Indian reservations

26 February 2004 by
Indian reservations

Taj is to India as Trusthouse Forte is (or was) to the UK. It is a name synonymous with hotels, opulent palaces and a level of service reminiscent of the days of the Raj, and of a bygone era. For generations, Taj hotels have been used in India as places to greet royalty, to throw lavish parties or maybe to arrange a marriage or two. Outside India, though, the Taj name is not as well known.

However, that could be about to change as, in its 101st year, the veteran hotel company plans to take on pastures new, expand aggressively outside India and let the world know that it exists.

Charged with this challenge is managing director Raymond Bickson, a Hawaiian by birth, who until last April had spent 15 years with Mandarin Oriental as general manager at New York's legendary Mark hotel. Bickson arrived in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), headquarters of the Indian Hotels Company - the holding company for Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces - as chief operating officer and was quickly promoted to his current role of managing director.

Bickson is a natural hospitality man. Enthusiastic and involved, he bubbles with excitement about the challenge ahead.

"It is so important that we get the Taj brand name out into gateway cities," he says. "We want to double the number of rooms that we have in the next five years, and then we will be ready to be an international player, competing with the likes of Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton, rather than just a regional player in South-east Asia."

The plans are ambitious, but there's some way to go yet. The group's current tally is 8,200 rooms in 67 hotels. In 2002 Taj opened properties in the Maldives and Dubai, and it plans to open in Mauritius in 2004. Entry into gateway cities is key to expansion plans, and making a greater mark in London is high on the list. Taj already has a presence in London in the form of serviced apartments at 51 Buckingham Gate in St James's. It also owns and operates the adjacent Crowne Plaza hotel.

But there's a strong desire to have a property with the name Taj over the door, albeit the sort of property that befits an expanding luxury hotel brand. Last year the company looked at Brown's (sold by Raffles International) but decided that the £51m price tag was too high - it was eventually sold to Rocco Forte Hotels. So, for now, the search goes on. "It's important for us to have a flagship in the UK, as the UK is our biggest foreign market to India and we want to use those synergies," says Bickson.

There are aspirations across the pond, too - namely to have a presence on each US coast. Taj recently bid $63m (£33.3m) on the InterContinental Central Park New York, but lost to an apartment developer which bid $5m (£2.64m) more.

New York is not new territory for the company. Until 1999 it owned and operated the Lexington there but sold it because it did not fit into the company's long-term strategy. In 2000 it bid aggressively for the Carlyle, losing out to Los Angeles-based Martiz-Wolff, which had a stake in Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, as a consortium of Indian banks struggled to secure financing.

Although abortive until now, these attempts have at least established Taj as a serious player in the highly competitive US market. The group also wants to establish itself in the expanding Chinese market and, in particular, in Shanghai.

A vehicle for expansion has been to shed assets, divesting part of the portfolio into private ownership and looking for partners in joint ventures. Management contracts outside India are of particular interest. The Mauritius property, for example, will open under a management contract.

Elevation to an international arena demands international standards across the group in a way that it has not seen before. Spas form a key part of the strategy, and Taj is in the process of creating its own spa concept that it hopes eventually to roll out to 14 destination spas. A further 25 properties will have their spas upgraded. The basic concept will be to develop an authentic Indian spa based on yoga and holistic healing, under the brand name Raison d'Etre.

Sustainable tourism is also on the Taj agenda. It is currently working on a joint venture with Conservation Corporation Africa (CCA) to develop wildlife lodges to support tiger spotting in Ranthambore. "CCA is the African leader in the game park experience, and we know how to run luxury hotels in India," says Bickson. "They wanted to expand outside Africa, so the synergies were there." n

Jenny Webster travelled as a guest of the Government of India Tourist Office and flew courtesy of Air India. For more information on India call 020 7437 3677 or visit

India quick facts

Land area: 3,287,263sq km (including Indian-administered Kashmir)
Population: 1.027 billion
Main centres: Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta), New Delhi, Chennai (Madras), Hyderabad, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Pune
Climate: humid subtropical in Ganges basin; semi-arid in north-west; tropical humid in north-east; all areas receive rain from the south-west monsoon in June-September.

In New Delhi: hottest month, May, 26-41¼C (average daily minimum and maximum); coldest month, January, 7-21¼C; driest month, November, 4mm average rainfall; wettest month, July, 180mm average rainfall.

Languages: numerous, including Tamil and Hindi; English widely spoken in business circles and as a second language.
Religion: Hindu, 82%; Muslim, 12.1%; Christian, 2.3%; Sikh, 1.9%; Buddhist, 0.8%; Jain, 0.4%.
Time difference: 5 hours 30 minutes ahead of GMT.
Currency: rupee.

