TIGER SAFARI; New team brings luxury, style to India’s game lodges

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Byline: Richard Slusser, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

PENCH NATIONAL PARK, India – Late afternoon in the heart of India. Our land rover moves slowly along a dirt road, on the prowl for a Bengal tiger. Chital, the white-spotted deer, appear nonchalant. Birds act normal. No tiger in sight. None around here.

Then, leading a cloud of dust, another land rover speeds by without a word, but our driver knows what is happening and quickly turns around in pursuit. A tiger has appeared, and we are on its trail. Hopefully.

The other land rover stops, and we catch up. “It was walking across the road, then into the grass. Then it disappeared in the trees,” says an excited German man, perspiring more from excitement than heat.

“Look,” our guide says quietly, pointing to an earthen dam at the end of a long pond.

The tiger calmly walks across the dam and lies down, stretching out its front legs, head up. If the tiger sees us, it is not concerned; we are about 200 yards away.

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As if it has allowed us plenty of time for photographs, the tiger rises, walks down to the water’s edge, pauses, looks around, then heads into the nearby trees and disappears into the jungle.

The rest of the day is downhill. We are satisfied. We have seen a tiger on our first safari in India. I know I am lucky, for it was only on my fifth trip to southern Africa that I finally saw a leopard – the missing element in my sighting of the Big Five – in the wild.

The land rovers return to Mahua Kothi. On the safari circuits here and in southern Africa, “land rover” has become the generic term for the safari or game-drive vehicle, which once was only the genuine Land Rover that is fitted with tiers of seats rising behind the driver. It’s just as “jeep” in American usage does not mean the vehicle is a real Jeep product.

Several days later, we are staying at the Baghvan lodge in Pench National Park, and again we are in a land rover, looking for another tiger or two.

An attraction in Pench is to ride an elephant and look into the bush below to see if a leopard can be spotted in the thick undergrowth of briars and grasses.

I beg out of climbing a ladder and sitting on a platform on the elephant’s back. Not from fear. I once rode an elephant – in northern Thailand – and it was all uphill and then downhill on a narrow trail by a stream. It redefined “jostling” and ended my brief career as an elephant rider.

The others in my group take off aboard the elephant. They are visibly uncertain about this adventure, firmly holding on to anything available. They disappear into the bush as high as an elephant’s eye, so I climb out of the land rover to chat with the drivers. I look up, and about 25 feet in front of me stands a tiger.

The handsome tiger looks at me a few moments, then moves into the bush, where my friends soon will spot it from on high. Unfortunately, my camera is on the top seat of the land rover. Nevertheless, I have faced down a tiger. Well, sort of. At the least, I have seen my second tiger.

TAJ SAFARIS

Mahua Kothi is one of the first two game lodges opened on the new tiger circuit of Taj Safaris. Mahua Kothi is in Bandhavgarh National Park in the eastern part of the state of Madhya Pradesh; Baghvan is in Pench National Park in the south of the state. These lodges opened early this year.

Two more lodges, Banjaar Tola in Kanha National Park in southeastern Madhya Pradesh and Pashan Garh in Panna National Park in the center, are scheduled to open early next year. More lodges are planned for the tiger circuit.

Taj Safaris builds and operates the lodges. The company was formed in a joint venture between India’s highly regarded Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Conservation Corp. Africa, which is praised widely for its game lodges and camps in several southern African countries and for its devotion to conservation and to assisting the villages and tribes near its properties.

Taj Hotels has the connections and familiarity of trying to get through the red tape of the Indian bureaucracy, and CC Africa knows how to operate game lodges and camps.

Taj Safaris is concentrating in Madhya Pradesh for its first lodges in a planned tiger circuit. Madhya Pradesh was India’s largest state until Chhattisgarh state was carved from it in 2000. One-third of the state is covered by forests.

Madhya Pradesh has three seasons: winter, summer and monsoon.

For most of the year, the lack of rain is obvious in the countryside, where low dirt walls surround dusty patches of land in which rice will be planted when the rains return in June through September. The dirt walls will contain the water needed to grow the rice. Only one crop can be grown here each year, but the flatlands with more water in states to the south yield three crops.

