Mumbai, One Year Later

Taj Hotels’ Raymond Bickson discusses the storied hotel chain and the attacks on its flagship property

By: By Jim Calio


Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces

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Undaunted by the attacks on The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel in Mumbai last November, Raymond Bickson, managing director and CEO of Indian Hotels Company, Ltd. (IHCL), the parent company of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, insists that the company is coming back even stronger, despite the worldwide economic crisis.

Recovery efforts are taking place at The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower following // © 2009 Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces

Recovery efforts are taking place
at The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower
// © 2009 Taj Hotels
Resorts and Palaces

“I’m very proud of the collective effort by all our staff so that we could reopen the Tower wing just 23 days after the incidents,” Bickson said, referring to part of the hotel that was damaged during the bloody 58-hour terrorist siege.

Since the reopening, he added that the Taj in Mumbai has been “experiencing high occupancies, and our restaurants and banquet spaces are extremely busy hosting hotel guests, visitors and area residents for private dining, corporate events and social functions.”

Bickson, who has been with Taj since 2003, acknowledged that there have been ongoing concerns about safety at the Taj properties. He pointed out, however, that new security procedures are in place, not only in India but at Taj properties worldwide.

“Of course,” he said, “given the nature of these security measures, we can’t divulge any of the details. But let me put it to you this way: I feel very comfortable when my family and I are in residence.”

Built in 1903, the 565-room Taj Mahal Palace & Tower has hosted such luminaries as rock star Mick Jagger, Britain’s Prince Charles, The Beatles, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley. The grand hotel is an iconic presence in Mumbai.

Recovery efforts have taken many different forms.

“Within 24 hours of the attacks,” Bickson said, “the company had set up five outreach centers for our associates and guests and provided post-trauma counseling experts to talk with people individually and in small groups.”

In addition, Taj has set up a trust to provide financial, medical and other kinds of relief for families of the victims, whether they were hotel guests, security forces or employees of the hotel.

The hotel’s popular Sea Lounge reopened on May 1, and the Heritage wing, which was heavily damaged, is scheduled to reopen in the fall, to coincide with the 106th anniversary of the hotel’s founding.

Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces operates 65 hotels in 45 locations across India, with an additional 15 international properties in the Maldives, Mauritius, the U.K., Nepal, Sri Lanka, Africa and the Middle East.

“We’ve added three U.S. properties to our portfolio in order to enhance our brand awareness among U.S. travelers,” Bickson said, citing the recent $100 million renovation of The Pierre in New York.

Other U.S. properties include the Taj Boston and San Francisco’s Campton Place.

New Taj properties have opened or will soon open in Cape Town, South Africa; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Phuket, Thailand; Qatar and China and, according to Bickson, the company will continue to seek opportunities in key U.S. gateway cities and other global destinations.

“As someone born and raised in Hawaii, I’d also love to see a property in my island home state,” he said.

In India, Taj has recently launched a new brand for contemporary business travelers, beginning with the “premium upscale” Vivanta by Taj hotels in Bangalore and Goa.

“We’ve also opened India’s first luxury safari lodges and the Nadesar Palace, an intimate 10-room property in the world’s oldest city of Varanasi,” said Bickson, “and we’re preparing to open Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad.”

Bickson admitted that Taj, like other hotels, has been affected by the downturn in the world economy, resulting in a loss of 6 percent of revenues for the fiscal year ending on March 31.

“However, that follows a five-year period of record profits for our hotel division,” said Bickson. “We’re very fortunate in this challenging economy to have Tata Group as IHCL’s parent company. This group understands the value of investing for the long term. We are the original luxury hotel chain, established in 1903, and we’re proud to see our brand grow in accordance with our 20-year plan.”

To fight the recession, Taj has recently added a series of value-added programs for properties in India that include a complimentary night with a booking of two or three nights, a 20 percent discount for early bird bookings, a weekend savings package, a Business Edge package that builds in early arrival, late check-outs and complimentary meals and amenities for business travelers.

There are also added benefits for those who book Taj Club rooms and suites, including complimentary airport transfers, daily breakfast and Taj Club lounge privileges.

Despite the downturn, Bickson expects a recovery soon and, even now, he sees glimmers of hope.

“Booking windows may be shorter, but during the traditional summer vacation period, especially in the U.S. market, we saw travelers returning to many destinations in India and South Asia. Not everyone opted for a domestic staycation.”

Bickson predicted business would pick up over the next six months, with occupancies surpassing the previous year’s levels from November forward.

Still, the dark shadow of last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai hangs over any mention of Taj, a fact that Bickson, who was in the hotel at the time, is well aware of.

“Even though I lived through Sept. 11 in New York,” he said, “nothing prepared me for the tragic events of Nov. 26, 2008, that unfolded while I was at our flagship hotel in Mumbai. These events could have been a setback for India, for Mumbai and for my company. But if it was a setback, it was only momentary.”