‘My Hotel will Change the City of Kolkata’

Ranju Alex, General Manager of the JW Marriott in Kolkata spoke to BW Hotelier about one of the largest new luxury properties to open in the east. Here are just some of the reasons why she thinks it will be a clutter breaker.

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THE JW Marriott Kolkata has been one of Kolkata’s largest hotel launch in the recent past. It’s a hotel built to impress with its scale and one which would be developed into a hub for the eastern part of the country, according to Ranju Alex, the General Manager of the hotel. Alex, was born and brought up in Kolkata and worked at the Oberoi Grand till 2010. She has been with the Marriott for nearly seven years and was running the extremely successful JW Marriott in Goa before coming back to Bengal. You could say that Alex, born and brought up in Durgapur, is a Bengal fan, someone who has instinctive understanding of the market, a market which has always been very choosy and often partisan in the way it functions. We caught up with Alex to discuss her new charge, Large like she is diminutive. We soon learnt not to be misled by her petite size, which hides a very intelligent and extremely focussed and sharp General Manager.

The interview discussed her new hotel and of course the impact it has had in the market. It is also the first of quite a few hotels to be opening in Kolkata, including the new ITC property next door, a Westin in Rajarhat and several others including a large Mayfair hotels project which is in the offing. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

“I think the first thing first. This hotel is definitely a jewel in the crown for West Bengal and East India. I came in here in January and at that point of time, the lobby still had scaffolding. I think this is a hotel which has moved the fastest in the last six months before opening.

“We had close to 2,500 workers at any given time in the hotel. There were night and day shifts. All because we had taken a huge amount of business from November 2016 onwards. The date of opening was kind of final, we had to open and we started working backwards from that point,” Alex began by telling me, just to give a feel of the intense activity which preceded the opening of a quite spectacular looking hospitality property.

“The property is spectacular in a lot of ways. The structure you see is so different from anything we have seen in India. It’s got some great USPs. The ballroom is the largest in the city. It is the most beautiful ballroom in Kolkata. We have an LED wall which is 32x18 feet which is something I don’t think the country has seen,” she said, banquets are a large part of the sales strategy, since their ballroom is much larger than anything in the neighbourhood till now.

“The hotel’s very vibrant because a lot of natural light has been used. It’s people are also very vibrant. I have the highest percentage of women workforce. My front office is completely women. Even before I came here, I knew what I wanted in my front office. Kolkata has these smart young women who don’t want to leave Kolkata. I wanted this place to be for them,” Alex added, something which does make a difference in her view. Customers seem to be agreeing.

Of course the whole team as well as the hotel hit the ground running on the first day that the hotel opened. “We were full from day 1. Our first day was sold out, so there was no question of soft launch and then ramp up. It’s been very well received by the city. We have had our own share of stumbling moments, but the way things are, it’s the talk of the country, not just the town,” she added.

This was Alex’s first experience of a pre-opening and project stage hotel and she is a bit wary of taking on a similar experience again. The work on the project and the scheduled opening was such a close thing, she remembers, “when I began taking wedding reservations, people would come and ask me, whether the hotel would be completed in time. We had by that time taken so much amount of business, that if we hadn’t opened on time, the negative reviews and the angst that we would have generated in the market would have been tremendous. We knew what we were stacked against. There was no other option. What really helped is that the owners of the hotel were real estate people so they knew how to get things done,” she remembers.

The inauguration by the Chief Minister happened on the October 25, on the 23rd night, 36 hours before that the marble was getting polished and the scaffolding was getting removed. “It was a last minute scramble but we made it,” Alex added.

In fact the stress of opening was so much that Alex was actually hospitalised for two days after the opening. Kudos to her team, which worked 16 to 17 hours a day, that they weathered it all. “The adrenaline pushed us. We were all in it together, no one knew whether we were coming or going, but it also bonded our team together,” Alex says.

The team itself is large, around 360 people at present, which is also because the banqueting offerings of the hotel is really massive. “We do weddings of 2000 to 2200 people and we hit the wedding season right after opening. There has been no looking back as quite a few of these mega weddings have taken place here,” she said.

And it’s not just the wedding business, “our restaurants are totally packed as well. The team base is big because F&B is huge. We are around the 60 percent occupancy mark when it comes to rooms, which for a hotel that has just opened is very good, but we would like to increase that. I was telling everybody that this is the first hotel which has given a double digit percentage profit in the first 27 days, if you take our opening at November 3, 2016,” Alex explained.
Alex’s posting in Kolkata was right after Goa where the hotel was doing 87 percent YTD occupancy and high ADRs with high profits.

“In Kolkata all hotels do between 70 to 80 percent occupancy as a trend over the years. A good hotel would do a 70 percent while a truely excellent hotel would end up doing 77 percent and not much more than that. We will have to live by that. Weddings, 25th Anniversary parties, socials, are all a huge chunk of the revenue and I think that will never go out of fashion. The good thing now is, with so many rooms, MICE is really moving in Kolkata, which is great news. In fact, it’s already raining doctors’ conferences. The big ones happen in Science City and we get the rooms and the medium ones, we get the rooms as well as catering. I think Kolkata will survive,” she said by way of explaining the market situation and where the hotel was going to be positioned.

“The good thing about us is that we have our customer base in the old Kolkata as well as the new one. We are equidistant. We are great to leave for the airport, we are great to go into the city, thanks to the flyover. That’s the locational preference we have,” she added.

And though the hotel has a very good mix of Bengali and non-Bengali staff, there has been a joke going around that many Bengali employees within the group have been suddenly having family emergencies forcing them to seek a transfer to Kolkata, she laughed.

In conclusion, Alex summarised, “we have 191 rooms now, which will increase to 281 and there will be the addition of two more restaurants as well as the executive lounge--both the restaurants will be on the 25th floor with fantastic views. That’s going to be the focus next”.

This year, the focus is going to be clearly to becoming the market leader when it comes to rates for rooms and banquets because they had the best, she added. “The strategy for our restaurants is to be full. We have very reasonable pricing and we are full and that is how we make our money, through volume. While in the room business, we are aiming for the cream of the crop, those who can pay our rates,” she said, concluding simply that her hotel, the JW Marriott will change the face of Kolkata. They have the time and the focus, only time will tell how well they will perform in a market which has its very own challenges. But, after seeing the property as well as the focus and dedication of the team, there seems to be a good feeling and a very definite push towards new business, which may feel a little apprehensive entering the more traditional bastions of luxury in the city.


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