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Q&A: Puneet Chhatwal, CEO of Taj Hotels

Puneet Chhatwa
The Taj Hotels brand maybe synonmous with luxury, but this subsidiary of Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL) counts the corprate travel sector as its biggest earner. Here, Puneet Chhatwal, chief executive and managing director of IHCL, talks to BBT about Brexit, alliances and the group's latest plans 
 
Q: How important is business travel to Taj Hotels? 
Business travel is a very important part of all brands of IHCL including Taj, Vivanta and Ginger. The revenue generated from business travel is about 65 per cent of the total revenue. The group’s hotels in major cities like its flagship The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, Taj Palace in New Delhi, Taj Coromandel in Chennai, Taj Westend in Bangalore, Taj Krishna in Hyderabad, Taj Bengal in Kolkata, St. James Court in London Taj Samudra in Colombo, The Pierre in New York, Taj Campton Place in San Francisco and Taj Cape Town in South Africa are frequently home to industry leaders as well as heads of states.    
 
We are constantly looking at ways to enhance the guest experience. Taj Innercircle is a very robust programme with some industry-first features, resulting in a number of awards. We are constantly evaluating ways to augment the programme. We recently entered a strategic alliance with Shangri-La, which, for the first time, gave Indian customers access to 200 hotels across 131 destinations in 27 countries. And this is just the beginning. Going forward, we are looking to forge new alliances with more partners. 
 
Q: Global business travel appears to be growing – are any of the Taj hotels in major cities adapting rooms, or fares, to better cater for them?  
IHCL embarked on a major renovation spree to upgrade the hotels to meet the evolving needs of business travellers. The company undertook a phased renovation, updating rooms and other facilities at several of its landmark hotels including the iconic flagship hotel The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, Taj Lands End, Mumbai, Taj Bengal, Kolkata, Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Goa and Taj Fort Aguada Resort & Spa, Goa. This has delivered world-class products, augmented in-room features and refreshed and vibrant culinary destinations. Our fares are dynamic and driven by many factors including market demand and supply.
 
Q: Your St. James’ Court hotel recently had a refurbishment – how was that received, and are any more UK properties in the pipeline? 
We are always looking at opportunities for growing in all markets which includes the UK. St. James’ Court has newly refurbished rooms at Almoners Townhouse, designed by Dexter Moren Associates, alongside interior design consultant Sue Freeman, as part of a multi-million-pound renovation. The hotel hosts 100,000 travellers each year and these updates mark an exciting era for the hotel to serve the ever-evolving needs of the modern traveller. This property first opened its doors as a hotel in 1902 and has been our flagship property in Europe since it became a Taj in 1982.
 
Meanwhile, Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites and Residences is a five-star hotel in central London that still resonates with echoes of history reaching back to the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. Located between the citadels of British monarchy, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Cathedral, the residence is adjacent to St James Court. It is also home to the Michelin-starred restaurant Quilon.
 
Q: India is a fast-growing economy – after Brexit, do you think there will be a rise in business travel to the country as the UK seeks new business relationships?   
The UK has been a very important source market for us, and it is a market that has grown continuously. I do believe this will be an exciting and profitable time for India. By 2028, India is set to be a US$6 trillion economy – the third largest on the globe. While India is currently welcoming 10 million visitors per year, this figure is expected to double in three years. We should see more guests from the UK as well.
 
Q: Can you tell us about Taj's eco and CSR initiatives?  
Sustainability is at the core value of the Tata group, of which IHCL is a part of. We will be partnering with Siemens for all the new initiatives as Siemens has put in place various plans to create a sustainable environment. This would include an advanced laundry system, among others. We made a group-wide commitment to reach ten hotels by June this year, and 20 hotels by March 2019. Other aspects are:
Under our ‘enabling sustainable livelihoods’ initiative started in 2009, we continue to provide skills training to India’s underprivileged youth and we partner with nonprofit units. We have also spearheaded a Livelihood Support Programme for the handloom weavers that we started in 2008. At present this programme is functional in three villages engaging 21 weavers’ families. Taj commissions these weavers to create silk sarees. Our front office and housekeeping staff at all of its luxury and palace hotels in India and abroad lovingly showcase these beautiful sarees. 
The Taj Tata Strive Programme is a tripartite collaboration between Taj, Tata Strive and CII which aims to provide financial, infrastructural and skill support to the underprivileged to achieve a sustainable livelihood. 
We have skilled and certified more than 20,000 less privileged, school dropout youths since 2008, with more than 90 per cent job placements across industry.
Supported Heritage Sites; Promotion of Cleanliness in more than 30 public spaces across locations in India over last two years.
Responsible Purchasing – more than 6 crores (£626,000) worth of goods procured annually through inclusion and diversity efforts.
Exhibition spaces for indigenous artisans and craftsmen – more than 100 artisans and culture troupe members supported year on year.
Taj Public Service Welfare Trust – more than 10,000 disaster survivors/families of victims supported since 2008.
Through our association with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, we offer hospitality training to students in the age group of 17-21 years, with a focus on rendering job-specific skills, which will increase their chances of getting a secure job. The Golden Threshold programme is Taj’s step towards increasing the number of skilled professionals for the industry. We have worked closely with TISS to design the syllabus and experienced professionals from within the group will conduct the job based skill trainings.
• Finally, plastic straws have been eliminated from all IHCL hotels. 

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