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Come through our revolving doors!

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 28, 2020 Published on August 28, 2020

Behind the screen: Day-to-day hotel operations had to change in order to incorporate health guidelines from various world and local bodies   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ACCOR

Hotels in India are ready with incentives to receive guests, but are all the blandishments enough to break the barrier of fear and get the post-Covid customer to check in?

* For the bruised and battered hospitality industry, food has emerged as one of the top ways of engaging with customers

* India’s hospitality sector, according to consultancy firm Hotelivate, is anticipating revenue losses of $6bn-$14bn this fiscal

* Staycation packages and food packages have never sounded so attractive or been so full of value

* Almost all chains feel that weddings hold the big key to recovery

It’s the year when everything has to be done differently. Even the Onam sadhya — the traditional repast over which friends and family gather together at home — is going for a makeover. As pandemic fear overrides festive cheer, hotels in Kerala are offering a way out to make the annual harvest celebrations memorable. At O By Tamara in Thiruvananthapuram this weekend, you could book a spacious suite for a day and relish a 29-dish sadhya for eight people for ₹8,999. In Kochi, Grand Hyatt Bolgatty is sending home an elaborate Onam spread for ₹2,000. In Bengaluru, Karavalli from the Taj Group is offering a sadhya delivery.

During lockdown, Taj Hotels launched Qmin, a food delivery app that is getting great reviews.

Top dish: During lockdown, Taj Hotels launched Qmin, a food delivery app that is getting good reviews   -  IMAGE COURTESY: TAJ HOTELS

 

For the bruised and battered hospitality industry, which is coping with not only people’s anxieties but also ever-changing government directives on state-specific lockdown measures, food has emerged as one of the top ways of engaging with customers, and to entice them to take the first step through their doors. From doorstep food delivery to creating DIY meal kits to even offering chefs on hire (as the InterContinental Hotels Group, or IHG, is doing), hoteliers are rustling up new ideas.

“We have had to think of new ways and experiences to engage with absent guests,” says Shruti Shibulal, CEO of Tamara Leisure Experiences. The chain, which has expanded its presence in South India over the last eightyears, had barely arrived in Thiruvananthapuram when the Centre declared nationwide lockdown in end-March.

But food delivery and other F&B innovations that are high on mileage but low on margins can at best be a stop-gap solution for India’s beleaguered hospitality sector, which, according to consultancy firm Hotelivate, is anticipating revenue losses of $6bn-$14bn this fiscal . Even the best of forecasts do not predict more than 30 per cent occupancy at hotels for a good while yet.

Clearly the industry has to think differently to stay afloat in the short term, and grow in the longer term.

Back to the drawing board

To their credit, hoteliers have displayed rare agility and imagination during the lockdown, as they huddled down virtually with their staff to see how best to retrieve the situation.

Jayant Singh, founder and managing partner of Treehouse Hospitality, a management chain which operates 18 hotels, lists the immediate challenges that awaited them: “First, cash flows. With the pandemic, income levels became zero while expenses kept mounting.” Second, day-to-day hotel operations had to be radically changed to incorporate health guidelines from various world and local bodies. “This was a mammoth task as hotels had to gear up to the new normal with fewer staff — social distancing, contactless service, safety and sanitisation procedures and so on,” he says.

Finally, Singh says, hoteliers had to draw up plans for return to market or reopening in cities under complete lockdown. “This required a lot of focus and effort on communication, content updation (on their own websites and that of online travel aggregators such as MakeMyTrip), curated offerings and personalised outreach to customers.”

New learnings: JB Singh, president and CEO of Interglobe hotels, brainstorming with staff at the hotel   -  IMAGE COURTESY: INTERGLOBE HOTELS

 

JB Singh, president and CEO of InterGlobe Hotels (IGH), which runs the Ibis brand, says by mid April, the chain had managed to create a strong framework for damage control. “We started very quickly — in early March — doing worst-case-scenario planning,” he says. There are four pillars to the IGH strategy: Work continuity, agility and cash conservation; new business opportunities; customer centricity, and learning and development.

Forty workable ideas emerged out of the brainstorming sessions on new business opportunities. But these were more about the future, clarifies Singh, who, like others in the industry, is pretty sure that a changed customer with a set of new needs will check in post-Covid-19. Chains such as Niraamaya, which focused on inbound tourists, have to think domestic now. In the shorter term, many have to think hyperlocal given the challenges in crossing state borders.

