COVER STORY: Dynamic Duo: Nikhil Takalkar & Amishi Shah Takalkar MISSION: Hospitality

Both Nikhil and Amishi Shah Takalkar have two stories worth telling: the first being their love story, while the second is dedicated to their individual innings played out in that Ultimate Land of Big Dreams-USA.

When they fell in love this Marathi boy and Gujarati Jain girl were conscious of the fact that they both had much to give to each other and their respective professions. Love, they decided, would be a step up and never a step-down. Possibly why they’ve done so outstandingly well.

At 40, there’s little to deny this is one Indian couple that has lived the American dream with elan. While Pune-based Nikhil is an engineer by training and holds a Master’s degree in Operations Research, his career graph would gravitate towards hospitality in such a way that he would one day be Vice President, Marriott International, heading their very crucial and ambitious - Loyalty programme, Marriott Bonvoy. While disruption’s the name of the game in the world of hospitality, the future, he believes belongs to those who play to their strengths and take people along.

On her part, the very dynamic Amishi Shah Takalkar is as much of an achiever. Quite the entrepreneur and dreamer, she has big plans. In short, Amishi is a Co-founder and the architect of NAILBITER data products. She has a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Texas at Arlington and extensive CPG research, data and analytics experience, including CPG Market Research at PepsiCo, Technology at AOL and Entrepreneurship at Affinnova.

Amishi has been recognized as one of the most promising entrepreneurs under 40 by the YEC. She is known as a thought leader in MR data sciences and in Entrepreneurship and is regularly interviewed in Forbes, Huffington Post and leading CPG industry publications. The two of them met in 1999 when Nikhil was on a summer break from the US. Conversation flowed easily and love blossomed soon enough-despite the intercultural differences. The duo wed in 2001 and shifted to the US where life and work played out in multiple ways.

The couple have a lovely sprawling home in Fairfax, Virginia (25 miles from Washington DC) but travel to India often. Two beautiful girls Arya and Riya complete the picture

Nikhil Takalkar on the nitty gritties of hospitality and the challenges of heading the Marriot’s loyalty programme, the ups and downs of marriage, as well as the sheer pride he takes in his work. Yes, the hotel space is witness to some major disruption what with the Amazons, Airbnbs and the Google's of the world venturing into the travel space in a big way. Here he is discussing future plans over a cup of Cappuccino, where else but at the Marriot coffee shop.

Your career has had an unusual trajectory. From engineering to hospitality. How come?

The thing with engineering is that it teaches you problem-solving. That’s how I got into management consulting. My first two jobs in the US were with Sabre (a subsidiary of American Airlines) and PA Consulting (a midsized management consulting firm). Both roles taught me a lot about what it takes to make a company flourish from the nitty gritties of finance to making balance sheets work to a lot else besides. I joined the Marriott 10 years ago as part of one of their internal consulting groups trying to drive top line revenue and quickly realized that it took a lot to make a global hotel chain-besides food, beverages and catering.

Starwood Integration is one of the biggest platforms that we have. We acquired Starwood over three years ago-the deal was finalized at $14 billion. My group led not only the integration effort across sales, marketing and various consumer-facing disciplines but also looked at overall integration- taking people along, making crucial decisions. That was a huge shift in my career. Driving organizational change taught me a lot and gradually I transitioned from generalist to specialist. I now lead the loyalty business for the company. The business of loyalty is huge, especially for high profile hotel chains. Every global hotel chain tends to have different brands, products and platforms. Loyalty is a platform that drives more differentiation than anything else. It is also the programme that owns the relationship with the customers and aspires to provide exceptional value to them; the programme that compensates people when things go wrong-be it not getting the benefit of check-in time or a promised upgrade.

In an era of information overload how challenging is it to hold onto the consumers’ attention?

It is very challenging, but the beauty of Marriott is that it has fantastic assets- about 7,000 hotels globally across 126 countries and a luxury portfolio that’s unparalleled about 400 plus hotels. That’s massive! Our first strength to be sure. Naturally, the benefits we drive are rich. Loyalty programmes are still maturing in Asia yet but they are waking up to their potential here too. Back in the US, we have about millions of members who stay over 50 plus nights a year with the most elite Ambassador members who stay over a 100 plus nights spending over $20,000 dollars annually. That’s about $ 2 billion in revenue. As I said, it’s the portfolio of brands, exclusive experiences and rich benefits we bring to the customers that differentiate what we do as an organization.

Tell us about the competition and challenges ahead.

