At your service
Living in luxury is part of the job description for these professionals. It’s routine for them to spend their working hours in beautiful spaces, and hobnob with the rich and powerful. But the hotel business, glamorous though it may be, has its perils.
Anything from a speck of dust to a slip-up in service could lead to an irate explosion from a guest, and managers are in the direct line of fire. We spoke to three professionals in the hotel industry who tell us about the long hours and the stress of managing crisis situations—and the fact that it’s really all about the ability to relate to and empathize with people.
Raymond Bickson, 57
Managing director and CEO, Taj group of hotels, Mumbai
Raymond Bickson, who now supervises 116 properties, has, quite literally, lived in most of the hotels he has managed. “I could live in a hotel for the rest of my life,” says the Taj group managing director, who is dressed formally in a suit and yellow tie and speaks in a measured manner, but with bonhomie. Since he joined the group in Mumbai, however, he has had to make an exception at the insistence of his wife and two daughters. So he has been living in “a beautiful art deco building on Cuffe Parade”, as he describes it, since 2003.
Why the hotel industry: Bickson grew up in Hawaii when tourism was replacing agriculture as the mainstay of the economy. “My family was in the rental cars business, and I had worked in the business since I was 12—washing cars, renting out cars.” His father was the chairman of the Visitors’ Bureau, and young Bickson got to see the whole gamut of the hospitality industry, from cars and cruise liners to hotels. “When it was time for me to choose what I wanted to do, I saw that my father’s friends who were in the hotel business seemed to be the coolest,” he says, adding that this influenced his choice of career.
How he got here: Though Bickson got admission into the best hotel schools in the US, his father’s hotelier friends suggested that if he was really serious about hospitality as a career, he should learn by going to work in a hotel. Bickson deferred college and started work at the Hilton Berlin hotel’s kitchen in 1973, before going on to work as a waiter, and then a chef. He never did go to hotel school in the US, though he studied hotel production and service at École Hôtelière Lausanne in Switzerland (1977-79) and attended the advanced management programme at the Harvard Business School in 1999. He has spent the past three decades with hotel chains in 11 countries across five continents.
A day in the life of: It’s a 10-minute drive to office, The Taj Mahal Palace. One day in February, he recalls, “I arrived at the hotel at 9am, at the same time as the British prime minister (who was staying at the hotel), and found the police were redirecting all traffic away from the main entrance.” Bickson moved immediately to ensure the other hotel guests could enter and exit smoothly.
A typical day at the Mumbai office could have six-seven meetings and conference calls with the general managers of the Taj properties in India and around the world. There’s also new development, with a new hotel being opened every eight weeks. Almost 10 days in the month are spent travelling in India and abroad.
"It’s like a setting; you set the stage every day for the mood and the ambience."
What I love about my job: “Meeting different people. Being part of an evolving business, by adapting and changing all the time to what the guest wants. It’s like a setting; you set the stage every day for the mood and the ambience.”
What I would like to change: “Not getting enough sleep or exercise. And eating too much!”
Right now in the hotel business: “After almost a century primarily dominated by domestic Indian companies, there are over 41 international hotel brands that have entered the Indian market,” he says. The challenge is to stay relevant in a country that’s growing fast, and offers so many opportunities. The Taj had one brand for almost 100 years. It’s 110 today, and over the last few years it has diversified to four brands: Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces in the luxury space; Vivanta by Taj in the four-star, upscale space; The Gateway Hotels and Resorts, mid-market; and Ginger Hotels, which has become the country’s largest budget hotel chain, with 30 hotels, in just six years.
A guest I will not forget: In 2010, “when US President Barack Obama came to Mumbai, we made him a garland of mogra (jasmine). It’s used in Hawaii as well, the flower is called pikake and the garland is called a pikake lei. When he was garlanded with it, he grabbed the flowers (putting them to his nose) and said, ‘I know what this is.’ So I said, ‘Yes, Mr President, it’s a pikake lei.’ He turned around really surprised—how does this Indian guy know, so I told him I grew up in Honolulu in Hawaii, just like he did. We spoke for a while, and after that, during his visit, whenever he saw me, he’d wave.”
