If she builds it, they will check in. That has been the career record for Kathleen Shea—and she is intent on maintaining that history of success.
Shea, who was named to the new position of vice president of sales and marketing for the Americas for Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces last summer, is now on her third go-round in developing a sales and marketing organization for a top-of-market luxury brand in the U.S. She enjoyed brand-building stints at Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental—this after what she calls the “incredibly rigorous” training at Hilton that began her career.
Though Taj has only three properties in North America (The Pierre in New York, Taj Campton Place in San Francisco, and Taj Boston), Shea’s mandate is to create awareness and a brand message as Taj grows in major cities, and with resorts in this country, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
“This is the third time in my hospitality career that I joined an organization at a time of strategic growth,” Shea says. “When I started at Four Seasons, the brand had 22 hotels, mostly in North America. It did not have locations in Milan, Paris, or other major gateways. However, it did have The Pierre at that time and I have long had a great affection for that hotel and that was one of the attractions in coming here.”
Following her Four Seasons run, Shea moved to Mandarin Oriental when the group had three hotels in the U.S. and, says Shea, “very little in the way of a sales and marketing infrastructure. I helped lead the way to develop that infrastructure and left there with eight hotels in the U.S.”
In fact, Shea was sitting at her desk in her Mandarin Oriental office—not looking for a job and without an updated resume—when the call came from Mumbai to offer her the Taj position.
The combination of creating another new team, building a brand, working with Raymond Bickson, CEO of Taj, and joining a company based in rapidly emerging India proved too tempting a package to turn down.
‘This was a dream opportunity,” she says. “Our dedicated mission is to build a team that only represents the U.S.”
In what she calls an “unusual structure,” Shea is creating five regional offices that will only sell the U.S. properties. Also, each hotel has a team reporting to her. “It’s a unique model,” she says, “with all of these people being under one leader. It’s unusual but offers wonderful opportunities for leverage. We are a small, flexible group and I am adding highly motivated, like-minded people.”
With 104 hotels globally, Taj has a large sales force that will be selling the U.S. as part of its portfolio. As she builds her own network, she says, “Our strategies will be more collaborative, and we will be aligned on strategy before we execute it.”
Taj has 65 hotels in India, with its remaining properties in Asia, Europe, the South Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East.
While Shea does not have a formal development role, she will become involved with a property as soon as a deal is announced—and she does know what kind of properties Taj is looking for. “Typically, we want the best location in the city, a hotel with a strong sense of history, and guests who love the place,” she says. “With all that, we can take it to the next level.”
Those hotels would replicate, then, the attributes of the three existing U.S. Taj properties—with The Pierre celebrating its 80th anniversary, the Taj Boston (formerly the Ritz-Carlton Boston) more than a century old, and even Taj Campton Place having become a local institution in San Francisco in a few decades.
With five offices and three hotels, Shea says, “We are probably overcompensating in our efforts, but that demonstrates our commitment to the market. And we are attracting a lot of wonderful talent as we seek to create an environment that is positive and empowering.”
What Shea is offering prospective sales and marketing executives are: opportunities to grow within an ambitious company; a chance to work for Tata, a huge Indian conglomerate that is the leader in seven industries in its home country and with $80 billion in annual revenues; and a company where many employees have been in place for 20 or more years. “Values are central,” Shea says of the company. “Taj is a beloved brand in India and employees are truly cared for (a situation that came into stark display after the terrorist strike in Mumbai late in 2008, with many deaths and injuries at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower).”
And, says Shea, “Ray Bickson (who was born in Hawaii) is very well known in North America. It’s powerful to have someone who knows the industry here so well—and who has many friends among travel intermediaries.” Bickson opened The Mark in New York and ran it for a number of years. He also worked for Mandarin Oriental.
Under Bickson’s leadership, Taj has grown from 62 hotels and 8,000 rooms in 2003 to 104 hotels and 12,000 rooms today.
Shortly after she started her job, Shea spent two weeks in India visiting Taj palace properties and learning that, “The Taj service philosophy is ‘Guest is God.’ The service truly represents the Indian spirit, which is one that is extremely heartfelt and nurturing.”
The Taj experience in Mumbai, she says, “symbolizes the brand because the experience is extraordinary. It’s different from what a traveler can find anywhere else because of the sense of heritage. That feeling enters into every part of the stay. We call it the touches of Taj and over time guests will find the investment in a stay with us as very worthwhile.”
While Taj’s palace hotels in India are lavish in every way, Shea says, “They are more about being authentic. For instance, local craftsmen are used for many projects and the company was well ahead of its time in supporting sustainability. Value goes beyond rates—to something meaningful with a depth of character.”
As Taj’s North American presence grows, Shea says, “We have over 100 hotels from which to draw staff and help us incorporate the Taj culture.” She says that the Indian influence is subtle but powerful. At The Pierre, impressive works of Indian art have been incorporated into what was built as a French chateau.
In The Pierre’s guestrooms, the colors and textiles evoke the look and feel of India. Also, the food incorporates Indian overtones. That Indian influence, Shea says, is in place but less pronounced in Boston and even less so in San Francisco; the level of Indian influence will always depend on the property and location.
“The world has become more homogenous,” Shea says, “and travelers are looking to sample something exotic, as long as it’s subtle and appropriate.”
Taj has a development team in place that is looking for locations. “We are open to managing, as well as owning,” says Shea, who added that Taj owns the San Francisco and Boston properties; it cannot own The Pierre because that hotel is a cooperative owned by residents.
Shea says that resorts will be developed “on a different model and might even be new builds.” While Taj operates three additional brands in India as it seeks to dominate various price categories, it will focus on the luxury brand in the U.S. and elsewhere outside of India.
This month, Shea will be back in India to make a presentation on where she sees the brand going. She looks forward to becoming more steeped in Indian culture and ideas. A longtime aficionado of yoga and Eastern philosophies, she says, “It’s necessary in these times and with the kind of lives we lead to get centered and grounded.”
Staying centered is not a surprise mission for Shea, who remains proud of her Midwestern roots. Born in Illinois, she is a graduate of St. Mary’s College, a sister school to Notre Dame. She was chair of the school’s senior formal at the Palmer House, a Hilton hotel in Chicago, and found herself intrigued with the banquet manager’s job. Shortly after graduation, she interviewed with Hilton and it’s been hospitality ever since.
All of the things that have happened to her, she says, “play to my strength, which is putting people together. I didn’t travel much as a younger person but always wanted to. I’ve always been fascinated by more exotic places because of my interest in nature and Eastern philosophies. Because of my work at Mandarin Oriental, I was in Hong Kong 35 times. But there is no place like India—the color, the pace, the spirituality. It’s a very different kind of place.”
But Shea is intent on bringing an Indian experience to the U.S. and based on her record, it would be foolish to bet against her.