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an interview with south asia general manager finalist sunil taneja

 

“The experience in the hotel was a sophisticated reflection of the values that I was brought up with; to be respectful, disciplined, maintain cleanliness and approach life in a methodical way. This experience changed the course of my life.”

 

1. Can you describe your childhood and where and when your initial interest in hospitality began?

I was born and raised in India’s capital, New Delhi, in a family that placed a great deal of importance on education and hard work. Hailing from a Police Force background, I grew up with a sense of discipline, respect for others and an inclination to always serve those around me with an attitude of safety. Given the importance of receiving education, I focused on going to an engineering school and even got into BITS PILANI, a renowned engineering institute in the country.

It was one afternoon when I visited my father at his office when I happened to be introduced to his superior, who advised me that I should consider exploring the growing hospitality industry instead of pursuing engineering. He urged my father to go and meet Mr. Ram Prasad, the President of Hotel & Restaurant Association of Northern India (HRANI). The next day, my father and I visited the legendary Ambassador Hotel, New Delhi to meet the gentleman, who was the longest serving President of HRANI and owner of the hotel.

Like a child in a candy store I was entering a luxury hotel for the first time and was fascinated by the reflection of the chandelier lights on the black and white checkered marble flooring and the hotel staff’s immaculate ensemble. My interaction with Mr. Ram Prasad created an affirmative memory that I can never forget. While he spoke passionately about his line of work, I observed from my peripheral view, a well-spoken service staff who was elegantly conducting tea service. It reminded me of our belief in “Atithi Devo Bhava”, a phrase from the ancient Vedic literature that translates to “treat your guests with the highest respect and service”, equating the values of guests to that of God.

The experience in the hotel was a sophisticated reflection of the values that I was brought up with; to be respectful, disciplined, maintain cleanliness and approach life in a methodical way. This experience changed the course of my life and I decided to join the hospitality industry.

My dreams began to shape into reality after I studied at the Institute of Hotel Management, PUSA, New Delhi, one of the premier hospitality Institute of India and kickstarted my career as a Management trainee at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. I knew then that there was no place I’d rather be than in this industry, the heart of all happenings. I was involved in the pre-opening of several iconic Taj restaurants in Paris, London and various locations in India. Subsequently, I was promoted to become the Food & Beverage Manager at Taj Palace, New Delhi, then moved to Taj Bengal, Calcutta, and came back to the flagship property in Mumbai as the Resident Manager.

Having strong organisational skills and an ability to connect with people, I became the General Manager for the pre-opening of Taj Wellington Mews, the country’s first fully serviced luxury apartment hotel in Mumbai, India. I also had a stint with Taj Singapore Airlines Catering Services (Taj Sats), Mumbai, as the Director of Marketing and Business Development India, being responsible for development and strategy.

All these assignments have shaped my career by gaining an understanding of various markets, building a strong service culture and leading teams with trust and accountability. This experience led me to take on a new role as the General Manager at Vivanta Whitefield, Bangalore, a unique prototype for the new age travellers. Afterwards, I moved to Taj Yeshwantpur, Bangalore, a luxury hotel with the largest inventory in the city of Bangalore. Today I stand with over 38 rich years of experience working for world class hotels situated across numerous regions and a deep understanding of all the aspects that go into operating a successful business.

2. What opportunities have you experienced that you feel have been the most valuable part of your career development as a hotelier?

My aspiration in life has always been to learn continuously, set high goals for my self-development and be a mentor who brings out the true potential of my team.

As hospitality is an ever-changing and demanding industry, I needed to learn beyond one’s own existing knowledge and broaden my vision to understand the dynamics involved in the entire hotel operation. Through cross exposure of other operational verticals and the support of my organisation, I took the initiative of writing to General Managers of iconic hotels across the world, seeking internships during my vacation period in order to broaden my learnings. Through my apprenticeship, I was able to find ways to improve existing systems, procedures and discover new trends in the industry. Innovative ideas and best practices were implemented at the Taj hotels based on my learnings at these International brands: Ritz Carlton Shanghai & Los Angeles; Intercontinental Amsterdam, London and Luxembourg and more.

Throughout my life, I have had various mentors, who were true leaders that highlighted my areas of improvement whenever required.

During my tenure as the Resident Manager and General Manager, I had the privilege to work and interact closely with the Managing Director of Indian Hotels Company Limited, Mr RK Krishna Kumar. I admire him greatly for the futuristic and visionary leadership style he embodies. With an ability to inspire and motivate people with humility, he is a man of values. Mr RK Krishna Kumar conducts business by adhering to the principles of integrity, unity, excellence, pioneering and to improve the lives of the communities we serve globally.

These values continue to remain as a pillar of my leadership style. I believe in leading by example, by taking action, by demonstrating open communication and by bringing out the best in every team member. I also believe in creating a culture of trust amongst my colleagues to achieve common organisational goals and shared vision.

3. Can you share one particular memory that you have experienced during your time as a hotelier that made you realise this was the right industry for you?

The act of giving is weaved into our culture and ethos. I actively give back to the community along with my team. In 1995, a special moment that I shared with my team was when we visited the Mother’s House, the Missionaries of Charity at Kolkata, to donate clothes, blankets and serve a meal to the children and elderly. I was privileged to interact with Mother Teresa for a few moments. It was particularly a moving experience to feel her love, empathy and kindness for humanity and selflessness to service the poor. I recalled her saying “the greatest disease of our mankind is to be a nobody to anybody” as she thanked our team for graciously coming to the home during our busy schedule.

This meaningful interaction helped me realise how simple acts of generosity could cause a ripple effect. I recognised that by engaging positively with my team, I could affect the way that they interact with and create lasting memories for our guests.

 

4. What attracted you to apply for Stelliers and what does the platform mean to you and your team?

2019 is an exciting year as it is the first time that Stelliers, the leading hotelier awards platform, opens up its applications to include South Asian applicants. This award platform is truly the only recognised accolade in the industry that has established itself with the highest credibility and fairness.

I was drawn towards Stelliers in particular as I appreciate the mammoth efforts taken towards selecting the Hoteliers of the Year from a pool of high calibre professionals, dedicated to delivering quality experiences in an authentic way. These candidates truly exemplify the core of hospitality and demonstrate that every effort can make a big impact on our industry’s footprint.

The sincerity of celebrating outstanding hospitality professionals working across different verticals of hotel operations is encouraging to all future budding hoteliers, who desire to pursue greater heights and be the best in their class. To be nominated is not only an incredibly proud and humbling moment for me but also an honour for my team and company to be a part of our journey.

 

5. How are you planning on leveraging this opportunity to inspire the younger generation in Asia to work harder at developing their career in the hospitality scene?

In the midst of managing dynamic hotel operations, I am fortunate to deliver guest lectures, panel discussions in educational institutions and share my professional expertise and experiences with students. In an effort to nurture, engage with and retain talent at a grassroot level. I am also a mentor to young budding undergraduates, whom we provide scholarships to for a 3-year hotel school education and on-the-job training at the hotel. It is an honour for me in my current role to represent the Ministry of Tourism, India as part of the five-star Hotel classification team and also the Hotel Association of India in an effort to contribute towards shaping the Hotel Industry in India.

Stelliers is the trailblazer representing the hospitality industry’s diversity internationally. An association with this accolade will help pave the way and expand the efforts to aspire future leaders to dream big, follow their passion and persevere in the hotel industry to achieve excellence.

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