Cattle and goats graze freely on roads – and cattle roam freely in the middle of city and country highways. The forests sustain a diversified wildlife, from the wee hummingbird to gaur, the largest, but endangered, member of the cattle family. The star of the Madhya Pradesh jungle, though, is the Bengal tiger, also endangered.

Madhya Pradesh is home to several national parks other than Bandhavgarh, Pench, Pashan and Kanha. These parks are among India’s 28 Project Tiger areas, which were created to protect the tigers in the wild. Project Tiger began with the designation of five areas in 1973 and gradually has been expanded.

The Madhya Pradesh forests are divided into teak, sal (another tree), and miscellaneous. Within the parks are mesas, meadows and mountains, ravines and rivers, many of which are seasonal.

Besides the tigers and gaur, there is much more wildlife, such as chital, a small white-spotted deer; wild boar; monkeys; and a rich and colorful bird population. The Bandhavgarh park is where the white tigers of Rewa were discovered.

Until last year, the game lodges operating on the fringes of these national parks were short on luxury – and most of them still are. Think one-star hotels. That changed early this year when Taj Safaris opened its first lodges.

Transportation between the Mahua Kothi and Baghvan lodges can take about eight hours by car, much of it over narrow roads on which the honking of horns is perpetually audible. This is a characteristic of automotive travel in India, whether in town or country. We broke up the ride by staying in one of the better lodges – before Taj Safaris arrived. As I said, think one-star accommodations.

Credit for the design of the Taj Safaris lodges goes to CC Africa’s creative director, Chris Browne, who has conjured many memorable game lodges and camps, such as the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and Lake Manyara Tree Lodge in Tanzania, Bateleur Camp at Kichwa Tembo in Kenya, the four diverse CC Africa camps in the Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and many more – each different, each memorable.

The Mahua Kothi and Baghvan lodges are the expansion and enhancement of the sites of previous lodges.

Accommodations at Mahua Kothi are in newly built huts based on traditional local architecture, but they are far more than what “huts” connotes. Orange is the theme color at Mahua Kothi, where many of the decorative elements are found objects, such as a child’s rusted fire truck, an old toy bus and old Indian furniture.

Separate suites were built at Baghvan, where blues and mossy greens offer serenity; the glass carafes are of the palest blue. In the kitchen, Mr. Browne uses a ceiling lamp often found in an Indian home, but he is not happy with one and hangs several in a row instead of the single lamp traditionally used.

Mr. Browne is plenty serious in his designs, but he finds opportunities to conjure a whimsical sophistication that in lesser hands could be gimmicky. He always connects his designs to the location so guests know they are in India, or Africa, and not in just another Ralph Lauren emporium.

A welcome addition created for Taj Safaris is the new land rover that takes guests on game drives from early morning to outings in the dark night. For the India venture, CC Africa turned to the Tata conglomerate, whose many industries include steel, the manufacture of buses and trucks and also Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces.

Prior to the Tata version of the safari land rover, passengers had to climb up a side of the vehicle to get to their seats or step on two tiers of seats to reach the seats at the top. Tata changed that, putting an aisle between two tiers of seats – with a seat on each side of the aisle – so climbing up the outside and stepping on seats is no longer necessary.

CC Africa has added another friendly touch for the morning game drives, which depart at 5 or 6. It often is cold that time of day, so there is a blanket for each passenger (not new), but in the middle of the folded blanket is a hot-water bottle (new) to keep the hands warm.

Before the morning game ride, hot beverages and cookies are available to guests; midway during the morning ride, the guide parks the land rover in a designated area where passengers may get out and enjoy a snack such as muffins and roti, a tasty soft Indian bread, again with hot tea or coffee made with a plunge filter.

During my week at Mahua Kothi and Baghvan, most of the food was Indian, but I have been told that dishes have been added that can appeal to the sensitive stomachs of Westerners. Those dishes are less spicy – and less interesting, no doubt. I had no problem with the Indian food and looked forward to it daily.

