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Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the founder of the Tata Group, opened the Taj Mahal Palace, a hotel in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) overlooking the Arabian Sea, on 16 December 1903. It was the first Taj property and the very first Indian owned luxury hotel. He decided to open the hotel after an incident involving racial discrimination at the Watson’s Hotel in Mumbai, where he was refused entry as the hotel permitted only Europeans. Hotels which accepted only European guests were very common across British India then. So the hotel became, in people’s minds, a symbol of rebellion, of beating the colonizers at their own game and driving them into the sea.

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At its peak, Watson’s hotel employed English waitresses in its restaurant and ballroom, inspiring a common joke at the time: “If only Watson had imported the English weather as well.  

The Taj opened with the central dome still incomplete, with only the first of the two floors of one wing ready and with electricity and lifts not in working order? The reason was simple: that was what the family astrologer advised. The astrologer may have been totally off the mark — at least that’s what the initial experience suggested. To begin with, Jamshetji wanted to sell the hotel as he had no intention of running the place for long. But he couldn’t do so because of a strange reason. The peculiarity of having a kitchen on the top floor — a mistake rectified only in the 1930s — discouraged prospective hoteliers. The half-completed hotel thus found no buyers, and Jamshetji decided to press on with its construction as he had already put in Rs 20 lakh — a princely sum those days. He couldn’t sell it probably also because he didn’t live long enough: Jamshetji died in Europe just when the first electric lights in the hotel were to be switched on.

Taj Mahal Palace was remarkable for being the first hotel in India with electricity, and offered such luxuries as hot water, its own laundry and machines for creating ice. It went on to become the first hotel in Mumbai to be equipped with a lift, and the first in India with an air-conditioned dining room.

Jamshetji’s successor Sir Dorab Tata had a tough time — records suggest finances were in deep trouble. Though Indian princes loved the hotel because it allowed them to do many “informal” things — guzzling beer being just one of them — Taj was soon proving to be a white elephant for Indian Hotels. Since desperate times call for desperate measures, portions of the hotel were rented as a petrol distribution center, sales room for motor cars and garage for taxi service. The princes, however, loved the hotel so much that one of them generously offered a debenture loan of Rs 2 lakh at a time when the fund-starved Indian Hotels was considering purchase offers from Ritz, J Lyons, etc.

When J.R.D Tata took over as chairman (he had joined the board in 1926), he thought the management was running the hotel “stupidly” and initially thought it should be sold. But for reasons unknown, JRD persisted. Result: in November, 1933, India had its first AC restaurant-cum-ballroom and its most famous watering hole — the Harbor Bar. Then there were what was known as “Dumb Friends” nights — essentially animal shows which were a big draw. There is this interesting story about an equestrian extravaganza performed by Ataturk, a dancing horse owned by the showman Jimmy Bharucha. It was probably the only time that a horse climbed the steps of Taj’s grand central floating staircase and performed the waltz and the tango.

Business picked up sharply, but in 1939, Taj slipped into the red after the government dictated prohibition and it was felt that the hotel would have no option but to close down. But the war saved the day with army men making sure the rooms were packed once again. Prohibition was partially lifted in 1940 and Taj’s profits soared to Rs 5 lakh — equaling the all time high reached in 1918. Then there was another twist in the tale after that. Taj’s post-war decline started by the summer of 1947. 

Until June 1962, Taj fortunes kept dropping from pioneer to lost cause until Colonel Leslie Sawheny, Dorabji Tata’s brother-in-law, took charge. Among his trusted lieutenants was Ajit Kerkar, a professional hotelier recruited in London. The Taj at Apollo Bunder chronicles how the young brigade turned conventional logic upside down — for example, a lift was installed without the board’s permission; new rooms were built by saving from the huge maintenance and repair costs; the hotel’s purchasing system was overhauled, etc.