Traditionally, the IHG, Hyatt, Shangrilas and the Hiltons have been our competitors. But these days, the competition is diverse and immense. So, whether it is digital disruptors like Amazon and Google who are venturing into the hospitality space or Airbnb that showcased how a home could be turned into a hotel-all the better to enjoy local hospitality in a place we have to be willing to take on disruption in all aspects. Just recently, there has been a huge buzz about Airbnb acquiring Hotels Tonight, an app that allows hotels to put their inventory of rooms on the app at the best possible rates for last-minute consumers. By doing this they have ventured into the corporate and hospitality space. They have loyalty programmes too.

What Marriot is doing is to elevate and enhance the whole travel experience whether you are on vacation or on a business trip-not just hotel space.

It seems strange enough, that in order to stay relevant luxury hotels have had to include the ‘common man’ someone they would not have been interested in earlier.

Let me put it this way. Different cultures have different notions of luxury. Marriott has about 30 brands in its portfolio- to suit both the luxury traveler that’s spending 1000s of dollars enjoying all the amenities the hotel has to offer to the budget traveler who’d like a modest meal and something simpler. Places in China and India have a distance to go as far as luxury awareness go. But things are changing, people are waking up to different experiences. In India, we have a significant presence of over 100 plus hotels, that’s a lot and people are beginning to notice the finer points of difference between a Courtyard Marriott and a JW.

Do tell us more about the Marriott business. How much is corporate and how much leisure? Who are your greatest competitors in India?

It all depends on the hotel destination, However, globally as an average, approx. 40 per cent of our business is corporate, the rest would be divided across leisure, wholesale and other segments. So, if you’re a large corporation or a mid-sized company that has employees with significant travel, you would negotiate a “special corporate” deal with Marriott for your employees. That’s called Corporate Negotiated business.

However, places like Goa and Rajasthan are resort oriented destinations where leisure and wholesale business is significantly higher than special corporate business. Our biggest competition in India would be The Taj and The Oberois. Taj, unlike us, owns most of their assets and have a history that goes way back. So, they have that strength they leverage. They are not only localized within the geography but when they want to drive change, they don’t need to speak to owners, a key stakeholder for Marriott, they simply rope in their GM and call it a day. Same is the case with Shangrila. It’s a completely different dynamic.

Marriott, on the other hand, is an asset-light company, meaning, less than one per cent of our hotels are owned by the company-we simply choose to manage or franchise them to other hotel operators. In the US, 75 per cent of the hotel portfolio is franchised. But in Asia, most of our hotels are managed. We are still waking up to the fact that managing hotels is a skill but it is gradually happening and over time, the shift to franchisee model will happen.

Tell us how Marriott is growing in India and China.

Oh, very well indeed. In China we have a new hotel coming up every few days-that’s an outstanding momentum of growth. World over there is talk of wooing the Chinese customer and there are all sorts of initiatives to attract them. For instance, Marriott has joined up with the Chinese e-commerce giant, Ali Baba, to look at how to grow and integrate businesses to mutual benefit.

In India, too we are doing well with as many as 100 plus hotels, making us the largest hotel operator in the country, ahead of even Taj. A lot of our business is about memberships and programmes and one thing that’s really big is the Club Marriott membership. People love the concept of getting points and benefits and being treated specially. What’s more, people in India actually use the restaurants inside the Marriott as opposed to those in the West that would go out to eat instead. Food and Beverage is huge business for us in the Asia Pacific and the Middle East and contributes significantly to our overall top line revenue. That’s great-for we have an array of the finest Michelin stars restaurants on offer.

How did you and your wife Amishi meet?

It was in the summer of 1999 when I was on a break from the US. We got on well from the outset-despite the cultural differences. She’s a Gujarati Jain from an affluent family in Mumbai, whereas I had a very middle-class Maharashtrian upbringing in Pune. Her dad is the CEO of Trade Wings; foreign travel and a certain lifestyle was something she grew up with.

Nevertheless, there was a connect. We had similar tastes, values and dreams and the friendship grew.

We got married pretty young-in our early 20s to be precise. Amishi was from a traditional Gujarati home and they wanted her to get married soon. So, I had two choices in front of me: either I continued to date her until she got married to someone else or I got married to her myself. (laughs). No prizes for guessing what it was.

Our families had some reservations due to the inter-caste aspect and understandably so but finally agreed to the marriage. We had a long-distance relationship which was definitely not easy and got married in 2001.