Typically, plenty of spices were used, but not all of the dishes were hot or assertive. I anticipated a meal as a culinary adventure, what Taj Safaris promised would be a “culinary extravaganza that the kitchens of our lodges offer.”

For guests unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, all curries are not yellow; they can be red or green or brown.

Essential to many of the curries are coriander seeds or powder, turmeric, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel, poppy seeds, cinnamon leaf, black cardamom and green cardamom, nutmeg, mace, saffron, rose petals and chilies. Fine aromas for fine-tasting food.

The beds at the two lodges were on the firm side and quite comfortable, and there were comfortable chairs for reading, and spaces for sitting outdoors. At Baghvan, guests could opt to sleep outdoors on a king-size bed under a roof and surrounded by curtains and mosquito nets. In March, I noticed very few mosquitoes.

The design of the bathrooms was very interesting, again thanks to Chris Browne. The artwork on the walls of the private accommodations as well as in the lodge also reflected Mr. Browne’s talent to make each place look special and different.

To get to the bathroom at Baghvan, guests must leave the bedroom and use a wooden walkway suspended above the ground. Some guests complained, saying it was cold and inconvenient; I thought of it as part of the Taj Safaris adventure.

One problem guests face in getting to these tiger circuit lodges is transportation. The nearest airports are a four-hour ride by car to a lodge, although trains can bring guests closer, sometimes resulting in just a 30-minute ride from train to lodge.

Taj Safaris is working on getting air service closer to the lodges. Travelers to India must be aware that transportation is not always quick, that it is not rare for a train ride to take five hours to reach the same destination that can be reached by commercial jet aircraft in an hour.

The ride to the lodges can bring the ultimate reward in beholding a beautiful Bengal tiger – or two – in the wild and also in being served delicious Indian food. This is how the experience of travel can enrich a life with expanded horizons and understanding. Hold that tiger.

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Flights to India, to lodges

No nonstop flights operate between Washington and cities in India. I have flown from Washington Dulles International Airport on Austrian Airlines, which has convenient connections in Vienna for the flight to New Delhi, and on Continental Airways, which has nonstop flights on Boeing 777 aircraft from Newark, N.J., to New Delhi and also to Bombay. The Indian food served on my Continental flight to Bombay was delicious.

Air India long has operated flights from New York. India’s fast-growing Jet Airways has flights on Boeing 777s between Bombay and Newark and between New Delhi and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Both flights have a stop in Brussels. Flights from Bombay and New Delhi continue to other airports for guests headed to the Taj Safaris lodges.

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To Mahua Kothi: From Delhi, fly to Khajuraho or Jabalpur, or fly to Gwalior and to Umaria or Gwalior to Katni for a lengthy train ride. Trains also go from Delhi to Katni (about 14 hours), with a 2 1/2-hour drive to the lodge. From Bombay, fly to Bhopal and then to Jabalpur.

To Baghvan: From Delhi, fly to Nagpur (1 1/2-hour drive to the lodge) or to Jabalpur (3 1/2-hour drive to the lodge). From Bombay, fly to Nagpur.

For Taj Safaris, which also can make reservations for Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces in Delhi, Bombay and other cities, go to www.tajsafaris.com. For Conservation Corp. Africa, go to www.ccafrica.com; for Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, go to www.tajhotels.com.

U.S. citizens visiting India must have a passport valid for at least six months after their visit to India and a visa. For visa information, go to www.india-visa.com. The Indian Embassy’s Consular Wing, 2536 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, accepts and processes visa applications.

CAPTION(S):

The white-spotted chital usually move in small herds in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. They are quick and alert, but not enough to avoid capture by a hungry tiger. Goats (top) are fit to be tied in a village known for its pottery near Baghvan, a Taj-CC Africa lodge in Pench National Park. The name of the lodge comes from “bagh” or tiger and “van” for forest – the Bengal tiger. [Top photograph by Richard Slusser/The Washington Times; Chital photograph by Joan Scobey/Special to The Washington Times]

