Corporate File

Bonjour, new guests from small-town India

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on February 14, 2021

Puneet Dhawan of Accor is brimming with ideas on ways to revive the hospitality sector

Puneet Dhawan’s ascent to his new role as hospitality giant Accor’s head in India and South Asia could not have been more dramatic. It was right in the middle of the pandemic, and there he was stuck in the Philippines. The outgoing chief, Jean Michel Casse, after over a decade in India, was retiring and eager to get back to France. But India had locked itself in, stopping all flights.

Puneet Dhawan   -  Illustration: Ranga Rajan

 

“We did a virtual handover. This was in mid-July, 2020,” Dhawan recalls. But then the situation in India started to worsen. His boss suggested he operate out of the Bangkok office — or go to Australia. But this did not appeal to Dhawan.

“I was interacting with all the general managers (of Accor hotels) in India and the corporate office who were all working at location, risking their lives. I was not at peace with that,” he says.

Suddenly, in August, a Vande Bharat flight was announced out of Manila. But Dhawan’s status was complicated, since he was an Overseas Citizen of India, having spent much of his nearly 30-year-long career as a hotelier abroad. By the time he boarded a flight to New Delhi, the travel rules had changed: An RT PCR test was not enough; he had to be quarantined for 14 days.

“It was nearly September by the time I could get moving,” Dhawan exclaims. Between September and December, he visited 47 of the French chain’s 52 properties in India and Sri Lanka. “I took 25 flights in that period,” he says.

But there is no evidence of the chaos of those days in Dhawan’s smiling and relaxed demeanour as we enjoy an unhurried meal at Novotel Hotel at Aerocity. Our table has been set in the leafy green kitchen garden area of the Food Exchange restaurant to help us make the most of a lovely winter sun. Chef Neeraj Tyagi tells us that much of the green produce served in the restaurant is from the garden.

We leave the decision of the food to the chef who starts us off on some delightful khakras with an outstanding mango dip. The food is Indian but the presentation is Mexican inspired. A cheela shaped like a taco stuffed with minced jackfruit arrives on my plate while Dhawan’s has a pomfret stuffing. My main dish — khichri with mushrooms — resembles a risotto. The dish has the familiar comforting taste yet has been embellished with an experimental edge.

For Dhawan, who grew up in Delhi, this assignment is a homecoming of sorts. He left India soon after finishing his 12th standard from Don Bosco School. He went to Switzerland to study hotel management and then to the University of Massachusetts, US, for another degree. His first job was at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental in Manila, before he joined Accor 20 years ago. Dhawan, 49, has taken up key roles for the chain across Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong. His last assignment was in Manila, to refurbish the Sofitel.

So, how is he adjusting to India? “It has been a soft landing,” says Dhawan, thanks to the stint he did in Bangalore between 2012 and 2016 when he handled Accor’s south India operations. “The networks I built there and the relationships with hotel owners are all helping now,” he says.

But, he adds, the 2012 move to Bangalore from Singapore was a tough transition because of different working styles. “Here you can be collaborative, but people expect you to make the decisions. I am not perfect, I don’t have all the answers,” he says.

But Accor will be seeking answers from him to lead the revival in India, after the brutal battering to the hospitality sector dealt by the pandemic.

Dhawan says the key challenge has been to get the employees to stay motivated. But Accor’s magnificent gesture of creating a Covid-19 fund to help its employees around the globe was a morale booster, he says, as was global CEO Sebastien Bazin’s visit to India around Diwali. The Accor Board decided last year to withdraw the 2019 dividend payment of Euro 280 million to its investors and instead create a special purpose vehicle to help employees affected by the pandemic. In India and Sri Lanka, over 2,500 employees received ₹75 million.

As for revival, Dhawan is brimming with ideas. He says it will come from domestic travel, and some changes in strategy have been put in place. “The Jaipur Fairmont is doing well now. Goa today is doing better than it did in the first quarter of 2019. Everybody is in Goa,” he says. On the other hand, Bangalore hotels, dependent on IT travel, have been badly hit.

This has led Dhawan to direct his teams to seek out new guests from new places. “The big boys are not travelling. SMEs, traders will be the ones who will be needing hotels in the days to come,” he foresees. People from cities such as Amritsar, Meerut and Jalandhar would travel to the metros for business and require hotels. “I have sent my sales people to these places and map all these areas. We had never done that before,” he says.

Dhawan believes business travel will return. Everyone thought 9/11 would hurt business travel but it bounced back, he points out.

As for recession, and people’s ability to pay, he again dives back into his career. In 2008, Dhawan had just landed an assignment to launch Accor’s budget brand Ibis in Singapore. That assignment was a mindset change and learning curve for Dhawan because till then he was in the luxury segment. He describes how he hired millennials, put together a young team, and cut the hierarchical layers to create a gem of a property.

But the financial markets crashed and here was this 538-room hotel with no bookings. Since it was brand new and quite a showpiece project for Accor, offering discounts was not an option. “If we had opened with a 30 per cent discount, that rate would have stuck in people’s mind,” he says.

That was when an inventive idea struck the team: Why not just ask guests to pay what they want? And that’s exactly how the hotel opened — the bold concept went viral, grabbing media headlines, and the rooms got sold out.

“We played on the psychology that people will not pay less,” Dhawan says. When Ibis at Aerocity in New Delhi opened in 2014, it began with a Pay What You Want campaign.

Another similar innovation implemented by Dhawan was in Manila, where to stimulate the wedding business people were encouraged to bid for the Sofitel venue. Not only were the bids far above the expected rate, but soon the hotel had a database of couples about to get married, to whom they could market attractive deals.

“We can try that in India,” says Dhawan, who feels weddings will play a key role in reviving business.

He is also upbeat about some new launches, especially the iconic Raffles brand that Accor is bringing to India. Set amidst the picturesque Udai Sagar Lake in Udaipur, it is expected to be launched this year.

Will it serve the Singapore Sling, a cocktail synonymous with Raffles? “Oh no, we will be serving the Udaipur Sling,” the hotelier says with a grin.

ROOM FOR GROWTH
Accor operates nine brands with close to 10,000 rooms spread across 52 properties in 23 destinations in India and Sri Lanka. Brands: Luxury - Fairmont & Sofitel. Premium : Pullman, Mövenpick, Grand Mercure; Midscale - Novotel and Mercure. Economy: ibis and ibis Styles. Number of Employees in India & South Asia: 6,150 Pipeline: 30 more hotels in next five years, including a Raffles that is opening this year

    Published on February 14, 2021

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