The Indian hospitality industry has been hit badly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions on movement of vehicles and people and the consequential disruptions in the hospitality business have been drastic to say the least. After the months-long lull, the industry is now gearing up and strategising to get back into the business.
According to some estimates, the hospitality industry is likely to face a potential revenue loss of ten billion dollars and job loss of up to five to seven million dollars. The hotel industry is back on the drawing board rethinking and innovating ‘hospitality’ to survive the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s very important to restore the confidence of customers in the industry. The COVID pandemic has spooked one and all and even the most daring of traveller is now hesitant to travel. We are working very hard to get our customers back in the post-COVID world,” says Hyderabad-based hotel owner Suresh Reddy.
Hotels face huge revenue loss
Many hotels across the country, including big hotel chains, shut down completely after the lockdown was announced. A few, however, remained open to cater to the emergency services personnel such as medical professionals and civic health care workers who were staying close to the workplace during the lockdown. The other category comprised ‘unfortunate’ and stranded travellers who were stuck and could not travel to their destination with all travel options shut during the lockdown.
The loss of revenue meant reducing operations and cost cutting that led to laying off staff, delay in paying salary or no payment of salary during the lockdown. The industry is battered and struggling to cope with the aftermath of the pandemic.
Mixed feelings for the future
A survey performed by Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) with key hotel operators to gauge the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality sector in India revealed the following:
• Sixty per cent of the operators surveyed believe that it will take 13 to 24 months for their portfolio to bounce back to 2019 RevPAR levels
• Fifty-three per cent of the total leading hotel operators have shut down more than eighty per cent of their inventory during the nation-wide lockdown period
• Over sixty per cent of respondents have up to ten per cent of their total hotels serving as quarantine facilities predominantly in key markets, with some of these hotels providing rooms for the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’
• Fifty-three per cent of the respondents believe that key business cities are likely to witness an early pick-up in room nights demand
Additionally, the survey also revealed the ‘optimism’ of the industry to get back on track as follows:
Fifty-three per cent of the participants believe the hotel openings will defer to six months. Thirteen per cent believe the openings may take up to three months. Another thirteen per cent feel it may take as long as 18-24 months for hotels to open again.
Seven per cent of the respondents said the deferring of opening may extend to nine months, another seven per cent believe the situation depends on the lifting of the lockdown and the final seven per cent feel that each hotel is to be evaluated on a case-to-case basis.
Adopting the new normal
The crippled hospitality industry is striving hard to survive in the post-COVID world. “No one knows for sure how long it’ll take before life restores to normalcy. So, as managers even we’re not sure what to expect in the near future. We can only prepare ourselves, customise the place to minimise personal interaction, sanitise the surroundings and wait!” says a sceptical Kutch-based hotel manager Umesh Desai.
Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India Vice President Gurbaxish Singh Kohli maintains, “We are re-calibrating and localising supply chains, which will change the way we operate. Every fixed cost is being reviewed afresh. Each hotel will have its own review geared towards greater efficiency and making operations lighter.”
Ensuring social distancing a must
The biggest hurdle plaguing hotel owners and the management is to maintain social distancing among the staff and with the guests. Most hotels are in the process of tweaking their procedures, protocols, activities to ensure safety of the guests and the staff.
“Implementing protocols laid down by the government are top priority for us. So, we are trying to minimise human interaction. We are also training the front-desk staff, cooks, cleaners, waiters, etc., to help them understand the disease and how it spreads. The training is important just so they take initiative in protecting themselves and the guests,” feels Delhi-based hotel manager Kavita Singh.
Bigger hotel chains are going a step further in maintaining protocols and implementing improvised procedures to tackle their operations. According to a spokesperson for Indian Hotels Company, a Tata Group subsidiary that manages properties of brands such as Taj, Vivanta, and Ginger, “Check-in and check-out formalities will be processed digitally. We have altered the designs of our lobbies, restaurants, and banquets making fewer tables available and also suspended the self-serving buffets wherever possible.” The group has also mandated and laid down procedures to conduct thermal screening of guests and employees.
Training the hotel staff
Three-star budget hotel group FabHotels sanitises all its properties every two hours. Founder and CEO of FabHotels Vaibhav Aggarwal says, “We have installed signs on the floors to signify the importance of social distancing. Informational Covid-19 posters have also been put around the properties to encourage people to follow the new norms.”
OYO is training its partner entities on ‘how to maintain sanitisation and hygiene’ and how to keep a smart inventory considering the importance of protective equipment in dealing with guests. The company is also ensuring audit checks of the partner venues for strict implementation of the guidelines. The company is preparing training programmes in the coming days.
Technology a big advantage
“We are fortunate that we live in a technologically-advanced country. In the coming days, technology will play a significant role in giving guests a safe and secure and stress-free staying experience,” maintains Mumbai-based advertising professional Shruti Sinha also an avid traveller.
Many hotel chains are already using technology to prepare their venues for guests for the near future. The hospitality industry is labour intensive and it’s not easy to incorporate technology without training the staff. Many hotels are taking initiatives and introducing steps such as ‘opening of guest rooms using smartphones’. All hotels, however, cannot afford to invest in technology and are customising their venues accordingly. Cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai are already getting ready to adopt and implement technology-driven initiatives.
The post-COVID world is a tricky place to live and work. Not only are people scared to step out, those who have to are scared to deal with ‘humans’. An industry like hospitality that is ‘service’ centric and relies heavily on personal interaction the challenges are far too many. With government support and innovative steps taken by hotel chains they may soon see footfalls trickling in. Challenges remain in ensuring small and mid-size hotels are brought back on track.
While most industry experts are hopeful things will change for good, and soon, only time will decide the fate of the billion-dollar industry.