Parveen Chander Kumar, area director – West India and general manager, Taj Lands End, Mumbai, on the rise of the millennial consumers, and creating iconic F&B brands
The one thing that has kept me associated with the company are continuous opportunities to learn and grow over the past 27 years
You have been associated with the brand Taj Group of Hotels for long. What has been your experience like?
Taj is like family for me. I started my career with this company and achieved all my milestones here. If I were to use one word for this journey, I would use ‘monumental’, because that’s the kind of opportunities the company gave me — from managing food & beverage at the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi; running the luxurious Taj Lake Palace Udaipur; our flagship - The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai to my current hotel, Taj Lands End – the most sought after address in north Mumbai, to doubling up as area director for western India. The one thing that has kept me associated with the company are continuous opportunities to learn and grow over the past 27 years of my association with IHCL, which is a purpose driven organisation. Its value-based system has enabled me to actualise my professional potential while giving me a deep sense of belonging. I feel proud and privileged to be associated with the group.
As a luxury hospitality brand, how do you see the market evolving?
The market for luxury brands is becoming more competitive, with newer domestic and international brands getting added on to the landscape. In order to drive footfalls, it is becoming imperative that every brand differentiates its product and services through unique value propositions. This market maturation has created a bouquet of unique products and experiences for the customer, from redefining brands, creating experiences, driving unique and innovative concepts — we are all re-inventing ourselves every day and that is a healthy sign.
What are the challenges and opportunities that the West India market presents?
One of the key challenges, outside of a city like Mumbai, are low average rates, which can be attributed to over-supply in cities such as Pune and low demand in Tier-2 cities such as Aurangabad and Vadodra. In order to meet these challenges, IHCL has been focusing on destination-marketing and working with the local trade consortium to generate demand. On the opportunities end, in Mumbai, we are seeing a positive trend with supply getting saturated and demand continuing to grow by 8% every year. This is likely to bring in much needed growth in RevPar. As the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra continue to take steps to encourage setting up industrial hubs and IT parks around the key cities. We envisage the demand will continue to grow. This will have a positive impact on our occupancies and rates. Cities such as Nashik, Aurangabad and Vadodara, which are popular tourist attractions, continue to see increase in demand from domestic tourism, fuelled by better connectivity.Our century-old reputation of being a customer-focused company helps in acquiring and retaining customers.
Given how tough the competition is, do you think getting the right ADRs are an issue? How do you deal with price fluctuation in the market?
We are not yet in a market where demand is consistent in nature, and hence these fluctuations are inevitable. Our sales and revenue management teams efficiently forecast demand patterns and this helps us to secure the best business available. We are constantly looking at our demand and working on strategies to deal with these fluctuations. We plan for our business six to eight months in advance. That helps us to ensure that base business is booked in advance.
What kind of response have you received from emerging segments like wedding and MICE?
Both weddings and MICE are very important business segments for all our hotels. In most of our hotels, MICE is the larger contributor to the room revenue while weddings contribute more towards food & beverage. With an increasing positive market sentiment towards India and stronger footprint of domestic companies, we forecast that MICE will continue to grow at a healthy pace. We are witnessing demand for MICE in locations that offer unique experiences. The Indian wedding market continues to grow for hotels due to increased disposable income and aspiration towards destination and experiential weddings.
IHCL is known for its customer service and iconic hotels. Our intuitive, warm and impeccable service differentiates us from our competitors. The unique F&B offerings of our hotels in the region are our key strengths. We specialise in weddings and conferencing and this drives demand for us. All our hotels in the region are ahead of the competition on all market ranking.
As a GM, what sort of F&B concepts have you introduced at Taj Lands End, Mumbai that you consider out-of-the-box?
At the Taj Lands End, we opened an all new Ming Yang in 2016 and now, we have opened two unique bar concepts — House of Nomad and Atrium Lounge. While House of Nomad is a fun, high-energy gastro bar with focus on cocktails and music, on the other we have Atrium Lounge and Bar — a lobby bar with the largest selection of whiskies in India with 189 labels.
