Fashioning a New Wave of Hospitality

Running a trendy beach-front hotel is hardly a party, but for W Goa's Tunisian-English General Manager, Taieb 'TJ' Joulak, it's most important to touch the right passion points.

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IF TAIEB 'TJ' Joulak had to abandon his ambition to become a very good waiter and settle for his natural calling, sales and marketing, he has Lady Diana, when she was still the Princess of Wales, to thank for it.

Many moons ago, when Joulak was studying Hospitality and Tourism at the College of Food, University College Birmingham, U.K., he got to work as an industrial trainee at St James' Court, the iconic Taj hotel in London, and even became the 'employee of the month' within three months. It was then that his seniors gave him the privilege to share a wish that he would like to see fulfilled. Joulak's answer took his seniors by surprise. He said he wished to serve the Princess when she would come next for her Wednesday high tea. It was a wish that could only be fulfilled if Joulak underwent two weeks of intense training for the assignment, but he aced it and was finally able to serve the Princess of Hearts.

But that evening did not pan out according to Joulak's dreams. Something he had done had got the goat of the head butler of the Princess and the eager-beaver industrial trainee was told not to be seen near the royal guest. Later, after single-handedly cleaning 350 toilets as punishment, Joulak learnt that he had committed a major breach of protocol by addressing 'Her Highness' as 'Madam'. That was the end of his dream of becoming a waiter and then rising up the ranks to become an F&B hotshot. Joulak always knew he had the gift of the gab and he would make a good marketer, and that is what he set out to be. Fortunately, he wasn't fired.

It was his first boss in his new role, also at St James' Court, Subhash Thaker, now the Taj Group's Vice President (Europe and the Americas), who had said he would one day go and work in India. Joulak had then said, "Never in my life!", but as I dug super chef Tanveer Kwatra's creations -- salmon and wasabi idli, kael and burrata pizza, and guacamole dosa -- at the all-day restaurant of W Goa, where he is the general manager, he could not help smiling at that memory.

"Believe me, I have been visiting India on sales calls for the last ten years, but I hardly ever stepped out of my hotel. India wasn't up there in my scheme of things," reminisced the cool, friendly and conversation-savvy Tunisian, who has had a 16-year (and counting!) stint studded with 87 awards with the W brand, a Starwood brand that's been merged into the Marriott International portfolio.

Joulak was last the general manager of the W Taipei, and before that he worked in different capacities at the W in Doha, Istanbul and Bali, but Joulak, who was sporting a tulsi mala when I met him, has taken to India as naturally as a fish to water. In fact, when he met Thaker some time back at ITB Berlin, Joulak reminded his former boss about his prophetic prediction and both had a good laugh over it.

Explaining what sets a W apart from other hotels, Joulak says that fashion, music and design are the passion points of a W, which derives its exclusivity from its high energy, trendy offerings, and a sense of luxury that comes from special experiences. One of them definitely is Rockpool, which is the hotel's open-air party zone offering stunning views of the gentle sea and busy life on Vagator beach, music that will make it hard for you to be seated, a chilled-out susegad (contented) vibe, and great food -- for me, it was love at first sight with the Goli Pav, Dal Pakwan and Imli Chutney combo, the AmritsarI fish tacos, and the calamari fritters (the squids had come fresh off the Chapora jetty, so they just melted in the mouth).

An experience I won't forget in a hurry is my outing with Chef Tanveer to the 130-acre Sahakari Spice Farm in Ponda, which is as much an active farm with cashew and vanilla processing units, as a tourism showcase with guided tours culminating in a traditional Gaud Saraswat Brahmin meal served at a thatched-roof restaurant with benches for seating.

But the defining experience definitely has got to be W Goa's breakfast croissants, which bring back to Joulak memories of his childhood in Tunisia. He remembers how every Saturday and Sunday, he would run to the neighbourhood bakery get croissants fresh off the oven for his father's weekend morning ritual -- dipping croissants into his coffee and digging them. "A croissant for me is my father," Joulak said, explaining why he made his team go to lengths to get the formula right. "It must have a golden brown crust and be fluffy inside. When you cut it, a stream of steam must come out. And when you bite it, it must have a buttery taste," Joulak continued, the  movement of his delicate hands conveying the story as much as his words. (Joulak's mother is English.)