Brazen monkeys appeared from nowhere for a drink of water at the entrance to the Mahua Kothi lodge in Pench National Park. The lodge has 12 suites or kutiyas – a style of hut in central India – that have an additional bed (left) where guests may sleep outdoors and get closer to nature if they so desire. The name “Mahua Kothi” is derived from the butter tree or Madhuca indica, more commonly known as “mahua.” [Left photograph courtesy of CC Africa; Monkeys photograph by Joan Scobey/Special to The Washington Times]

India has designated 28 areas as Project Tiger reserves where the Bengal tiger is protected. In two national parks, Bandhavgarh and Pench, CC Africa has joined with Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces to create upscale game lodges in a tiger circuit. Two lodges opened this year; another two will open in spring, all four in the Madhya Pradesh state. [Photograph by Richard Slusser/The Washington Times]; Creative director Chris Browne accents Taj-CC Africa’s Mahua Kothi lodge with orange; in the Baghvan lodge, Mr. Browne’s blues are as pale as the glass carafes by the kitchen window. The lodges are the first Taj Safaris lodges to open in India’s Bandhavgarh National Park as a tiger circuit. Far right: a Mahua Kothi land rover pauses for photographs of an approaching elephant. [3 Photographs courtesy of CC Africa]

Fear of global slowdown won’t derail Tata’s expansion plan

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Byline: ERIC BELLMAN AND STEPHEN POWER; Tariq Engineer in Mumbai contributed to this article

Tata Group is set to place more multibillion-dollar bets in its bid to become one of the first globally recognized Indian brands. But as concerns increase about the health of the global economy, so do the risks for a conglomerate that already is India’s most prolific purchaser of international companies.

Early in the new year, the group’s auto-making arm, Tata Motors Ltd., is likely to win its bid for Ford Motor Co.’s premium Jaguar and Land Rover brands at a cost of more than $2-billion (U.S.). Next month, at the other end of the automobile market, Tata Motors is scheduled to unveil what the company is touting as the world’s least-expensive mass-produced passenger car, with a sticker price potentially as low as $2,500. The group also is courting Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., a luxury-hotels operator based in Bermuda.

The Tata Group’s expansion campaign is designed to increase the company’s profile at home and abroad. An increasing number of Indian companies are expected to widen their scope in coming years.

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Previously, a limited number of Indian companies, mostly in the information-technology, outsourcing, textile and pharmaceutical industries, ventured outside of India. Today, Tata Group – which already owns several international brands, including Tetley Tea, of the U.K. – and others are looking for ways to use their new economic might to buy companies and target markets abroad.

“Companies involved in branded businesses cannot remain restricted to India,” R.K. Krishna Kumar, director at Tata Sons Ltd., the holding company for the group, said in an interview. “The only survivors will be those that have a dominant brand they have built or acquired, and building it can be a high-risk proposition.”

Indeed, Tata is making these big bets at a risky time. There is increasing concern that a significant slowdown could occur in the developed countries that are the main markets for Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles.

Tata Motors will need to use its sales network in India and other developing economies to offset any slowdown, said Vaishali Jajoo, senior research analyst at Angel Broking in Mumbai. “Overall demand is going down in developed countries” for Jaguars and Land Rovers, she said, “but it is expected to grow in developing countries.”

Emerging markets are the main target for the new small car Tata has spent years developing. Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata is scheduled to unveil the car at an auto show in New Delhi Jan. 10. Tata plans to sell the car for about 100,000 rupees, or $2,500. Little is known about the car, other than it will have four seats, good gas mileage and a modern look.

While the car is expected to transform driving in India, allowing a new generation of drivers to graduate from motorcycles to automobiles, it carries risks for Tata Motors. India’s economy is roaring ahead, with annual growth averaging about 8.6 per cent in the past four years, but a global slowdown could dent consumer spending.

Tata Motors plans to start production of the car later in 2008. Analysts warn that even with a vibrant Indian economy and a successful introduction, it could take more than four years for the project to break even because of high development costs.

“There are a lot of concerns” about how long it will take to earn money, Ms. Jajoo said. “Nobody is expecting it to be a profitable venture initially because they are being ambitious and creating a new segment altogether.”