What is the contribution of the hotel’s F&B to the overall revenue?
Most of our hotels have a healthy mix of F&B-to-room revenue. F&B contribution ranges between 40 to 50% of revenue.
MICE and weddings contribute a large share to Taj lands End, Mumbai's bottomline
Does the hotel do anything on the sustainability front? On the other hand, in what ways do you engage with the community and give back?
All our hotels have earth check certifications and we constantly work towards reducing our carbon footprint. We actively engage in recycling of water, plastic and convert wet waste into compost. Simultaneously, we actively engage with our communities through employment of local people and sustainable sourcing. We run a host of programs that work in this direction — from skilling the underprivileged to working at grassroots levels and uplifting the community around us. Some of our programs are long-terms engagements while others are aimed at delivering immediate results.
Over the years, you have explored various markets such as Mumbai, Delhi and Pune. How are these markets different from each other?
Aside from their size and hence their volumes, there is probably not much difference between each of these markets. That said, demand is on the rise in all these markets but not necessarily in proportion to the addition in supply. New Delhi is going through a phase of saturation as a result of over supply and this is putting both occupancy and ADRs at stress. Markets such as Pune are seeing increasing demand from international guests, owing to the influx of business setups in these cities, especially in the IT/ITeS, automobile and manufacturing industries. The rate growth in these markets is more or less consistent with the rest of the country. Leisure as a segment is seeing growth due to the government’s focus on promoting tourism.
You have worked across different positions at various Taj properties in India. Tell us about your learning experience from each?
I began my career two-and-a half-decades ago as a management trainee with Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, in the F&B section. Since then, IHCL has been an intrinsic part of my life. It has taught me the fine art of running the business of hospitality, teamwork, customer service, passion and dedication. At IHCL, the key to our success lies in the level of empowerment that we are entrusted with to run hotels and create value. I have become more family-oriented and my closest friends come from this industry. My initial years with F&B at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, taught me the fine details of running iconic restaurants and bars. It also gave me an opportunity to study and implement some of the finest F&B trends. I got an opportunity to work in world-class restaurants such as Longchamp and Ricks. I was also involved in conceptualising and opening of Wasabi by Morimoto and Varq, the two restaurants that were quiet ahead of their time. My tenure at Taj Lake Palace and Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai taught me how to manage historic luxury palace properties. The former also taught me how to manage hotels in remote destinations and create unique customer experiences in the middle of a lake. My current role has taught me how to operate a cluster of hotels though mentoring of general managers and target settings to achieve our goals.
What have been the big changes that the hospitality industry has gone through, particularly in the world of luxury hotels?
Technology has been a major game-changer in the industry. It is critical for us to understand that the ‘one size fits all’ approach
will not work anymore. The emphasis and influence of technology in the hotel industry has never been more prominent than it is today. With guests looking to their social media circle and digital platforms to research, book, stay in and communicate with hotels, digital integration has become a buzzword for hoteliers worldwide. With a digitally heightened future for travel, tourism and hospitality industry, we have enhanced our focus on building and expanding our own robust digital infrastructure. Our ways of working have evolved and adapting newer technologies has helped us stay ahead of the curve.
What is the Indian market like for luxury hotels? How has it evolved and grown over the years?
With every economy boost our markets have received, the appetite for luxury hotels has grown and changed. Consumer behaviour and expectations are changing faster than before and the value proposition for our guests has shifted from a pure product play, to providing tailored service and unique experiences. Customers are accustomed to luxury. It is accessible to a large audience unlike earlier, when it was limited to niche markets only. Millennials have a large spending capacity and enjoy spending their money, against baby boomers who are more into savings.
