What Indian hoteliers are made of

Quietly but successfully, Rajeev Menon has become the most-influential Indian in global hoteliering

brunch Updated: Jun 10, 2017 17:57 IST
rude food,vir sanghvi,rajeev menon
Existing Marriott properties like the ones in Bengaluru, Mussoorie, Kolkata and Jaisalmer have grown considerably, ever since Rajeev Menon took charge in 2007.

I am not sure how many people realised this but when Marriott took over Starwood a few months ago, something historic happened to the Indian hotel industry. For the first time ever, a foreign hotel chain became India’s largest operator of hotels with 84 hotels and over 18,000 rooms.

The Taj, which used to be number one is now second with around 11,000 rooms. It is just behind in the number of hotels too: 83 to Marriott’s 84, but by the end of the year, Marriott will have widened the gap further.

I imagine that most people knew what Marriott is (Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott, JW Marriott, Fairfield by Marriott, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton and Marriott Executive Apartments amongst many others) but Starwood is a collection of hotel brands that are probably better known than the conglomerate which owned (having usually acquired them from others) the hotel chains. It includes some of the best-known names in the global hotel business: Sheraton, Le Meridien, Westin, St. Regis, W, Four Points, Aloft and many others.

Together, the new merged entity (largely run by Marriott) is a global giant, possibly the biggest chain in the world with a staggering 6,000 or so properties in 122 countries.

Unusually for a foreign company, Marriott’s South Asiaoperation is run by an Indian (Neeraj Govil) and within the industry, Marriott’s success in our market is often explained by its enthusiasm for hiring Indians (or people of Indian origin) for key posts. There are few expatriate executive chefs at Marriott in India and fewer and fewer expat general managers.

Partly, this comes from a sense that Indian professionals understand the Indian market best. But it is also a recognition that Indians are some of the world’s best hoteliers. Hyatt came to this conclusion some years ago when Rakesh Sarna rose to top positions within the company. (He was head of Hyatt in the US before he left to become Chief Executive of Taj).

With Sarna back in the country where he was born, the most successful Indian in the global hotel business is a guy who is so obsessively low-profile that hardly anybody outside of the hotel business has heard of him. And even within the hospitality industry, most people would not recognise him if they bumped into him in the street.

Unusually for a foreign company, Marriott’s South Asia operation is run by an Indian. This proves that Indian professionals understand the Indian market best.

But Rajeev Menon is a huge player in the global hotel world. He looks after all of Marriott-Starwood’s hotels in Asia-Pacific (including Australia but excluding China). That means that his portfolio includes 280 hotels across 20 countries, more than double the size of the Taj group and far, far bigger than any other Indian hotel chain. In the luxury segment alone (defined as JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, W, Bvlgari, Edition, Luxury Collection, St. Regis and Ritz Carlton Reserve), Menon’s APEC portfolio includes a staggering 68 hotels.

So how does a quiet Punjabi boy end up being the most successful Indian in the global hotel industry?

Sheer merit would be my guess. It is not as though Menon had any special privileges or lucky breaks. His father worked for the railways. Rajeev grew up in Delhi, living in railway accommodation (around the area where the Leela Palace is now) and went to the Pusa Catering College. He joined ITC as a trainee and worked at the chain’s F&B outlets, seemingly headed for a solid ITC-type career.

Then, the Sea Rock hotel in Bombay (run by ITC) went on strike and Menon, along with other ITC trainees, was despatched to run the hotel. As the employees demonstrated outside, the hotel remained open for business, manned entirely by managers and trainees. It was not considered safe to cross the picket lines (there were knifings and guns were fired) so the trainees lived in the hotel, three for four to a room and handled everything from answering the phones to cleaning the rooms to cooking at the restaurants.

Rajeev Menon is the most successful Indian in the global hotel business, a title he’s achieved without anyone’s notice.

The strike went on for weeks and though he was bunkered down in the hotel, working non-stop from breakfast to late in the night, Menon says that the experience of working in the Sea Rock during the siege was probably the most formative moment of his career in India. It sharpened his skills, taught him how to cope with pressure and made him understand what it took to actually run a hotel.

Menon had an uncle in Australia who had been urging him to move there and he finally took the plunge (at the time he was Banquet Manager at the Maurya) thinking it would be easy. Assuming that his ITC experience would help, he applied for jobs at many top Australian hotels.

All of them turned him down. After 25 rejections, Menon realised that Australians really did not give much credence to the Indian experience he regarded as so valuable. So he scaled down his ambitions and began applying for entry-level jobs.

He did get one such job even though the managers who interviewed him told him that he was overqualified. But Menon was so desperate by then that he was willing to take anything he was offered.

As usually happens in a just and fair system, even if the entry into the company is difficult, merit always rises to the top and Menon quickly earned a series of promotions. But this brought its own challenges. Appointed Banquet Manager, he met the Banquet Steward and asked if he could speak to the Banquets team.

“We are the team,” he was told.

In Australia (as in the West), hotels are run with small service teams (the opposite of India) and rely on casual staff when more servers are needed. This means that managers are required to do much more themselves and have fewer people to depend on.

Menon quickly came to terms with the non-Indian way of doing things. And then his rise was startling. He was poached by the Stamford Hotel group, run by a Singapore-Chinese millionaire. He managed and opened several hotels for Stamford before Marriott began talking to him. The group had run a hotel in Panjim in Goa for years. Now, it was ready to explore the rapidly developing India market. Would Menon be willing to go back?

Menon agreed and moved to Mumbai to open the Renaissance Hotel in the then distant suburb of Powai in Mumbai. It was an uphill task, made even more difficult by the global slump in travel following the 9/11 attacks. Somehow, Menon made it work and Marriott was impressed enough to transfer him back to Sydney in 2004 as Country General Manager for all of Australia.

He performed so well in Australia that they promoted him and sent him to India to oversee Marriott’s development in 2007. At that stage, the group had six hotels. That number increased to 27 and should go up to nearly 50+ in the next three years, even without the Starwood properties. (Add the Starwood hotels and the figures are startling: there will be around 100 openings in the next few years and the chain will be present in 33 cities in India.)

By the time he was given charge of the APEC (Asia Pacific excluding China) region in 2015, Menon was that rarity in the global hotel business, a hugely successful Indian executive who had come up via the hotel operations route. (Finance is the usual route to success for Indians in hospitality abroad) Moreover, much of his experience had been earned in the Indian market. That alone says something about Indian hoteliers and how they are finally beginning to be respected around the world.

Now that Menon is the big boss for the region, Marriott is posed to grow dramatically in India. But I suspect that Menon’s real challenges will be the same as those faced by his Marriott colleagues around the world: how do you align the Starwood brands with Marriott’s?

The company’s line, echoed by Menon, is that the French luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy (LVMH) has 70 brands, most of them in the same upmarket space, and still has no difficulty in giving each of them its own identity.

It is a valid parallel but Marriott has inherited Starwood’s global branding problems. What, for instance, is the difference between Sheraton and Westin, which operate at roughly the same price points? What does Le Meridien represent? And Starwood’s ‘bread-and-butter’ brand, the once great Sheraton has now ossified. Sheraton hotels seem dull, characterless and boring, selling only on the basis of location or rate advantage.

No doubt Marriott will sort out those problems. Till then we have a reason to be proud. An Indian has risen to the first division of global hoteliering.

And he’s done it so quietly and so modestly that many of us did not even notice!

From HT Brunch, May 28, 2017

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First Published: May 27, 2017 22:15 IST