After working with the Taj Group for four long decades, hotelier Veer Vijay Singh retired from the group to launch the hotel management firm Trance, along with his son Suryaveer, hoping to change the face of the country’s hospitality industry. Father’s Day is upon us, which was a great excuse to speak to the talented duo about their business and personal relationships, as well as their decision to work together. The two cover these points and more, and Veer Vijay opens up about the vital role his wife Savita plays in binding the family together.
Veer Vijay Singh
Tell us about your journey with Taj.
As a young boy from a Rajput family, I wanted to join the army, as my father and uncles were all soldiers. I went to a National Cadet Corps camp and, after a not-so-great experience, decided against it. At the age of 14, I went to Mumbai on holiday to visit my uncle and went to the Taj Palace for dinner, after which we walked to the Gateway of India. While everybody was gazing at the monument and the ships in the water, my attention was still on the Taj property. I was mesmerised by the magnificent beauty that was built in 1903, and at that moment I made up my mind about working there. I then found out that to be a hotelier, you have to study hotel management. So I went to Delhi and joined the Institute of Hotel Management to pursue a four-year course. My aim was always to work at the Taj, so every year I would go to there for training. I worked in various outlets like banquets, shamianas and room service. It was a lot of fun, and after I graduated in 1976, I was lucky to be picked up by Taj as a trainee chef. That’s how my journey began.
I’ve worked at various Taj properties like the Taj Bengal in Kolkata from 1998-2000 and the Taj Krishna from 2000-2009 (during the time of the alliance between the Taj and Krishna Group), as well as the Taj Samudra in Sri Lanka. I was also involved in launching the Vivanta by Taj brand in 2009, which was a great learning experience. After launching it, we increased the number of hotels in the country from 19 to 41, and received many accolades and recognitions. It was an interesting period of my life. While I’ve been based in Mumbai for the last six years, I’ve travelled a lot as I managed a whole bunch of hotels, including all the Vivanta by Taj properties, the Taj Banjara and the Taj Deccan.
But there always has to be an end to every story, and so ended my long and fruitful experience with Taj. I enjoyed every bit of it and looked forward to going to work every day. The company gave me a sense of belonging, and I feel like in the 110-year history of Taj, 40 years belonged to me. The company taught me humility, how to stay calm and patient, and to be courteous to all people.
How did you start Trance?
We were on a family holiday when Suryaveer insisted on starting something of our own. He was persistent that I put my 40 years of experience in the industry into starting something that can change the way the hotel industry works. It was after much brainstorming and persuasion that I decided to take this step, and I consider myself very lucky to have a young hotelier like Suryaveer joining me on my endeavour, as well as having my older son Vishwaveer and wife Savita by my side. Trance Hotels and Resorts will handle the management of mid-size to upscale hotels in India, as we feel that they don’t get the kind of attention that’s deserved compared to five-star properties. Our USP is that we’ll help any hotel become successful. We want to give the new age traveller the best of everything, right from a comfortable mattress and pillow to the right lighting, to a soothing environment and proper shower experience. Our brand is a contemporary one that will work towards building and running a hotel at minimal cost. We have a great family of architects working with us who have come up with some great ideas, and we will help the mid-size hotels give their customers the same kind of luxury, but at half the cost of a five-star hotel.
I’m also running a consultancy company called VVS Hospitality Consultants, where I personally give my input on any requirement in the hospitality industry: restaurants, catering or even hotels. As chief operating officer, my job is to go to hotels and assess them on various parameters such as finance, customer satisfaction, employee contentment, innovation and creativity, sustainability, health and safety. With my 40 years of experience, I can pass through a hotel and tell you its strengths, weaknesses, growth opportunities and threats.
Supervising a hotel is like running a city, and a general manager is supposed to know everything concerning the property. He has to be a master of all and needs to know about engineering, sales and marketing, finance, food and drink, and customer and employee relations.
That sounds like a lot of work. How do you manage it?
I get full support from my wife who plays a very vital role in binding my family together. I have been working very hard for the last few years, and being in the hotel industry means long hours including every holiday, so she’s been our pillar of strength. Savita has played the role of home minister of the household. All the credit for my sons’ upbringing goes to her, the backbone of the family!
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in hotels thanks to my dad’s work. In fact, I thought my dad actually owned the hotels when I was young! As I got older, I decided to follow in dad’s footsteps and give hotel management a shot, so I went to the Maldives for a short stint. I then went to École Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland to do a course, during which time I travelled around Europe to see how their hospitality industry works. I also learnt French and mingled with people of different nationalities. I then went on to an internship in Switzerland and another at the Four Seasons in Bangkok. After I was introduced to the Four Seasons brand, I understood why they are regarded as one of the best in the world – their attention to every small detail. I fell in love with the brand instantly and was lucky to be picked up by them after graduating. I then worked at the iconic Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where I got to experience American hospitality.
