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Tireless Crusader: An Interview with Taljinder Singh, Area Director, Mumbai Hotels & General Man

Taljinder Singh, Area Director – Mumbai Hotels & General Manager, The Taj Mahal Palace, walks us through what it takes for the The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, to remain at the forefront of the hospitality world, hosting celebrities and dignitaries the world over, even 115 years after it first opened its doors

What’s the first name that comes to your mind, when someone pops the question, “Which is the best luxury hotel in India?” The answer conjures up in your mind in the form of an image.... a large brick red Florentine dome, a black-and-yellow facade, and a huge line-up of windows that catches your attention – The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. Today’s Traveller recently caught up with Taljinder Singh, Area Director – Mumbai Hotels & General Manager, The Taj Mahal Palace, who shared his thoughts on the iconic hotel, what the hotel has witnessed and how it has contributed to India’s history and shaped its hospitality culture since 1903.

You have spent 26 years with the Taj Group. How has your personal journey with the Group been? My journey with the Taj Group started in 1990, in the Taj Mahal Palace, with no plans to be a hotelier. I managed to clear the Taj Management Training Programme interview – my sole aim being that I did not wish to be a Chartered Accountant. Since my ambition to get through any of the four IIMs was unfulfilled and I could not afford to pay the fees for an International MBA, I decided to take up the training programme, intending to work for 2-3 years before going back to school again. I’d never imagined being in the Hotel Industry long-term, leave alone be at the helm of this iconic institution - The Taj Mahal Palace. My mentor, Mr. V.S. Mahesh, soon discovered that I planned to go on study leave and tried some gentle persuasion – “Whatever you need to do, we will make you do, but you don’t have to leave your job to do that.” He understood my innate desire to learn academically and to be continuously involved with education. I stayed on, since I was fortunate to be able to pursue my education via the short-term and medium-term courses, and therefore, am forever indebted to Mr V S Mahesh and to IHCL. Thereafter, within a span of 28 years I moved several times, this being my 11th move. I have not regretted this, as every move has broadened my perspective and been an exciting learning curve. The most gratifying moment came last year, when Rahim Kanani featured me amongst the Top 40 Global Hoteliers of the World in his book – “A Wealth of Insight”.

The Taj Mahal Palace is undoubtedly one of the top hotels in the country with a rich legacy and history. What makes it different from its competitors? There are many reasons that make it different. In my Town Hall meetings, I often throw some simple questions to over 500+ associates who are assembled there – How many hotels worldwide, which opened as grand luxury hotels in the forefront, 115 years ago, are still at the forefront? How many of them are still with the original owning company? How many of them are with a company or a group which is ranked amongst the top 20 in global prestige and reputation for integrity and values? How many of these hotels contribute more of their profits to charity? How many of them have a history or have been an active part of a country’s freedom movement? How many of them have welcomed royalty and continue to do so? How many hotels have welcomed four generations of British Royalty? How many hotels have over 300 associates working at any point in time, in the same building, for more than 30 years? When you narrow the gamut down, we would probably rank as the only hotel in the world to tickbox the above queries. We still have stewards who address some younger industrialists as “baba”, since they’ve been serving them since they were toddlers!! That’s what makes this hotel unique. There are amazing surprises everyday – while dining with the Hungarian Consul General, I learnt that Amrita Shergill had lived here and held her first and only art exhibition at the Taj Art Gallery of this hotel in 1936. Equally surprising was a letter from the Russian Ambassador, informing me that the Consul General wanted to personally handover a plaque representing the opening of the first ever foreign consulate office in India, in the early 1930s, which was housed at the Taj Mahal Palace. Moreover, the Consul General also lived in the hotel, but we have been unable to identify the room in which he stayed. Or the distinguished looking gentleman in his 80’s, whom I encountered, who identified himself and his siblings as toddlers in the picture on the historical corridor – the Nawab of Cambay and his parents and grandparents!!

What are the areas of challenges when it comes to running and managing a hotel of this kind? There are many. One of the key challenges is the fact that the hotel is reputed for having associates who remember guests. But, to keep that level of knowledge intact becomes difficult when retirements take place. Our solution is to actively employ children of our longer serving associates, which keeps the legacy alive as well as the know-how on guests within the system. Consequently, there are several associates who are third generation associates with us! The second challenge is that the younger workforce doesn’t believe in staying for 30-40 years in an organisation. We have to ensure ways to make them to learn and grow within the organisation. As part of the House of Tata’s, the value system helps us retain dedicated associates. Today’s rapidly changing business environment has led to a demographic shift in customers, whose visits may not be regular. To create a new subset and the need to target new markets, to ensure continued top line growth and enhancing margins in the competitive environment is a huge challenge. The other challenge is the need to keep a 115-year-old hotel vibrant and in top form, to incorporate avant-garde technology and design. Accordingly, we’ve switched to technology led processes for check-ins and display signages, banquet functions, entertainment, etc, taking pains to weave in technology subtly, so that it blends well with the cultural and historical style of the hotel. Finally, teaching our new associates, that we have regular guests, who have been coming consistently for decades, who have their designated rooms for whom we would go to any length to ensure their quirks are taken care of. Our team needs to be geared to handle this and be well-acquainted with the regular guests.

You have hosted many celebrities of the world. How do you prepare when it comes to hosting these very important guests? It’s an elaborate preparation, depending on how extravagant the particular country wants it to be, ranging from an elephant welcome to a no-welcome – even that needs planning. The natural instinct of everybody is that a dignitary should be welcomed by the senior most member of the hospitality group. However, some of our prominent business and global leaders have given specific instructions that they will not be met by anybody on arrival and that they will be incognito as they check-in and out. It’s an onerous task to execute, to make sure that you don’t cross the line. The only way to do this is through an impeccable communication system that ensures that there’s an interface between the top rung, down to the last man in the system. It’s imperative to make sure that every chink in the armour is discussed and taken care of, to be resourceful and to know what to do in case something does not go according to plan. It’s a typical Japanese way of thinking – that everyone involved at the hotel should know the solution to every problem that could ever take place. For instance, if the only flat work ironer in the Laundry breaks down, how should one handle all the laundry?

With the constant pressure of attending to the who’s who, how do you unwind after work? I don’t have a lot of time to myself but I’m sporty, so I hit the gym regularly, running in the morning, and distance running once in a while. I’m game for anything adventurous. I like to indulge in football once in a while, and love unwinding with my six-year-old daughter, the nucleus of my life. We walk together, play football and sometimes go cycling together. Reading is my other passion, and though I read five books at a time, I still have a lot of TBRs in my stack.

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