known boutique advertising consultant, Luxury Branding, London, led by chairman Piers Schmidt, had an exciting brief. But Schmidt and his team also faced two major challenges. On the one hand, while Taj has been a very much loved and well-known brand in India it was less known overseas and, on the other, there was a need not just to create awareness but also to reinstate its stature.
In other words, for a brand that was 110 years old and had a wealth of tradition, it was no easy task to present its tradition in a contemporary and relevant fashion.
For over a year, Schmidt, creative director Craig Allen and the rest of the team travelled extensively through various properties and experienced, first hand, what it was like to live in the Taj world.The next step was to condense their collective experience and give it a visual expression.
The big idea behind Performance.Art, the brand’s new global advertising campaign, was really to communicate the practice of perfect hospitality in a uniquely Taj fashion. And the ad does so in two very distinct ways.
First, at the high metaphorical level, through beautiful visual representations of mostly contemporary dance, suggesting how effortless performance of superla- tive hospitality is the product of painstaking practice. And, second, at the hospitality expression level with eight signature experiences captured through magnificent photographs that feature two sides of the experience – performance on the one hand and art on the other.
Take, for instance, the shot of a maid gently ironing out the last stubborn crease from the crisp linen with a vintage steam iron – it may be antique but the maid knows that no modern appliance does the job even half as well. This captures the performance side and sets the tone leading up to the art side.
On the other side, you have the picture of an elegant woman, dressed and ready for dinner, who comes over to the side of the bed, runs the palm of her hand rather sensuously across the perfectly smooth uvet and experiences how the turn down has created a beautiful moment.
As Allen puts it, “It’s transferring the idea that if they care so much about something like this they care about everything to the same level.” In sum, Performance.Art manages to effectively reaffirm the Taj Group’s position as a luxury brand and reiterate its key differentiation from competition i.e. service.
A visibly excited, Raymond Bickson, managing director and CEO, Indian Hotels Company Ltd, is confident that the new global campaign will resonate across all markets and allow the brand to communicate to its guests that they care to bring
them the finest and best across every touch point and reinforce the philosophy that Taj firmly believes in: perfect hospitality.
“The story of the Taj is about reinventing tradition, about how a 110-year-old company is deeply rooted in culture but remains highly relevant to all customer segments – domestic as well as international,” Bickson told Hotelier India. “However, this is both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity. What is challenging in this journey is to capitalise the simultaneous intersection of three growth vectors – organic growth, global expansion and ever-evolving customer needs, all of which had to be considered while crafting the positioning.”
He adds: “Our aim is to provide the same exemplary product-service combination and create a globally relevant brand with deep roots in Indian heritage and its culture of hospitality.”
Bickson goes on to give an insight into the brand and how it has evolved under him – he has grown the company from 62 properties when he arrived in 2003, to more than 120 hotels in India and across the world today. “The expansion phase of the Taj Hotels continued in the late 90s and accelerated in the 2000s,” Bickson informs. “Rapid expansion gave rise to challenges of the brand getting stretched. At this stage, we attempted to organise our portfolio into luxury, business and leisure segments and our pursuit of new segments compelled us to redefine our brand architecture by undertaking a rigorous approach in 2004, which has been guiding our growth since.
“With the new brand architecture, we engineered a change in our brand strategy from mono brand to multi brand, from an expansion-led strategy to a brand-driven growth strategy, to creating a framework of calculated tradeoff between brand focus and business efficiency in different geographies. We have successfully set up a structure to tightly manage the brand experience across all customer touch points and in diverse market conditions.”
Moving forward, what are the challenges Bickson faces as he continues to script Taj’s growth story? “A key challenge is to keep up with the new-age customer, the well-informed and well-connected, spoiled for choice, avid traveller whose needs and preferences keep rapidly changing,” he says. “As a 110-year-old brand, having catered to several generations of customers, the Taj understands and is well poised to appeal to the various customer segments. While this is a challenge, herein also lies the biggest opportunity for the brand to gear up for its next phase of growth.”
So, as Taj gears up for its next phase of growth, how does it measure up to competition? “The Taj brand, as you are aware is one of India’s most loved brands and also a reputed brand globally as acknowledged recently by Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), as a breakaway brand,” says Bickson. “The study which is Y&R’s proprietary brand diag- nostic tool ranks Taj as the number one breakaway brand ahead of global heavyweights like Facebook.”