What were all those experiences like?
European and American mentalities are very different, but the more you see, the more you learn. It was a good year, during which I worked in room service, banquets and restaurants. Later, out of sheer interest, I got into wine and started learning about it myself. I then found out about an opening for a sommelier at the Four Seasons in Bali, so I moved there. This position helped me learn a lot, as I was suddenly put in charge of an entire hotel’s wine operations, and had to train 300 staff members about the selection of wine. During this time, I also served as a restaurant manager and was a part of the launch of Sundara, the brand’s largest restaurant.
How did the idea of starting your own hotel management firm come about?
During my work at the Four Seasons Bali, I understood that India requires a brand which speaks about its own unique style of hospitality. After a lot of convincing and research, my dad and I understood what is really important to guests and what they will come back for.
Do you guys ever have differences of opinion?
Yes – dad has a classic understanding of the industry while I have a more modern one. I like to question everything and change every rule that’s been set in the business. But instead of debating each other, we discuss our ideas. This helps us tackle these situations better. If you put all the hotel managers together, they can combine some brilliant ideas and come up with the best brand in the world!
Why the name Trance?
We realised that when a guest goes to a hotel, he often wants to escape from everything concerning the outside world. ‘Trance’ is a state of awareness that takes you to a level of enchantment before you attain salvation. The word is an acronym for our beliefs: Tranquil, Relaxed, Adaptable, Natural, Contemporary, and Exceeding.
What common mistakes do hotels make?
Hotel management is a very diverse field. To ensure that a property runs smoothly, management has to be given to a professional. Sometimes, the owner of a hotel cuts costs and handles things on their own, but what they don’t understand is that one small wrong turn can cost them a customer in a blink. Overspending is definitely one of the other biggest mistakes hotels make. When you have a unique product, you don’t have to enter price wars. Indian hotels need to understand that they can also make something interesting, stylish and cool; they need not copy what their bosses in the West are doing. Our company will focus on the guest’s well-being, offering the best sleep and shower experiences and world-class bars, and promote Indian art and nightlife.
What do you guys think of Father’s Day?
SVS: I think it’s important to recognise the role that a father plays in crafting the individual. A lot has been spoken about the importance of a mother, but a lot of overdue respect should be given to dads as well.
VVS: I think it’s a very American concept. People in the West need a day dedicated to celebrating the bonds of each relationship. But Indians don’t need a particular day out of a year to thank our mothers or fathers for what we have given us. Our culture teaches us this.
What have you learnt from your dads?
SVS: I’m in this field because of him, but more importantly I have learnt to be modest, grounded, humble, optimistic and confident. It’s very easy to have your head in the clouds when you follow such a lifestyle, but my dad has always stayed grounded and humble. He taught me to treat everyone equally and to be kind to people without expecting anything in return.
VVS: My father was a happy-go-lucky man and never gave too much importance to the worldly things around him. While he was a prince during pre-independence India, and was surrounded by lavish cars and palaces, he always accepted the world as it was. He was content with everything. I believe that I imbibed those qualities of his, and I have tried to teach my sons the same things. My wife and I always wanted our sons to be good human beings rather than ones who excelled in school. I’m happy to see both of them standing on their own feet today.
What is your connection with Hyderabad?
VVS: We’ve lived in the city at several points of my career, and something or the other always brought us back. It was the last time I was posted in Hyderabad that my family and I decided to make it our permanent home.
SVS: The majority of my life was spent here after coming to Hyderabad at the age of three. I went to Hyderabad Public School and made several friends, but I also believe that the city has made me a stronger and more street-smart individual. Though we aren’t Hyderabadi by blood, we still call it home.
How would you describe each other in a few words?
VVS: My older son Vishwaveer is intellectual and creative, and has a soft heart. Suryaveer is more like me; a people person and more outgoing, and he also has a pure heart.
SVS: Dad is an extrovert and the life of the party. His conscience is clean and he has very high morals.
How do you guys unwind?
VVS: I’m a people person, and if I have nothing else to do, I spend my time with friends or go for a walk by myself. I love sports and like to keep fit, so yoga or exercising at the gym is a must. I also enjoy family holidays and adventure sports.
SVS: I enjoy socialising with friends and catching up on lost years. I’m also addicted to YouTube and keep doing research to broaden my horizons.
..... as told to Niharika