As it undergoes a revamp to bring its rooms and public spaces to current standards, this golden oldie is keeping its soul intact.
It's the hotel US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stayed in when she came to Chennai a few months ago. And also where her husband, President Bill Clinton, stayed when he visited Chennai years ago. Other royalty, princes and princesses, heads of state, corporate czars and celebrities have flitted through its rooms over the years.
The Taj Coromandel has been a landmark of the bustling city of Chennai for over 35 years, presiding over the city's untrammelled growth through the years to emerge as an automobile, manufacturing and IT hub. For years, the Taj in Chennai was the hotel where the city's swish set gravitated to.
General Manager N. Prakash talks of three generations of a family who have got married in the hotel and its guests who will stand the hotel in good stead as it goes forth into what will be tumultuous times in the Chennai five-star hotel market.
Says Mohan Menon, former Director of advertising agency O&M, and a long-time Taj patron, “One word that aptly describes the Coromandel is ‘venerable'. Many cities in India and, indeed, around the world feature these age-defying venerables.”
But the hotel industry in Chennai is transforming so rapidly that even ol' venerables like the 213-room Taj will have to slug it out in a market that is seeing new international brands spring up and a set of well-travelled and well-heeled customers, with evolved expectations, seeking the new. The Chennai market now has approximately 1,800 five-star rooms and this is expected to double in a year's time with hotels such as the Grand Chola (ITC), Leela, J. W. Marriot and Park Hyatt expected to open up. Already, other international brands such as the Hyatt and Hilton, have opened their doors.
A top official of a leading hotel chain BrandLine spoke to say that concept-wise, the Taj, being an old property, may not be as current as the newcomers, but it still is a top-end luxury hotel. “However,” says he, “it remains to be seen whether it will be able to compete with the new-age luxury hotels that are coming up in the city as these hotels are going to be conceptually fresh.”
Prakash, a long-time Taj hand, is well aware of the threats in the market and says the Taj is reinventing itself to take on competition as well as cater to the new-age traveller. For starters, the hotel is being revamped top to bottom. As he points out, the second substantial makeover of the hotel is on. The first was in the late '80s/ early '90s when all the rooms were done, the lobby and restaurants revamped and re-branded, club floors created. “This is the second since inception in 1974. This is a substantial makeover, from gate to gate, and not just the front of the house,” says Prakash.
Given that the Taj Coromandel is a fairly old property and design concepts have evolved, the hotel looked to international designers to give it a new look. While design firm Belt Collins designed a new driveway with new landscaping, Chandu Chadda from Hong Kong redesigned the cavernous lobby. Says Prakash, “While keeping the aesthetics the same, we want to make full and creative use of space because we are sitting in the heart of the city. The intention was to make the lobby lively, so three of the restaurants have been moved to be in close proximity of each other.”
The challenge was to keep the hotel running and do the renovation in phases and not disturb guests. Rooms were ripped apart to redesign them and give travellers a sense of space. Bathrooms too got an uplift to ‘four fixture' baths from the three fixture ones earlier.
“We have a luxury standard of the Taj and as a luxury hotel we have benchmarks that we need to meet in terms of software, hardware, in the tech that goes into room lighting systems, air-conditioning systems, and all that you need to do when you go on an extensive renovation programme,” elaborates Prakash of the renovation which cost Oriental Hotels, the owner of this property, almost Rs 100 crore.
True luxury class
A senior official of another leading hotel in Chennai, whom BrandLine spoke to, says that besides being one of the most famous landmarks of Chennai, it's probably the only truly luxury hotel in the city, as it stands now. “The brand Taj gives it immediate recognition globally. As far its restaurants go, in terms of personalisation and attentiveness, it's pretty good. If I were a travel advisor, I would rank it at 7 on a 1-10 scale,” he says.
While it's perceived as a luxury property of the Taj group, and it is one, Prakash says there are a few things that still need to be done to upgrade it. What the hotel, as a luxury brand of the Taj group, lacked was a spa. Now, Belt Collins is designing a 9,000 sq. ft. spa under Taj's Jiva brand adjacent to its pool, and the hotel is also in the process of building a 6,000 sq ft gym. The hotel also introduced its Chambers, an exclusive, by-invitation centre for corporate chieftains to conduct their meetings. “I would say it's a thorough makeover of the body; it's a combination of all kinds of surgeries, except changing the soul of the property,” says Prakash.
But, as he explains, the physical part is easier to do. The intangibles and the invisibles are the more difficult ones. Today, guests are well-travelled and expect the same standards or the same wines they would have tasted abroad and it is incumbent on the hotel to stock them. Staff training is constant to bring them up to speed with the new trends.
“Ten years ago, wine was hardly consumed. Now, we have to stock so many varieties of wine from around the world. People don't ask for the standard Scotch; now they want a specific malt. There's been an explosion and exposure that customers have had. Many are well travelled and well exposed to things happening around the globe,” says Prakash.
The advantage of an older property is that many are long-time employees who know loyal customers. “Those are things that you cannot take away from us. Ultimately, hotels are known by their people and their warmth. You can have the most modern hotel, but without people it would be soulless. Our makeover won't be over the top, you will always be able to feel the soul of the Coromandel.”
Agrees Mohan Menon, “A reassuring aspect of the Coromandel is the sheer continuity of the staff, which is so different from the revolving-door syndrome prevalent in the industry.”
But, Menon, who's part of the governing council of the Chennai Business School, says the challenge for the Coromandel is not only to keep ‘loyal' customers from straying but also to woo newcomers who have no familiarity with the hotel.
“The Taj name may carry its own aura, but the international brands invading Chennai are no lightweights. They are savvy, aggressive and have zeroed in on locations that are in harmony with the city's new and expanding business centres. With the onslaught of new money and fickle tastes, the Coromandel will have to keep re-inventing itself to remain a name to be reckoned with,” he elaborates.