Optimistic for domestic

Puneet Dhawan, Senior VP Operations, Accor India & South Asia, shares how domestic tourism will be key for their business in the coming times, and how they are making sure to provide the best of Accor to their guests.

Nisha Verma

For Accor, India remains a crucial market, and hence it continues to focus on expansion in the country, while making sure that it sails though the distress COVID-19 has caused to the tourism and hospitality industry. Puneet Dhawan believes that it’s important to focus on the wellbeing of their employees and the guests.

India strategy

Dhawan shares that from Accor’s point of view, their ambition remains unchanged in India. “We want to build and develop the largest and the best performing integrated hospitality ecosystem in the industry. Our priorities are built on three core strategic pillars – focus, simplify and expand, with a sole purpose to bring closer the guests, strong local anchoring and driving system wide efficiencies with a decent operating structure. Of course, this approach makes us agile and nimble, which is not only in the times we are in right now, but also as we get out of this crisis. It will help us serve our guests better and provide great value for our hotel owner partners,” he says.

Dhawan adds that they are constantly expanding their network which continues to grow. “We are looking forward to introducing the Raffles brand to India early next year with the Raffles Udaipur. Novotel is already there at 20 great locations in India, and we will be adding Chandigarh to this portfolio early next year. The 20th ibis will be opening in Mumbai with the ibis Vikhroli, in the middle of next year.”

Dealing with COVID

Dhawan claims that the impact of the pandemic on the industry has been brutal for all stakeholders. “From our end, it was again to be agile and reacting fast on the ground to limit the impact of the crisis. Hence, we took immediate steps to protect our resources, reviewing our cost structures and constantly engaging with our hotel teams and owners alike. The most important thing was to first provide a safe environment to our employees, who we call Heartists, who stand for delivering the art of hospitality through the heart. Our paramount responsibility was to make sure of their wellbeing if our hotels were open, and for the guests who were staying with us when the quarantine business started to flow in.

Accor is one of first global chains to come out with very stringent, strict, comprehensive hygiene and prevention measures, under its ALLSAFE label to ensure safety of both Heartists and our guests. As things are opening up gradually, we are working on various initiatives in terms of limited contact and use technology wherever possible, yet maintain that warm smile, which is the essence of hospitality,” he adds.

Way forward

As people are still fearing to travel, Dhawan says that it’s vital to instil confidence in them. “With Unlock 4.0, the government has taken the right steps by gradually opening, and it’s a delicate balancing act for everyone to ensure safety, and at the same time, opening the economy as well. Health and safety of our Heartists and guests is paramount. I believe that the trinity of airlines, travel and hotels, must work together. This is the time for all of us to show solidarity to work together for selling confidence to our guests that it’s safe to travel and stay in hotels. It’s important to give them the assurance that we are in, what I call, the new now, and not the new normal, because there is nothing normal in how we are going about our lives,” he stresses.

What will be different

However, he thinks that there won’t be a permanent paradigm shift in the new now. “We are still in the business of hospitality, creating unique experiences and offering personalised service. While there is less contact, but that doesn’t take away our responsibility of providing service in terms of innovation and creativity. A crisis brings about many changes as well as opportunities. Whether it comes to ancillary revenues coming up with vacation packages or staycations; or how the F&B teams have adapted to creating bespoke delivery services; chefs are doing online cooking courses; and how we are adapting to the new norms for wedding business – there is a lot happening while offering a safe and hygienic environment for both our employees and our guests,” he shares.

M!CE and wedding markets

For M!CE and wedding business, Accor is coming up with new solutions. “We have 20 Novotel properties and one of the ideas that came from the hotel GMs, which we are executing very soon, is that one can have a wedding event at one of the Novotel properties, now with around 100 guests under the new norms. While these guests can be catered at any Novotel, we can virtually provide the same food and wedding experience in the living room of any of the relatives or friends of the hosts in a city which has a Novotel property. This would allow them to watch and be part

of the celebration from their house via any virtual platform while experiencing similar food offerings,” he shares.

