October 2016

'Tajness is about the senses and emotions'

It's good to get closer to your inner self. That’s what Indian Hotels — or the Taj Group, as it is better known — is seeking to do by embracing the philosophy of 'Tajness', the set of defining qualities that characterise the art of hospitality.

Tajness has been identified as the brand and operations philosophy for the future, which takes the best from the Taj's past and redefines it for the future. Tajness will seek its inspiration from the legacy of Jamsetji Tata and Taj’s Indian heritage, and it will blend this with local cultures across its hotels around the world. In essence, Tajness is the sum of experiences that take their inspiration from the Indian heritage and traditions.

The helmsman and point person for the change of tack at the Taj Group is the company’s chief executive and managing director, Rakesh Sarna, who speaks here to tata.com about what it will take for the brand to reinvent itself in an industry facing a multiplicity of challenges. Excerpts:

How did the idea of Tajness develop?
Around 21 months back we took a step back to ask ourselves some simple questions: who are we, where are we and what do we want to be? As a hotel group with such a rich heritage and lineage and decades of history, we still had to ask ourselves these questions, especially now with the entry of so many worthy global competitors into the Indian market.

The high-end hotels of today are in a sea of ‘sameness’; there is no specific design or service aspect that makes one stand apart from another. This is where Tajness comes in. Tajness is a philosophy that takes inspiration from India’s heritage and traditions to offer our guests and all our stakeholders a distinctive experience. The Taj has always had a certain aura of nobility. It has a rich heritage and a legacy starting with Jamsetji Tata. It is this Indian heritage, legacy and nobility that we will offer through the Tajness philosophy.

What exactly is Tajness?
Tajness is a sum of experiences, and it's not just for our guests or owners. Our brand promise — we sincerely care for you — is the assurance we give our guests, colleagues and vendors, our owners and other stakeholders, and the community and wider society. We have taken a lot of time to define Tajness and it is time to amplify this message.

We are a hotel group steeped in tradition but that doesn't mean every Taj hotel will be an Indian hotel. We will take inspiration from the location we are in, but our hotels will have common elements that will be sensorial and emotional. That will be the differentiator for us. Guests will experience Tajness in the fragrance, the music, the floral arrangements, the attire of the staff and, importantly, the food and beverages at every Taj hotel. A signature set of rituals which take inspiration from Indian heritage but blend with local culture and traditions will provide an experience that will be distinct from other hotels and inspire our colleagues in our hotels to deliver our products and service with care and kindness across all our hotels.

As a first, we are doing away with traditional hotel lobbies in our hotels. Checking in and checking out are a big pain point in the hotel industry. Guests hate to go through the third-degree interrogation we as an industry put them through, so we now have technology that allows guests to check in by themselves. We have started this at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, though we still have staff to care for our guests.

Our lobbies will soon resemble cosy living rooms. We have pledged to use electric cars as soon as we can because we care about our environment. We plan to define the core attributes of our each of our brands: ranging from breakfast round the clock, there will be food from the World of Taj and detailed personalisation of a guest’s room before arrival.

We are investing a lot of capital to create the perfect room; perfect sleeping experience; perfect shower; perfect mattress, pillows and duvet; and perfect reading and other lighting. We are taking care of every little detail that will touch our guests’ sense of sound, sight, smell, touch and taste.

What sort of challenges are you facing on making Tajness happen?
We launched Tajness on August 5 and we had Mr Ratan Tata and Mr Cyrus Mistry present on the occasion. I have received positive responses from both of them and we have promised to convert all our hotels and align them with the Tajness concept by end of 2017. This is ambitious; we face many challenges at the operational and behavioural level. This is an ongoing endeavour and I’m sure we will accomplish it.

How critical is food and beverages to the Taj?
Food and beverage is critical, and there’s been a drastic change here. No longer are customers coming only to the Taj. We now have a plethora of free-standing restaurants with talented chefs serving food from across the globe. Earlier people wanted to be seen at the Taj — that was an aspiration — but today people also have the option to and sometimes peer pressure to visit an Indigo or The Table (in Mumbai), which are excellent at what they do and what they serve. Guests today do not need to be seen just at five-star hotels as was the case some two decades ago.

In such a scenario, we have to ask ourselves how many restaurants we really need, and what kind of cuisines do our guests want. Pricing is something we have to evaluate. A meal at the Taj Mahal Palace is understandably very expensive. Consequently, we have rationalised the pricing at the Mumbai hotels, Shamiana, and so far it is doing well.

We are committed to providing delicious food. We want to do that by going back to simpler food, smaller menus and pricing that makes sense.

How has the ascent of digital technologies and the internet affected the hospitality industry?
The need and necessity of a digital platform is a no-brainer. You cannot get any work done in this age without getting online. That’s how customers are exploring and buying products, including luxury holidays.

Traditionally, this industry had a clear and simple relationship with its guests, and maybe with travel agents. But now technology is at play in a ‘here-to-stay’ manner and the hospitality business has seen a significant disruption. Makemytrip, Yatra, Expedia, Tripadvisor and the like are valued higher than many hotel businesses.

These people who provide ‘online travel solutions’ rake in commissions of 15-23 percent compared to the traditional ten percent model.

How are you addressing this challenge?
We had no real digital presence to begin with, but that’s changing. We started with a relaunch of our website, which is now looking promising. We understand people want to know and see more before they make a decision, so we have virtual tours of our suites and hotels.

We have incorporated various independent ratings on our digital pages and also give information on the pricing offered by travel agents. We are transparent with our customers; we give them lots of reasons to stay on our website. We have invested in search engine optimisation and digital marketing and we plan to launch our mobile app soon.

How does something like Airbnb affect the hospitality business?
Airbnb is an amazing model, but it’s not yet a direct threat to us in India (as security and hygiene are concerns here). But Airbnb and its kind are becoming a problem for the industry in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. In some European cities Airbnb is offering penthouses and chateaus, so that may eat into our market — one day, but not yet.

The truth is that once you get an Airbnb room, you are pretty much on your own. No one is going to pamper or fuss over you. Our guests stay with us for prestige, the promise of consistency, the security and recognition, and the pampering.

What about Indian Hotels' Ginger model?
We need to make Ginger more hip. We are currently working on a new model for a Ginger hotel in Mumbai and I promise it’ll be a lot more fun. We have to get the basics right, though, and that means better rooms, baths and beds. Budget hotels don’t have to be boring.