The young team’s enthusiasm had a rub-off effect and the directors approved what was then an astonishing assault on the old Taj’s interiors; short of actually knocking it down. The hotel remained occupied all the time but between one pillar and the next, it was stripped totally, right from the bottom of the building to the top until it was a gaping hole. The drastic filleting and reconstruction of a heritage building was the first such exercise of its kind in the country. To cap it all, the old driveway, which had formerly been the entrance to the hotel, was closed off so that what had for long been the front of the hotel now became the back. Taj restructuring of the hotel was so good that Indian government issued tender to them of several decaying famous monuments including the 7th wonder Taj Mahal Agra. 

Prices rose Rs 90 for a single room without breakfast, a far cry from the balmy pre-World War 1 days of Rs 12 with five meals included. The turnover for 1969-70 jumped to Rs 2.4 crore, compared to Rs 4 lakh in 1941. To fund its expansion plans, Indian Hotels went public soon after.

The Taj at Apollo Bunder has an equally riveting parallel story about Greens Mansion, a restaurant-cum-lodging house next door — a spot now occupied by the Tower block. Owned by an English grocer, the place was bought by the Tatas for Rs 3.65 lakh in November 1904. Compared to Taj’s travails, Greens had a fairly good run. A.F.S Talyarkhan, a leading socialite better known as a sports commentator that time, describes one of the reasons for Greens’ success: “Beer was on tap; at the far corner was the famous Silver Grill. After dark, the little tables would find gorgeous females seated one to each table, waiting in solitary splendor for a male gallant to ask politely — may I join you?” The book has tales about how one of these imported beauties from Europe performed a show called “The Dance of the Seven Veils”. By the time the seventh veil was about to be lifted, guests were in seventh heaven.

The book gives another reason for Greens’ relative prosperity. In September 1941, one of the guests wrote this gem in a piece titled “Overheard at Greens”:

“Do you love me darling?”

“You know I do, Harry.”

“Harry? My name is George.”

“How silly of me. I keep thinking today’s Monday.”

But the time came when Greens Mansion had to be rebuilt, partially prompted by the advent of serious competition in the form of the Oberoi Sheraton. The public highway between the Taj and Green’s had by then been acquired from the Bombay Municipality, and a new 23-floor building came up, now known as the Tower block of the Taj. Many of the uncompromisingly modern treasures in the Tower block were found in Bombay’s flea market — Chor Bazaar.

The Tower block opened in 1973, the same year when Oberoi Towers came up, and the Taj came up with advertisements saying “Taj welcomes its friend to share the fortunes of this great city”.

 

The Taj at Apollo Bunder chronicles how the young brigade turned conventional logic upside down — for example, a lift was installed without the board’s permission; new rooms were built by saving from the huge maintenance and repair costs; the hotel’s purchasing system was overhauled, etc.

The young team’s enthusiasm had a rub-off effect and the directors approved what was then an astonishing assault on the old Taj’s interiors; short of actually knocking it down. The hotel remained occupied all the time but between one pillar and the next it was stripped totally, right from the bottom of the building to the top until it was a gaping hole. The drastic filleting and reconstruction of a heritage building was the first such exercise of its kind in the country. To cap it all, the old driveway, which had formerly been the entrance to the hotel, was closed off so that what had for long been the front of the hotel now became the back.

It now cost a whopping Rs 90 for a single room without breakfast, a far cry from the balmy pre-World War 1 days of Rs 12 with five meals included. The turnover for 1969-70 jumped to Rs 2.4 crore, compared to Rs 4 lakh in 1941. To fund its expansion plans, Indian Hotels went public soon after.

The turnaround

A competitor – the Oberoi Group, founded by Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi – was growing in stature in Delhi, the Taj got a lease of life in the form of Col. Leslie Sawhny. A professional soldier, he proved an equally efficient hotelier. He and his band of boys, including Ajit Kerkar, who later became Managing Director of IHCL, changed things around at the hotel – from the way it sourced fruits and vegetables to the interiors of the rooms, and from the menus in its restaurants to the new wing that opened in 1972. The Tower wing instantly found patronage in the affluent business community in the country’s financial capital.

