Catalyst

Hotels soften their stance

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on July 13, 2017

Preparing for Tajness: The Taj group, unlike others that are adding brands, is going the single-brand route and focusing on unifying customer experience across its hotels. (Above) A room at its Wellington Mews in Mumbai

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From Tapestry Collection to Tajness, hoteliers seem to be moving away from rigid brand standards

Earlier this year, global hospitality company Hilton debuted a new brand – Tapestry Collection. With this addition Hilton – which boasts brands such as Conrad, Waldorf Astoria, Canopy and Double Tree – now has a total of 14 brands in its portfolio.

Interestingly, five of its brands were created after 2009. Last year it had launched Tru, a new low-cost franchised brand of hotels. Tapestry Collection is the second “soft brand” for the chain after its Curio for Hilton. In industry parlance, a soft brand is one that allows individual hotels to have their own name, image and identity. To explain the difference, a brand such as The Grand Hyatt from Hyatt or a JW Marriott or a Conrad from Hilton have certain rigid standards that owners have to adhere to – on number of rooms, fittings and so on. Not all hotel owners can conform to these standards. A soft brand, on the other hand, is more flexible, and existing properties can be converted with ease.

A profusion of brands

Look at global hospitality and two trends are evident. The big operators seem to be launching more brands. At the same time, they seem to be softening their brand stance. Marriott, after its merger with Starwood, now has three soft brands – Autograph Collection, Luxury Collection and Tribute Portfolio. Last year, Hyatt launched a new soft brand called The Unbound Collection. Kurt Straub, Vice-President for Operations for India, Hyatt excitedly talks of the possibilities of bringing this to India as it is a more flexible brand. “It gives us an opportunity to go into palaces, for instance. Unbound can take on fabulous old structures. Today, we have more brands available in our portfolio, allowing us to become more flexible in where we can go,” he says. Hyatt Place is another fairly recent brand from the chain and as Straub points out, outside of the US, one of the first places the brand travelled to was in India, with a launch at Hampi. Meanwhile, Intercontinental Hotel Group’s head of South West Asia, Shantha De Silva, talks of how its Kimpton brand that came through an acquisition is a great fit for India. “We acquired Kimpton, a brand that has been around since the 1980s, in 2014. It’s a great boutique brand that makes sense for India,” he says.

A Kimpton can not only work with a relatively smaller number of rooms, but is also very strong in food and beverage and thus suited to India, believes De Silva. With Kimpton he feels IHG could start some defining restaurants in India. Typically Kimpton works with celebrity chefs, and De Silva points out how IHG has partnerships across regions with different celebrity chefs.

Taj bucks the trend

What is emerging is that every global hotel company is expanding its brand portfolio. And yet, in direct contrast, last August India’s best known hospitality company, the Taj group of hotels, announced that it would be departing from its brand storyline. Brands such as Vivanta and Gateway that it had launched with much fanfare barely a decade ago have been killed. Under the stewardship of Rakesh Sarna, Taj boldly decided to go the monobranding route and ride on the proposition of “Tajness”.

At a recent media luncheon in Delhi, Taj’s Chief Revenue Officer Chinmai Sharma explained the thinking. “Instead of the branding approach, we are going to take the line approach,” he said, pointing out that segmentation is now on four lines – hotels, resorts, palaces and safaris.

As for Tajness, it is a sensory experience – food, welcome ritual, sunset ritual, staff uniforms, fragrances and so on. It’s a demonstration of the thought “we-care-for-you”, says Sharma.

Moving to monobranding may mean getting rid of some of the hotels in its portfolio – especially the Gateways – that don’t conform to the quality of Tajness. Global chains are already salivating at the prospect of picking up these hotels, and scaling up faster. Isn’t it a risk for Taj, especially as there is a big race among chains to brand India’s unbranded hotels. Just about a lakh of hotel rooms in India are classified as branded supply (operated by the big hotel chains). Estimates suggest there are over a million rooms in the country operated by independent hoteliers. And there is a furious race among the foreign chains to bring them under their fold. With more brands, you can address more hotels.

But Taj does not seem worried. Sharma points out that it won’t really need to exit that many hotels. Damdama Lake, Kochi, Bangalore – all these Gateways are upscale enough to fit into Tajness, he says.

Service residences next?

Sharma also says that Taj is not sitting on its stately haunches. It is taking cognisance of the Airbnb wave and internally thinking about a service residence offering. It already operates two – Taj Wellington Mews in Mumbai and Taj 51 Buckingham Gate in London, next to St. James Court. The thinking within Taj is that a property like the Ambassador in Delhi, which did not at all sit well with the Vivanta brand, could be converted into a service residence.

As far as the Tajness approach goes, it does seem to be conforming to the global trend of a soft branding approach. Despite its recent troubles, the Taj does have a rich heritage and enormous brand recall. Can riding on Tajness help the group win back the crown?

Published on July 13, 2017

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