Millennials live for today and hence this market is growing larger. Today’s traveller is more socially conscious and aware of luxury services that suit their needs and address their personalities. Luxury hotels and services are not just restricted to main metros but are also gaining a larger footprint in secondary and Tier-2 cities. We are also seeing more Indian guests seeking luxury products; this is visible in the presence of Indian guests in our luxurious palace hotels.
How has the definition of luxury changed over the years, especially in context of hotels?
For a very long time luxury was measured by the tangibles of a hotel — the grandeur of the architecture, the quality of fixtures, the softness of the linen, the finesse of the cuisine, the sophistication of the technology. Today, while these are still important, experiential stays are fast emerging as the new luxury trend.
How do you think technology has changed the hospitality industry?
As I mentioned, technology has been a welcome disruptor — it has broadened our horizons as well as that of our guests, who look for unique experiences. Personalisation can truly be the differentiator between a great experience and a magical one — and this holds true for generations of people. A traveller’s experience begins at the company’s digital touch points. These are the frontline tools to deliver an experience to guests that help build the bridge between the virtual and the physical stay. The digital transformation also lies in understanding a guest’s needs before they’ve even made the choice to stay. Technology now helps in identification of opportunities, to organically engage with a wider audience through omni-channel trend tracking and analysis.
How has the role of a general manager evolved over the years?
A general manager today is seemingly taking on responsibilities very similar to that of a coo/ceo. They are accountable for various facets of the hotel. There is a renewed focus on not just achieving top-line, but also delivering the required bottom-line. GMs are also becoming the face of a hotel and are actively networking and marketing their hotels.
What kind of approach do you prefer while working with your team: collaborative or setting targets for the team and then stepping back?
In my experience, every team requires a different approach and working style. I follow both collaborative and target setting approach.
I focus on setting stretched targets, breaking them into measurable goals and periodic reviews to enable the team. I do spend a significant time in coaching my team members to perform individually and collaborate better. Business acumen, enabling the team and focus on networking and building relationships is important, just as it is essential to -keep the team motivated, passionate and offer them support when required.
What would you consider your biggest contribution to the industry?
During my tenure at Taj, I got an opportunity to represent the country at various international forums such as WTM India and WEF Davos. As part of the food and beverage corporate team of the Taj, I was involved in creating new trends that became industry norms, such as creating award-winning wine lists, bar menus and unique service designs. I would think introducing new concepts of contemporary Japanese at Wasabi by Morimoto and the launch of fine Indian dining at Varq were unique concepts which the industry benefitted from.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Over the last 30 years I have realised that work never stops, somanaging life around work is all about prioritising and taking micro breaks to recharge battery. Work is my passion but I am not a role model. I love this field and I do spend relentless time at work.
What is that one thing you would like to change about the hospitality industry?
Our industry has been slow to adapt to change and this has probably impeded growth to a certain extent. We need to be more agile in shifting gears to adapt to changing customer needs and perceptions.
What has been your source of inspiration?
My inspiration comes from my role model Steve Jobs, who taught me to always be ahead of time and create trends rather than follow
them. My second role model is Mahatma Gandhi who inspires me to never give up pursuing my goals. And finally, my new-age guru is Robin Sharma, who provides me with vital insights and answers when I feel lost in the VUCA world
If you had one piece of advice to give to someone starting out, what would you say?
Hotels are driven by passion. Donovan Bailey, the retired Jamaican-Canadian sprinter once said — ‘Follow your passion, be prepared to work hard and sacrifice; and above all, don’t let anyone limit your dreams.”
What does success mean to you?
As a leader, success means achieving organisation goals and being ahead of competition, creating value for the organisation and seeing smiles on the face of our customers. I also feel grooming my team members and providing them with growth opportunities are other aspects of success.
Who is the most unforgettable person you have met and why?
Dalai Lama! His aura and unconditional smile left a remarkable mark on my memory.
How do you deal with failure?
At the cost of sounding clichéd, I am going to say that if you change your perspective, every failure becomes a learning. When we run, we risk falling — success is getting up, dusting off and running again.