June 2005 | Shobha Ramswamy

A century of grace

The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower is more than a hundred years old, but age, rather than withering this grand old lady, is adding to her allure and elegance

She reigns as the queen of hospitality and luxury in India. From entertaining maharajas, heads of state and celebrities to hosting the most memorable of parties, her history is the heritage of a nation at its best. Synonymous with elegance, beauty and grandeur, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower has lost none of her legendary power to transfix.

"Her legacy and reputation have created an aura that makes her second to none," says a proud Franz Zeller, chief operating officer of the Taj group's luxury division. "Even globally it is tough to find an equivalent, and that's why we continue to enjoy a leadership position in the marketplace."

Built by renowned architect WA Stevens, the Taj was the embodiment of Jamsetji Tata's vision of a grand hotel, complete with electricity and modern sanitation, two of a long list of firsts in the country. An architectural marvel offering a panoramic view of the Arabian Sea, the Taj showcases contemporary Indian influences along with beautiful vaulted alabaster ceilings, graceful archways, crystal chandeliers, a magnificent art collection and a dramatic cantilever stairway.

In 2004, its centenary year, the Taj won a clutch of honours. It was counted among the "1,000 places to see before you die" by the New York Times Best Seller, named one of the world's "best overseas hotels" by Luxury Travel Magazines, and voted a place in Condé Nast Traveler's "best places to stay".

Great foresight and able leadership, believes Zeller, are the main ingredients in the Taj retaining its essence over time. "Properties require constant renovation and restoration to stymie neglect. At the Taj, these critical elements were never ignored. That has made all the difference."

Foresight is also about preparing for the future. Says Rajiv Kaul, the hotel's general manager: "A few years back, while the industry was experiencing a downturn, we renovated the hotel's palace section. It was a hard decision taken amid difficult times. Today, with the reversal in trends, our rooms are not only the best in the city, but they also command a premium price."

This kind of belief in its destiny has enabled the Taj to steal a clear march on its competitors. With occupancy rates close to 80 per cent and rising steadily, the flagship property of the Taj group is expected to rake in Rs200 crore in revenues in 2005, clocking a growth rate close to 23 per cent.
A business centre with a view of the Gateway of India
Makeovers mean walking the delicate line between modernism and heritage. The hotel's greatest strength was to adopt a contemporary style without destroying its historic flavour. For instance, the Crystal Room and the Gateway Room, with their blend of the contemporary and the ancient, still evoke a vivid image of the grandeur of a bygone era. Similarly, the original paintings and period furniture in the hotel's suites share their space with plasma televisions and wireless Internet connectivity.

The hospitality industry is all about experiences. In fact, that's the deciding factor. "Our guests share a special relationship with us," says Mr Kaul. "They expect a certain something and feel strongly and passionately about it. I always tell my staff we are only as good as the last five minutes. Our lineage, which is a tremendous pitch, leads to heightened expectations that have to be met. It is an enormous responsibility."

There are no cookie-cutter rooms at the Taj; each floor and every room has its own personality and uniqueness. This aspect sits well with the makeup of the hotel's primary customer, the business traveller, as well as a segment that's fast catching up, the leisure tourist, which has grown to an average of 100 rooms a day in recent times. But the Taj is also defined by the city in which it exists.

The arrival of global hospitality chains signalled a period of severe competition in Mumbai. Migration of business to new hospitality centres and negative growth rates became a reality. It was time for some strategic planning and tactical thinking. The Taj invested heavily in relationship programmes and technologies to create lasting relationships with guests.

Service was paramount. The diverse service sequences for the leisure and the business traveller were identified and refined. For instance, the entire journey from the airport to the check-in counter was made seamless. Guests could enjoy a private, sit-down check-in on arrival in the lobby lounge with a selection of welcome drinks, before being escorted to their rooms. Breakfast by the pool, antique art shopping, babysitting and forwarding and screening of calls — every request is serviced. The belief was that the smallest of services went a long way in making guests happy.

Service innovation is the new mantra. Taj introduced the limousine service, which meant renewing their fleet of cars and training their drivers in guest interactions. Each vehicle came with a DVD player, a selection of music, soft drinks, fresh towels and a telephone. "The driver, instead of chatting with you, made your ride to the hotel relaxing. It has become extremely popular with our guests," says Zeller.

