Exclusive interview – Raymond Bickson, CEO Taj Hotels on his company’s strategic positioning and future outlook
In an exclusive interview with CPP-LUXURY.COM, Mr Raymond Bickson, CEO and Managing Director of TAJ Hotels, Resorts and Palaces speaks about his company’s strategic positioning and his outlook on the future of luxury hospitality worldwide.
With China and Russia continuing the global power game, elections in many key markets such as the U.S., France as well as the on-going European debt crisis, what is your assessment of 2012?
I would say our outlook is of ‘cautious optimism’. We are a global company and a range of factors impact our business. Additionally, there are differing expectations from each of the geographies we operate in. A substantial part of our revenues are from the hotels in India. The Indian economy is expected to grow at 7%-8% year-on-year and we do see inbound tourism to India also sustaining. Therefore most of our hotels in India should see a mix of ARR & occupancy growth. For our international hotels, while the economic environment continues to be tough, we do expect some improvement, which should translate into growth in both ARRs and Occupancies. Many of our international properties are iconic hotels in their destinations and as the outlook improves we expect to capture a good share of the increase in demand.
Domestic short haul travel across Asia/Pacific is a growing trend although long haul travelers from Americas and Europe will continue to be the biggest contributors to the tourism industry here. As per a recent UNWTO report, Asia- Pacific is the region where highest growth is expected in the coming decades in terms of both inbound and outbound. The overall share of Asia – pacific in terms of tourism arrivals is expected to increase from the current 22% to approximately 30% in the coming decades.
For inbound travel into India, US and Europe continue to be the leading source markets and together they account for almost 1/3rd of tourist arrivals into India, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), India is one of the fastest growing markets for outbound tourism in the world. Now with the recovering economy, improved consumer confidence and attractive tour packages, the number of Indians travelling abroad is almost double the number of inbound travellers visiting the country. The Taj’s share of this market in destinations where we are located is expected to grow as well.
The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts for 2012 that spending on luxury travel will increase by 6% for leisure travellers and 5% for business travellers. What are your expectations for India, your key market?
I expect India will show similar trends. The last quarter of 2011 has shown higher occupancies across all our luxury hotels.
True values and heritage, which are also part of your company’s DNA, have been highlighted at this year’s edition of ILTM, as key drivers for a successful business strategy in luxury hospitality in the coming years. In this respect, which are the key elements of your long term strategic positioning approach?
With our heritage of hospitality spanning over 100 years, we not only want to preserve but also build on the equity that we have of authenticity, heritage and Tata values. As a brand we are driven with a passion to delight our customers and create a series of impeccable moments which balance traditional and contemporary Indian hospitality to create unique experiences and lifelong memories. By understanding our customer needs deeply, by constantly refreshing and redefining luxury and bringing the brand promise alive through both service and product, we feel we can be an even stronger luxury brand.
Several of your iconic properties such as Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai and Taj Coromandel have recently completed comprehensive refurbishment programs. Which other hotels from your chain will undergo such comprehensive renovations?
As part of a normal business cycle, several hotels undergo renovations.
Having completed the restoration of the heritage wing of the The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, we are also poised to take up extensive renovations of the Tower Wing. We are working with Madrid based Rockwell Group on this project.
With Sri Lanka seeing resurgence in tourism, Taj Samudra, flagship property at Colombo, Sri Lanka and Vivanta by Taj – Bentota, Sri Lanka will undergo renovations to enhance the experience.
The speakers at The Utratravel Forum at the 2011 edition of ILTM in Cannes have highlighted the following trends. Please comment from your perspective.
a) travellers want to ‘’integrate’’ with the place – they feel the need for an enhanced sense of ‘’just being’’ rather than being surrounded by material things
We at the Taj have been spotting this trend. For one of our new brands, Vivanta by Taj, which was launched on September 2010 we have developed “Vivanta Motifs”. With each Vivanta hotel we present signature experiences rooted in local destination cues. These Vivanta Motifs are a representation of the Vivanta philosophy of hospitality with an imaginative twist. During the course of their stay at Vivanta by Taj – Holiday Village, guests can enjoy the Spice Route. Goa’s legendary Balchaos, Vindaloos and Sorpotels acquire their flavour from the fresh spices that are cultivated there. Guests can take a walk down the spice route with the Chef Culinaire of Goan Cuisine, Urbano de Rego himself. They can stroll through the colourful bazaars of Mapusa as Chef Rego describes the ingredients that are essential to Goa’s culinary history. The tour ends with a delicious meal prepared by the Chef and a memorable gift as well.