Taj nitty gritty

  • Managing director is Raymond Bickson.

  • Set up in 1902.

  • Holding company is Indian Hotels Company, which in turn is part of the Tata Group, one of India's premier business houses.

  • India's largest hotel group, with 54 hotels in India and 13 overseas.

  • London presence includes 51 Buckingham Gate and the Crowne Plaza, St James's.

  • Website:

  • Further information and reservations: 0800 282699.

A greeting fit for a king

Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, Rajasthan (sometimes referred to as the Venice of the East)
The 82-bedroom Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur is the second most-photographed monument in India after the Taj Mahal. Crafted in white marble, it was built in 1743 as a pleasure palace for Maharana Jagat Singh II on an island on Lake Pichola. It is owned by the current Maharana and is on a 30-year lease to Taj. As the hotel occupies the whole island, it gives the impression that it actually floats on the lake.

The welcome that guests receive today is one that would befit a Maharana, and it is this feeling of greeting royalty that Taj is trying to foster. The VIP treatment starts at the airport. You are met by a 1950s Rolls-Royce or Buick and are chauffeur-driven to the shore of the lake. From there, it's a few steps down the red carpet to the boat waiting to whisk you to a fairytale palace. On your way, you pass a pontoon where you can have a private breakfast, and a boat where you can have dinner under the stars.

On arrival, you climb up another red carpet and are greeted by staff throwing rose petals and waving feathers, the traditional greeting for visiting royalty. Next you will be attended by your private butler - one for each guest - who will be your point of contact for your whole stay, even if you merely want to contact room service, the concierge or housekeeping.

In charge of delivering this royal treatment is not a descendant of the Maharana but general manager Peter Wynne, one of only two British general managers in the Taj group. Wynne has been at the Lake Palace for only five months, having been brought in to deliver this high level of service following an extensive refurbishment of the whole property.

Wynne is no stranger to foreign climes. After graduating from Bournemouth University, he went to Australia for a year and became a pearl diver. He then spotted an advertisement in Caterer for a post in the Caribbean that required someone with diving experience who could work in hospitality and at the same time dive, windsurf and sail with guests. The post turned out to be on Necker Island, and Wynne spent four years there working for Richard Branson, working his way up to be general manager. He has also worked for Aman Resorts in Indonesia and Begawan Giri in Bali, and so is used to creating a guest experience right at the top end of the market.

"High-spending guests and fully independent travellers are looking for something different, and we need to blow them away," says Wynne. "Here, we want to re-create a palace in the old sense, where guests are treated like royalty. We are going backwards in our style of service, but with a 21st-century approach."

Despite his international career, 36-year-old Wynne admits that working in India had never really occurred to him - but this was an opportunity that was too good to miss. "The future of India is immense," says Wynne. "Suddenly, the music, films and fashion are everywhere."

What are the challenges of living and working in India? "Getting the staff not to call me ‘sir'," says Wynne. "Peter, or Mr Wynne, maybe, but not ‘sir'. But old habits die hard. And then, there's not a lot going on around here apart from the hotel. You can't exactly just walk out in the street and go into restaurants. You're really on duty 24/7. Oh, and you can't just pop out to Tesco for your fresh vegetables."

Health problems have not so far been a problem for Wynne. Each Taj hotel employs a microbiologist, and swabs are taken regularly from members of staff. He has not yet succumbed to the infamous Delhi belly but, in any event, he says the doctors and dentists are second to none. And, as Udaipur is not a malarial area, Wynne does not take anti-malaria tablets.

As for where home is, Wynne is not exactly sure. He has a house in Perth, Australia, but is married to Gwen, a Singaporean who is now in charge of developing the spa at the Lake Palace - they go to both England and Malaysia twice a year.

Indian tourism outlook

India accounts for just 0.4% of the global tourist market, attracting some 2.4 million visitors per year. However, the World Travel & Tourism Council has named India in a list of destinations which it believes is set to attract rising numbers of holiday-makers. It predicts that India, along with China and Turkey, will see double-digit growth in tourism from this year. Peace talks with Pakistan over the vexed issue of Kashmir should also help the longer-term outlook.

The economy is strong and the Indian stock market is booming. Many jobs are moving from the West to Indian shores, bringing in their wake more travellers and holiday-makers. The country's emergence as a global sourcing base for software, business processes and research and development, and its increasing competitiveness in manufacturing, also make it a favoured business destination.