He insists that it’s important for hotels to show flexibility in terms of contracting, number of guests, and create unique experiences to let guests have these celebrations. “Interestingly, we found a huge market for events in ibis also. Owing to the smaller size of the weddings, we have excellent restaurant space with Spice 18, present at every ibis property, and we have smaller banquet space as well, offering a great opportunity to cater smaller weddings of up to

100 guests,” adds Dhawan.

In fact, at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity, they have done a permanent set up for events. Shedding light on the same, Dhawan says, “It’s all about partnerships. We are partnering with key organisers in various cities. Pullman New Delhi Aerocity took the lead, but in Hyderabad also we are looking at new ideas and new concepts with the Novotel Hyderabad Convention Centre and Novotel Hyderabad Airport. They have expansive space, both indoor and outdoor. We must continue to adapt and provide experiences at various levels for all our guests.”

We want to build and develop the largest and the best performing integrated hospitality ecosystem in the industry”

Travel agent engagement

On dealing with the travel agents, he claims that they have been in constant touch with all of them. “While we are working closely with our OTA and travel agency partners, we are also reaching out to travel agents in the secondary cities and smaller towns to work with them. Also, in partnership with Vistara, we took our key bookers and clients, both from travel trade and corporate, to various cities and they stayed in one of our hotels. And, recently we announced a strategic partnership with IndiGo and 6E Rewards, wherein we are the exclusive hotel partner for the 6E Rewards programme, he says.”

Domestic foc us

Agreeing that the focus on domestic travel will continue for the next few months, he says, “The good news for us in India is that there has always been a strong reliance on domestic market, which is even stronger now. Also, we might rebound or recover much faster than some of the countries, which are solely dependent on international arrivals. We had a very successful campaign called ‘Let us take care of you’ which finished recently. On October 1, we launched a new campaign – ‘For the love of travel, for the love of now’ to stimulate the domestic market. We are creating packages for that. I strongly believe that with such diversity in our network at various price points and locations, we are very aptly placed to attract domestic demand to our hotels.”

Luxury portfolio

Stressing that Accor is a global leader in the luxury segment with iconic brands like Raffles, Fairmont, Banyan Tree and Sofitel, Dhawan claims, “Our approach has shifted from being product centric to being guest centric. Hence, whether its luxury or premium brands like Pullman, the emphasis is on personalised service like creating memorable experience and strong guest engagement. The Raffles, which will open early next year in Udaipur, will bring a new era of luxury hospitality into the country. Initially, the focus will be on the domestic market, but it will be even for the discerning global travellers, as and when the international borders open. In luxury, it’s all about bespoke experiences and connecting strongly with your guests.” However, Accor’s luxury offerings are limited to a few properties. Commenting on the same, Dhawan shares, “Accor in India has been there for about 15 years and the network we have is remarkable. However, it’s fairly dominated with our legacy, economy and midscale brands. Hence, in the luxury space the transformation with the acquisition of Fairmont and Raffles, as well as that of the Swissotel and Movenpick, really strengthened our luxury portfolio. We also have many lifestyle brands in our portfolio. As you can appreciate that the development of luxury hotels takes time, our ambition is very clear. We want to be in the key gateway cities and leisure destinations through various luxury brands at the same time. It’s part of our strategy to grow our luxury portfolio in India.”

When asked about a new Leela property coming up near Fairmont, Dhawan claims, “Competition is always good, and it would raise the profile of the whole area. Fairmont is a well-established hotel, looking after guests for many years in all segments – wedding, leisure, global travellers, and domestic travellers. We welcome any sort of competition as we continue to drive our business into Fairmont and we have some expansion plans for that area as well.”

Motiv ating employees

However, in this time of pandemic, motivating the employees is a huge task. Dhawan agrees that it has been tough not only for the sales team, but also for operations and F&B teams, as there are very few guests. “During lockdown, limited services were provided. The spas were closed, and across the board it has affected all stakeholders and everyone working in our hotels. The key for us has been to stay focused and constant engagement with the staff,” he shares.

“The good news for us in India is that there has always been a strong reliance on domestic market, which is even stronger now”

Quick byte With such diversity in our network at various price points and locations, we are very aptly placed to attract domestic demand to our hotels