Wearing the IT Taj



With over 21 years experience in the Information Technology industry, Prakash
Shukla brings valuable expertise to the expanding network of the Taj Group of
Hotels. An American national, Prakash is currently responsible for total IT
deployments at the Taj Group.

An advantage to start on a clean slate, allowed Prakash
Shukla to have futuristic technologies in place and not grapple with legacy
systems. An ex-employee of IBM Research Labs, Shukla joined the Tata group in
India, in 2000, and was immediately designated as the Sr VP Technology for the
Taj Group Hotels.

In the year 2000, in India, the Hospitality Industry was
still primitive on the technology front, and other than basic applications like
Property Management Solutions and the other reservation systems of the hotel,
there was not much IT adoption at the Group’s Hotels.

Prakash was involved in the CRS-CIS (Customer Reservation
Systems —Customer Information Systems) implementation at the Taj Group that
has around 70 properties across the globe.

According to Prakash, every hotel has a major chunk of its
revenue coming from its regular clientele. They too recognize this and have
deployed CIS to service the customer in a better way. The same CIS can be
accessed through any of the group’s properties. A CIS enables the hotel to
keep a record of the exact profile of the customer and keep a tab on his
preferences during his subsequent visits. CIS creates guest-centric processes
that are essential for customer relationship management. And since it focuses on
preferences, requests, and problems of different customers, it is a boon to the
hotel management.

They also were amongst the early ones to get Wi-Fi network to
their hotels in India. To the extent that even the rooms of Taj Mahal Hotel,
Mumbai enables Wi-Fi access.

The Taj Group of Hotels has implemented a WAN called TajNet,
connecting the group’s 55 properties in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. And the
international properties are connected through VPN. The centralized system has
tremendous benefits. One, there are greater economies of scale, especially when
the group wants to announce a special scheme for all its member hotels. Two, the
group can monitor the performance of each member hotel and summarize the sales
performance of the whole group.

Raking in Revenues
In the recent times the group hotel has announced the launch
of its Taj Reservations service, available 24×7-the toll free number offers
guests a one-point contact for reservations, packages, special offers,
itineraries, and information on any Taj hotel worldwide. Shukla opines that to
strive towards attaining unmatched customer satisfaction, you have to complement
innovative thinking with progressive technology.

The CIS database is also used to offer loyalty programs to
the customer. Most hotels today offer a customer different schemes based on his
profile. In the traditional method, this was done manually with no clear
understanding of a customer’s preferences. But now, with knowledge of the
customer’s history, a hotel can service a customer more efficiently.

Personal
Diary

Assignments

Worked with corporations like-Unisys/Sperry
and IBM-and has provided IT solutions for numerous clients: Morgan Stanley,
Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Solomon Smith Barney

Also serve as President of Speech
& software Technologies, a TATA Group promoted company

Mantras

  • Offer the best of breed
    services to the guest

  • IT key enabler and
    innovator to differentiate

  • Delegate and involve the
    core team as much as possible

  • Leverage on the group
    dynamics

  • Value in volumes

Under evaluation

  • Dedicated printers for
    each floor of the hotel

  • More in-room
    technologies to offer value added services

  • More services to be made
    available on Wi-Fi

  • Add more travel channels
    on the in-room systems

  • RFID tags for loyalty
    and guest recogntion programs

Education

  • Advanced Management
    Program, Harvard Business School

  • Master’s degree in
    Computer Science, New York Polytechnic University

  • Graduate in Electrical
    Engineering and English, Rutgers University

Hobbies: Rock, blues, and
Jazz, traveling, Yoga 

Favorite destination:
Prague, Czech Republic for its vibrant music scene, old and new look, and great
history.

Must be with:

  • iPod (currently uses a
    60 Gb capacity)

  • Palm top cum laptop

  • Blackberry for quick mail connectivity

He added, " In any industry, one has to realize that
though different technologies are available, all of them are not beneficial to
the end-customer. One has to realize that as customers change their preferences,
we too have to change with them. Going forward, a hotel, which understands a
customer’s needs and fulfils it satisfactorily with the help of technology
would obviously be a preferred one."

For example, we have Plasma, LCDs in our rooms at the old
wing of Taj Mahal Palace (Mumbai). We offer video-on-demand service to our
guests. We also have radio streaming from over 150 countries. We have to keep in
mind that people who travel with their gadgets might find difficulty in plugging
them at a convenient spot in the rooms. Even I face a lot of problem to plug in
my iPod with the music systems in the room or any other gadgets because there is
never one platform with ports to do that. Keeping these requirements in mind we
try and incorporate these services at the earliest.

Another significant use of this technology is seen in
wireless-equipped handheld phones called digitally enhanced cordless phones,
which serve the purpose of tracking a person anywhere in the hotel premises.
This phone is especially useful for mobile staff, who can attend to a complaint
immediately.

Leveraging on the group’s (Tata’s) services, Taj Hotels
have been innovating on applications and have a number of home grown
applications to their name. Recently, they also started a dedicated call center
service in Mumbai, which houses 150 agents. It is one of the few groups of
hotels who have a DR site (Chennai) and all their services are catered through
this call center.

Shukla takes pride in mentioning about the revamped website
of the Taj Group, which was also awarded the best hospitality website. According
to him, they have a high number of Web-based bookings, which has also increased
over the year. The website offers various other facilities like the update on
loyalty programs and inner circle points. Discounts and various other services
in terms of bookings can be availed on the website. Here, he also reiterates the
downtime impact of the network, as all these applications run on the network and
any downtime would mean no reservations, no POS swipes and others, which are so
critical for the business. There is an immediate tangible impact on the
revenues.

Prakash does not hesitate to refer to the Tata group
dynamics, which does give The Taj group an advantage. This not only offers them
cost benefits, but a lot more room to innovate with their offerings.

A compelling factor in the hospitality industry is the kind of services you offer to the customers.
There is no immediate way to measure the returns, but nonetheless they are the
distinguishing factors. For example offering Wi-Fi in the rooms, video on demand
services, personal printers etc.

Typical Challenges
Prakash mentions that the true challenge is not in adopting
technology, but to see its optimum utilization and extending the benefits to the
customers. The attrition rate being high in this industry-it’s a constant
challenge to keep training and retaining the trained employees to use mission
critical solutions effectively. The personalized services that are offered are
not leveraged on. Another challenge is deploying in-room entertainment and
technologies, which require lot of reengineering and renovation, if the old
equipments in the room need to be hauled. Hospitality being a service
oriented-industry, IT is an enabler to provide better service. The hospitality
industry by and large is little slower in adopting technology. It is primarily
used to differentiate as the services and applications are more or less standard
across the industry.

He also believes in learning from the experiences of the
larger chains across the globe rather then re-inventing the wheel.

The Way Ahead
Prakash opines that there is no end to the innovation around
the services that one can offer. They plan to make printers available on each
floor of the hotel, which will be made accessible to guests with a private pin
to provide security and privacy. As they have an advantage of having a complete
Wi-Fi network in place, new applications are being evaluated to go that extra
mile to make their guests stay pleasurable and prolific.

Minu Sirsalewala

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