Average achieved room rates have moved from Rs3,300 (£39) to Rs4,100 (£48). Occupancies increased from 75% to 80% in 2002 and to more than 90% in 2003. The country offers various categories of tourism including history, pilgrimage, adventure, medical (ayurveda and other forms of Indian medication) and beach tourism.

Tips for working in India

You need an employment visa to work in India. Your employer will obtain this by sending a letter with information about your qualification to the home ministry in India.

  • If your spouse wants to work in India as well, he or she has to apply for an employment visa independently.
  • You need an employment visa to open a bank account in India.
  • Bring copies of documents such as degrees and visa paperwork to the interview.
  • The Indian culture is characterised by a strong need for hierarchy. Every role is connected to certain responsibilities.
  • Indian people often consider that they work for their manager rather than for the company.
  • Meetings can be unstructured and a lot of time is spent on networking and personal conversations.

The traditional greeting is the namaste, in which both hands are joined together and the head is inclined forward.

Source and more information:

The taj mahal palace and tower, mumbai

The Taj story began a century ago with a single landmark, the Taj Mahal Palace in Bombay, now known as Mumbai. It was the brainchild of Jamsetji N Tata, an Indian businessman who, when denied entry to another hotel because he was Indian, decided to build his own.

Tata was the founder of the Tata Group, one of India's premier business houses, and Taj still sits under the Tata umbrella today via holding company the Indian Hotels Company.

The Taj Mahal Palace was built at a cost of £500,000, opening its doors to its first 17 guests on 16 December 1903. In a bid to provide the ultimate in luxury, the hotel had its own electricity generating plant; a carbon dioxide ice machine plant that provided refrigeration and helped cool the suites; electric irons; a chemist's shop; a resident doctor; a Turkish bath; and a post office. It opened with 30 private suites, 350 double and single rooms, electric lights, fans, bells and clocks, and four electrically powered passenger lifts - true luxury at the turn of the century.

The hotel also predated the famous Gateway of India by more than 20 years. Until then, the hotel was the first sight for travellers calling at the port of Bombay.

Early years Regular patrons of the Taj were Indian maharajas and princes, for whom the hotel provided an escape from the formality of their palaces while maintaining the standards of living to which they were accustomed. In 1947, the year that India regained its independence, the hotel played host to the architects of independence, and independent India's first speech to the nation was made from the hotel. Its list of firsts also includes opening the country's first all-day restaurant and first international discotheque.

Celebrities abound Of course, a hotel of this stature attracts its fair share of celebrity guests. Over the years these have included George Bernard Shaw, Irving Stone, Barbara Cartland, Richard Attenborough, Yehudi Menuhin, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mick Jagger, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles, Jackie Onassis and David Rockefeller.

When John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in one of the suites, they didn't emerge for five days, ordering only brown rice through room service and taking it at the door. Even housekeepers were not allowed to venture in.

Present day In 1973 a tower wing was added to the hotel, its 23 storeys of arches and balconies doubling the hotel's room inventory to the present tally of 546. At the same time, the management of the Taj realised that its future growth lay not just in Bombay but in the development of India as a tourist destination. Thus began the creation of the Taj group of hotels.

Rambagh Palace, Jaipur

Another famous hotel in Rajasthan is the 106-bedroom Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, often referred to as the "pink city" as it was painted pink for the arrival of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1876. Dating from 1835, the palace was the former residence of the last Maharaja of Jaipur and is set in 47 acres of landscaped gardens. Originally built as a hunting lodge, it was expanded in 1925 and converted to a hotel in 1957.

As in the other palaces in the Taj portfolio, there's a royal welcome here, too. VIPs are met at the gates of the hotel by either a horse-drawn carriage or decorated elephants or camels. No expense has been spared in bringing the building up to royal standards, either. Rambagh Palace has undergone an extensive refurbishment and now boasts silk carpets on wooden floors, silk drapes and screens, antique four-poster beds, gold-stencilled nightstands and huge wardrobes in dressing rooms.

Like the Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rambagh Palace majors on butler service, assigning one point of contact per guest. Guest experiences include yoga classes, polo matches, a palmist and traditional Rajasthani folk dances.

What's it cost to stay in Taj hotels?

Predictably for such luxury, stays in Taj hotels do not come cheap.

In the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai, for example, a double room in the tower wing starts from US$225 (£119) perroom per night, a double in the palace wing starts from US$315 (£167) per night, and a junior suite runs from US$500 (£264) per room per night.

At the Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, doubles start from US$400 (£212) per room per night, and at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur a double starts from US$290 (£153) per night.

All room rates are subject to 6% tax.

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