This also explains why many hotels are rethinking their core propositions of boarding and lodging, with ideas such as getting into senior care and co-working being offered as alternatives.

Keeping the lights on

In the immediate short term, however, the priority for most chains was to highlight hotels as safer spaces than homes in warding off the threat of a virus. Literally every chain scrambled to implement new hygiene and safety protocols. Reception and other areas were recast for social distancing, contact points minimised and digital check-ins and checkouts enabled. But that, as JB Singh points out, was the easy part. The tougher bit was to communicate the changes to customers. This spawned a barrage of catchy marketing campaigns from WeAssure (ITC), Stay Assured (Vista Rooms), Raksha (Tamara) and WeCare (Marriott) to AllSafe (Accor).

For his part, JB Singh says he has been at the Aerocity Ibis hotel working through the lockdown months, eating meals at the restaurant. If the staff have stayed safe, it is even safer for guests, he emphasises.

If communication was one big step in trying to woo guests back, offering interesting food, work and entertainment experiences was another. Staycation packages and food packages have never sounded so attractive or been so full of value.

Shrikant Wakharkar, general manager of Grand Hyatt Bolgatty, says, “To aid future enquiries and bookings, our 360° virtual tours showcase different aspects of the hotel such as inventory, meetings spaces, restaurants and houseboats.” New concepts such as Popup Weekends are now available as Saturday Drunch (a meal between tea and dinner) and Sunday Brunch . “The members day on Wednesday, where Hyatt Dining Club Members get 50 per cent discount on food and beverages, is an initiative that has helped attract new customers,” he adds.

Food certainly is a way to the customer’s heart, says Sanjiv Kataria, a communications professional based in Delhi. “My wife ordered a meal from the House of Ming in Taj [Mansingh] a few weeks ago, creating a formal dining ambience to go with a gourmet dining during lockdown. The authentic quality food coupled with the luxury of ordering at home is now an easy option each time we have a reason to celebrate.”

Come home to hotels
  • If people can’t come to the hotels, why not go to them instead? Realising that even their loyal patrons are unlikely to step into hotels, chains are now making determined inroads into customer homes. It’s one way of maintaining a high brand recall. If they can deliver a great experience at their homes, there’s a fair chance that the guest will eventually check in.
  • From food delivery services that are a notch above what high-street restaurants offer, dial-a-chef initiatives to laundry services, hoteliers have taken a utilitarian route to tide over the testing times.
  • But there are other ways too of getting into people’s homes, too. Hotels are now competing with OTT platforms to beam content including concerts, comedy shows and educational shows on people’s personal devices at home. Tamara’s Shruti Shibulal says the chain has created content (such as story sessions) to engage parents of small kids on activities for tiny tots.
  • Accor’s ALLatHome initiative offers a bouquet of digital services to the guest in his or her home. It streamed exclusive content (including Ibis’s #GigsAtHome, which held programmes by upcoming artistes every Friday) and live shows themed around food and sports through its Facebook and Instagram handles. Be it Taj or Accor, there is also a host of cooking tutorials and masterclasses by celebrity chefs streaming into guest screens. A few hoteliers have even curated Zoom parties for customers, arranging food and entertainment as well.

Discount drives

Realising that this is a time when most people are being careful about spending, many chains have unleashed attractive incentives. Accor rolled out F&B offers and discounts for check-in customers. The French chain announced a 30 per cent discount for first responders and healthcare workers for bookings made between now and December 31, 2020. It has also introduced prepaid ‘Holiday Plus Vouchers’ for loyalty members. Members can purchase the voucher for ₹5000+ GST and redeem it for ₹6,000.

Manu Rishi Guptha, CEO of wellness resort chain Niraamaya, introduced a ‘pay now, stay later’ (where you lock your best rates now and stay later at your convenience) scheme.

Rethinking spaces and propositions

Stay well: Reception and other areas have been recast for social distancing, contact points minimised and digital check-ins and checkouts enabled   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ACCOR

 

While discounts and offers are tried-and-tested ways of attracting customers, hotels are now also ready to redefine the scope and range of hospitality services. In the initial days of reopening after the hard lockdown, many hotels donned new avatars — as co-working spaces, offering ‘workations’, or turning themselves into quarantine centres.

Jayant Singh of Treehouse says: “There were a lot of thoughts around spaces, converting floors into office spaces, running a pre-hospitalisation medical centre, subletting for business centre and so on.”

But the slump in the commercial real estate value, unfortunately, played spoilsport to these plans, he points out.

