From Kolkata to Hyderabad, A Hotelier with an Eye for New Business Avenues
After six years as Taj Bengal GM, Mohanchandran K. leaves behind green shoots of a vibrant wine culture in Kolkata. As the Taj Group’s new Area Director for Hyderabad, his top priority is to create back-end synergies among the five Taj hotels in the city.
WHEN I FIRST met Mohanchandran Kottarapurath (he’s better-known among his zillion friends as just Mohan), he was in the thick of his last major task as General Manager, Taj Bengal, before moving on after a six-year stint to become Area Director, Hyderabad, and General Manager, Taj Krishna. It was The Second International Vine & Food Experience, which saw 28 wineries and wine importers present 80 labels and 1,600 bottles of wine to an audience primarily of young people (more than 350 on one night) in mid-April in a market traditionally known for its affinity to brown spirits.
Taj Bengal, perhaps for the first time in India, flew in two Masters of Wine (MW), the ultimate gurus of the wine world — Debra Meiburg from Hong Kong, the American who has the distinction of being Asia’s first MW, and Liam Steevenson from the U.K., who’s also a world record-holding ocean rower. It had secured the services of Master Chef Ananda Solomon, who came from Mumbai to go back to his first love, Modern European Cuisine, and lay out a memorable sit-down dinner for 170-odd people.
And they were being educated on the nuances of wine drinking by the who’s who of the industry: Karishma Grover of the wine brand that carries her family name; Sula’s Global Brand Ambassador Noi Cecilia Oldine; Abhay Kewadkar, elder statesman of the business, who has fathered and nurtured the Four Seasons brand for United Spirits Limited; Alessio Secci, part-owner of Fratelli and a passionate wine entrepreneur from Milan; Adrian Pinto, who heads wine business development for Pernod Ricard India; and Wine Park’s Vishal Kadakia, who’s widely regarded as a wine importer with a vision and a passion that makes him stand out from his peers.
Kolkata has barely registered a presence on the country’s wine map, but by conceptualising this annual event, Mohan, an IHM-Pusa graduate who has completed 25 years with the Taj, succeeded in creating a reason for young people to look up to Taj Bengal as a social destination. “These young people have typically returned from overseas, where they had gone as students and then spent some years working; they have learnt to appreciate wine and would like to have one with their next meal,” Mohan said to me as we surveyed the house-full turnout, dominated by young women, sampling wines, digging the finger food and attending the guided tastings with much gusto.
Mohan, clearly, had created a property that would permanently link Taj Bengal with Kolkata’s attempt to shed its inhibitions about wine. To reinforce the message, he introduced Wine O’Clock, which starts at 7 p.m. every Wednesday, and sees people dropping by to have wines by the glass – domestic labels at Rs 250; imported one for Rs 450; and champagne at Rs 700. “This was necessary to draw a younger generation of customers,” Mohan said. Taj Bengal celebrated its silver jubilee in 2014.
I asked Mohan if there was any life in the Kolkata market. After all, there seems to be no excitement about it. “It is an interesting market,” Mohan said and then enumerated the changes that were taking place – the changes that were encouraging enough to make a major player such as ITC start building a second hotel right next to Sonar and draw brands such as the JW Marriott, which is coming up next to the under-construction ITC Bangla on the Eastern Bypass, and Novotel at Rajarhat.
Three factors, according to Mohan, have created new possibilities for five-star hotels in Kolkata. The first is the arrival of the India Premier League (Kolkata, after all, is the home of the Knight Riders) and the equally cash-rich India Soccer League, which not only create additional room nights in season, but also propel spin-off events that turn into new business opportunities. Chess is also becoming big. Kolkata hosts two major prize money tournaments, which create their own room night demands.
Economically, too, Kolkata has been seeing a lot of activity in under-reported, unglamorous areas. During the recent coal block auctions, for instance, city hotels were teeming with bidders because the Coal India Limited headquarters is in Kolkata. Companies competing for or developing hydroelectric power projects across eastern and north-eastern India (and Bhutan) are big business providers. “The public sector is very important for the hospitality business in Kolkata,” Mohan said.
The India-China trade, which is responsible for the massive popularity of China Eastern’s daily Kolkata-Kunming flight, also keeps Kolkata hotels busy. And of course, Kolkata, after Kahaani, is back as a favourite film location. Taj Bengal not too long ago hosted British comedienne and broadcaster Sue Perkins, who was in Kolkata to shoot a BBC2 series. “There’s clearly some movement happening here,” Mohan said. “How else would you explain Emirates reintroducing first class from Kolkata.”
The five-star wedding market, meanwhile, has seen a surge in Kolkata, especially with the wealthy Marwari community no longer being secretive about spending big money on social occasions. Typically, a Marwari wedding involves four to six functions, so it’s lucrative for both the banqueting and rooms business. NRI weddings are also becoming big in Kolkata, fuelled primarily by those who left the city in the late 1970s and 1980s for better professional opportunities abroad. For nostalgic reasons, the families of these emigrants are returning home to celebrate the weddings of their children.
Mohan carries happy memories of Kolkata to Hyderabad. “One distinct change I noticed in my six years in Kolkata was an increased level of cleanliness in the city – and this I will retain as an abiding memory, simply because it is tough to get municipalities to do this,” he said to me from his perch at Taj Krishna. “I will of course remember the fabled cuisine.” Moving on to Hyderabad, Mohan said, “The first impression is really WOW – you land at possibly one of the finer airports in the country and admire the landscaping as you step out and quickly get on to the wonderfully metalled long, long flyover – 11 km – into the city.”
As he gets down to work in Hyderabad, Mohan has noticed “a bustling energy all around” and “a sense of relief among most people I have met that finally the bifurcation and the issues arising out of it are behind them, and both states can get on with the task of administration and building on new dreams.”
Settling in, and getting a sense of the five Taj addresses in the city, Mohan says, “There is certainly an opportunity to synergise at the back end. Three of our properties are in the city centre and this gives us an advantage of size, one is in the suburb of Begumpet, which has plenty going on, and of course, there is the stunning Taj Falaknuma Palace, now so well-recognised the world over.” We can already feel Mohan’s fertile mind working overtime as he looks around for new opportunities in his new city.
— This article has appeared in the May-June edition of BW Hotelier. Copyright: BW Hotelier.