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HomeTravelThe Taste With Vir Sanghvi: An evening of insights with the Taj...

The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: An evening of insights with the Taj family in Udaipur

I was invited last week by Puneet Chhatwal, CEO of Indian Hotels (the Taj Group) to Udaipur where around 25 members of the Taj’s senior management were holding a strategy meeting. One evening, after the executives had discussed strategy, they listened to three of us — MK Lakshyaraj Singh of Udaipur, whose family owns the Lake Palace, Ajimon Francis of Brand Finance and me – talking about the hotel industry from our perspectives. (Also read: The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Discover the top pizza chefs and restaurants in Naples making waves globally)

What makes a great hotel great? In frame: The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur.
What makes a great hotel great? In frame: The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur.

I said all the things I have often said here — how, from the days of Jamsetji Tata, the Taj has stood for the triumph of Indian excellence etc. — so I won’t bore you with a recap of my intervention.

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Lakshyaraj had lots to say but what I found most interesting was his description of his family’s connection with tourism and hospitality. His grandfather, the late Maharana Bhagwat Singhji, was one of the smartest and most sophisticated maharajas of his time. (And remember that till 1970/1, when Indira Gandhi abolished titles, he was what was called a ‘ruling maharaja’.) He was a friend of my father’s and on the governing council of my school, so even though I was very young, I was able to see him up close and admire his style and wit.

It was the late Maharana’s idea to hand the Lake Palace over to the Taj Group. The family had first tried running it on its own but the Maharana had finally decided that it needed professional management.

The Lake Palace was the first professionally-run palace hotel in Rajasthan (the Rambagh in Jaipur then followed) and the Maharana put his faith in the Taj (which consisted, in those days, of just the original Mumbai hotel) only because of the regard he had for the management and for the Tatas.

It was a wise decision. The Lake Palace may well be the most beautiful hotel in the world. The Taj has run it extremely well for decades. And the late Bhagwat Singhji’s descendants have worked tirelessly to turn Udaipur into a great global destination. It is a tradition that Lakshyaraj has enriched with his own efforts.

As you may have read, a study by Brand Finance, a global group, has found that the Taj is the world’s strongest hotel brand. That evening, Ajimon Francis of Brand Finance announced that, in the Indian section of the survey, the Taj had come number one of all Indian brands across all categories. (Amul was second.) As the Indian Hotels share price had touched a historic high that day, the mood of the Taj executives was deservedly ebullient.

I was not particularly surprised by Brand Finance’s fundings. But, I asked, Ajimon, what did the Taj — or any hotel company, for that matter — have to do to remain at the top of the game in the years ahead?

Some of the things he said were interesting and significant because he was basing his recommendations on consumer surveys.

Technology: Hotels talk big about technology but very few recognise how important a factor tech has become in influencing guest decisions. Over the next few years, guests will refuse to stay in a hotel, however nice it is, if it does not meet the technology standards they are looking for.

Part of this is about internet speed and strength. Though all hotels will feed you lots of nonsense about how fast their internet is, I have lost count of the number of Indian hotels I have stayed at where, even though the general manager assures me that his technology is perfect, the WiFi signal drops in one corner of the hotel, where the signal regularly slips entirely and where speeds are never as high as they claim. All too often I go off hotel WiFi because my normal roaming connection is so much faster.

Also, the guys they send to your room to fix the WiFi when you complain are often useless and don’t even accept that there is a problem — and neither do their bosses. It is a cruel thing to say but I guess good tech people don’t join hotels. If you were a bright IT engineer would you join an IT company or a hotel? The answer is obvious.

There are other problems that hotels seem unable to fix. It doesn’t cost much to install plug points at convenient spots. Many five-star hotels don’t have enough plug points by the table or the bedside — both fairly obvious locations. They don’t even have adaptor plugs and the right sorts of chargers (for I Pads and I-Phones, for instance).

We always say, and hotel managers agree, that technology should now be a given, like hot water or air conditioning in a hotel room. But it remains an empty maxim.

Image: Ajimon made another point which had not occurred to me. The old model of a hotel company just hiring a PR agency or even a social media agency is past its sell-by-date.

Sure, there is room for agencies but you can’t entrust your image solely to them.

We live in an age of personal social media. Every single person who stays in your hotel is an influencer because he or she will probably post something on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or some other platform.

Pay attention to those posts. They will have much more influence and credibility among that person’s circle than any of the paid posts that hotels pay large sums of money to social media agencies for. The paid posts will come from the agency’s pet influencers who often have large numbers of fake followers whom they have bought. People see through all that now. The paid post is less and less effective.

Treat social media as an in-house project. Respond to every guest. Get your own employees to use their social media accounts to respond to guests and to enhance the image of your hotel.

For instance, if a guest posts that he enjoyed a meal at one of your restaurants, don’t wait the stipulated number of hours for your social media agency to send its own robotic thank you. Get the restaurant manager or the chef to respond from their personal accounts. That makes so much more difference. Similarly, if there is a complaint about housekeeping, get the head housekeeper to respond with an apology and a promise to address the complaint.

Complainers will also become less vicious if you follow this approach. People find it easy to rail against a hotel. But when they find they are dealing with an actual person, they are far better behaved.

Service: Indian hotels pride themselves on their service. And that’s great. But our hoteliers’ sense of what constitutes great service has not changed in 20 years. In the same period, however, guest profiles and expectations have changed enormously.

When he was CEO of the Taj, Raymond Brickson once explained, at a hotel conference where I was chairing his session, that foreign hotel managers who came to India often took time to understand that their Indian guests had different expectations of service from westerners.

Nearly every Indian guest came from a home where there were at least three members of domestic staff (including the driver). When they came to a hotel, they expected the same level of instant attention. Foreigners, on the other hand, found too much service and attention to be intrusive.

Ajimon suggested that even Indian guests were now no longer people who enjoyed being served by vast numbers of full-time domestic staff at home. And younger people did not like to be mollycoddled.

It would be foolish for Indian hotels to give up on service, which is one of India’s USPs. But perhaps the time has come to strike a balance. Meet the guests’ needs as soon as possible. But don’t overwhelm them. Don’t impose on them. Don’t violate their privacy. Sometimes they just want to be left alone.

The Future: Does this sound too western? More technology. More social media. And less service?

Perhaps. But I have a feeling that this is the shape of things to come.



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