January 2017 | Priyanka Hosangadi

The 'Tajness' culture

The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, the flagship property of the Taj Group, exemplifies a unique tradition of graciousness and luxury that has charmed generations of guests, says Taljinder Singh, general manager, The Taj Mahal Palace, and area director, Mumbai, for the premier hospitality chain.

The Taj Mahal Palace is an iconic property known for its heritage and luxury. What is unique about its management style?
The Taj Mahal Palace is a 113-year-old institution with history, art and architectural value. As a living monument, it needs to be managed in a way that encapsulates knowledge of all three aspects. It also involves the knowledge that comes with being a hotelier and a degree of passion. As I often tell my colleagues, The Taj Mahal Palace is a living being in many ways and one has to treat it as such, with a lot of care, passion and sensitivity.

The Shamiana has been refurbished and reopened after 16 years and the Taj Art Gallery after 25 years. What led to the revival of these iconic spaces?
The tradition of hospitality and care at The Taj Mahal Palace is different from other hotels. We take pride in the fact that many families who are third or fourth generation visitors also get to experience it. For instance, I received a letter from a member of the Wagnor family in Germany, who had stayed as a guest with us a few months ago. The gentleman said he had discovered a postcard written by his great grandmother to her father in 1913. She was on a world tour then and wrote that she was staying at The Taj Mahal Palace, which was a great institution of hospitality. She mentioned how great the service and attention to detail was, and probably the best she had experienced so far during her tour. The guest said he was happy to note that even after a century, the same words were applicable and how the tradition of hospitality, care and culture carries on.

The hospitality experience at the Taj Mahal Palace is unique for the care and passion it embodies

We are preserving a culture with sensitivity, care and sincerity, the sum of which constitutes what we today call ‘Tajness’. The foundation of ‘Tajness’ was laid by Tata group Founder Jamsetji Tata when the hotel opened in 1903. And that foundation is what we are trying to build upon. This is why certain legacies must be carried on and presented to future generations. And this must buck the trend that exists in the hospitality market where restaurants or spaces within hotels die after 10-15 years.

There is sentiment linked to the Shamiana. It opened in 1973, so we are now welcoming the third generation of visitors. Some of them proudly narrate stories of how their grandparents dated there, and have spoken to them about it. It is the same case with the Taj Art Gallery. Laxman Shreshtha, one of India’s foremost artists, had the first exhibition of his career at the gallery.

British royalty, Apple CEO Tim Cook, the King of Morocco and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi — The Taj Mahal Palace has seen its fair share of royalty and VIP guests over the last year. What does the hotel do differently to make such guests feel welcome?
Each visit presents a unique set of challenges because the guests’ requirements are different. Delivering meals to one king and his entourage proved extremely challenging. This was because the members of the entourage asked for the same dish that the king had ordered. Making and delivering 90 pizzas, for example, in a span of 25-30 minutes was a huge challenge. The king also wanted to drink and bathe only in Evian, which he had brought with him, so we had to install a water tank above his suite.

On the other hand, you have a global CEO like Tim Cook, an unassuming individual whose requirement was the lightest of food and a no-fuss environment. That in itself is a challenge because culturally and due to our training, we are not used to delivering it.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Catherine

To deliver both ends of the spectrum becomes difficult, sometimes. You always have to try and find a balance and deliver by way of perception. The challenge is in understanding what kind of service and attention the guest requires, especially when it is not stated. You are as good a hotelier as your accuracy with such perception and delivery.

How do you market The Taj Mahal Palace to this segment?
Globally, we are known for our gracious, world-class and yet quintessentially Indian hospitality. We have to be at the forefront of everything — technology, training and cultural sensitivity. If we wish to remain ahead, all these components have to be put together along with our key differentiator of ‘Tajness’.

Digital innovation is important to let the world know about ‘Tajness’. The challenge is in how our intangible perceptions like soul, warmth or graciousness are communicated digitally. I think we have delivered these wonderfully through virtual reality films of several iconic Taj hotels. However, we must ensure that the aspect of ‘Tajness’ is not lost in our quest for digitisation.

The Taj Santacruz is a new property and a stone’s throw from the Mumbai airport. Could you share the highlights and challenges in the development of this hotel?
The Taj Santacruz is not the clichéd ‘airport hotel’. It has been designed and built as a luxury hotel, which resides right next to the apron of the runway. Inputs were taken from the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), Bureau of Civil Aviation and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation while designing and implementing the plan of the hotel. I jokingly tell many of our guests that this is probably the most secure hotel in the country because its security is managed by the CISF. The property also has a soundproof glass envelope. You could be sitting in a room around 300m from the runway, watching an airplane take off or land, and yet you won’t hear it.

Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Taj

On a more personal note, how has your journey with the Taj Group been?
It has been a wonderful 26 years with the Taj Group. The organisation provides many unique opportunities that motivate us to deliver our best and do more than what is required of the job. There is another aspect that has a lot to do with the Taj being part of the Tata group. It is the pride and the feeling of belongingness you experience when you tell this to people outside. They immediately begin to look at you with great respect because they know what the Tata group stands for. This is one of the key elements, which makes me want to continue to be a part of this great organisation.

Could you share some of your favourite memories?
One memorable experience is when I was able to interact with Mr JRD Tata. I was a lobby manager at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi, and had escorted him to his suite a couple of times when he was visiting. One day, I was engaged with another guest and Mr Tata arrived at the hotel. A colleague went to escort him but he asked why I wasn’t there to meet him. My colleagues told me and I quickly went down. He took my arm to climb up the steps of the main porch and we walked to his suite. I still get very emotional about it because it was a moment that I shall cherish all my life.

This article was first published in the October - December 2016 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here