Guardian Of The Crown Jewels

With a portfolio that covers vast geography, from Heathrow to Wayanad, old Taj hand Prabhat Verma has trained his spotlight on the company’s hidden jewels such as Khazana and Jiva spa as well as on Ama trails & stays, IHCL’s foray into the ‘fine homestays’ segment.

WHEN WE ASKED Prabhat Verma, a seasoned Taj hand and Executive Vice President-Operations, South India, International and Ancillary Businesses, IHCL, how he manages his time even as he juggles so many hats, he answers modestly: “Yes, there’s enough, perhaps more, for us to do.”

A day before our telephone interview, Verma was in Bengaluru for the bhoomi pujan for the Taj coming up at the IT capital’s international airport, but that’s just a fragment of the company’s growth story in the South, a geography that the IHM-Kolkata graduate knows too well, having cut his teeth as General Manager, successively (and successfully), of Taj Malabar (Kochi) and Taj Coromandel (Chennai).

Verma has overseen three renovations -- of the historic Connemara in Chennai, then of Fisherman’s Cove at Mahabalipuram, and most recently, of the Taj M.G. Road, Bengaluru, which is all set to house the group’s first brewpub. He has steered the entry of the 113-year-old brand into the temple town of Tirupati -- the first branded five-star hotel to do so. He has presided over the openings of hotels as diverse as the Taj Ramanujam IT Park in Chennai, a scenic new resort in Wayanad, Kerala, overlooking an old dam, and Taj Yashwantpur in Bengaluru to dip into the MICE movements in that side of the city. He’s also in the thick of the upgradation of Taj Gateway, Bengaluru, which is on its way to becoming the prototype for the re-invented Vivanta brand. And, under his charge, IHCL has seen its international footprint expand to Heathrow Airport, Makkah (Saudi Arabia), which is a greenfield project, and two more locations in Dubai in time for the Expo 2020.

But Verma can’t stop talking about Ama Trails & Stays, which, he said, was IHCL’s route to “being present at all experience and price levels”. From Tata Coffee’s bungalows in Coorg to refurbished Goan haciendas, Ama offers completely local immersive experiences to vacationers who wish to get out of the concrete and confusion of cities to experience nature in its pristine form, with local food and the local connect -- the cook, caretaker and housekeeper at each of these addresses are drawn from the local community -- being the other big draws. Ama Trails & Stays, in fact, has the potential of becoming a major local employment generator.

The locations, though, are the biggest draws. At the Tata Coffee estate at Pollibetta in Coorg, for instance, urban refugees can retire to the eight colonial bungalows and get lost in 20,000 acres of lush green plantations, occasionally stirring out to play golf or spot as many of the 300 resident bird species as possible. Tapping synergies with other Tata companies, IHCL has inked deals with Tata Global Beverages for similar addresses in Munnar, Kerala, and Tata Power for its old inspection bungalows in Maharashtra. With IHCL CEO and Managing Director Puneet Chhatwal eyeing 100 such acquisitions by 2020, Verma surely has his hands full. But the stress doesn’t show on him -- maybe because of the palpable excitement of making a foray into a segment five-star luxury hotels have not yet penetrated, despite the popular demand.

For the ordinary, all this may seem to be quite a handful, but the expansion story is just a fragment of the larger picture. Keeping pace with Chhatwal’s multi-directional effort to “unlock the potential” of each of the company’s brands in order to make IHCL “most iconic and most profitable” by 2022, Verma’s ‘ancillary businesses’ portfolio has never been busier. “We have jewels in our portfolio that needed to be re-polished and made to shine once again,” Verma said, explaining the new emphasis on re-engineering IHCL brands such as Khazana, The Chambers, Jiva Spa and the recently re-branded Taj Salon. 

Even the restaurants -- 380 of them, and counting, including the Michelin-starred Campton Place Restaurant in San Francisco (the first Indian-inspired restaurant in the world to get two of these coveted stars) and Quilon in London, which has had a star without a break since 2008 -- are prized jewels on a loaded crown. A number of them -- from Karavalli and Southern Spice to Orient Express, Golden Dragon and Thai Pavilion -- are icons and Verma declares: “We will now make them travel.” Bombay Brasserie, for instance, will now open in Sri Lanka, after planting its flag in Dubai and Cape Town. 

Unlike the restaurants, which have been in the public eye and got their share of accolades, Khazana is present in 14 Taj hotels, but never got talked about as a part of the larger brand story. Described by Verma as a product of the “vision of the company’s founding fathers to look after our artisans and the heritage they represent”, Khazana will not only see an addition in numbers, but also an expansion of offerings with the inclusion of food products, tea and coffee in its product mix. 

 The Chambers, the elite, by-invitation-only club present in only a select few Taj hotels, will undergo a makeover in Delhi, expand to London and Bengaluru, and its membership will be opened up for people Verma describes as “disruptors” -- namely, heads of startups and new business verticals. That will be a dramatic shift in the membership profile of the club, which first opened in Mumbai in 1975.

IHCL’s spa brand, Jiva, launched 15 years ago, is another of the crown jewels hardly ever in the public eye. Today, 52 Jiva spas are operational around the world, including one at St James’s Court in London, and another five are coming up in the next three months. The formulations for the oils used for treatments at Jiva -- sourced from Kerala, UK and Australia -- have not been changed since the spa brand’s inception. At the same time, local treatments have also been integrated into Jiva’s menu. At Coorg, for instance, you can get a coffee treatment drawn from local healing traditions. And, gratifyingly for IHCL, the 15 years of Jiva have also been complaint-free, which is why it is confidently on its expansion drive.

If Jiva is getting its pride of place, how can the Taj Salon not get its share of the spotlight? It is being re-branded and its menu of services is being re-designed to cater to a “metrosexual clientele that wants to look good and feel good in a contemporary urban ambience”.

When a chronologically aged brand embarks on a growth path marked with such diversity, chances are that its senior leadership, and executives down the line, would somewhere lose track or slow down. Every 10 or 15 days, the IHCL leadership meets to ask, according to Verma, one critical question: “Are we growing smartly?” True, a company must grow smartly when its objective is to be the “most iconic and most profitable”. IHCL’s seasoned warriors, and Verma definitely is at the forefront, haven’t lost sight of this critical fact.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'The Renovation and Outdoor issue'

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