Anuraag Bhatnagar, COO, Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, believes that Indian hospitality industry is not going to be the same post the ongoing disruption. He discusses how hotels can provide experience with ‘minimal’ touch in a recently conducted webinar.
How will the overall experience change for Indian hotels?
Being in the hospitality for so many years and having witnessed unprecedented crisis like 9/11, 26/11, one thing that is very true of our industry is-resilience; our ability to bounce back higher and faster post any crisis. In fact, I believe, this is a pause which has given us an opportunity to retrospect what is important and what is not, what really matters in life and what really matters in business.
What 9/11 did to our entire hotel stay experience, where x-ray machine became more of a norm, the same is going to happen post COVID-19. We are constantly working on how we can serve our customers better and safer. In an environment which is now averse to physical contact, social distancing has become the new ‘buzz’ word, how do we still remain personal. From high-touch and high-tech, we probably now will be low-touch but high-tech or no-touch but high-tech. We are working on how a guest experience remains low-touch, exclusive and yet meaningful. These unprecedented times have also made us realise a lot can be done with less and how fragile our business models are. On the other hand, it has opened avenues in the terms of e-learnings, technology, upscaling our resources and thinking the way F&B has been operating all these years. For example, do we really need a menu card in hotels? You don’t know who has touched that card before you. So, this is what keeping us awake.
We are very lucky to be working in a country like India where we have extremely robust domestic economy. People in India fundamentally like to travel, experience new destinations and go to new resorts. They probably would want to ‘unlock’ themselves after this lockdown. They will explore the destination when they will travel by road. We see opportunity in the domestic travel. The other things that will pick up is wedding business. We already see queries coming to our hotels and of course instead of having ‘Big fat Indian weddings’, we will have ‘mid-sized, semi-slim Indian weddings’, but they will happen. Most of this trend we see in Q4. So, I really think these two sectors will sustain us.
What are your estimates about recovery period?
I don’t think we will have V-shape recovery as some people are proclaiming. In the best-case scenario, we will have a U-shape recovery, we will see some business coming in July and August, we see a sense of normalcy coming in in Q4, (October-December).
Till the vaccine doesn’t come, there wouldn’t really be any return. Do you agree?
Rightfully, I can see that happening in short term- over the next 6 months. For the reasons, most of the populace has lost their jobs or are under pay cuts. So, even if they want to travel, they might not have propensity to do so. Secondly, there would be recovery period for everyone, but they won’t be able to travel since they would have consumed all their leaves. Business travel would still happen but very cautiously because all companies will be in a cash preservation mode.
Which segment of hotel will bounce back faster?
Both segment of hotels- Luxury and Budget would recover at the same pace. We are counting on affluent luxury travellers who may not travel to Bali, New York or somewhere exotic right now but would come to one of our resorts. I don’t think luxury hotels will miss this path of recovery. Resorts which are within 4-5-hour drive away from key cities would benefit a lot.
What are some of immediate changes that hotels will see?
We are working of what a new normal experience should be like. We are rebooting our experiences, starting from the airport arrival experience. We would need declaration of travel history from our guests, I believe in general we have to make sure that what are doing in terms of safety and hygiene has to be tangible. Hypothetically, there could be a tunnel, where walking through it will sanitise the guest and his clothes. This can become normal in the future.
The seating in the restaurant is going to be reprogrammed, the capacity of the ballroom has to be relooked at. How the banquet buffets are laid out needs to be re-structured. So, we are working on all these aspects. Our laundry, housekeeping services, will be revisited. Also, how we place our rooms, is going to get changed. I am sure every guest would want to know who stayed in that room before them. If possible, we will rotate rooms in a strategic way, to make commercial sense as well. We have always been clean hotels, there has been always an extra focus on hygiene, its just that, it has to right out there.