An ideal candidate for this industry must have: “A good attitude. As a company, we can give the tools; we can teach you to be a waiter or a chef. But we can’t teach you to be genuinely authentic and nice to people,” says Bickson.
Money matters: Around Rs.8 crore a year.
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Arjun Baljee, 33
Managing director, Peppermint Hotels, Bangalore
Arjun Baljee says he has been on the road a lot since 2008, when he decided to build his own business of design-led budget hotels. “Three years ago I used to travel 18-20 days a month, now it’s come down to 10-12,” says Baljee, who was in Mumbai for a day to meet investors. Dressed semi-formally in a dark blazer, he talks about the challenges of setting up a hotel business, describing the travails of organizing the 30 different licences required in Karnataka for one hotel or getting work done on a building site.
Why the hotel industry: “I was born in the business. Growing up in Bangalore, my father owned the Harsha (now the Ramada and part of the Royal Orchid hotels),” says Baljee. He remembers spending time with his younger brother at the hotel switchboard, the old-fashioned kind where the operator had to move wires around manually, and learning to cook.
How he got here: After graduating from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, US, in 2002 and completing an internship at the Four Seasons Hotel, Singapore, he spent a year working at the Fairmont Dubai hotel as restaurant manager. In 2004, he returned to Bangalore to work with his father Chender Baljee at the Royal Orchid hotels. “I had been with the Royal Orchid as they grew from one hotel to seven or eight and seen the group successfully through an IPO (initial public offering). My father was still young and at the helm—it was his business. Was that pot really large enough for everybody to add value? After some thought, I decided to be adventurous and set up my own business.”
His first hotel opened in Hyderabad. “That didn’t work out too well. We shut the hotel in a year. But the learnings were tremendous,” he says. Whether it was understanding the target customer, designing rooms or a café within the hotel, the Hyderabad property’s experience enabled Baljee to get things right for the Gurgaon Peppermint, which opened in August 2011.
"The hotel business in India is exactly like the retail business, where 80-90% is in the unorganized sector."
A day in the life of: Baljee’s days are spent reviewing existing hotels as well as negotiating and developing new properties. Today, the chain operates hotels in Delhi, Gurgaon, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and London, UK, and plans for 14 more—two at international locations—are in the pipeline. Baljee now has a team of 250.
“Raising money takes 50% of my time,” he says. Meetings with his core corporate team of four, hotel managers and staff, vendors and the sales team, take up most of the day. “Because you are in the hotel business, your phone is always on,” says Baljee, who has had to field calls at odd hours. “Like I once got a call at 2am because we had a banquet that went on after hours and the police arrived and threatened to take the front desk manager to jail.”
What I love about my job: “You get to meet and talk with people you would never otherwise (have) had a chance to talk to.”
What I would like to change: “The entire fund-raising exercise. It’s painful.”
Right now in the hotel business: “Rates are falling. This whole thing about shortage of hotel rooms is not true. The hotel business in India is exactly like the retail business, where 80-90% is in the unorganized sector. If, for instance, you look at the area in Mumbai around Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), there are hundreds of hotels there. They don’t care to be audited or to be part of fancy associations, but somebody is staying in all those hotels, and they are competition.”
A guest I will not forget: “When Elton John came in 2002 and stayed at the Fairmont in Dubai for two days. He arrived in a private plane, with suitcases and suitcases and suitcases full of clothes. We had to unpack all of these, almost a hundred different sets of clothes and 50-60 shoes, and lay them out so he could choose what he would wear to his concert at Dubai. I remember thinking: ‘Really, all these clothes, you couldn’t have possibly decided what to wear for the show back in the UK?’ But it was an interesting experience to see how a celebrity at that level lives.”
An ideal candidate for this industry must have: “The right mindset. Our ethos is different—you may be a waiter, but if there’s a lot of luggage sitting around, we expect you will go drop it upstairs as well,” says Baljee. The hotelier’s favourite test for a potential employee is the question, “Will you clean the toilet?” Adds Baljee, “And you can instantly tell whether the person is lying, hesitant or genuinely will do it.”