Even Oberoi’s splendid new hotel in Mumbai, or ITC’s emergence, couldn’t impact Taj’s growth. By the early 1970s, IHCL’s turnover was over ₹2.5 crore, against ₹4 lakh in 1941. The ‘new’ Taj also commanded a premium, with its single-room tariff crossing the ₹100-a-night mark — without breakfast! IHCL had turned a page; its place in the hospitality industry was cemented.  For 70 years, India had only one landmark hotel in Taj Mahal hotel

Taj’s Expansion

 

The Taj Group also helped develop the Indian tourism industry. Taj opened up tourism in Rajasthan, Goa, Chennai, and Kerala for foreign tourists Through the 1970s, the Taj Group expanded its services beyond Mumbai, opening properties in Rajasthan — where it transformed two palaces into luxurious heritage hotels – Goa and even overseas, in Africa.

The group has been converting royal palaces in India into luxury hotels since the 1970s. The first palace to be converted into a Taj luxury hotel was the Lake Palace in Udaipur, in 1971. Other examples include the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad and Nadesar Palace in Varanasi.

To fill these hotels, Kerkar began aggressive sales push to attract international guests, and found an able Sales Manager in Camellia Panjabi. One of her initiatives saw the company publishing a magazine, the first for an Indian hotel, and mailing it to leading international travel writers. The company flew down about 80 international writers to India to market its properties. It is said that the Taj’s rivals persuaded Air India to withdraw its offer to fly the guests for free. Fortunately for the hotel company, the US airline Pan American agreed to give the complimentary tickets. Call this beginning of Influencer’s era (Now you should know whose idea is being used Internationally by brands for Social Media Influencers)

Taj started expanding internationally thereafter. The first Indian hospitality group that went International by an opening hotel in Zambia. Shortly after, followed with properties in Yemen, Sri Lanka, London, New York, Maldives, Dubai.

Change of helm

By 1980s, Ajit Kelkar had become the unmovable piece of Tata industries. He was considered top end pioneer and became the chairman of IHCL whose size had grown 33 hotels strong.

In 1991, the empire change hands from the able hands of JRD Tata to that of Ratan Tata. The incoming CEO & Chairman Ratan Tata started to clear the house. He fired 3 major Lieutenants or considered Tata’s Satraps named Russi Mody of TISCO, Darbari Seth of Tata Chemicals and ofcourse Ajit Kelkar of Indian Hotels Company.

On September 2, 1997, in a board meeting with Tata, Ratan Tata ousted Ajit Kelkar as chairman and replaced his position with himself and R.K Krishnakumar as MD (Brought in from Tata Tea) and stayed till 2002. 

Another Change AGAIN – Raymond Bickson

In 2003, IHCL hired another chairman in name of Raymond Bickson. Under Raymond Bickson, The group also acquired several overseas hotels including The Pierre in New York City, the W Hotel in Sydney and the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. The Taj Group also adopted a segmentation strategy and launched new brands. As per Bickerson explanation –
Ginger was low-budget hotels, gateway was mid range whereas Vivanta by Taj was top business hotel. Taj hotels and Palaces remained top of the echelon.

Bickerson was also responsible for the launch of Taj Safaris in Mahua Kothi, Bandhavgarh. when Bickson joined IHCL, the group had a room inventory of 7,942 rooms in 62 hotels. At the end of his tenure, that number stands at 15,690 rooms in 127 hotels. However, the company has seen its losses grow too. He put the company in debt of over $600 million dollars. 

