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Raymond Bickson of Hawaii: How to Be A Hospitable Host

Raymon N. Bickson is a hero of India's $20 billion hospitality industry. He's feted in India's political, business and social circles for having re-energized the country's leading hotel chain, helping drive up annual tourist arrivals
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INDIA Uttar Pradesh Agra Taj Mahal at sunrise reflected in pool of water
INDIA Uttar Pradesh Agra Taj Mahal at sunrise reflected in pool of water

Raymond N. Bickson of Hawaii came to India nearly a dozen years ago and set about transforming its moribund hospitality industry. Not surprisingly in a country where foreign talent is not always welcomed on account of the huge cohort of homegrown executives, he ran up against considerable corporate resistance and cultural skepticism.

Today, Bickson is a hero of India's $20 billion hospitality industry. He's feted in India's political, business and social circles for having re-energized the country's leading hotel chain, helping drive up annual tourist arrivals, persuading policy makers to give fresh emphasis to the role of hospitality as a major driver of sustainable economic growth, generating more employment, and projecting Indian leadership in influential world travel and tourism circles.

Indeed, if Bickson accepts all the industry invitations that he gets to grace local soirees in India and global conferences in the choicest of cities, he would never have time left over for his day -- and night -- job. That job is one of the most demanding in India's corporate world: Bickson is managing director and chief executive officer of the Indian Hotels Company, which runs the fabled Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces. That means he must be a whirling dervish.

It's a job that suits his personality, which is buoyant, bubbly and redolent with a cheery attitude that was undoubtedly shaped when he was growing up in Hawaii as a scion of a prominent family. When I visited Bickson in his art-filled office at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, I found myself struggling to keep up with the velocity of his ideas, command of statistics, and intellectual drive.

He impresses the visitor without having to show off. There's something fundamentally likeable about the dapper Bickson -- the Hawaii personality? -- and this manifests itself in his infectious smile, ready laughter, solicitous nature, his offering to guests heaps of delicious sandwiches and endless cups of spice-flavored tea, and entertaining tales of his extensive experience in the United States and elsewhere prior to his arrival in India. The Taj Group's then chairman, the legendary Ratan N. Tata, recruited him at a time when Tata was still putting his own imprimatur on the parent company, Tata Sons, one of India's oldest and more venerated conglomerates that deals in a wide spectrum of services and goods, including automobiles, hotels, consultancies and telecommunications.

If Bickson was fazed by the initial skepticism with which he was greeted in India, he didn't show it. He quickly went about injecting Taj Hotels with fresh vitality, working effectively with R. K. Krishna Kumar, who ran Indian Hotels. (Krishna Kumar retired in 2013 as a director of Tata Sons, leaving Bickson as the unquestioned boss of the holding company of Taj Hotels.)

Since 2003 when Bickson came to India, Taj has been opening a new hotel every nine weeks. These facilities are in four categories, ranging from luxury to business to budget. Bickson points out that hospitality is the world's fastest growing industry, with revenues of nearly $4 trillion -- almost 20 percent of global GDP. The industry adds one new job every 2.5 seconds. (Taj has suffered some setbacks, of course: Indian Hotels decided to give up their seven-year-old chase of Bermuda-based Orient Express Hotels its $1.86 billion bid suffered two failed attempts.)

Figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council -- the industry's preeminent body -- show the industry growing at a rate of 23 percent faster than that of the global economy, employing 212 million, or nearly 10 percent of world employment. International travelers and tourists spent some $463 billion at their destinations in 2001; by 2013, that figure had risen beyond $2 trillion. In 20 years, the number of international travelers alone will more than double from 700 million to 1.6 billion per year.

In India, more than 20 million people work in hospitality, making the industry the country's largest employer. Bickson is convinced that as India's currently faltering economic growth accelerates, hotels alone have the potential of doubling its revenues to $45 billion, and generating at least 5 million jobs annually. (The total market size of Indian tourism and hospitality sector is $117.7 billion, and is expected to touch $418.9 billion by 2022. The foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows in hotel and tourism sector during April 2000 to July 2013 stood at $6,754.49 million, as per the data released by Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion.)

Many of the industry jobs are within Taj Hotels, which owns or manages 125 facilities in 12 countries. Bickson said that Taj grew through a combination of three elements: management contracts, 100 percent ownership, and a sliver of equity in hotel properties.

In India, Taj, along with its rivals Oberoi and ITC, control 62,000 rooms, or some 60 percent of the overall total. Taj's market share is around 12 percent.

For a huge country like India -- population 1.3 billion -- even 100,000 hotel rooms are scarcely adequate to meet domestic demand. But Bickson is disappointed that not enough foreign tourists come to India: The annual figure is barely 7 million. France gets 80 million tourists each year.

According to India's Planning Commission estimates, 4,972,330 rooms will be required by 2016 in India, which is an additional 2,260,040 rooms from the 2010 level. Bickson said that strong growth in per capita income in India, and rising young populations coupled with changing lifestyles are leading to greater expenditure on leisure services.

That's why Bickson has been emphasizing not only the building of new hotels by domestic and international brands that incorporate global best practices; he's been also promoting the strengthening of India's infrastructure -- roads, ports and airports.

Besides relatively poor infrastructure, said S. M. Shervani, President of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India, the dearth of travel to India was explained by the economic slowdown in Europe and other countries. Domestic tourists were the saving grace, according to him, with more than 30 million Indians traveling annually within the country.
Furthermore, said Shervani, taxation structures made the Indian hospitality sector uncompetitive against its global peers: Domestic firms face anywhere between 19 to 25 percent of overall taxes as against 8 percent on an average in international markets.

Besides industry leaders in India like Shervani, among Bickson's allies is David Scowsill, president and CEO, World Tourism and Travel Council. Bickson endorses Scowsill's view that hospital industry figures underline the need for governments to prioritize the industry: "The research clearly indicates the vast economic and social relevance of the travel and tourism industry in Asia as well as its potential over the next decade."

Bickson added, "Travel and tourism is responsible for 1 in 12 jobs in Asia and employs more people than any other sector."

Both he and Scowsill are urging governments to adopt the following measures: The way forward for growth and prosperity is to implement smarter visa and border security policies, avoid or abolish tourist taxes and attract and develop a skilled workforce to support the growing demand.

"The hospitality sector has an exciting future -- governments need to make sure they make the most of the opportunity," Bickson said.

Then his natural competiveness comes into play.

"We don't care which hotel you stay at -- as long as it is ours," Raymond Bickson said with a broad smile. He offers his visitor a fresh plate of chutney sandwiches, and takes one himself.

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