Unlock 1.0: Check in to the future of Indian hospitality
With the economy in lockdown, India’s major hotel chains have been preparing for the brave new world of post-pandemic travel
It seems like it was just yesterday. Exiting the airport in Delhi, my suitcase had been plied out of my fingers by the chauffeur the moment I had identified myself. Hopping into the vehicle, I instinctively reached for the cold towel. At the hotel, a staffer made polite conversation as I sipped on an espresso and filled out the check-in form. My bags made it to my room before I did. When I think of what my next hotel stay may look like, I can be certain it will distinctly different. “No welcome aarti and teeka—going forward a sanitizer shot for the guest’s hands is the best welcome," says Jean-Michel Cassé, chief operating officer, India & South Asia, of the French hotel chain Accor.
The covid-19 pandemic has clearly and indelibly changed how we live and travel. “The biggest issue we have with this crisis," says Neeraj Govil, senior vice-president, South Asia, Marriott International, “is the great degree of uncertainty with the duration of the crisis." And the industry’s biggest challenge is to reinstate a person’s confidence in travel.
Nakul Anand, executive director, ITC, adds: “In the service industry, I have always said, every interaction with the customer is a moment of truth. Now every interaction is going to be a moment of trust. You will have to physically demonstrate that a customer can trust you."
To up the trust factor, the hospitality industry is changing the way it operates and communicates. Check-ins, check-outs and bill payments will go online and largely be available on your own devices. Even before you arrive at the hotel, you will receive information in your Inbox on what to expect. It’s all based on the Union ministry of tourism’s covid-19 protocol for “accommodation units": hotels, homestays and guest houses. The draft document, a copy of which Mint has, covers every aspect of operation. Guests will have to declare recent travel history, pre-existing medical conditions, if any, and if they have been in contact with anyone suspected to be infected by the coronavirus.
SETTING THE STANDARD
The hospitality industry is partnering with cleaning companies like Diversey, Reckitt-Benckiser (makers of Lizol and Dettol) and Ecolab. Additionally, hotel chains like IHG and Hilton are consulting with medical practitioners from Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic. Hyatt is bringing in experts from the Georgetown University Medical Center and Johns Hopkins department of medicine. Accor, The LaLit hotels and The Oberoi group have the Bureau Veritas stamp of approval. The company, headquartered in Paris, is a leading certifier of cleanliness and hygiene standards. And ITC Hotels will have the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals & Healthcare Providers stamp of approval for its “clinically-clean" sanitation and hygiene practices.
The sum of all this—every object that you could touch in a hotel is under scrutiny and is either being removed (think paper menus and extra pillows), replaced (taps you had to turn will now work by sensors) or retrofitted (sneeze guard shields at reception). “We will also avoid using any mattress- and fabric-based furniture in the rooms, (so as) to restrict any chances of the infection spreading," explains Cassé. “Room linen will be changed once in two days or only on request; no turn-down services will be available to facilitate minimal contact," Cassé adds. “And the pre-stocked mini-bar will transform into a ‘stock as per order’ amenity," predicts Anand.
Room service will stop outside the room, in what some are calling the “Knock and Walk". “Each of our rooms will also have a DIY cleaning kit," says Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, managing director, MRS Group, which owns Jaisalmer’s Suryagarh and Bikaner’s Narendra Bhawan. “It will contain all the materials you need to clean and sanitize the articles in your rooms, should you wish to. The chemicals meant for cutlery are certified food-safe." “We are taking a slightly different approach on this," says Giles Knapton, owner of the all-villa Coco Shambhala chain, with properties in Goa and Maharashtra. “Our staff of well-trained locals will keep the prescribed distance from guests. But they will explain what’s being done and why as they go about their cleaning chores. We feel this will go further in instilling confidence."
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
Voluminous codes of operation have been developed, from deep-cleaning processes to leaving rooms vacant for up to 48 hours between occupants. “We have had about 350 doctors staying with us at The LaLit New Delhi," says Keshav Suri, executive director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group. “And that has been a massive advantage on learning how to adapt to the new normal. You could say, all our processes across the group are just as the doctor ordered."
Priya Paul, chairperson, Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, agrees. “We have also had the experience of guests in paid self-quarantine and staff from companies listed as essential services staying with us. And we have realized hygiene measures have to be more visible."
Hence, sanitizer dispensers will become as ubiquitous as floral displays, as will posters reminding you to wash your hands. Thermometers, masks, gloves and sanitation wipes will be essentials in any amenity kit (the government’s draft protocol asks for daily temperature scans of all staff and guests). The new norms will be implemented not only in guest areas but in staff areas as well—locker rooms, dining and rest areas and administrative offices.
While it’s true that the measures being undertaken are required, keeping in mind health and safety, it does make one wonder if it might rob hospitality a little of that very inherent quality—of being hospitable. “Warmth is not only conveyed from a smile, which the face mask is a hindrance to. You can also see it in the eyes and in the gesture of folded hands.," says Vikram Oberoi, managing director and chief executive officer, EIH Ltd, owners of The Oberoi and Trident hotels. “In fact, we are looking at technology really from the point of view of enhancing our service. Not to replace it." “I am very clear that there can be no contactless service," adds Anand, “and I mean it in the metaphorical sense. Even the act of talking over the phone is contact. I would call it contact- light service."
TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE
To bridge the social distancing gap, it’s indeed technology, digital and otherwise, that the hospitality industry is turning to. Central air conditioning, seen with suspicion by many in the context of airborne infections, is being adjusted as prescribed by the country’s apex body on such subjects, the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers. The more visible QR code is being deployed in rooms and public spaces. You can scan one to access food and drink menus, the hotel’s directory of services and even cleanliness protocols.