Shares of Tata Motors have shed about 20 per cent so far this year because of a slowdown in the sales of the company’s commercial and passenger vehicles. During the same period, the benchmark Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index, or Sensex, has risen about 46 per cent. Tata Motors shares closed yesterday at 752.10 rupees, up 3.3 per cent.

Tata Motors has been the front-runner in the bidding for Jaguar and Range Rover since their unions last month chose the Indian auto maker as their preferred bidder. The competing bidders are One Equity Partners, a private-equity firm that is a unit of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Indian auto maker Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., which is bidding jointly with private-equity firm Apollo Management LP. The acquisition would give Tata Group the technology to build better cars. It also would give Tata Motors the sales network it needs to boost its international profile.

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Some are uncomfortable with India’s rising profile in the world. A group of Jaguar dealers in the U.S. recently sent a letter to Ford suggesting it not sell Jaguar to an Indian buyer, as Indian ownership could hurt the perception of the brand. The directors of Orient-Express recently sent a letter to Tata Group suggesting Tata ownership would hurt the hotel chain’s image. Tata already owns 11 per cent of Orient-Express and is interested in a friendly acquisition.

Tata officials assert the group will have no trouble managing luxury brands. Its Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, a hotel chain, includes five-star hotels. “To say the Taj is not a luxury brand is ridiculous,” said Mr. Kumar, the Tata Sons director. He added that the group is looking at other acquisitions in the hospitality industry, as well as the beverage industry in the U.S.

Shula’s Steak House comes to Washington

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Don Shula has brought his steaks to Washington with the opening of Shula’s Steak House at the Wyndham City Center in the District and another one planned for Tyson’s Corner later this year.

The legendary Miami Dolphins coach opened his first Washington-area restaurant last week. The District’s 5,000-square-foot location, which seats about 160 people, centers around the Miami Dolphins’ 17-0 perfect season, led by Mr. Shula in 1972.

Dinner menus, which are hand painted on autographed NFL footballs, include a 48-ounce Powerhouse steak. Those who finish it get admitted to the “48-ounce Club.” The club already has more than 12,000 members who ate the massive chunk of beef at other Shula Steak Houses around the country.

The steakhouse’s construction began in October and coincided with renovations being done at the Wyndham City Center, which used to be the Sheraton City Center. Shula’s Steak House is replacing the Washington Grill.

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Wyndham International will expand Shula’s Steak House in several of its properties. A second Washington-area restaurant is expected to open in late spring at the Wyndham-owned Marriott Tyson’s Corner.

NOT SO LAZY

La-z-boy Galleries is relocating two stores and adding two more in southern Maryland and northern Virginia.

The retailer, best known for its recliners, is increasing its store size to display even more products that include couches, sleep sofas, love seats, lamps and furniture.

La-z-boy is relocating its existing Springfield store to Kingstown Town Center in Springfield and doubling its size to 20,000 square feet. The store will be open in the spring.

Another location in Fairfax will relocate to a free-standing site on Route 29 and Route 50 in Fairfax. That store, which will increase from 8,000 square feet to 17,000 square feet, will be open in the fall.

Two new locations will open in Sterling, Va., and Waldorf, Md. After those two stores open in the summer, there will be 14 La-z-boy stores in the area.

The residential markets in Maryland and Northern Virginia are among the most prolific in the country, with excellent consumer demographics and disposable income figures to match, says Michael L. Patz, one of the real estate agents from KLNB Inc. handling La-z-boy’s expansion in the area. “The expansion plan is in response to the success of the retailer in this market.

CHANGING NAMES

The Bethesda Ramada has a new name and a whole new look.

Last month the 164-room hotel officially became the Four Points by Sheraton Bethesda and a $4 million renovation is just about complete.

Four Points by Sheraton is a Starwood Hotels & Resorts brand. The renovations led to the decision to “enhance the name on the property,” said Phillip S. Pool, general manager of the hotel.

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The hotel, which has about 100 employees, did extensive marketing about the name change in mailings to guests who have stayed at least twice at the property, future guests that were already booked there and meeting planners. The new Starwood hotel was also listed in mailings to the members of Starwood’s preferred guest program, the company-wide loyalty program..

