Friday, December 7, 2007

GINGER: The Design of a “Smart” Hotel Chain in India

Lessons for the use of design in the arena of public utilities and facilities in India Image: GINGER Reception at Agartala
How do you think of a new hotel chain is created when none exists in the specific category or with the business model that you think will be a good offering in the world today? Of course you would have to Design it from scratch. That is you will need to have a dream and then explore all its dimensions and details and then refine the offering through an iterative process that blends imagination with action in the real world. All this is done before you can build a first prototype and figure out whether the concept that excited you in the first place actually works in the real world. This iteration continues as you build the other elements of the chain with each learning being fed back into the next hotel and then the next till you have a fine tuned chain with a brand and a compelling reputation. So what is proposed is not a one time rational activity, that of building specifications and then using a “cookie cutter approach” as Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize winning scientist would have us believe, problem first and the solution later. However here we see an example of a caring, feeling and iterative process that consolidates all learning and then adjusts the offering in a sensitive manner to changes in the market and the environment in the real world. This process is best described by the word “Design”.

Image: GINGER hotel in Kejur Baghaan in Agartala. Note the Kejur (Date Palm) trees in the background. This is exactly how GINGER, a new hotel chain set up by the Taj Group of Hotels came into being some four years ago in India. All, hotel chains are built the same way, but this one is special for me because it is designed by a team that is headed by one of my students who had studied product design at the National Institute of Design and interestingly the product is endorsed by the management guru C K Prahalad who by the way never uses the word “Design” in any of his speeches or for that matter his books, but that is another story. This raises another question for us as design educators in India and that is how do we educate our designers who would have the flexibility and the ability sets to be able to offer future requirements in an extremely complex context of the Indian market and this has always excited me as a design teacher. We had at NID chosen in the late 80’s, if not earlier in an implicit manner, to adopt the systems model at the heart of our education offering and this and other such stories are perhaps a vindication of the success of those moves in re-designing design education. This approach is explained in two papers that I have prepared in 2003 (Avalanche Effect…pdf file 55kb) and in 2005 (Creating the Unknowable…pdf file 50kb) and the models and design theory that evolved can be seen at this link to my website. Another important question for me is, how do we make design at this level visible to managers and Governments across the world?

Amit Gulati, an NID graduate in Product Design and founder partner of INCUBIS Pvt Ltd, a New Delhi based design and architecture firm, was asked by the Taj Group to pitch a concept for the proposed budget hotel to be set up in Bangalore. They were successful in their bid which is as yet unpublished or celebrated, but that particular bid led to the creation of the first prototype hotel aimed at the youthful traveling software professionals in Whitefield area in the IT hub of the city. It was named The "Indi-One" and it was a runaway success from the word go and the offering was later re-branded with market expertise from the Landor Group, UK, when the name GINGER was proposed for the expanding chain of budget hotels in India. INCUBIS was contracted on an exclusive design service and supervision basis to help create all the other hotels in the chain and now we have 10 such offerings, in as many cities, with Pondicherry joining the chain as the newest offering which opens to the public later today. Bangalore, Bhubaneswar, Durgapur, Haridwar, Mysore, Pune and Trivandrum are the other links in the chain and the strategy to address latent needs in the tier-two cities in India has created an exciting growth model for the company.

Image: BCDI as it was in January 2002 when we commenced the programmes for the local bamboo craftsmenI am writing this post from the GINGER in Agartala where I have come to sign a “Statement of Intent” between the Centre for Bamboo Initiatives at NID (CFBI-NID) (which I happen to Head at the NID) with the Tripura Bamboo Mission (TMB) and ironically the hotel is located across the street from the BCDI in Kejur Baghaan where we used to have our tea breaks amidst a number of Kejur (Date palm) trees when NID was given the responsibility of creating a new curriculum and in managing the BCDI as part of a contracted project arrangement with the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India. Here we were designing a new educational system for training young professional craftspersons for the bamboo sector and our involvement continued from January 2002 to June 2004 before we were rudely evicteded from our base in Tripura by administrative indifference and perhaps a complete lack of understanding at what we were trying to do there.

What actually has been designed at GINGER? Everything is designed – from the business model of the self-help systems to the liquid soap dispenser in each toilet in the hotel. These include all the tangible and visible signs, products and spaces as well as the intangible look and feel of the service as well as the details and location of all features that have been included in the offering. The slogan “Please help yourselves,” explains it all. Arriving at the smart arrival port at a smart looking building that has all the semantics of a hotel, there was no liveried bellhops at the door but a row of baggage carts with a help-yourself sign that was tastefully placed in the hotel’s chosen type-style and colour scheme. The door is automatic and opens across as the cart is rolled in, notice no moustached door keeper in the good Indian palace tradition. ATM style self check in are I am told available at other centres but in Agartala it was a smart young receptionist who handed over my swipe-card that would let me into my room number 106 and the clear black and white plastic stickers with a red border tell me that the card goes into the card slot near the door which sets of the lights, air-conditioner and the TV all part of the energy saving design strategy. Other labels in self-sticking plastic signs tell me that tea and coffee made in the room using the auto-stop electric kettle are compliments of the management and the mineral water in the small refrigerator too comes free but refills are available on each floor in the Guest Pantry where one can iron your clothes as well. Another sign on the telephone socket tells me that I can connect the lead to access the internet but in Agartala this is not yet a reality. A booklet in the room tells me that I can help myself to all the services, the pantry, the vending machines and the gymnasium as well as have access to a cybercafe, breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets, all at a reasonable charge. Interestingly the room tariff and service charges change with each city, keeping in mind the cost of living index and fortunately for me the Agartala offering comes at the lowest price of them all. I have stayed in most major hotels in Agartala over the past many years and it is clear that GINGER will give them all a run for their money. Design being a reflexive activity I am now interested in seeing how these competitors will respond to this new offering.