b) travellers have transitioned from more choices to curated ones
Taj has always tried to personalise guest stays. We have curated experiences that are unique to the destination or the hotel. We have partnered with national and local tourism bodies to provide guests with such memorable moments.
The Rambagh Palace, or the ‘Jewel of Jaipur’, offers its guests varied choices. By day visitors can play the sport of kings, Polo – either on horseback or more leisurely on elephant, winding up the day’s activities in the Polo Bar, adorned with memorabilia from days of old.
The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur is a four-acre marble vision rising ethereally from the serene waters of Lake Pichola and is the second most photographed property in India after the Taj Mahal. Guests can relive the stately splendour of royal cruises by sailing into the purple sunset aboard the Gangaur – a hundred and fifty year old ceremonial candlelit imperial barge navigated by gloriously dressed oarsmen. Alternatively they can gain a valuable insight into the palace by taking a heritage champagne walk around the palace and grounds, with a royal escort armed with caviar, paté and a bottle of Pommery.
At the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Maldives, the aim is to create everlasting memories that make the guest stay ever so special. And nothing achieves this better than an opportunity to experience an elegant Renewal of Vows ceremony at a pristine beach venue. A bottle of champagne to toast with, a decorated ceremonial pavilion on the ocean with gentle wedding music and a flower bath for the couple. The resort hosts a most beautiful ceremony symbolic of the precious bond. A wedding certificate, as a timeless memento of the ceremony, is presented by the staff along with a special traditional album that contains all the photos of the wedding ceremony at the resort.
c) an increasing number of travellers will book their hotels, spontaneously, through their smart phones in the near future
The hospitality industry is becoming tech savvy. Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces has been observing this trend and we want to be where our customers are. Taj Hotels is the first Indian hospitality company to launch an Iphone application for its guests. This application allows guests to browse through hotel information related to stays, F&B and hotel facilities and make reservations.
Customers wanting to book into a Vivanta by Taj hotel can use smart phones to do that starting January 2012. This integrates itself with popular location based apps.
d) travellers seek real value and keeping experiences relevant
Yes, this is indeed true and as you will see from the answers above, they are now quite conscious of value related travel, whilst at the same time, do not want to lose out on the experience that a destination can offer them.
Do you agree that in the past three years travellers have been perceiving luxury differently? Does this apply to Indian luxury travellers?
Yes – the luxury traveller has become even more demanding. They demand a very high level of customisation and are looking for distinctive experiences.
Breaking new ground in India, a joint venture between Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces and &Beyond offers India’s first and only wildlife circuit in the country. This partnership, known as Taj Safaris, provides guests with the ultimate interpretive wildlife experience, based on a proven sustainable ecotourism model. Operating in Madhya Pradesh, for almost five years, it’s four lodges – Pashan Garh in Panna National Park, Mahua Kothi in Bandhavgarh National Park, Banjaar Tola in Kanha National Park and Baghvan in Pench National Park – also address the niche area of wildlife conservation as well as the communities in which they operate.
Keeping with the Legacy of corporate sustainability, Taj Safaris have introduced their latest initiatve called ”Voluntourism”. The initiative encourages guests a first hand experience of the villagers and their day to day lives by availing of exclusive ’Voluntourism Packages’ for 3-5 days, crafted specially for guests looking for a holiday with a purpose. The packages includes 2 safari drives(for a 3 day package and 3 safaris for a 5 day package) , visit to ancient temples apart from nature walks, visiting the villages, sharing meals and engaing in various activities. Guests can also chose to impart a skill to the locals.
How brand conscious are Indian luxury travellers when travelling domestically, versus when travelling abroad?