Renovations, which began about a year ago, included new furniture and bathrooms in the guest rooms and revamping several rooms to make them more accessible for disabled guests. All the work is expected to be complete by next month.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

* Soco, a French handbag retailer, has opened its second Washington location in Tysons Galleria in McLean. The 600-square-foot store offers trendy leather bags from $24 to $395. Soco opened its first Washington store in Georgetown in September.

* Donna De Marco can be reached at 202/636-4884. Retail & Hospitality runs every other week.

>>> View more: Earth Day omens: critics say that the event is endangered

Earth Day omens: critics say that the event is endangered

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Earth Day omens

As one of the estimated 200 million people who participated in Earth Day events around the world last year, James Ross of St. John’s, Nfld., said that he was eager to join in again. The 20th anniversary of Earth Day, which was first held on April 22, 1970, generated marches and demonstrations by environmentalists in Canada, the United States and 139 other countries. But when Earth Day arrives next week, it will apparently have a markedly changed character. Environmentalists say that large corporations, some of which were the targets of protesters last year, now are becoming involved in the event to show that they, too, are concerned about the environment. At the same time, some Earth Day supporters say that this year’s event may be relatively subdued in some parts of the country. “It took me two months just to find out where Canada’s Earth Day organization was,” said Ross, who is co-ordinator of the Newfoundland and Labrador Environment Network. “It has really gone back to a low-profile event.”

Despite that, Earth Day events were planned in most Canadian cities. The scheduled activities included a Walk for Peace in Vancouver, a festival in Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park and a parade in Montreal. In Toronto, Danny Beaton of the Mohawk Six Nations planned a three-day event called Project Indigenous Restoration, which he said would include native leaders from both North and South America. As well, Earth Day Canada, the Toronto-based organization that is co-ordinating the event, last week began surveying 250,000 households across the country to assess the impact on the environment of routine domestic activities, including the use of energy, household cleaning solvents and garbage disposal.

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At the same time, some environmentalists said that the original purpose of Earth Day is being undermined by commercialization of the event. Said Gordon Perks, a campaigner for Toronto-based Greenpeace Canada: “Instead of a day to focus on saving the planet, it has become a marketing vehicle for the companies that destroy it.” McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada said that it has contributed about $10,000 and is promoting Earth Day on recycled-paper tray-liners for the next two weeks. Other sponsors include the Ontario ministry of the environment and the Toronto-based Delta Hotels & Resorts, which provided accommodation and meeting space for organizers. As well, some firms are producing Earth Day products. The Toronto publishing firm of McGrawHill Ryerson Ltd. has published a series of grade-school teachers’ Earth Day resource guides, while Mississauga, Ont.-based International Insignia ltd. is marketing Earth Day souvenirs, including mugs, buttons and unbleached-cotton T-shirts.

Because of the commercial involvement in the event, officials at Earth Day Canada say that they have taken steps to control use of the name of the occasion. In February, 1990, the B.C. branch of the organization applied to the federal consumer affairs department to obtain trademark registration for the name Earth Day in English and French. The applications are still pending. Federal officials say that the group can temporarily claim ownership of the name because they have been using it since the previous August. Officials add that the applications have been challenged by groups that insist that no one should have exlusive rights to the name of such a widespread celebration. But Earth Day officials disagree. Said Robin Jones Martin, executive director of Earth Day Canada: “We want to keep it from bouncing so far into the public domain that it becomes a commercial event.”

Richard Gareau, president of ILC International Licensing Corp. in Montreal, the official agent of Earth Day International Inc., said that companies that want to use the name will have to pay an average royalty of eight per cent in gross sales to ILC, which will distribute a portion to Earth Day organizers for use in Earth Day activities. “I see a parallel with the Olympics,” said Gareau. “If you want dedication, you can’t just hand out the licence to anybody.”

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Some environementalists criticized the organization for seeking control over the name. Said Julia Langer, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian chapter of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth: “It puts limits on an event that is supposed to be super participatory.” Despite the controversy over how Earth Day should be run, supporters say that the event can still help to increase awareness of environmental issues. Said Avy Woo, Earth Day co-ordinator for British Columbia: “The momentum is there, but the focus now is on what we can do, not just what is wrong with the environment.” Still, the move to turn the event into a highly organized affair appeared to carry the risk that some supporters might become disillusioned — and eventually abandon the annual festival.

