Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces is the 110-year-old lodging arm of Tata Group, the Indian conglomerate that is big in industries as diverse as cars, chemicals and steel, operates in 80-some countries and has nearly 400,000 employees. Big it is, old it is, with the parent company dating back to 1868, the hotels operation is looking forward, not backward.
This much was clear when I talked recently with Raymond Bickson, the chief executive officer of the Taj hotel group, at the opening of the Taj Cape Town, in South Africa. Hawaii-born and a long-time hotelier in San Francisco before joining Mumbai-based Taj, Bickson is outgoing, a good talker, and clearly enthusiastic about going global with the Taj brand, which is identified in India with luxury and sophistication.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation, with my questions omitted, to smooth out the narrative flow. Bickson started out with some thoughts about the Hotel Pierre, the company's U.S. flagship in midtown Manhattan, then expanded on a number of topics:
''The Pierre is the Pierre, and it's not a bad location. It's a great opportunity for us to be in the toughest marketplace in the world. We embraced the challenge of working with the people who live there, the owners of 77 co-ops in the building, and we spent $120 million USD renovating the property in 2009.
"We're a 110-year-old company, founded in 1901, and the longest-standing company in the Tata Group. We're part of a $71 billion industry today. We're opening one hotel every seven weeks.'' (At this writing, Taj has 66 hotels in India, 16 outside India, for a total of 82.)
"The Asian market today is really up, with 47 brands coming into India. Right now, there are 96,000 hotel rooms in India, compared to 110,000 in Manhattan. We're expanding to make sure we maintain our market share. We operate a 5-star brand with Taj, Taj Exotica resorts and Taj Safaris, 4-stars with Vivanta (stylish city boutique hotels), 3-stars with Gateway and 2-star economy hotels in India with Ginger.
''There are 25 key source markets in the world that we need to be in. South Africa is one of them. Tata Motors has been here 25, 35 years, and Tata Steel and Tata Chemicals operate here. Twenty-two million tourists a year come to South Africa. Johannesburg is the hub. Eighty to 85 percent of leisure travelers come here to Cape Town. If you're in Cape Town, you have to also be in Jo-berg - it sends you off to the game lodges and to Cape Town.
"This is the 'old town' of Cape Town. It's all within 10 minutes from here. It's becoming the new "old' district. November through Easter is the high season here. So far, we're doing 70 percent leisure travelers at the Taj Cape Town, 30 percent corporate. All in all, you want to see it balance out 50/50.''
Of course, Taj competes with other major hotel companies around the globe. In India, Oberoi is its chief rival. Internationally, Taj takes-on Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula and a handful of others. All are expanding aggressively, along with Taj.
"We have two projects in Egypt, two in Abu Dhabi, a project in Beijing - a 60-suite property in the central business district. Also, we're going into Sydney, China Beach in Vietnam and Thailand - for us, it's the new Maldives. We have two properties in Maldives and we're in Sri Lanka.
"We're an Asian company. We're in Asia. With the low labor cost, we can have a higher ratio of employees to guests than you have elsewhere. The service aspect of Asia is really embedded in the DNA of this company.''