When an opulent Indian hotel brand meets the high standards of Dubai, you know you’re in for something special. Taj Hotels, known for its Indian palaces and international excellence, is expanding its footprint through the Middle East. We spoke with Ranjit Phillipose, Taj Hotel’s Area Director in the region, to learn more.
Currently, Ranjit Phillipose is not only responsible for the operations of the striking Taj Dubai, but he is also overseeing Taj Hotels’ planned rapid expansion across the Middle East. With 27 years of experience with the company and front-line involvement with these expansion plans, Ranjit was able to give us first-hand insight into Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL) as a company, and what to expect from it in the coming years.
Having operated as a reputed hotel brand in India for 117 years, the well-known company has now spread to a wide international success, with properties not only in India, but in Sri Lanka, USA, England, Zambia, South Africa, Maldives, Bhutan, Andaman Islands and Dubai, UAE. When it comes to Dubai, however, competition is high and success is no guarantee – not even for a company with this much experience. When Ranjit stepped into his role at Taj Dubai, he found that he had every other major hotel brand close by: “Now, one of the biggest challenges in the market has been that there is a lot more supply than demand,” he explained, “So how do you differentiate yourself from the other brands? ” To make its place in this market, Taj had to come in strong, and this was a challenge that Ranjit embraced:
“One of the things that makes us stand out is our philosophy of ‘Tajness’. Tajness is something you should be able to feel with your eyes closed. It’s all about the service that we bring; our engagement with our guests.” Ranjit explained that it is these high levels of customer service, as well as an attentive, personal customisation of guest experiences, that Taj Dubai prides itself on. It is a brand standard throughout the company, and it is one that has placed Taj Dubai in good stead despite a saturated market: “Over the past three years, we’ve been able to eat into the market share of our competition. When we started out in 2015, we were ranked 5/6. Last year we closed the year at 1/6.”
Dubai is well known for its luxurious real estate and hotels, so a high level of competition was to be expected, however given that the city is such a vibrant hub in the Middle East, we were surprised to hear that supply was now higher than demand. We asked Ranjit whether this was caused by an actual drop in demand, or whether it was simply that companies’ eagerness to move into the city had gone too far: “Reports are showing that there’s a degrowth of about 15%. There has been this slowdown because of various factors. Instability in the Middle East and aggressive marketing by countries like Saudi Arabia to grow their own economy has affected travel into Dubai. Now with the coronavirus, the industry has again taken a hit.” However, being a well-known entity in many countries, Taj Dubai has clientele coming from other countries so the hit is not too serious: Australia, Europe, the UK, South America and of course India are all large sources of guests for the hotel.
2020 is also shaping up to be a positive year for Dubai’s tourism industry; Expo 2020 Dubai is set to transform the city from October 2020 to April 2021, drawing people to Dubai from all across the globe. The event will be huge, with countries designing and investing in whole pavilions in which to display, demonstrate and show off their major industries and areas of development. The Dubai Tourism Department expects the event to raise Dubai’s footfall from 20 to 25 million, and Taj Dubai plans to see a slice of that action. Rather than simply leaving the catchment of this business to chance, the company and the hotel actually have gears in motion to corner it.
“One of the biggest things that works in our favour is that, at the Expo, the India stand is going to be one of the biggest. The Indian government is investing a lot of money into creating that stand, and The Tata Group, our parent company, is going to have a major part of it.” The Indian government itself is working to promote this stand and the businesses involved, and Taj’s link to this means that its hotels will be promoted to those working on the stand itself, as well as visiting the Expo. The company is even in discussions over doing the Indian Pavilion’s catering.
Looking beyond the Expo, Taj plans to expand its Middle Eastern presence. Last year, it opened its second property in Dubai – Taj Jumeirah Lakes Towers – and by Q4, 2020, they are looking to open a third property, this one a beach resort on the famous Palm Jumeirah. If you haven’t seen the striking construction that is The Palm, look it up – there are few things quite like it in the world. “The Palm is where all the big brands are, so our presence there is absolutely critical.”
However, the company’s focus on the Middle East does not stop at Dubai. Other potential areas of expansion include Oman and Abu Dhabi, and excitingly, there are already solid plans in place to operate a location in Mecca. “It’s an exciting place to be in. It’s the holiest place in the Islamic world, and I think a great way to come into this region.” The Mecca property should be in operation by 2023. Like with most of Taj’s hotels, the company will manage and operate the property, but not own it; however, they are already working closely with its developers to make sure it is finished to the brand’s standard and ready to do justice to Taj’s vision for its Mecca presence.
The aesthetic design for Taj Mecca will, no doubt, be as striking as Taj’s other hotels. Taj Dubai, for example, is a truly beautiful mix of Indian and Arabic styles: “When I walked into this building for the first time, I immediately got that sense that there is a great vibe to this hotel. One of the reasons I got that sense was that it has a beautiful blend of Indian and Arabic design, but it isn’t ‘flashy’ – it’s luxuriously appointed. The furnishings, the fittings, the artefacts – we’ve got a great mix from India and across the world. The hotel isn’t overbearingly Indian, but it has subtle touches that capitalize on Indian heritage.” In the food and beverage offerings, Taj Dubai also features the brand’s iconic Bombay Brasserie – a well-regarded restaurant with only three locations in the world: London Kensington, Cape Town, and now Dubai. These restaurants celebrate everything culinary that India has to offer, blending Goan, Bengali, Gujarati, Mughal and Portuguese dishes and flavours.