>>> Click here: No Longer ‘McJobs’: Atlantic call

No Longer ‘McJobs’: Atlantic call centres are spreading — upmarket

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The delivery is flawless: formal but with just the right hint of happy- to-have-your-business enthusiasm. “Good morning. The Fairmont San Jose reservations,” the black-clad call centre agent purrs into his headset. “My name is Matthew. How may I help you?” To the next caller, he’s Matthew the reservations clerk at Chateau Lake Louise. A couple of minutes later, he’s Matthew behind the reservations desk at New York’s legendary Plaza, another property managed by the Canadian-owned Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc. chain. No one on the other end seems to realize they’re actually talking to Matthew Elias, 22, from tiny Belledune, N.B. Or that he happens to be sitting in a tastefully coloured cubicle inside a converted grocery store on the outskirts of Moncton, even as he ensures that the businessman from Seattle gets a king-sized bed when he checks into his room in Silicon Valley. Matthew, wherever he pretends to be sitting, is a master of illusion: when asked what the weather is like a continent away, he nimbly calls up San Jose’s forecast on his computer screen, making it sound to the caller like he’s looking out the window into California sunlight rather than a sodden New Brunswick sky.

Few callers really care where Matthew is as long as there’s a nice room waiting when they arrive at their destination. Which is precisely why Fairmont’s 300-person global reservation centre now sits on the outskirts of a small, out-of-the-way Maritime city. Moving its reservation operations from Phoenix, Ariz., to New Brunswick in 1995 gave the chain access to cheap, plentiful labour, top-of-the line telecommunications technology and bargain real estate, all with an extra discount from the low Canadian dollar.

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Throw in a provincial government happy to provide financial incentives to make relocation more enticing and it’s clear why New Brunswick’s call centre industry is booming. With a workforce of 16,000, it now employs more people than the province’s traditional forestry sector. Moreover, New Brunswick’s success is proving contagious throughout the job-hungry region: Nova Scotia now has more than 12,000 call centre workers, Newfoundland another 4,500 and even tiny Prince Edward Island over 1,700. “The sky is the limit,” declares Frank McKenna who, while New Brunswick’s premier, personally ignited the call centre explosion a decade ago. “This industry could double in size and still not be anywhere near saturation.”

A born salesman getting carried away with himself? Not necessarily. Offshore energy may get all the headlines, but the expansion of the call centre sector is one of the region’s biggest engines of growth. Cheers went up across New Brunswick in 1991 when Federal Express Canada and two other firms created 270 jobs by opening the first call centres. But compare that with the 1,100 people United Parcel Service Canada Ltd. now has manning the desks in Moncton and Fredericton, the 1,100 EDS Canada Inc. employees working in Sydney and, soon, Port Hawkesbury, N.S., and the 2,500 folk Convergys Customer Management Canada Inc. has toiling in Dartmouth and New Glasgow, N.S.

Critics may complain that those are “McJobs” which relegate the sons and daughters of proud fishermen and miners to the status of lowly telephone operators serving faceless customers while supervisors listen in to monitor their performance. But talk to the mother who can earn $25,000 as a starting salary and enjoy a decent benefits package without leaving her rural village. Or ask a manager far away in the Alberta oil patch who can now earn up to $80,000 in his Maritime home province. Then it’s a different story. “Let’s put it this way,” says Ronna Turner, 38, who works on UPS’s customs brokerage desk in Moncton, “before this job came around I was looking for work. Now the work is interesting, the wage is very good and I’ve got a career I can look forward to.”