Money matters: Baljee gives a ballpark figure of the turnover last year of five Peppermint hotels: Rs.28 crore. Each hotel is profitable. “I don’t pay myself a salary. And right now, as we are expanding, everything we earn goes back into the business,” he says.
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Gaurav Nerlekar, 26
Service manager, food and beverages (F&B), Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, Mumbai
“This industry is pretty similar to Bollywood. It’s glamorous from the outside, but heavy work on the inside,” says Gaurav Nerlekar, the formally-clad F&B manager of SEVEN, the multicuisine restaurant on the ninth floor of Mumbai’s Shangri-La hotel. It is possible to be in the hotel industry and still have free time, he adds—it’s just that you need to plan it.
Why the hotel industry: It was the fact that he lived next door to The Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition in Dadar West, Mumbai, popularly known as the Dadar Catering College, that prompted Nerlekar to join the industry. That, and his love of food. “My father is a doctor, my mother is a professor and my elder sister is an engineer, so everyone has studied a lot. They are hard-core vegetarians as well,” says Nerlekar. And they are all teetotallers. He is the exception. “But I don’t drink; only taste wine. We have to; it’s part of the job. You can’t recommend wine you haven’t tasted yourself,” he says.
How he got here: Nerlekar did his bachelor’s at the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Goa, in 2007. He joined the Taj group of hotels in Mumbai in 2007, moving to The Westin Mumbai Garden City in 2010, and to Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, in Mumbai again, in 2012.
A day in the life of: Nerlekar’s workday begins at 6.30am or 3pm, depending on whether he is working the morning or evening shift. He begins the shift by briefing his restaurant team about the sequence of events for the day. On Sundays, for instance, a late breakfast is followed by a buffet brunch, so workflows have to be planned well in advance.
Mealtimes are spent on the floor, to ensure the comfort of guests and defuse potentially troublesome situations. When the team is done with the meal, there are interactions with the chefs and the culinary team. The team is briefed on the preparations, and educated on the right way to describe these to guests. They also give feedback on the day’s dishes and discuss menus for the next day. “For instance, the dim sums at the restaurant are much appreciated, so we report back to the chefs on that. Sometimes we have to give negative feedback too, like a particular fish preparation which wasn’t popular,” says Nerlekar.
"Indian families really like to experiment with their food. Wine has become a big thing."
What I love about my job: “Meeting people and talking to them. If you are able to interact successfully, figure out their preferences for a particular meal or coffee, ask them about their day, the interaction goes really well. Then if you meet them again and follow up on the earlier conversation by asking how a particular presentation or a meeting went, those guests can really become friends, and that feels really good.”
What I would like to change: “Managing to stay calm in high-stress situations. If a guest is shouting, you just can’t say, ‘I have been here since 6.30 in the morning and you are complaining?’ You have to find a solution.”
Right now in the hotel business: “In the food industry today, Indian families really like to experiment with their food. Wine has become a big thing. Guests know their wines, whether it is a crisp white chardonnay or an Italian cabernet sauvignon. And they want to hear that you have at least 250 different wine labels.”
A guest I will not forget: “When Shah Rukh Khan visited the Taj Lands End in Bandra where I was working. Those days, I used to work in banquets and we would go every weekend to his house, which was close by in Bandra, to cater to parties. It was 5pm and Shah Rukh asked me, ‘What are you doing here? You were at my house till 5am.’ When I told him I had to report to work to the hotel at 3pm, Shah Rukh laughed and said he too had to report to the hotel for his brand launch.”
An ideal candidate for this industry must have: “Being customer-oriented, being able to talk to customers and to be flexible with them. For instance, we cook authentic Chinese cuisine, but we sometimes get a request for local Chinese like a triple Schezwan and we have to be ready to persuade the chef to make it for the guest,” says Nerlekar, who would someday love to be director (food and beverages) at a hotel in an international location.
Money matters: Rs.5-8 lakh a year.
Every month, we explore a profession through the lives of three executives at different stages in their careers.