When Raymond N. Bickson was introduced to Mumbai’s movers and shakers after he took over as managing director and CEO of The Indian Hotels Co. five years ago, many of them told him he dare not tamper with the Sea Lounge. In those days, the country’s most iconic five-star coffee shop, at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, was under renovation. Since half the city’s smart set met their spouse/fell in love/went on their first dates at the Sea Lounge, all the nostalgia-driven warnings were understandable.
The Sea Lounge emerged unscathed. Now, five years later, in Hurricane India, where luxury hotels go full even in the heart of Mumbai’s mill lands, the grimiest corners of Bangalore or satellite towns like Noida and Gurgaon, the country’s largest and oldest hotel company has embarked on a Rs1,900 crore expansion plan to combat its most serious challenge ever. The next tidal wave of global competition hits the shore in December when the iconic luxury hotel brand, Four Seasons, makes its India debut in Mumbai. As Bickson—the Taj group’s luxury expert—points out with a smile, 35 new hotel brands are coming.
Welcome to the Taj Buckingham
We’re squeezed into a romantic window seat for two at the Sea Lounge, with Austin on the piano, and have just ordered the signature Viennoise dessert (essentially cold coffee ice-cream) with cappuccino on the side.
“Four Seasons is coming, Shangri La will soon be in Mumbai, you’re going to have Ritz Carlton soon, Peninsula, Mandarin…all the brands. All the bigger companies will have huge loyalty programmes,” says the 51-year-old. Since nearly 85% of visitors to India are business travellers, there’s a good chance they could be drawn to their “own” brands. “As Taj, in order to protect ourselves, we have to grow beyond the borders of India,” says Bickson.
So, a couple of years ago, the company ID’ed its top 20 global markets, and began acquiring/signing management contracts—in January this year, the oldest Ritz-Carlton in the US became the Taj Boston. Three months later, they snagged a trendy boutique hotel, The Campton Place, in San Francisco.
Bickson, who has lived and worked in more than 10 big cities around the world, knows a successful hotel is always the centre of gravity for the society that surrounds it. I ask if the outsider has managed to break into Boston’s old society (although it’s strange to think of India’s ultimate homegrown hospitality brand as an outsider). “I think it’s gone very well because of the way we introduced ourselves, aligned ourselves with the area around the park…We’re treading on holy ground and we need to establish ourselves with the local community because they’re the ones that support you,” says Bickson.
There’s a lot of action on the international front, which is expected to contribute to a third of the company’s revenues by 2010. The company just announced a marketing alliance with Japan’s Okura Hotels & Resorts and bought 10% in Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. Taj’s New York acquisition, The Pierre (ironically, it was the first Four Seasons hotel outside Canada) will close on 1 January 2008 for an $85 million (Rs343 crore) renovation; and the extravagant $335 million Taj Exotica will soon be up and running at the Palm Jumeirah Crescent, Dubai; the building that once housed the Federal Reserve Bank of South Africa will open as a Taj in the first half of 2009; then there’s the company’s first golf resort in Doha, with three 18-hole golf courses and one 9-hole night course. Plus there’s Thailand, the hunt is on for a UK hotel, and...Beijing?
Actually, Beijing didn’t work out. That big hole in the Taj’s portfolio will take a while to plug. “The project we were working on just didn’t happen; the developer couldn’t get everything lined up so we’re not going to make it for the Olympics,” says Bickson. Now, the plan is to wait until after the Games. “Our feeling is that since we missed that window, post-Olympics we’ll have a better opportunity to find something in Beijing.”
So, just for a lark, if he could put the Taj name on any goodlooking building, which would it be? UK is obviously top of the mind, and an international publication recently asked several hotel executives across the world the same question, so Bickson has a ready answer. “I think Buckingham Palace would make a great Taj. With our experience, I’m sure we could turn it into a great palace hotel. Besides, we need to upgrade our London hotel or find a new one,” he says.
Overall, the company plans to nearly double the number of rooms to slightly under 20,000 by 2010, from the current 10,800 or so—and go from 83 hotels to 137, launching as many as four new properties in the same Indian city in some cases. They will open two more luxury safari lodges next year, in a tie-up with biggie CC Africa, and then open two every year.
In coming years, the group’s brand architecture will be more clearly defined in four categories from the bottom to the top end of the market—Ginger, Gateway, Residency and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces.
“Of course we’ve been here for 105 years and we’re obviously more well known here but we’re going to be in locations we’ve never been in before,” says Bickson. Like Agartala, where the company just opened a no-frills Ginger hotel. “Another 10 are opening this (fiscal) year, five by December. It’s one every eight weeks and I’m trying to crunch it down to six weeks and at some point, hopefully, every four weeks. The concept is attractive when you get critical mass,” he laughs (and I wonder how he keeps track of all these numbers).
One high-profile domestic launch that’s slightly behind schedule (it will open only next September) is the stunning 60 suite Falaknuma Palace hotel in Hyderabad. At a Rs85 crore investment, that’s over a crore a room, says Bickson. “These palaces have no real floor plans or drawings, the walls are 2ft thick—it’s a challenge running a fibre optic line or a Cat 5 cable to put in a TV screen,” he says.
When he’s not lobbing numbers at me (60,000 airline meals daily; 10 million tourists in the next five years, more than double the current 4.5 million; less than 100,000 rooms in India and hello, that’s less than Manhattan, Las Vegas and nearly as low as Disneyworld; the country needs half a million rooms), or taking 13 visiting CEOs of Louis Vuitton group companies through a presentation on how he looks at luxury from a hotelier’s perspective, or eliminating trans fats from all his luxury hotels, Bickson enjoys travelling.
Maybe it’s because of all the stops he has made in life: “I grew up in Hawaii, one year in Berlin, two in Paris, five years in Switzerland, six months in Puerto Rico, two years in New York, three in Chicago, half a year in Dallas, three in Melbourne, one in Shanghai, 15 in New York, going on my fifth year here—and I’m only 35!” says Bickson.
He tries to see new places whenever he can. He’s just back from Varanasi (where the Taj group is renovating the Nadesar Palace on the grounds of the Taj Ganges) and he has taken visitors at least five times to Ajanta & Ellora caves, one of his favourite spots in India. “I’ve promised everyone I would visit all the hotels—I think I’ve been to about 50 of our 60 plus hotels in India so far. I haven’t been to the smaller ones in places like Ooty, Chikmagalur, Thekkady, but I will make it,” he says.
Everyone in the Bickson family enjoys travelling. Last year, the girls (wife Connie, daughters Alix and Annick) got their scuba-diving licence. His wife Connie learns yoga with a passion. “She’s much more supple than I am. I tried it for a year,” he trails off.
Oh yes, one last thing. Wasabi, Taj’s Japanese restaurant in Mumbai—arguably among the best in India—will come to New Delhi next year.
Name: Raymond N. Bickson
Born:16 December 1955 (Honolulu)
Education: He has studied at the Goethe Institute in Berlin, the Université de Sorbonne in Paris, L’École Hôtelière in Lausanne, and Cornell University in New York. He is also a graduate of the Harvard Business School.
Work profite: He joined the Indian Hotels Co. in January 2003, as CEO of its luxury hotel division. In July of that year, he took over as CEO and managing director of the company. He started with the Berlin Hilton in 1973 and has worked in luxury hotels in Europe, North America, Australia and China.
Last Book: He’s reading ‘The Case of the Bonsai Manager’ by Tata group colleague R. Gopalakrishnan.