Similarly, the personalised butler service was started to provide a truly distinctive, yet unobtrusive service. Trained by the well-known Andrew McBurnie, butlers could organise appointments, arrange for movie tickets, car hires, gifts and the like. This meant, guests encountered only one person for all their needs. For single women travellers, woman butlers were arranged. This concept has garnered soaring customer satisfaction scores for the luxury property.

One of the Taj yachts at the Gateway of India
Last season also saw the Taj launch its yacht services, which allows guests to take to the sea with all the modern comforts, including three air-conditioned bedrooms and a salon complete with a bar and entertainment system. "Our champagne breakfast on board en route to the Elephanta Caves is very popular with our guests," says Mr Kaul. "The idea is to provide the Taj luxury experience not just in the hotel but elsewhere as well."

Another new initiative, launched in mid-2004, is called 'hana', which recognises the culture requirements of Japanese guests. From Japanese newspapers and television channels to their traditional bathrobe and tea set, the programme provides for everything that makes visitors from the land of the rising sun feel right at home. The increased number of visitors from Japan proves the efficacy of the programme.

The Taj is also improving its services by listening to its customers. "We are fortunate to be inundated with constant customer feedback," says Mr Kaul. "All one needs is to develop one's instincts." The well-structured 'guest satisfaction tracking system' serves as the hotel's compass. It helps the hotel monitor, and measure the quality of its services as well as anticipate future needs. "Our brand standards have to be way above our international competitors," explains Zeller. "We are working on our shortcomings and there is no room for complacency. Innovation, renovation and reinvention are our mantras for success."

A greater emphasis on customer relationship management activities is producing much-desired results. Today, more than 30 per cent of the Taj's business comes from repeat clientele. With time, this rate is expected to jump higher. The hotel is also intensifying its reach and acquisitions through electronic channels, namely 'global distribution systems' and web bookings. Its aggressive sales pitch is supported by aligned marketing activities.

Employee perception also plays an important role. After all, they make the experience happen. Says Zeller: "At the Taj it is regular to see seniors guiding the younger employees; it is a part of our culture. It is this kind of commitment, and the loyalty of its people that makes the Taj so unique and special." The employees are also put through rigorous training sessions to cope with the changing times, and this is a continuous activity.

As far as food concepts go, the Taj has been a constant innovator. Says Mr Kaul, "Palates are getting adventurous and world cuisine is gaining popularity. Copious research into novel food concepts is becoming the order of the day." The aim is to offer a distinctive dining experience that explores the nuances of the finest Indian and international cuisine. This basically means bringing the flavours of the world to India.

One successful endeavour is Wasabi, Mumbai's first contemporary Japanese restaurant, which serves food prepared by the famous chef Masaharu Morimoto. The Wasabi's sushi bar, interactive Tepanyaki counter and fine Japanese sakes have guests asking for more. Likewise, three years ago, the hotel managed to turn Souk, the rooftop restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine, which nobody had experimented with until then, into a roaring success.

Sometimes it's not about creation, but reinvention of an existing product. Masala Kraft discovered classic Indian cuisine with a contemporary twist. The Golden Dragon, the city's favourite for over two decades, got a new lease of life when its regular fare was augmented. Similarly, the Shamiana, the Taj's coffee shop, added more salads, soups and low-cal desserts.

"In our business, you are always looking at tomorrow," says Mr Kaul, sharing the luxury property's blueprint for the coming years. The retail section of the Taj is being transformed to create a distinct and unique shopping experience. The idea is to have luxury brands dominate the space. One of the world's largest in the business, Louis Vuitton, set up shop here recently, and other international brands are expected to follow.

Two important money-spinners, conferencing and banqueting, will be given a complete face-lift. Vital technologies and facilities are being upgraded to deliver a unique experience, be it for a conference, a wedding or a private party. Plans are also afoot to strengthen the positioning of Chambers as the finest private business club in the city. This will be enhanced without disturbing the brand equity it currently enjoys.

Having ruled for over a century, the Taj is determined to reign with the same beauty and glory for another hundred.