All Eyes on India
Raymond Bickson expands the Taj portfolio
Raymond Bickson was destined to be in the service industry. While growing up in the rental car business (his father was one of the founders of Budget Rent-a-Car) in Hawaii during the ’60s and ’70s, the flourishing tourism industry inspired him to attend Cornell. After graduation, he cut his teeth traveling the world working for hotel visionaries Adrian Zecha, Robert Burns, and Georg Rafael at Regent International Hotels, and then moved to New York to run the Mark Hotel. It was there he met a repeat guest, Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, a diversified conglomerate and the largest company in India. It is also the parent company of Taj Hotels and Palaces, the largest hotel collection in India (recently opening its 100th hotel), and Tata wooed Bickson with a job.
Since taking over as Taj’s CEO and managing director a decade ago, Bickson has helped turned the venerable Indian hotel company into a world player, growing it from 62 hotels and some 8,200 rooms to 118 hotels and 14,250 rooms. “We have opened one hotel every eight weeks in the last ten years,” he says.
The key: diversification. Realizing that a Taj room for $75 in Agra shouldn’t be in the same classification as a $500-a-night Taj palace room, Bickson and his team decided to take a good look at its brand architecture. The result is four distinct offerings: besides the 5-Star namesake brand—ranging from palace hotels to safaris—the Taj umbrella now includes 4-Star brand Vivanta by Taj; 3-Star hotel collection Gateway; and 1-Star budget offering Ginger.
Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad
“India only opened up to internationalization in the early nineties; prior to that it was controlled by domestic brands and we had twenty-five percent of the market,” he explains. “In 2003, the entire Indian market had sixty-two thousand rooms; Manhattan, for instance, has one hundred and ten thousand rooms, China today has three million, and the U.S. has five million rooms. All the brands that grew in Asia realized China has one billion people, India has one billion people, and not enough hotel rooms—they were licking their chops; India was the next China. Today India has one hundred seventy-five thousand rooms and the country is still running at sixty-five to sixty-eight percent occupancy—it still needs more. With all of these brands coming into our market, we needed to revisit the one hundred-and-ten-year-old brand to stay competitive.”
And they have: Ginger is now the largest budget brand in India. “The main growth is the rising middle class,” Bickson notes. “That’s the growth story for all the BRIC countries. In 2003, the average income was thirty-six thousand rupee; in 2012 it was something like fifty-eight thousand rupee. Some four hundred and fifty million people have more disposable income and are more aspirational—they want to travel.”
Taj Bekal Exterior
Bickson says the proof is in the numbers. India has grown from 5.5 million outbound travelers to 15 million in just 10 years, with hopes to reach 55 million by 2022. “So it’s good to be a brand that they are familiar with,” he says. And he’s making sure the brand resonates with the other emerging travelers. “In the seventies, everyone was after the Middle Eastern market; the eighties, it was all about the Japanese market; the nineties, the Russian market. Today, it’s the outgoing Chinese traveler.”
To become a truly global brand, 50 Taj and Vivanta properties are planned for the next five years, in as far-reaching places as Morocco (the brand’s second), China, Phuket, Johannesburg, Maldives (Taj’s third), Dubai, and Cuba. Plus, Taj just re-entered the U.S. market—with a splash—taking over the Pierre in New York to the tune of a $125 million renovation, and the Ritz-Carlton
Talking luxury, Bickson believes there has been a decidedly dramatic shift in what guests are looking for. “Luxury has become more commoditized in many ways,” he says. “While the Baby Boomers were growing, and a lot of times before that even, people stayed in a luxury hotel because it was an experience they couldn’t get in their home. But as people became more sophisticated, they have better things than one would find in a 3- or 4-Star hotel, and maybe even the majority of 5-Star hotels. Rather than going into a hotel to find out what’s new, I think that the challenge is trying to see what people have in residential homes today, and how are you going to find something that’s going to create a new dimension in the hotel experience.”
For Bickson, first and foremost, that translates to “location, location, location.” Take the stunning Taj Lake Palace sprawling across an entire island in Lake Pichola in Udaipur, or the Vivanta by Taj in Coorg set amid coffee plantations. And sustainability is key. “It’s not just good for the environment, it’s good business sense to look at your carbon footprint and alternative sources of energy,” he says, noting that with a 112-year-old brand with many legacy properties that have to be reengineered, it is sometimes easier said than done. “Right now we are looking at geothermal, solar, and wind energies, and rainwater harvesting with a combination of how we can go into the existing properties. There are parts of the Indian Ocean that have over two hundred and twenty-five days of sunshine. So that would be a solution where we would use part solar and part wind generation. Geothermal is something that could be used in both resorts and metro city destinations, where you would help offset your costs for chillers and HVAC. And our safaris are a sustainable tourism model because we try to help educate the local population about the endangered species to raise awareness of protecting these animals.”
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
Memorable amenities are just as important, many of which Bickson is mainstreaming throughout the Taj portfolio. For instance, when he first joined the company, Taj had six or so different spa brands at the various hotels. Realizing that the best spas in the world use many treatments that originated in India, he created Jiva (which means “life”), “an Indian brand that would leverage meditation, yoga, aromatherapy, and ayurveda around the authenticity of the spa,” he says, adding that it’s now the largest spa company in India. “A spa is today’s bathrobe. If you don’t have a spa, you aren’t even competing.”
Rehendi Suite Taj Exotica Resort and Spa, Maldives
There are also the intangibles: “There’s a certain expectation that you’re able to customize the travel experience to each customer according to what’s important to them. And being able to translate that through design will make your brand resonate with that customer, and hopefully build that relationship that makes a brand successful, like Louis Vuitton as opposed to Coach. It’s a different level and one has to understand the subtlety: that one is a high luxury product, and one is essentially a commoditized luxury product.”
He points to the simple example of when a guest from Frankfurt checks into his room, the television welcome is in German and the radio is set to his hometown station. “Customization is trying to make that customer feel they’re special and that the hotel has been able to go above and beyond a regular experience that recognizes them. It makes that guest experience special and unique,” he says. ”It’s one thing to talk about doing it, but to do it, and do it process-wise so that it’s done across the board systematically consistently, that’s where design plays a big role. Look at the Asian brands where guests’ laundry, newspapers, shoes, and messages don’t even have to enter their room. There is a door, a closet that they deliver everything through.”
Rambagh Palace, Jaipur
Though for him, it has been a rewarding—and learning—experience to dabble in the non-luxury market. “The interesting part is to create brands that resonate with the guests in regards to the product that they touch, the services that they feel, and the price value that they’re willing to pay. I think it’s about developing global mindsets in these markets, which have been closed for many years.”