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Interview: Mr. Prakash Shukla, SVP Technology & CIO at the Taj Hotels

“The Indian vision of a knowledge-based economy will be realised only when it is based on the foundation of a robust industrial economy. To be truly beneficial, the rain of IT must fall at the right place, in the right quantity, at the right time and for the right purpose”.
          Prabhudev Konana Sridhar Balasubramanian

The Taj Resorts and Palaces

are a premier hospitality group in India, gracing important industrial towns and cities, beaches, historical and pilgrim centres and wildlife destinations. Over the years, the Taj Group has won international acclaim for its hotels and its excellence in business facilities. The Taj Group’s operations covers over 60 hotels in India and abroad, and encompass a number of brands across various price segments.

The Taj Group`s first hotel, The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai was opened in 1903 and is famous worldwide. One hundred years on and The Taj Group of hotels continues to deliver world-class personalised service to guests while authentically reproducing the traditions and heritage of India.

The Taj has recently launched


a new broadband solution using the Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) enabling guests to access high speed internet from literally any part of the hotel on their lap top.
Under the logo ‘There’s more than one way to surf’, the addition of wireless connectivity in all public spaces of the hotels is part of Taj`s goal to deliver an enhanced experience for guests and visitors, who can now access the internet without having to worry about wired connections. The addition of this service makes the Taj Hotels the first hotel chain in India to offer such a comprehensive service.

The hotel will provide a network card for laptops that will allow users to connect to the internet. Service is offered at Rs 600 for 24 hours, or alternatively guests can choose from a 1-hour access or 2 hour access, with the option of upgrading the account online. The wireless system installed in the hotels is based on 802.11 standards and supports up to 11 Mbts of data transfer.

Mr. Prakash Shukla

, Senior Vice President, Technology and Chief Information Officer, Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces met with Internet Travel News to discuss benefits of this new service.

Q. What were your main objectives when you set out to offer this service and when do you expect to see a return on investment?

A. The main purpose of the service was to provide added value for guests who are heavy users of internet. We have a lot of people coming in and out of India on these outsourcing projects, and IT enabled services projects, so we provide it as a value addition. We do charge for it, but I don’t think you can re-coup the investment in terms of actual revenues generated from the service itself. I do think that in this day and age, high speed internet access needs to be available in order to stay ahead of the competition.

Q. How many Taj Hotels are currently ‘wired’ and are you looking to increase this number?

A. There are about twenty properties currently wired up. Like most other hotels, about 85% of our revenue comes from about 25% of the Taj properties and we have those well covered. We do plan to deploy WiFi throughout most of the Taj hotels in the near future, however some of the properties are so remote that there is no need for it.

Q. Who handled the installation?

India is a technological hub. We have several vendors handling the installation. The properties are dispersed, so we have a team of vendors according to the particular location.

Q. Can you discuss the investment that you have made in this new broadband solution?

A. It really varies from property to property. For example at the Taj Mohal, the walls are so thick that it needed more access points. We probably spent about $200,000 there. I would estimate that by the time we are done, the group will have invested $5-6 million on the project.

Q. What services are currently being offered and what are the main benefits for guests?

A. Besides internet access, users can take advantage of newspaper direct and remote printing facilities. Cyber butlers are on hand 24 hours a day to check all the access points.

The main benefit would have to be the high-speed connection. We have had lots of feedback about the speed of the service. For example Mr. Blackwell, a US ambassador said that he had not stayed in many hotels with these services. At 11 megabytes per second, it is several orders of magnitude faster than what is available with a dial up connection.

Q. Do you expect this service to increase customer loyalty, demand for the internet or brand awareness?

A. Absolutely, for example on a guests’ arrival, a welcome message is generated to their mobile. This may seem a little gimmicky, but it is another way to reach out to the guest and that is what is important.

Q. What percentage of your guests are business travelers and do you have high demand for the service?

A. We do have a fairly high percentage of business travelers. We had a lot of requests for these services - not necessarily wireless, but certainly for high-speed connection. That was why we went ahead and implemented the service - customer feedback.

Q. What percentage of usage has this service seen so far? - Can you make any predictions about its popularity in the coming months?

A. We are seeing around 7% of usage since the installation and this number is growing. Every day we are seeing increasing usage. The usage of the service does tend to vary, and in some cities is much higher, for example Bangalore and Hydrabad.
Q. We have just seen phase 1 of the implementation. What are your plans for phase 11?

A. We are moving towards personalisation. There is a large CRM effort underway. As mentioned, we have deployed our CRS and CIS alongside other systems. We want to be able to capture guest profiles from the CIS and provide content that they are interested in onto the system.

When interactive systems are in place, if we have a Japanese guest who likes blues music, we would like to push as much Japanese content to that guest as possible and then link them to sites that provide blues music or destinations within a given city where there is live blues music. So we are moving towards personalisation.

Also a large percentage of our guests are corporates so we are looking at interesting solutions for corporates to link into their corporate websites.

Q. What are your expectations and predictions for wireless technology over the next few years?

A. We think wireless will dominate in every respect and there is going to be a lot of activity in the near future. Whether it is internet access for guests, using handheld terminals for taking orders for restaurants that go straight into the kitchen, or taking guests feedback while you are walking with the guest to the room.

Hotspotting is also on the increase. It is definitely a stated direction to go set up hotspots throughout India at major airports, train stations and hotels.

Q. On a wider scale, what influence or possibilities does it present the industry with?

A. One area that must be looked at from a consumer perspective, is that there is a whole trend of declining telephone revenues in the hospitality industry that will actually reverse because wireless can provide voice over IP services to guests at very reasonable rates. So in a country like India where long distance calling in pretty expensive, we can actually provide services where guests can call his or her loved ones over our IP network and when it terminates in a given city it’s a local call - so I think we will see a lot of mixed media work being done.

These connections will not only be used for data SMS and connectivity services, but also for streaming video and audio services.

Q. What kinds of meetings facilities are available at the Taj Hotels?

A. We offer our guests video conferencing facilities. All business centres have high speed and wireless connectivity. Some large conference hotels have conference halls that are wired up. That makes a huge difference for meeting planners.
Q. How will your technology budget compare to that of last year?

A. This year our technology budget has gone up significantly - we are spending a lot more than last year.

Q. Given today’s unstable economic climate is this a good time to invest?

A. I think if you are smart enough, this is a good time to invest because the prices are low and everyone is hurting including the tech world. This is a good time to build an infrastructure. This is something that must be put in place to stay ahead of competition

Q. What are your technology goals for the next year?

A. Now that the back end systems are in place, in the next couple of years, we can expect to see streaming video servers, interactive TV, wireless internet access, newspaper direct. We are also working on text based booking engines that link directly to our website straight into the CRS- there is a lot of integration work happening.

Q. How highly do you rate driving global e-commerce as a priority?

A. We had virtually no e-commerce presence until 3 years ago. If you look at our website today, it is fairly sophisticated - every hotel is covered featuring lots of information and online bookings.

Global e-commerce is a priority - in fact we are giving incentives to people who book on the website rather than booking through GDSs. We are trying to re-direct a lot of the bookings over our website because overall it is a more efficient channel.