It’s been 19 years since. We’ve had our ups and downs like every couple but she’s been amazing throughout. We have two daughters today-Riya (12) and Arya (10). Every now and then we make it a point to come to India-work brings us both individually plus, we make personal trips. While my family is based in Pune, Amishi has family in Mumbai and she is really keen on meeting them and wants the kids to know more about their roots. Well, they certainly know about Bollywood (laughs) but how much else I don’t know.

"Traditionally, the IHG, Hyatt, Shangrilas and the Hiltons have been our competitors. But these days, the competition is diverse and immense. So, whether it is digital disruptors like Amazon and Google who are venturing into the hospitality space or Airbnb that showcased how a home could be turned into a hotel"

You have spent the early years of your adulthood in the US, which must have had its pros and cons. Sure, you may have been unencumbered by the weight of expectations that come with living in India near your families. On the other hand, you have had to largely do everything on your own. So how would you assess the US for the two of you? Was it very lonely?

Of course, the US is a very different ball game to India. You cannot go with the mindset that this is how I lived, worked and socialized in India and I would like to continue doing the same, it won’t work that way. Sure, loneliness can and does set in-but much depends on what part of the US you are in. Like India, it has both cosmopolitan and traditional places. A lot is subject to how you go about making your friend circle and choosing the things you love. And you have to find a way to balance your personal and professional lives.

Is it really possible to keep work stress out of the home?

Not really, but you have to find a way to positively deal with it. Both Amishi and I bring work home, we do share what happened during the day and take each other’s advice. For instance, we would like each other’s take on how we would deal with a certain situation or respond to an email about a challenging client or an employee. So, there are no taboos.

But what we do make it a point to do is spend quality time by taking a fitness class together. There’s something called Orange theory fitness, which in short, is about doing a highly action-packed workout within a short period of time. High Intensity Interval Training, if you like. On weekdays we are both out of the house by 4:30 am-weekends are later but we make it a point to this four times a week. It refreshes us and keeps us fit in body and mind, given the pressure of our respective schedules. Apart from this, we both have our ways of unwinding. I’d like to hang out with friends on a Friday night, while she’d like to spend a quiet time at home with the kids, probably watch a movie or something.

What about the perennial work-life challenge?

Oh, that’s always an ongoing battle. Typically, when we are with the kids, driving them to activities, we keep the phones and laptops away. Also, we don’t really have the TV on. Post 9 pm though, you would find either or both of us on the laptop dealing with work. We ask each other: “Do you have to work today?” and if the answer is yes, the other one tries to do something else.

My elder child is at that age when she’s having some very interesting conversations with her mother. We try to keep the channel of communication open at all times, she talks the kind of stuff that I could never think of discussing with my parents (smiles.) but it’s a good thing.

This is a techno-savvy generation; negotiating healthy screen time is a struggle and there’s no wishing it away. For instance, at school, they are assigned homework on Google drive. Their workspace is paperless-you can’t wish it away. Expensive phones are high on a teen’s wish list but so far, we’ve managed to keep it away from the younger one.

"Coming from a middle-class family, I am pretty much living the dream of seeing all the places I wanted to as a child. My kids, on their part, are privileged enough to travel often and well. They have seen places I never did."

You are married to a very successful woman. What’s your take on her success and honestly did you expect her to grow thus?

Yes, from the very beginning, I understood that she was smart and talented. Before she started her own venture, Nailbiter, she was doing very well for herself within the corporate space. But the Gujarati in her loves to take risks, and soon enough, she struck out as an entrepreneur in her own right. Apart from being a risk taker, she has a lot of faith in her skills and abilities and goes all out to achieve her dream. Starting a company needs a massive leap of faith. But all through the sleepless nights and the sheer adventure of it, I have watched her go from strength to strength.

It’s been three years since-and she has grown very quickly. In fact, she’s at a stage where the company is more comparable to a mid-sized company than a startup. She has 40 employees and offices in New Jersey, Chicago, Washington DC and Mumbai. That’s an amazing rate of growth but the challenge of it is that unlike a startup that does have some scope to be scrappy about things, a mid-sized company has to find a way to scale up fast and deliver quickly on expectations. They have to be super efficient and sprightly.

All in all, it’s been a beautiful journey and I am proud of all that she has achieved. I keep telling her that one day I might work for her (smiles.) Don’t know how that will work out though, let’s wait and watch.

What would you like to say about the capacity to travel to transform one’s life and outlook? After all, there is a saying that goes: “Unless you get out of that little box you’ve been raised in, you will never realize how big and beautiful the world really is.”