Ask Bickson about the onslaught the company faces from international brands, and pat comes him reply, “Majority of international brands entering into India like Starwood, Marriott, Four Seasons and Shangri La have huge international loyalty programmes but these players are yet to establish themselves amid tight local competition and diminutive market penetration,” he says. However, Bickson is quick to add that international brands entering the country have an advantage as they are backed by the loyalties of their own natives staying in or travelling to India.
To counter this, Bickson says, the Taj Group is forced to grow outside domestic boundaries into the markets of international players. “Our current international portfolio includes luxury resorts in the Indian Ocean, business and resort destinations in the Middle East and Africa, serviced apartments in the UK and three top-end luxury hotels in the US and we are poised to enter key source markets to pro- tect our domestic dominance and market share,” he explains. “We are going to have the same challenge in their country that these brands will have in ours with the domestic traveller having its allegiance to the homegrown brands. Building the market penetration is a difficult task.”
Bickson adds: “Our portfolio offers a unique collec- tion of authentic grand palaces, iconic city hotels, idyllic resorts, making it one of the finest hotel groups in Asia. We always believe that our hotels give you a true sense of place, history and authenticity in a refreshingly modern manner. By continuously redefining the meaning of luxury, we create a distinctive Taj experience that speaks exclusively to you. We want the ex- perience of visiting our hotels to be more like coming home to the discovery of something enchanting and memorable, to share and pass on. A place with which you feel a deep connection and a place you want to keep coming back to.”
To Bickson’s credit, Taj continues to be a market leader despite the turbulent time. While the hospitality sector faced unprecedented challenges on account of the sluggishness of the domestic economy, influx of new supply of rooms in the market and weak economic environment in US/Europe, which are the key source markets for high-end hotels in India, it is no small achievement that Taj stood its good ground.
However, competition on the home turf has got tougher. Till a few years ago, the three big domestic ho- tel chains could afford to be content since they had a combined market share of over 60%. No longer. Now, there are scores of big hotel brands operating in the country.
So, the challenge for the Taj Group is to maintain its domestic market share. While there is no denying that the demand for hotel rooms will keep growing, the continued commissioning of new capacity, across the key markets, will put pressure on the rates.
Given the market scenario the way forward, according to Bick- son, is to have an asset-light model via management contracts. “This is necessary if we want to get more market share,” he says. “Despite the current pressures in the industry, we have continued to roll out new hotels in the domestic markets with recent launches of Vivanta, Gateway and Ginger.”
The Vivanta, Gateway and Ginger are part of the Taj Group’s strategy to have a large footprint across India. Going forward, they will be an important growth vehicle for Taj. And Bickson is looking at quickly scaling up the brands to a large number of hotels across India.
“We opened one hotel every month last year,” he adds. “The most recent opening of Taj was The Gateway Hotel EM Bypass Kolkata. This was launched in the last week of December 2013. For this year, we have a pipeline of around a dozen hotel. However, as the cost of land is sky rocketing, luxury hotels will see fewer openings this year.”
For the American national, who came to India more than a decade ago and made Mumbai his home, it is no small achievement that he now has his fingers firmly on the pulse of the country’s hospitality industry. For constantly re-energising the Taj Group of Hotels by opening a new hotel every nine weeks since he took over the reins in 2003, Bickson has become an icon for the industry.
Behind that infectious smile – and ready aloha laughter – lies a shrewd brain that is not just reinventing the Taj Group of Hotels but also transforming the hospitality industry in India. The idea of the Incredible India campaign, for instance, came from the travel and tourism industry and it was Bickson and PRS Oberoi, executive chairman of East India Hotels Ltd, the flagship company of The Oberoi Group, who were among the few that drove it together.
As long as Bickson can identify the right people who have a genuine passion to ‘serve’ guests to run his hotels – according to him, the Taj-ness comes from its people – Taj will continue to prosper. “Our business does not close at 5.30pm; we have been open 24×7, 365 days a year since 1903 and that will never stop,” he concludes, going on to share the secret of the brand’s success. “The success of the brand lies in the fact that, over time, it has been able to adapt to the different needs of travellers. Change is constant. But having said that, what will never change is our relationship with our guests. The culture of serving our guests is what has sustained the brand for 110 years and, I am confident, it will continue to sustain it for the next 100 years.”
With such clarity of thought, it is hardly surprising that the tag of Mr Perfect Hospitality sits perfectly on Bickson.

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