Lunch with BS: Raymond Bickson

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 10, 2011 20:11 hrs

The man at the helm talks about his mixed lineage and the makeover of Taj.

When Barack Obama checked into Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in November last year, a fellow Hawaiian decided to give the US President a sniff of nostalgia. After much brain-storming, Raymond Bickson chose a bouquet made of mogra, write Shyamal Majumdar and Swaraj Baggonkar.

The effort paid off; Obama flashed his bright trademark smile and said the fragrance resembled pikake, one of the most popular flowers in Hawaii, his home state.

The same obsession for minute details is visible in the ambience of the refurbished Golden Dragon restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel. Golden Dragon, along with Wasabi and Harbor Bar, bore the brunt of the terrorist attacks three years ago and the 56-year-old MD and CEO and his team at Indian Hotels have done a great job in trying to make that horrifying memory as distant as possible.

Bickson, now on the eighth year in his current job, says his brother and sister went to the same school as Obama. “Though the President couldn’t remember the name of my brother who was his basketball teammate, he immediately recognised my sister who was one of the cheerleaders for the team,” he laughingly recalls.

Apart from their common roots, Bickson shares a couple of other things with the President. For example, if Obama has an interestingly mixed lineage, so does Bickson. “I guess you could call me a multicultural mutt. My mother is Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Spanish and German. My father was a Russian Jew. I was raised Catholic,” he says.

The starters – prawns and stir-fried asparagus fennel and corn kernel – arrive and the taste makes us feel good about our decision to leave the ordering part to the MD’s associates.

Bickson says he didn’t find his father’s flourishing car rental business in Honolulu “sexy enough” and wanted to get into the hotel business. His father, though disappointed, sent him to the world’s best hotel school in Lausanne in the hope that their son would be fed up with his European taskmasters and come back home soon. He was obviously wrong, since Bickson stayed on to get his “knives”, the culinary equivalent of a graduation certificate, and became a general manager by the time he was 30.

Bickson is a “multicultural mutt” in more ways than one — and certainly in his professional career in Berlin, Paris, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, Chicago, Dallas, Melbourne, Shanghai, New York and now in Mumbai.

It was in New York that he first met Ratan Tata who was staying at the Mark Hotel in Manhattan. Bickson only knew that Tata was an industrialist and had no clue about his links with the Taj hotel chain. But he found that out soon enough when Tata and his lieutenant – then Indian Hotels MD R K Krishna Kumar – sought his advice on acquiring the famous Carlyle hotel just across the street. They discussed everything including the right price for the deal and whether the acquisition made sense.

The deal didn’t work out, but the two gentlemen were obviously impressed with what they heard from Mark hotel’s GM. A few months later, Krishna Kumar called him to offer the chief operating officer’s post in Indian Hotels. Though Taj had no international presence (it had exited overseas markets in 1999), Bickson says he accepted the offer mainly because he knew China and India were the “growth” places to be in.

The affable smile on Bickson’s face disappears only once, when we discuss that fateful night when Mumbai was under siege. Bickson says he and his wife happened to be in the hotel having dinner with friends and initially thought some sort of gang war shoot-out was taking place in the main lobby. They were rescued by commandoes after 14 hours. Today, Taj has its own security company and also a homeland security academy that trains security personnel. It also has marshals in the hotels like you’d find in the air.

The lunch is served — a lavish spread comprising prawn, steamed chicken, sautéed green beans, assorted vegetables in black pepper sauce, pan-fried fish and noodles. But Bickson opts for just soup, a magnificently named dragon and phoenix noodle soup.

Even that lies half-eaten, as we steer the discussions towards the makeover of Taj under Bickson. The biggest move, he says, is the re-entry of the hotel chain in international markets in 2005 with a property in New York. Taj has 16 international properties now and is in the process of opening another one in Marrakech. International revenues contribute a fourth to the total and the aim is to take it to half in another five years. India, Bickson says, has about eight to nine million outbound Indians every year, more than the number of foreigners coming in and that is going to grow.

His long-standing ambition to enter China is also nearing fruition with the opening of a 106-room property just outside the Forbidden City by next year. The hotel to be set up under management contract will be called The Taj Palace Temple of Heaven.

The hotel scenario in India, he says, has changed dramatically. Till a few years ago, the three big domestic hotel chains could afford to be content since they had a combined 60-plus per cent market share in the absence of competition. Now, there are 47 big hotel brands with huge loyalty programmes. And since over 80 per cent of visitors to India are business travellers, chances are they would be drawn to their “own” brands — names they are familiar with.

The challenge, Bickson says, is to maintain Taj’s domestic market share at 18 to 20 per cent. So, the premier hotel chain has been opening one new hotel every two weeks this year. Result: Taj has increased the number of hotels to 114 hotels from 52 in 2003 when he took charge. The short-term goal is to have 175 hotels with 20,000 rooms, launching as many as four new properties in the same Indian city in some cases. Where will the money come from? Bickson says the strategy is to have an asset-light model via management contracts.

For dessert, we opt for date pancake with ice cream, and Bickson shifts to his favourite topic – the four-brand architecture of the Taj – a change he brought in the structure of the 108-year-old hotel chain.

Bickson’s plan from the get-go was to recast Taj as not a single luxury brand, but as a multi-branded hotel group. “We want share of wallet. When our customer comes out of college and takes that first job, he stays at a Ginger, then onto Gateway, then Vivanta, then Taj — it’s a natural progression,” he says, taking a big scoop of ice cream.

The plan now is to enter the segment between Ginger and Gateway with a new mid-scale brand so that the entire gamut of Indian consumers is covered. For the moment, Ginger, which is in its seventh year, is probably the most aggressive brand in the budget market with 30 hotels. The long-term aim is to have 120 Ginger hotels. For example, Bickson says, the nearest hotel from Tata Motors’ Sanand plant, better known as the Nano plant, in Gujarat is 20 km away and they are full all the time.

As we walk out of the restaurant, Bickson reels out many numbers, but for a change, they are not all that flattering for India. For example, against India’s 100,000 hotel rooms, China has 1.9 million and the US 3.7 million. “Disneyland alone has 100,000 rooms!” he adds.

There’s more. If India has six million tourists every year, Hawaii alone gets eight million. Acquiring land and approvals is another challenge. “In Singapore, you need 11 approvals to set up a hotel; in India you would need 120,” he adds.

His kinetic pace notwithstanding, Bickson still has a lot on his plate.

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