The Terrorist Attack at Mahal

In 2008, Taj hotel had one of the catalyst event where terrorist attacked the landmark Taj Mahal hotel. On November 23, 2008, ten gunmen armed with automatic weapons and hand grenades left by boat from the hostile neighboring country to the west of the country Pakistan. In their backpacks they carried ammunition and strong narcotics: cocaine, steroids, LSD, and syringes. On their journey to the city that could not be named they hijacked a fishing boat, abandoned their original vessel, brought two dinghies aboard the fishing boat and told the captain where to go. When they were near the shore they killed the captain and got into the dinghies. Afterwards, many people wondered why the coast guard had not seen them or tried to intercept them. The coast was supposed to be well guarded but on this night there had been a failure of some sort. When the dinghies landed, on November 26, the gunmen split up into small groups and made their way to their chosen targets, the Muslim terrorist attacks launched from Pakistan by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the “Army of the Righteous,” first on the railway station formerly known as Victoria Terminus or VT and presently, like everything else in Bombay/Mumbai, renamed after the Maratha hero-prince Shivaji—and then on Leopold Café in Colaba, the Oberoi Trident Hotel, the Metro Cinema, the Cama and Albless Hospital, the Jewish Chabad House, and the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel. 

As described in Hindustan Times article :

The hotel that was loved by everyone was attacked around 9:45 p.m. Guests in the swimming pool area were shot first, and then the gunmen went toward the restaurants. A young woman working in the Sea Lounge where young men took their girlfriends to impress them helped many guests escape through a staff door, but when the gunmen burst into the lounge she herself was killed. Grenades were set off and a murder spree followed during what became a three-day siege. Outside there were TV crews and crowds and someone shouted, “The hotel is on fire!” Flames leapt from the windows of the topmost floor and the famous staircase too was ablaze. Among those trapped by the flames and burned to death were the wife and children of the manager of the hotel. The gunmen had blueprints of the hotel’s floor plan and their blueprints were more accurate than those held by the security forces. They used the drugs to stay awake and the LSD — which is not a psychostimulant — combined with the other drugs (which were) to create in the killers a manic hallucinogenic frenzy and they laughed aloud as they killed. Outside, the TV crews reported on escaping hotel guests and the killers watched TV to find out where the guests were escaping from. By the end of the siege over thirty people had died, many of them members of the hotel staff.

The hotel was shut down for one and half year and was reopened in 2010 to the public. What should have curbed the tourism rather attracted more tourism as people want to see the spectacle where the infamous attack took place. 

Change of the path

In 2011, Ratan Tata stepped down as CEO and Cyrus Mistry was appointed as the new chairman. As a new person at the helm, he again like his predecessor cleared the deck. One of the first casualty was loss making CEO Raymond Bickson. He was replaced by Rakesh Sarna. 

Before he joined IHCL, Sarna was the Group President -Americas of Hyatt Hotels Corporation based in Chicago. Sarna had very short run as designated head at IHCL as his tenure was marked by sexual harassment charges.

During his short tenure, Sarna surprised us by punching the air out of Taj’s loyalty program. Industry experts thought that he would make the program as lucrative as Hyatt’s Gold Passport. However, opposite happened. He also did away with his predecessor’s method of segmented marketing by removing Vivanta by Taj and Gateway hotels. 

During his tenure, IHCL went from the largest hotel to second largest hotel in India as due to the merger of Starwood/Marriott/Ritz. He tried to consolidate Taj with Shangri-La for Asian supremacy but the plan is yet to be implemented. Taj’s Umaid Bhawan Palace was #1 hotel in the world by TripAdvisor creating a new wave of clients who wanted to see the hotel Palace.

With very public fall out between Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry. All the changes that were brought in by Cyrus were undone by his predessor, controversy marred executive decided to step down for personal reasons.

Currently, the new person has been hired at the helm is Deutsche Hotelier, Mr. Puneet Chatwal. Chhatwal is currently chief executive and member of executive board of Deutsche Hospitality/Steinberger Hotels AG, a large European hotel chain, it added. He has over two decades of leadership experience in the global hospitality industry, having worked with some of the leading hotel groups in Europe and North America. He would be joining loss marred chain on September 30, 2017.

Next article: Oberoi Hotels

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