A pan-Asian hospitality power, Taj now thinking global

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If anyone could be considered a symbol of globalization in the travel and hospitality industries, it might be Raymond Bickson, managing director and CEO of Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces. Part Polynesian, part European and part Asian, Bickson said the wider world is not a strange place to him. I feel that I belong to the whole planet, he said.

Bickson said his multicultural heritage helps him realize the corporate mission of Taj, a 74-resort chain based in Mumbai, India, to merge the best of the East and the West.

I am on a journey to disprove the 19th century Kipling mind-set, where the twain wont meet between East and West, he said. In the 21st century ... they do and they will continue to do so. Our expansion, both east and west, symbolizes our ... globalizing adventure.

Although Taj was founded in 1903, the adventure Bickson refers to truly began in the early 1970s with a revolutionary idea: to assemble the cultural and financial capital to restore a number of the historic palaces of the rajahs, or Hindi kings, across India.

The idea became a mission and the mission a focus in 1971, when Taj began managing its first such property, the Taj Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur. The contract provided for the renovation of the royal residence, built in 1754 by the Jodhpur regions ruler, Maharajah Jagat Singh II.

Renovations didnt actually begin until 2000, but the 63-room, 18-suite Lake Palace has long been considered one of the great hotels of the world.

Taj also manages the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur (since 1972); the smaller but no less elegant Usha Kiran Place in Gwalior, added to the group in 2004; and the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, managed since 2005 and still home to Jodhpurs current maharajah, Gaj Singh II.

Restoration of each palace has been meticulous, The Taj Exotica Resort and Spa in the Maldives reopened in December after an extensive renovation to facilities such as deluxe lagoon villas (pictured) and its Jiva spa.under the watchful eyes of not only of Taj Hotels designers but local royalty themselves, said Bickson.

I felt that we at Taj were given heirloom jewels, each with fascinating facets of history and architectural beauty, he said. We were asked to polish each and add new ones -- and we did.

Taj Hotels keeps the guest experience regal to this day, with kingly perks such as private jet transfers with personal butler between its palace properties. We want the palace experience to be royal in all areas.

On a global roll

Yet restoration and maintenance of royal residences, now marketed as part of the Taj Luxury collection, is just one aspect of a new brand architecture expansion at Indian Hotels Co., a division of Taj Hotels.

IHC introduced IndiOne, a budget hotel brand employing the companys Smart Basics concept for business and religious pilgrimage travelers.

Smart Basics provides consistently clean and convenient quality accommodations and service at affordable prices, starting from about $21, single occupancy, or $27, double, per night. The first IndiOne hotel is operating in Whitefield, Bangalore, and 10 more are under construction across India.

Taj also launched Jiva, a branded spa facility for its properties.

We wanted to create an Indian spa concept that would allow travelers to experience the ... yoga and meditation processes that originated in India, said Bickson.

Many Jiva spas will be large, freestanding facilities. A spa under construction in Dubai, for example, will be 45,000 square feet.

In other recent resort development and acquisition news at Taj:

  • Blue, Sydney: In its first foray into Australia, Taj on Feb. 1 announced the opening of Blue, a 100-room waterfront property at Woolloomooloo Bay in Sydney. The 5-year-old hotel, acquired by Taj for $27 million in December, was formerly a W Hotel. Taj plans to open additional Blue-branded hotels.

  • The Taj Exotica Resort and Spa, Palm Island Jumeirah Crescent, Dubai: To be completed in 2007, this Taj Exotica property will have 220 rooms, including deluxe rooms and luxury suites.

  • The Rebak Marina Resort, Langkawi, Malaysia: Located on a 390-acre island, the resort has the only fully equipped marina for yachts in Malaysia. Taj will spend more than $5 million in renovations and plans to relaunch the property by years end.

  • The Taj Exotica Resort and Spa, Maldives: This 4-year-old property, built over one of the largest lagoons in the Maldives, reopened in December after extensive renovations. Each of the 62 villas has a private sundeck with plunge pool. The resort has an upgraded Jiva Grande spa outlet.

  • The Taj Bhutan: Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces and partner the Tashi Group are building a hotel in Thimphu, Bhutan, set to open by April. There will be 58 rooms and suites, many with views of the Paro Valley. The Taj Bhutan will also have a Jiva spa.

  • Taj Denis Island, Seychelles: Off the coast of Mahe island in the Seychelles, the Taj Denis is on a 375-acre private coral island. Twenty-five villas are scattered across the resorts stretch of beach.

  • Taj Green Cove Resort, Kovalam, Bali: This new resort is in the Balinese fishing village of Kovalam. Hillside cottages and a Jiva spa are spread across 10 acres.
  • Another element of Tajs global expansion has been its entry into the U.S., with the purchase in July of the Pierre Hotel in New York, according to Bickson.

    New York has been in Tajs expansion plans for some time ... as the U.S. is a very important market for us, he said.

    For more on Taj Hotels call the chains North American toll-free number at (866) WOW-1-TAJ, or (866) 969-1825. Or, visit www.tajhotels.com.

    To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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