If you want to see how far Taj Hotels can push tastefully breathtaking design, one need only look at another property that Ranjit has managed – Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, India. The palace, which was built in 1894, is the former palace of the Nizam of Hyderabad. However, it had been lying unused for 60 years before Taj undertook a ten-year restoration project to convert it into a hotel. By accepting his first General Manager position at this hotel, Ranjit was in a rare and privileged position of being able to influence how the hotel would be designed and run. For example, he was able to design the ‘music philosophy’ – what sort of ambient music would play across the hotel. He also discovered the broken remnants of carriages, and after going through the archives to research their original designs, his team had one reconstructed using these parts, to give guests a spectacular feel of a bygone era when they arrive via the hotel’s magnificent entranceway by a horse-drawn carriage and are greeted by a scattering of rose petals. “That was a fantastic experience because I was interacting directly with royalty who were directly involved in the restoration. All those things we put into place, even today after ten years, are still being followed.”
Ranjit has had a varied career that has taken him to many of Taj’s most prestigious hotels, often to oversee the opening of a new property before moving on to the next challenge a few years later, leaving a well-established hotel behind him. “I joined Taj as a youngster back in India 27 years ago. I left college in April ‘93, and in May ‘93 I joined Taj. I’m very fortunate: I’ve been to some beautiful cities and locations, and each experience has been outstanding.” After working his way up the ranks in India and England, Ranjit was sent to various new locations for the company to help in establishing their brand and presence. These locations included Mauritius, USA (New York, San Francisco and Boston) and India once more, at Taj Falaknuma Palace. After this Ranjit managed several other properties for Taj Hotels, including Taj Exotica Maldives, Taj Exotica Goa, and now Taj Dubai.
Moving from place to place like this might be challenging for some people, but Ranjit thrives on it, embracing the opportunity to travel and take on new challenges. He explained that he grew up on the move with his father in the air force, so he is accustomed to moving location every two or three years. In fact, he prefers it. “The biggest thing I like when you move countries is that you need to adapt. You must assimilate into the culture; you meet new people – and I think my strength is in people. One General Manager early into my career said, ‘Surround yourself with people better than you are. That has helped me in my journey. It challenges you, and that is what’s very exciting for me.’”
People are of high importance to Ranjit, and this emphasis is shared by the company at large. Most, if not all, companies claim this, but Taj proves successful at supporting and retaining its employees. At Taj Dubai, there are almost 400 employees, and many them of them have been with the company for over five years. Additionally, the company is achieving in terms of lower turnover rates: the average annual turnover of staff in the Middle Eastern hospitality industry is 37%, but Taj Dubai is at 24%. “Especially in markets like London, Dubai, New York, you don’t expect people to stay on for so long,” Ranjit pointed out to us. “So, I feel that’s a sign that we’re doing something right.”
So, how is Taj Hotels seeking to support, retain and get the most out of its staff? One way in which it differentiates itself is the ‘Taj Welcome’ – a unique experience on any employee’s first day of work. “All of our associates who are joining us walk in through the front door of the hotel on their first day. They arrive in the lobby and experience the entire ritual we conduct for our guests. For example, at check in, all our guests are greeted with a little prayer and a garland of beads, so our associates also go through that. Then they dine in our restaurants, so they feel like a guest. That ‘wow’ moment on their faces is the moment we want to translate for our guests: if they’ve experienced that, then they’re ready to deliver it.”
This initiative enables members of staff to deliver the very best experience to guests, and also helps them to feel involved and valued within the brand, as well as offering them a unique insight into why the brand’s standards matter and what these achieve. Another system the company uses to maintain morale is called ‘V Connect’: rather than taking a survey once a year to check on its staff’s wellbeing, the company seeks feedback every day by presenting each employee with a random question when they clock in. For example, they may be asked how they are feeling, or their opinion on the employee restaurant. This daily survey allows the hotel and the company to have an up-to-date, accurate view of how staff feel, so issues can be resolved as soon as they occur, and any seasonal problems can be identified and resolved.
On top of these initiatives, Taj also provides more traditional and extremely important support such as developmental training, scholarships, health checks and comprehensive medical insurance. All of this allows its team to feel listened to, welcomed, valued, provided for, and like they have a future within the company.
As Ranjit told us, “Excellence is a journey, and you are constantly on that journey. The only thing you can do is get better and better.” Taj repeatedly hits the mark of excellence, and yet its work is not done, continuing to expand and improve with every year. This is how a brand stays on top, and as it grows in the Middle East, we have no doubt that it will continue to distinguish itself from the crowd through its attention to detail, care for its guests and, just as importantly, care for its staff.