However, IHG has managed to successfully repurpose some spaces. Sudeep Jain, managing director, SWA, IHG, says that Crowne Plaza Greater Noida has signed a long-term lease agreement with RIG Institute, a hospitality school, for an educational facility within its premises. “This upcoming facility is being developed as a world-class off-site campus to offer 18-month diploma courses by Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, Switzerland (EHL),” Jain says.

Some of the chain’s event venues have been reformatted to provide rental spaces for corporate meets and get-togethers.

Those with the luxury of sprawling grounds and gardens are converting those into organic vegetable farms. Along with food deliveries, hotels are also sending out herbs and exotic vegetables. These vegetable patches are also proving to be engagement zones as demonstrated by Novotel Hyderabad Airport, where a few stranded guests staying at the hotel could become guardians of a small patch of land. They could cultivate, maintain and harvest their choice of greens and veggies.

As for finding new propositions, Guptha of Niraamaya is clear that the wellness chain will not deviate from its core offering — in fact, he thinks wellness is going to do exceedingly well. “Gone are the days when leisure used to be indulgence. Now, people want tangible rejuvenation takeaways and Niraamaya is well positioned to seize the opportunity,” he says. In the short term, Niramaya has new offerings such as “immunity-boosting” packages (with special yoga and meditation sessions and medical decoctions).

Shibulal, meanwhile, admits that Tamara, too, is likely to stick to the wellness niche. However, one idea she thinks could work is pilgrimage care. “What if we were to offer end to end care — right from sending the car to the customer’s home to taking care of stay and darshans,” she asks, given the group is set to mark its presence in Guruvayur, the famous temple town in Kerala.

Road to recovery

Clean act: The priority for most chains was to highlight hotels as safer spaces than homes in warding off the threat of a virus   -  PTI/ KAMAL KISHORE

 

Almost all chains feel that weddings hold the big key to recovery. Although the big fat Indian wedding has undergone a size drop thanks to Covid-19 restrictions of congregation size, several customers are getting around it through staggered invitations, holding multiple functions across days.

Resorts have been unexpected beneficiaries of this trend. Niraamaya did seven or eight weddings last month, says Guptha.

However, big hotels with large banquet halls are looking at weddings with interest, creating settings with social distancing. At Grand Hyatt Bolgatty for instance, a curated package for 50 guests called Grand Weddings has many complimentary inclusions such as a suite for the newly married couple and use of day rooms.

There are many enquiries for weddings in October across chains. Queries are pouring in about vacations, too. But, unlike weddings, conversions of those enquiries into confirmed bookings have been difficult for various reasons, Rattan Keswani, deputy managing director of Lemon Tree Hotels, explains.

Unshackling customer fears is one thing. But state governments with their conflicting stands on lockdown and ‘Unlock’ rules, have not helped. Look at staycations, for instance. Many a driveable distance getaway deal has been scuttled because of mandatory Covid-19 tests and quarantine rules. Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Goa have been particularly insistent on these requirements. Keswani says, “What if you book yourself into a hotel for three days in a hill resort and find yourself locked in the state?” Punjab and Haryana often resort to weekend containments.

Indeed, when the Dutts, a Gurugram-based family, was looking for a three-day staycation on the Independence Day weekend, they restricted themselves to nearby Manesar. Even though Rajasthan was still open to tourists, the family was reluctant to take a chance, especially because of the political drama unfolding there at the time.

However, Keswani says Rajasthan has been hugely supportive and points how Aurika in Udaipur has seen an encouraging response.

As Guptha of Niraamaya says, unless there is a single national policy on unlocking the economy, the road to recovery is going to be paved with challenges.

Who runs the show
  • Human impact was the biggest fear for the hospitality industry in the wake of the pandemic. With no guests checking in, layoffs and furloughs seemed to be the obvious outcome. But now comes the other side of the challenge. At many hotels, with no work at all, several members of staff have returned to their home town. The wedding season, however, needs all hands on deck and it’s proving difficult to get the staff back. Many are from hill towns while others are being held back by families. This has given rise to the Indigo model in hotels — remember the associate who escorted you from the ticketing counter at the airport through the boarding gate? Similarly, hotel staff are now multitasking like never before. At Treehouse, chefs are handling room-service orders while also delivering the food in the rooms. Front-office staff are also assisting in food service . Housekeeping staff in some hotels are also tending to gardens in the hotel premises, other than creating kitchen gardens.

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Published on August 28, 2020
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