The Andaz Delhi is testing out a QR code-based online ordering system which will eliminate the need to pick up the phone and call your order in. “We are also looking at ways in which this technology can be useful, especially to our differently-abled guests," says Suri. “To reduce key cards as a point of contact, we are trying to link room doors to mobile phones," says Shekhawat. Where hotels don’t have the deep pockets or find this sort of technology not in line with their “spirit", they plan to communicate in other ways of physically distant, low-tech: via the in-room TV, as PDFs over email, WhatsApp messages and voice notes (for that “human touch").
While restaurant seating plans are being redrawn to account for social distancing norms, industry wisdom predicts that in the initial days most guests will prefer dining in-room, to avoid crowds. That they will order in from a hotel’s restaurant(s), even if the menus have fewer options than usual.
Govil sees a silver lining in this. “Where we earlier lost business to stand-alones (restaurants in cities), hotel restaurants will benefit." When people do start stepping out, they will make a reservation, most probably online, rather than having to wait in the lobby.
Hotels, in turn, are expected keep their outlets open longer, to accommodate staggered bookings. The buffet, that popular beast of hotel offerings, is forecast to make a slow comeback. Even then, “guests will see it laid out behind a shield in the live kitchen. To reduce chances of contamination, a staffer will then serve their choices at their table," says Ramesh Ramanathan, chairman and managing director, Sterling Holiday Resorts. “We are also developing new service paraphernalia that is aimed at takeout orders. But it will also be used within the hotel," says Oberoi.
FOR THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Industry leaders are convinced that bars and nightclubs will be the last pieces of the hospitality pie to be pulled out of the lockdown deep freeze. This poses a significant challenge for hoteliers like Paul. “Fifty per cent of The Park’s business comes from our food and beverage offerings," she says. “Entertainment is how we have added value to the customer experience. In a month, we have 20-25 live acts— DJs, stand-up, bands—at our hotels."
She has gone online to keep that part of the connect with guests alive. Bands have been performing on social media and DJs have been creating SoundCloud sets. The brand has been putting together shows on Facebook and Instagram Live. When tourism resumes, Paul feels this new format can be brought into play for guests who may want to party in their rooms, by piping it through the hotel room TV set. “And seeing the response," says Paul. “I have realized there’s potential there for a revenue stream for us and for our artists. Especially if we can incorporate virtual reality into it, which we are exploring." Keshav Suri agrees. He has taken DJs and drag acts from his club Kitty Su—which is hugely popular with the LGBTQ+ community—to Instagram and YouTube. “Right now, we want to tell our patrons, if they can’t come to us, we will go to them," says Suri. “But once the lockdown lifts, we will find ways and means to monetize the shows online."
Paul and Suri are not the only ones looking for a silver lining in the covid-19 rain cloud, and neither is entertainment the only field of exploration. “Every disaster comes with a seed of opportunity, they say," says Anand. “And if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity we will perish." The result: Chains like ITC Hotels, The Park, Marriott, Hyatt, The Oberoi and The LaLit are all actively pursuing home delivery of food from their hotel restaurants across the country. “Takeaway will be the new eating out," Anand predicts. Some are also aiming to create intimate at-home experiences. “The restaurant may be shut but a chef and our team can certainly create the whole experience for you," says Suri.
Alongside home delivery Marriott International is adding catering services to its kitty. Govil says they are now working on long-term catering contracts with existing clients. An arena they haven’t been in before.
Govil is also pursuing a whole new line of thought on the hugely profitable events end of the business. In a situation where business travel and mega conferences are expected to take a back seat, he’s moving away from the model where room nights and its associated services formed the core of the business. Instead, he’s creating value through what was till now an add-on. “For a national association, we have been asked to put together an event across four venues and link them up," Govil says. “There’s also catering, yes. But moving away from technology enhancing the customer experience, here it will be at the core of that experience."
While they may be exploring new opportunities, every hotelier is also eagerly awaiting resumption of business as usual. With air travel having resumed, the hope is that tourism, too, can take flight. I, for one, have learnt that after having spent way too much time introspecting, cooking and Netflix-ing (you know, all those things you see on Instagram), I am ready to board a flight and check into a hotel again—in the most contactless, socially-distant way possible. Now, where’s that declaration you want me to sign?
Prasad Ramamurthy is a travel writer and former features director of Condé Nast Traveller, India.
ALSO SEE: Wellness in the world of covid-19
Will you be able to lounge by the pool, get pampered at the spa? Well, the verdict on that is still out and could be left to state authorities to decide.
But wellness destinations like Ananda in the Himalayas, in Uttarakhand, and CGH Earth’s Kalari Kovilakom, in Kerala, are drawing up plans that will enable them to safely welcome guests sooner rather than later. “Our thought process, where massages are concerned, is that both staff and guests should undergo rapid tests before any treatment begins," says Michael Dominic, chief executive officer, CGH Earth Experience Hotels. “We are in conversation with laboratories to see if this achievable."
Kalari Kovilakam is certified by the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals & Healthcare Providers for its Ayurvedic offerings. “Additionally, staff will live on-property for at least 10 days before being tested." At Ananda, with activities such as yoga and guided hikes on a 100-acre property, social distancing shouldn’t be a problem. But parts of the experience will go online. “Instead of consultations with our doctors on arrival, our guests will do this via a video call from their homes," says Mahesh Natarajan, senior vice-president, Ananda in the Himalayas. The resort’s spa will focus “on low-contact therapies". Ayurvedic, hydrotherapy and pranic healing treatments will avoid the upper body and focus only on the lower body.