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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 26, 2007

Of palaces, world hotelier honors and surfing

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hometown: Honolulu

Now lives: Mumbai, India

Position: Managing director and CEO of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces

Age: 51

Recent honor: Hotels magazine this month named him 2007 Corporate Hotelier of The World

High school: Saint Louis graduate, 1973

Other studies: The Goethe Institute in Berlin, the Alliance Francaise in Paris, the Université de Sorbonne in Paris, L'École HôteliEre Lausanne, and Cornell University in New York. He is a graduate of the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in Boston.

What does he like to do on vacation? "I try to go to the beach."

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Raymond Bickson — the Honolulu-born man that Hotels magazine named 2007 Corporate Hotelier of the World — learned some key career lessons from surfing.

Now managing director and CEO of India-based Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, Bickson's 30-year career in the hotel industry has taken him across the world.

But in an interview last week, he said surfing helped shape his approach to life and his career. "You never really know what each wave is going to bring," Bickson said. "I think surfing really teaches you a lot."

Assessing the surroundings in the water between sets can be similar to observing economic and business trends. "You have to be able to be flexible. You have to move with what's going on in the market."

And gauging those elements as they come doesn't guarantee success in either venue. "Sometimes you're going to fall and sometimes you're going to do great," he said.

Bickson, 51, was back in his hometown last week for the holidays and for a dinner inducting his late father, Bick Bickson, and other tourism leaders into the Hawai'i Hospitality Hall of Fame sponsored by the University of Hawai'i's School of Travel Industry Management. His father was honored for his pioneering work with Budget Rent-A-Car in Hawai'i.

He tries to return home to Hawai'i two or three times a year to spend time with family.

Prior to working in India, Bickson was general manager of The Mark in New York City. He has worked in luxury hotels throughout Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.

His current company includes more than 52 destinations on five continents, 77 hotels, "seven authentic palaces," six private islands, three personal jets and two luxury yachts.

Bickson said he got his first exposure to tourism through his father's company. "I worked for my dad since I was 12 years old, washing cars, driving cars, renting cars, all of that," he said.

He was able to get an impression of various aspects of tourism. "The hotel guys looked much more sexier than being in the car business," he said. "I've been with hotels for my own career. And I love what I do." He said the magazine honor took him by surprise.

Bickson said working in India now with a growing tourism industry reminds him of working in China in the 1980s.

He now works for a 105-year-old company that operates 9,500 rooms with 22,000 employees and plans to aggressively expand with 54 new hotels within the next 48 months.

"It's been quite a great experience," he said. "In the last three years, we've really made a concerted effort to expand our portfolio outside of the country."

He said diversifying into different continents helps provide a financial balance as economics ebb and flow across the globe.

Bickson would recommend a career in hotels for Hawai'i students considering various career paths. "It's one of the most exciting careers to look at. It really allows you to express yourself," he said. "There's so much opportunity because travel and tourism brings together different cultures and people.

His own career took him other places, with his only Hawai'i hotel job working summers in college at the then Kahala Hilton Hotel.

"I think what is helpful is growing up in a Pacific quasi-Western-Asian environment," he said, "which has helped me through my career adapt to many situations and different people."

Being more tolerant and more open to the way people do things and the way people work, helps him guide others in making the hotels work, he said.

"At the end of the day, it's the people that are running the hotel and making it happen," Bickson said. "I can talk as much as I want but they're the ones who really open the door, squeeze the orange juice, take the messages, do the rooms."

He said competition from myriad destinations — including Mexico, the Caribbean, Singapore and Macao — will challenge Hawai'i for some visitors.

But over the past decade, he has seen positive changes in Hawai'i, especially the recent renovations in Waikiki. "It's really a great improvement."

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.