The Indian luxury traveller is very brand conscious. This customer is a very global player , travels abroad very often , has experienced different countries and cuisines and hence is familiar with famous brands across categories – be it hotels, cars , hotels or fashion . Also, the hotels in India are at par with the best in the world. So their expectations are very high and do not change whether they are in India or abroad.
Drawing a parallel with other luxury sectors such as fashion and jewellery, can we speak in India of a distinct luxury target segment which are ‘’responsible spenders’’? (old fashion and conservative approach)
Yes –such a category exists in India but it is at a nascent stage. The hospitality sector is cognisant of this and are very consciously adapting to this emerging segment.
Development of SPAs has been playing a crucial role in luxury hotels, both city hotels and resorts. What is the strategic approach of Taj Hotels on SPAs?
In the last decade, a whole new generation of spa goers has arisen. Due to increased stress levels and hectic lifestyles, the physically conscious person uses restorative and rejuvenative techniques to improve their wellbeing. Today’s customer is looking for holistic, integrated, and lifestyle-oriented concepts that emphasize the pursuit of a more balanced lifestyle and sustainable and eco-friendly concepts and products.
In the year 2003, we at the Taj, conceptualized our very own in-house brand JIVA. Being an Indian Hotel company in a land rich in culture, tradition and the bedrock of Asian healing traditions; we decided to capitalize on an un-tapped market idea and hence created the Jiva Spa Concept with unique Signature experiences integrating ancient Indian wellness concepts with Indian Hospitality. Jiva not only offers unique Indian spa experiences; but all our products are of hand-picked organic ingredients, especially created for Jiva from a botanical source, free from parabens, petro-chemicals and not tested on animals.
Jiva is an integral part of the Taj and we are one of the fastest growing spa brands in Asia and the largest in India. In the last seven years, we have created, designed and developed 24 Jiva Spas in India and abroad. Currently, we are working on 21 more spas in various international locations (including India). Going forward, we see Jiva carving out its own unique identity and positioned amongst the top spa brands in the international arena.
Jiva aims at providing holistic spa retreats and wellness centers and offers authentic, location-based, and signature experiences that draw directly from ancient Indian wellness and weave in unique local traditions and natural assets of the region. For example, Abhisheka, at Nadesar Palace in Varanasi, includes a bath with Ganges water and the five ambrosias, followed by a signature massage recreating the sanctity of traditional purifying rituals.
What are the three top foreign nationalities of travellers to India which stay at your hotels? What do you think are their top three motivations in their choice for India as a holiday or business destination?
The top three foreign nationalities of travellers to Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces are USA, UK and Germany in that order.
India is one of the few world economies that are still growing at a relatively higher rate. So there is a lot of business related travel as more and more companies want to do business in India. India is also a popular leisure destination with multiple choices. Europeans are inclined to take cultural tours to see forts, monuments and palaces. Kerala with its Ayurveda and Yoga is also very popular. Goa is a favourite choice for beach destination. There is also a keen interest in spirituality.
An increasing number of luxury hotel chains internationally have been introducing fine dining by international Michelin starred Chefs. What is your company’s approach?
We have our own internal centres of excellence which develop pioneering restaurants and cuisine concepts. Quilon, a Taj restaurant in London has retained its Michelin star for the fifth year in 2012 Michelin Guide to Great Britain & Ireland. It is the only Michelin starred south Indian cuisine restaurant in the world. MICHELIN Guide San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country 2012 has recognized renowned San Francisco landmark Campton Place Restaurant at the Taj Campton with 1 star in its latest annual dining guide. This was the second time that the restaurant won this honour.
With Marrakech becoming a very competitive luxury hospitality market, what is your company’s approach on your upcoming opening?
Taj Palace Marrakech is our latest venture into the African continent and is in sync with our strategy to continue our vision of growth in key international destinations. The hotel will fit perfectly in our portfolio with its meticulously crafted and vivid blend of Moroccan, Indian and Asian themes. Marrakech is rich in culture and tradition and is increasingly becoming a most desired leisure destination.