The rooms and lobby are spotlessly clean and so are the smart bathroom and the linen in the room. A comfortable in one corner with a conveniently located plug point for my laptop tells me that the designers intended to facilitate my use of my laptop and this is close to the telephone socket and all the other switches that I need to manage my room. The flat panel TV occupies no space on the wall and it is located at a convenient height across the bed and next to the full-length mirror. The wardrobe, refrigerator and luggage rack are all rolled into one integrated offering which also provides a platform for the kettle and the complimentary tea bags satchel. The rubber wood trimmed furniture are all fixed to the walls and clear off the ground with stainless steel legs for the table and ceramic tile faced platform for the bed that shows a clear concern for the cleaning crew which is small but effective to keep costs down to the bare minimum without compromising on quality and hygiene. Energy efficient lamps in very smart steel trimmed fittings are strategically located in the access corridor as well as the room and a wall mounted lamp assists reading in bed and at the adjacent table, very well located indeed, or should I say designed?

What is not visible is the CCTV surveillance system in the foyer and the lobby and all floors have a view of the reception through and the back end systems of housekeeping and online bookings all designed with care and concern for the user. A tie-up with Café Coffee Day has a pay and use walk in facility on the ground floor garden and lobby level all day coffee shop for the guests and vending machines for fast food and toiletries. What have they missed? Not much, but no room service and at Agartala no STD phone access to the room but that I am told is a temporary problem from the telecom supplier. An empty room at the entrance proclaims a sign “ATM Room” perhaps a money exchange for the international traveler and a promise of “Smart Basics” a trademarked offering from the Roots Corporation Ltd, the owners of the chain which is in turn a fully owned subsidiary of the listed company Indian Hotels limited (IHCL) which in turn is a part of the TATA Group in India. The booklet in the room proclaims that the concept was developed in association with C K Prahalad but there is no mention of the design minions who have done the fine detailing and translated the offering in the real world with sensitivity and good practical wisdom of an experienced designer. INCUBIS was and is still involved with all the new hotels in the chain and this ensures that each is contemporized to the changing market and the aspirations of the guests and this ahs given us a great but still invisible quality offering from the design in India stable and we hope to see more of these in the days ahead.

Image: A tree in Agartala on the way from the airport which I used as a title screen for a short movie that I had made in 2002 on the BCDI visit.
Can this be a lesson for the creation of new public facilities across the country? Be it public signage or toilets and affordable housing for the poor and facilities for the elderly in our fast moving cities there are a huge range of opportunities for action waiting to be realized as well designed and managed offerings. The National Policy discussions that will take place in Bangalore on the 11th December 2007 needs to garner the wisdom of the design community as Rashmi Korjan, another NID Graduate also from Product Design, has stated in her recent post on the DesignIndia list a few days ago. Yes, we do need to move the focus of the policy from being solely industry driven to get the Government to invest in design for the public facilities as well as design for society where few industries and business would like to tread, even if they have an active Corporate Social Responsibility programme in place. The KaosPilot, about which I have written about earlier has proposed the need for a “Fourth Sector” ..(download pdf file here) approach with the Government, Business and the Not-for-Profit (NGO) sectors forming the first three sectors that are not quite able to deal with the needs of society and the public in an effective manner today. Can we learn from their experiences and bring these lessons to the ground into India. By the way 35 KaosPilot students are planning to spend 3 months in Mumbai starting February 2007 and perhaps students from Indian design and management schools can collaborate with them in a mutually beneficial relationship. There are other ways in which we can act directly if we apply our collective imagination and track all the design opportunities out there and find the partners in the field to make it happen just like the GINGER story that has unfolded over the past three years with the use of Design at the heart of the offering. Yes, GINGER is a truly design driven offering from the house of the TATA’s. Great going, and keep going, and we are all watching and cheering from the ranks.


  1. inspiring... I particularly like your articulation of the design process, quote '...However here we see an example of a caring, feeling and iterative process that consolidates all learning and then adjusts the offering in a sensitive manner to changes in the market and the environment in the real world. This process is best described by the word “Design”.' unquote.

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  5. Thanks for sharing this information,
    i heard about GINGER hotels this Organization has lots of branches in several Cities and i will pray for this Organization to Open More Hotels in different Cities.


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