Coming from the industry that I do, I would say that you are spot on! Travel does broaden your horizons and make you a more evolved person, whether it be for work or leisure.

Coming from a middle-class family, I am pretty much living the dream of seeing all the places I wanted to as a child. My kids, on their part, are privileged enough to travel often and well. They have seen places I never did. And for the most part, it definitely adds to your personality, making you a more accepting and tolerant person.

How do the two of you typically manage conflict?

Well, she goes silent and does not like to talk about it, whereas I like to address them. Mostly, I say sorry and we move on. (smiles)

At the end of the day, what is the mantra you live and work by?

Very simple, really. Work hard, play hard.


Amishi Shah Takalkar on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world and the need to embrace her differences as well as the importance of leveraging her sensitivity as her inherent strength. Amidst all this, she is sure to address issues of bias head on and insists on a culture of respect and equity. For other women CEOs, her advice is simple enough, “There are days when you question your choices, so without a strong reason it is easy enough to give up.” Not that she ever has. Over to the power lady, telling like it is in her own words

What made you decide to start your own venture?

I have a passion for using data to solve seemingly intractable problems. While I have had a rewarding career at big companies such as Frito Lay and AOL, I didn’t get to choose what types of problems and solutions I could work on which led to my decision to start my own venture. It feels great to now lead a successful startup but the irony is I now end up spending more time on non-data related activities such as talent acquisition than on data solutions.

How did people respond to your announcement of becoming a CEO?

With a great surprise! People who know me professionally would likely not think of me as someone who would be leading a company. For better or worse, we live in a world where CEOs are perceived to be of a certain type. I probably did not check 9 out of 10 of those boxes. Personally too, my close family and friends were surprised with my decision, wondering if and how I would be able to give time to my family and two young daughters. What has been positive, however, is how quickly people have embraced and accepted and offered to help in unexpected ways. Interestingly, one constituency that was not surprised were my clients and it felt good to see that reaction, especially from other professional women in the industry.

What are some observations you have made as a CEO who is a woman and an immigrant?

I have come across all kinds of biases -implicit and explicit. Most times the other person does not even realise that they are treating you differently than your male counterparts. I have learnt to best give the other person benefit of the doubt and not ascribe any motivations. It is not easy, however, it is very important to stay positive and try not constantly think about societal biases. At the same time, I also think it is wrong to purposefully ignore clear instances of bias and those I do address head-on.

Do you find yourself communicating differently as a CEO in comparison to your male counterparts?

I am a sensitive person and initially, I did try to hide it but over time I have come to embrace it. Some CEOs do confuse sensitivity with weakness but I think with courage, sensitivity can be turned into a strength. My sensitivity has helped me establish a culture of mutual respect at NAILBITER that hopefully does not hurt open communication.

What advice do you have for other women who aspire to run their own business?

Know what you want and have a good reason to want it! All CEOs work extremely hard - female CEOs have to work much harder. My day starts at 4 am because I don’t want to compromise and lose focus on my family and my health. After a full day of work, I still want to make time for the kids, read and put them to bed before getting back on emails. There are a lot of days when you question your choices so without a strong reason it is easy to give up.

Tell us something about your childhood days-family background, the city you grew up and so on. Is the profession you took up in line with what you wanted to do as a child?

As a woman CEO Amishi brings a different set of strengths to the table-and she is happy to be able to do so

I was born and raised in Mumbai. My family is a close-knit, affluent Gujarati Jain family. I was always encouraged by my family to study hard and pursue my interests. After my bachelors, I completed my MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies in Advertising and that is where I realized that I had a passion for data. I decided to do my Masters in Marketing Research to further build on my skills and have not looked back since.

How supportive is Nikhil of your career?

Nikhil has always pushed me to pursue my passion and has been supportive. We definitely have conflicts and disagreements like all other couples do especially when our work schedules and travels don’t work out as planned but have figured out a happy balance to make our respective careers work.

Any parenting mantras that you’d like to share?

I strongly believe that quality of time is more important than the quantity of time when it comes to kids. I would rather spend three hours in the evening with the kids when I am 100% focused and attentive towards them and their needs rather than eight hours where I am distracted and physically with them but not mentally.

How often do you visit India/Pune? Given that you are abroad what does home look like from a distance? What do you miss about it? And what would you like to change?

Given my work and kids schedules and schools, I don’t get to visit India/ home as much as I’d like. Celebrating important life events and festivals has its own charm in India, which is very different to the US and that is something I miss the most.

By Kalyani Sardesai