No wonder every government in the region has large squads of pitchmen criss-crossing the continent angling for new business. The industry, moreover, is moving upmarket. Nobody wants the old-style operations — depressing sweatshops filled with poorly paid workers trying to peddle vacuum cleaners, the latest credit cards, and time-shares in Florida over the telephone. “If they want to come here that’s great,” says Norm Betts, minister in charge of Business New Brunswick. “But we’re in no way supporting outbound call centres.” He, like so many others in the business, eschews the old “call centre” handle altogether, preferring to label them “customer contact centres,” which is meant to reflect the shift in the industry. Nowadays, upwards of 75 per cent of the centres in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are “inbound” operations, which receive information over the phone, through e-mails and via the Web, rather than make outgoing telemarketing calls. From their desks throughout Atlantic Canada, agents arrange hotel and airline reservations, schedule courier pickups, process buy and sell orders for mutual funds or stocks, and provide technical assistance to customers of some of the globe’s largest computer, software and communications giants.

EDS, which answered its first Sydney call in 2000, is a case in point. Like many of the newcomers to the Atlantic sector, it makes money by “outsourcing” — taking on specific customer service functions for corporations, governments and agencies from across the continent. From inside its $14-million Sydney building, some 900 people service U.S. telecom giant AT&T Corp.’s customers and provide technical support for all of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s products. They take subscriptions for BusinessWeek and Soap Opera Digest and support Franklin Covey Corp., a U.S. outfit that sells office products and motivational tapes and software. “This is a Jewel-of-the-Nile operation,” says Jim Paris, vice-president of business-process management at EDS Canada. “We do very complex procedures for some of the biggest companies in the world, we do them extremely well and we do them right here in Cape Breton.”

A city like Sydney, which just saw the area’s last coal mine and steel mill close, is happy to have the work. EDS’s local payroll runs about $19 million yearly, with another $9 million due to be injected into the economy around Port Hawkesbury, 110 km away. Regionally, the bottom line is becoming spectacular. In New Brunswick, for example, the customer contact industry now contributes $1 billion yearly to the provincial economy.

The impact can be especially intense in smaller, rural areas that have been dying throughout Atlantic Canada due to the decline in traditional livelihoods like fishing, farming and forestry. “Anything that gives our young people reason to stay around is a good thing,” declares Audrey Thomson, council chairwoman for O’Leary, P.E.I., a farming community just minutes from where Help Desk Now Inc., a North Carolina- based outsourcing company, is set to open a new 100-job customer support centre this spring. The wave of the future could be Virtual- Agent Services, which is sprinkling small clusters of telephone agents throughout New Brunswick and connecting them through a single “virtual” call centre. So far, VAS has started clusters with 50-100 jobs apiece in six small communities. Eventually, it plans to open another 16 to handle calls for catalogue companies, airlines, reservation departments and any other organizations that need a service centre but lack the volume to justify building their own.

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The spectre of a regional industrial development policy built around even more call centre jobs gives some observers the willies. “It makes the Maritimes look like some kind of banana republic,” complains Tim Carroll, a business professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. “That makes us vulnerable for every shyster who wants to save a dime.” True, the wide variety of government incentives — everything from upfront training and capital costs to a tax rebate based on a percentage of a new payroll — doesn’t always pay off. In April, Minacs Worldwide, which received $1.8 million in payroll rebates from the Nova Scotia government, laid off 199 and transferred 70 more from its Halifax centre after losing an outsourcing contract from a satellite television firm. The governments, though, maintain they are getting great bang for their buck. Moreover, with every province in the country — as well as other English-speaking nations as far away as India — scrambling for call centre business, the only choice is to offer some kind of incentive, says David MacNeill, manager of investment for Nova Scotia Business Inc. “If you don’t play you’re out of the game.”

All the same, there’s a touch of nervousness about what will happen as some of the incentive packages inked in the mid-1990s begin to expire this year. The call centre companies themselves say they set up shop where it makes business sense, not where the government is most willing to sweeten the pot. “We’d be very poor businessmen if we invested this much here all for some government money,” says EDS’s Paris. “This is a long-term commitment.” Low-cost Atlantic Canada, after all, continues to offer plenty of allure. A stable work force is high on the list of attractions: in the United States, where such jobs are plentiful, call centres routinely undergo a 120 per cent turnover each year. In Atlantic Canada, where job security still counts for a lot, the norm is below 30 per cent. With time, though, such loyalty is likely to diminish. That is, as long as the customer service centres keep calling.