To get the croissant right, Chef Tanveer explained, the first task was to zero in on an extra dry butter with a very low water content and then began the hunt for flour with the right gluten content. The croissant dough sits for 24 hours before the crescent-shaped delicacies are baked for breakfast. Once these components were in order, all that was needed was a recipe from the Bangkok-based Eric Perez, one of the world's most celebrated pastry chefs. Add Joulak's passion to the Eric Perez recipe, and you are assured of a one-of-its-kind experience. Per breakfast, as a result, 150-175 croissants get consumed, and the number goes up to 225 on days when the hotel with 109 rooms, suites and villas is 100 per cent occupied.

Running a sea-facing hotel spread across 25 acres on a hilly terrain in a part of the country where 95 per cent humidity is par for the course, is not a party. And as Joulak points out, "The level of iodine is 25 per cent higher in sea salt and it eats into everything that comes in its way." Unsurprisingly, W Goa's executive housekeeper Prateek Jaiswal spends an hour and half daily going around the property on his golf buggy and looking for problem areas.

Jaiswal and his team have to continually contend with condensation -- "we have to keep buffing the floors and shampooing the upholstery," says Jaiswal, who's no stranger to beach resorts, having previously been the executive housekeeper of the Vivanta by Taj, Bekal (Kerala). The nights are spent by the housekeeping staff restoring the sheen of the marble floors and fixtures in the public areas. Monsoon officially arrives in Goa in June and in the three months it lasts, monsoon blinds have to be drawn to shield patrons in the verandah bar at the entrance of the hotel. Cleaning them is a big task. As is pruning the plants in the summer because their leaves turn brown. And with a forest all around, Jaiswal's team has to be constantly vigilant about insects and lizards (and other undesirable creepy-crawlies) sneaking in.

For Joulak, such attention to detail alone can set W Goa apart from its competition. "W Goa," he said with confidence, "represents a completely new wave of hospitality." Pointing to a unique characteristic of Goa hotels, Joulak said 90-95 per cent of the guests use their respective hotels only for accommodation. To turn this equation around, he has gone big on F&B (treating each of W Goa's outlets as a standalone restaurant), with Chef Tanveer, who was previously with Le Meridien Gurgaon after returning from a busy stint in Australia, actualising his general manager's vision and adding his own creative flourishes to it.

Between June 1 and October 31, when all beach restaurants in Goa (including Rockpool) have to be shut down in line with Coastal Regulatory Zone rules, Spice Trader, W Goa's award-winning Asian restaurant, being outside the Lakshman rekha, will be working through the day, transforming into a nightclub after 10 p.m. "W Goa will be the only beach-front five-star hotel to have a restaurant working during the monsoon months," Jaulak said, pitching the Spice Trader as Goa's new all-season destination.

Is Joulak happy with his W Goa experience? "On Day One itself, we made a profit, so we aren't complaining," Joulak replied with a smile. He's satisfied with 45-55 split between Indian and international guests at W Goa -- the latter are mainly from the U.S., U.K., Germany and Russia. Joulak is also happy with the economic impact of the hotel -- 30 per cent of its 370 employees are from Goa (and 16 of them, incidentally, are from Bhutan) and the average price of land in the neighbourhood has shot up from Rs 100 to Rs 1,200 per square foot since the opening of W Goa. What brings a big smile on his face, though, is any talk of W Goa's social media impact -- "we have reached out to the equivalent of 12 million readers, which translates into free advertising worth $1.3 million," Joulak said, adding that the hotel's Valentine's Day video garnered 50,000 views.

Joulak may not have wanted to come to work in India, but now he's inseparable from W Goa. There may be a karmic connection at work here -- a connection that only Subhash Thaker could sense in Joulak's green years at St James' Court.


This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'MICE issue'


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