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Going That Extra Mile

Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris has redefined its iconic brand status by retaining its intrinsic ‘Tajness’ and by providing signature experiences

From all accounts, hotel chains will be driven by an increasingly competitive landscape, along with an evolved and distinct customer base that is exploring out-of-the-box personalised experiences. So, what would hotel chains have to do in order to garner success in the future? Experienced industry heads have come up with some answers, namely, to constantly up the brand’s image quotient through signature experiences; innovate and collaborate to maintain an edge in technology and service; go beyond segments to provide personalised experiences, and most importantly, listen to and learn from guests incorporating big data insights.

In a comprehensive one-on-one session with Today’s Traveller, Chinmai Sharma, Chief Revenue Officer, Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris, shares valuable insights into what’s trending in the hospitality business, the role of technology and the positioning that brand Taj enjoys in the entire tapestry.

Sharma begins by addressing the query regarding hospitality trends and his take on it. The mood is upbeat, believes Sharma, as “The actual room demand is growing at a much faster pace as compared to hotel rooms getting added, so the demand-supply ratio is currently in an advantageous position.” Sharma believes that guests will go that extra mile for quality and makes an interesting point in connection with the significant increase in the domestic leisure segment in recent years. The affordability of domestic airlines, improved connectivity, the larger aspiration of the upper middle class and an increase in disposable income has resulted in a burgeoning domestic leisure hospitality business.

Speaking about the new age traveller, Sharma shares, “The ever evolving and discerning travellers have different priorities and requirements. They are willing to pay more for authentic, personalised experiences and they opt for curated itineraries. They’re keen to experiment with unique food and beverage offerings and extend business trips in order to include some personal time – I think these sentiments are gaining traction and we can see that translating into our business as well. The domestic traveller is therefore developing as a significant key player.”

When it comes to overseas destinations, as in the Taj Hotels in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, London, New York, or in Dubai, Sharma reveals that the travel spend of Indians is at par with international travellers. Plus, brand loyalty is another significant factor, Sharma adds. “So, from a segment’s profitability standpoint, we put a lot of confidence on the Indian travellers’ ability to sustain the market. They support us not only from a domestic standpoint, but also from an international perspective. Here is where we enjoy an unfair advantage, because in Dubai for instance, if we are competing with a Marriott or a Hyatt property, then the incoming Indian market segment is so strong that irrespective of how the market performs, an Indian travelling to Dubai would obviously have a strong affinity with the Taj brand, so we definitely get that benefit.”

Sharma brings focus on brand standards, which is a critical differentiator vis-à-vis competition. “Over time, the Taj brand image has become associated with a high level of credibility, quality and satisfaction in the consumer’s mind. Brand recognition drives your reservations. Our aim is to strengthen and leverage this association. We, therefore, have focussed on long-term efficiency and for the past two years have undertaken a phased renovation approach to ensure that our hotels are in line with evolving time and the philosophy of Tajness.” Speaking on future plans for the Group, Sharma reassures, “I think the amount of love and affection we get from our guests is legendary, but, at the same time, we want to continue to invest in the hardware, which is the renovation part on the product side and then, in terms of services, we have gone down the road of a ‘mono-branding’ approach.” Accordingly, the Taj Group plans to reset its journey, by taking the best of the Taj portfolio of hotels and redefining them. Sharma informs that the focus will be on rolling out Tajness across all hotels.

“Tajness will come to life for our guests with hotels that are built with a sense of place, reflecting not just our heritage, but also honouring the local culture through design and rooms that provide the utmost in contemporary comfort.Tajness will deliver a consistency in service across hotels that we know guests are looking for. Tajness is a sum of guest experiences that seek their inspiration from the nobility of Indian heritage and traditions. It pays homage to Jamsetji’s vision with a promise of sincere care at its core.” No wonder, then, that the company has come up a winner each time, for brand equity and recall.

In the stock market, IHCL stocks seem to have gained traction, placing it in a leading position vis-à-vis other contenders. But, Sharma says the company will not sit on its laurels. He informs that the key focus will be centred on building a deep understanding of and connection to the empowered consumer by embracing technology, in both the offline and online space, and establishing key capabilities. A case in point is the partnership with Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, which has led to loyalty programmes being combined, so members can redeem their points easily.

“Earlier this year, we launched “Warmer Welcomes,” an integrated loyalty programme of Shangri-La’s Golden Circle and Taj’s InnerCircle across a portfolio of 200 hotels, 27 countries, and 131 destinations, which will include Paris, Bangkok, Singapore, New York and San Francisco under the Shangri-La and Taj brands. This alliance gives us an opportunity to improve brand awareness and increase market share in the two biggest outbound travel markets – India and China – by leveraging each other’s reputations and key customer bases – which are in non-overlapping geographies.” Apprises Sharma, “The main idea is that we want to interact with our frequent visitors, loyalty members and our guests, in whichever way, whenever they want to interact with us. For Taj, the traveller experience begins with the company’s digital touch points – the new and the new mobile app. These are the frontline tools to deliver an experience to guests which build the bridge between the virtual and the physical stay at a Taj hotel. Through Taj.Live, the company’s new social media command centre, identification of opportunities to organically engage with a wider audience through omni-channel trend tracking and analysis is possible. In addition to this, the group is in the process of maximising its back–end technology infrastructure.”

Other features that the Group has incorporated by going digital is piloting keyless Check-in and Check-out, dedicated websites with unbiased reviews and information, plus a content head that demarcates content to different platforms. Sharma narrates how technology has been leveraged to provide exceptional customer experiences. Apart from efficient processes, the Group has incorporated feedback on customer food preferences, providing local preparations and introducing suggested food and beverages in many cases.

Sharma explains how technology is used to enhance Sales and Marketing. Partnering with companies like Adobe, Taj Hotels has set up a Content Management System to customise content offering. Moreover, guest preferences and information are documented and the company is able to use that to convert and combine offers with ease. Also on the anvil are itinerary bookings online. Taj Hotels is also in touch with vendor partners to offer curated itineraries.

Completely cued into what is trending, Sharma is cognizant that millennials and families are gravitating towards properties and itineraries that immerse them in local culture, provide interaction with locals and provide out-of-the-ordinary experiences. Plans are already afoot in this direction, since this also is in sync with the Taj culture and tradition. Sharma articulates this eloquently, “My thought process is that Taj is an institution. We’ve been here for a long time. Hopefully, we will be relevant for a long time as well. I think one of our strengths is that at the hotel operations level, the amount of sincere care and attention-to-detail that our associates provide to our guests is where we score high. We are unmatched. That’s what differentiates us.”

“The answer, then,” concludes Sharma, “is that while technology can never substitute the human touch, it can certainly enhance customised, personalised delivery. It cannot change the fundamentals of hospitality, but it can act as a complement that lets you continue to deliver exceptional service, but now with more efficiency.”

Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris is in pole position, because as a Group, it has found its niche, defined its brand and emerged a winner.

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