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Combating COVID-19: Insights from Hotel Industry Stalwarts

The United Nations has set the figure at 25 million for the number of jobs that could be lost worldwide. The Hospitality and Travel industry will easily be one of the worst-hit. The news of MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts shutting down their stellar properties – The Bellagio, the MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, The Mirage, Luxor, New York-New York, Excalibur, Park MG, Wynn Las Vegas, Encore – until May 1, paints an extremely gloomy picture. The hotels employ tens of thousands of workers.

There will be similar scenes playing out in other parts of the world.

I decided to ask two industry leaders from two ends of the continuum for their thoughts on how best to trump these hard-hitting, trying times.

While Puneet Chhatwal, the MD & CEO of Taj hotels (IHCL – The Indian Hotels Company Limited), heads one of the largest hotel chains; Himmat Anand is the Founder of Tree of Life Resorts & Hotels, a chain of premium boutique hotels. Between them, they cover a broad spectrum.

Here follows a brief tête-à-tête with the two travel industry stalwarts in order to better understand the effect of COVID-19 on the industry and how is it being tackled with in its current stage.

  1. How has COVID-19 impacted your Chain?

Puneet Chhatwal – Tourism and the hospitality industry have been impacted globally and this includes India. Hold back of travel has resulted in a significant slowdown in pace as well as cancellations of secured business. Whilst the full economic impact is still to be assessed, we continue to monitor the situation as it evolves. Yet, in this time of turmoil and tumult, our focus is ensuring the safety and well-being of our guests, associates and all our stakeholders.

Himmat Anand – Tourism and hospitality industry are at the mercy of many external circumstances way beyond our control. Political upheavals, climatic considerations, natural calamities, diplomatic relations between nations, financial ups and downs – the list is endless! The Coronavirus is proving to be one of the more challenging. While all have been impacted globally, I do not think any industry has been as badly hit as tourism, hospitality, and aviation.

At Tree of Life, I’d say we’ve lost some 80% of our business for the next two weeks and cancellations are coming in for mid-April onwards.

  1. What are you doing to make it as risk-free for your guests and employees?

Puneet Chhatwal – As stated earlier for IHCL, the safety and wellbeing of our guests and associates is of paramount importance.

We are closely monitoring the situation at all our hotels and we are following all the guidelines and requirements from the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and other government agencies. We have implemented several precautionary hygiene measures such as extensively training our associates to the protocols prescribed by the Government of India, ensuring sanitization of all areas, carrying out temperature checks for staff, vendors as well as guests using non-invasive laser thermometers.

We have constituted a centralized task force which is monitoring the situation on a real-time basis and keeping the executive leadership team updated. We have also rolled out protocols across our hotels to effectively handle any potential incidents. In the case of anyone presenting with symptoms, our hotels are well equipped to safely transfer them to the designated government health facilities.

Himmat Anand – Guests and employees are easily the lifelines of our industry.

With regard to guests, I strongly feel that it is unethical to think of profits during times of an upheaval of such catastrophic proportions. At the Tree of Life Resorts, we are offering the following:

  • For Bookings with us till 15th April: should you want to cancel, we are offering a postponement to a later date and giving a 15% discount on the rate paid for now, should you stay with us within 30th September 2020. If you still want to cancel and not postpone, a full immediate refund will be made.
  • For Bookings with us after 16th April: if you are contemplating to cancel, we are offering as above. Should you still want to cancel, case by case minimum cancellation charge could be levied.

We will review this position by this month-end. The above status could be slightly different for Inbound and Domestic bookings.

It is imperative to keep your present and future guests updated on how things stand.

In the case of the employees, I think what counts most during a crisis of such unimaginable magnitude is constant and open communication with your team members. Along with solid solutions, being open, being transparent, being fair helps tremendously.

Everybody is staring in the face of harsh prospects of financial loss which will force one to take tough decisions such as to reduce staff when things come to a standstill. You don’t want it to happen, but you must be prepared. I also feel that it is most unfair when managements spring surprises on employees who have been such great assets until only a few days back when the crisis may have begun coercing you to view things differently.

At the Tree of Life Resorts, we are sending, in rotation, a majority of our staff in every Unit on paid annual leave for two to three weeks. Only skeletal staff is being kept back for daily upkeep and caring for the few guests who check-in. This will also ensure that our staff and guests do not come in close contact with too many unknown people. This will be reviewed in the first and second weeks of April depending on how the overall situation has progressed at the time.

The next step would be to extend the three weeks paid leave to a 50% paid leave and review again in early May. These are only guidelines and will be tweaked as the situation unfolds. Our team members are depending on us and repose their trust in us, so no! We are not doing any lay-offs or pay cuts as the first step.

All other protective measures, advised by the Government bodies and the Ministry of Health are being adhered to religiously for both guests and staff.

  1. What is the extent of COVID-19’s effect on your bottom line?

Puneet Chhatwal – This is a difficult question to answer at the moment, simply because we have to wait to garner enough data to quantify the business impact of COVID-19. This is a dynamic and evolving situation, and to try to put a figure on the business impact this early would not be productive, nor would it be accurate.

Himmat Anand – It is difficult to assess the total quantum at this stage. The only respite I find is in the fact that we have small inventories in all our hotels so the punch is not that lethal. It will be hellish for the larger inventory properties.

  1. Any predominant takeaways while handling the Pandemic?

Puneet Chhatwal – In today’s volatile world, any company and its management have to factor in multiple disruptions. For the hotel industry, these normally were wars, recession, or political developments. To these has been added a new factor – global health issues. We will now always have to factor in this as well in our business plans.

To overcome such challenges, the industry is standing together as one and working together in a collaborative manner which is a key takeaway for the future. Lean times also force us to look at our costs differently. This means streamlining operations for higher operational cost-effectiveness and efficiencies. Such temporary slowdowns are also a good time to relook and review our journeys and do some blue-sky thinking as well.

Himmat Anand – I think cohesiveness and collectively constructive thinking will prove to be the key. Since we look to the Government for support, for bailouts, for tax cuts and benefits, currently every individual Association is putting up its wish list with more or less the same points of appeal.

To make it easy and practically viable for the Government, that is already grappling with so many situations, it would be wiser to have one nodal Association put forth the wish list of the entire industry. That nodal Association should then be the contact point with the Government rather than each one adding to the confusion and being repetitive.

Everybody would like to know when this ordeal with such sharp personal and business ramifications will end!

The dates of 31st March and 15th April, being bandied about, are no magical ones. They only denote optimism and a sincere hope that by then things should begin to limp back to normal. But there is no guarantee as none of us have any experience with the novel virus.

I would advise all travellers and travel planners to reboot around the beginning of May. If it happens before that then it bears well for the industry and for all of us.

On a positive note, the industry has always bounced back from any challenge thrown it’s way. It will do so this time too, coming out wiser and better equipped to tackle any adversity in the future as well. And that I think is a silver lining!

I hope the insights shared by the two industry chieftains serve to be helpful for the rest of us, as we are sailing in the same boat.

Currently, the scenario appears extremely distressing and bleak with countries imposing lockdowns and closing their borders. Yet, there is optimism in thinking that the lifecycle of the coronavirus may be reaching its second and third levels soon, only to gradually begin to ebb and decline and then finally diminish and disappear!

The other heartening thing is that this time, we are all in it together – sharing and supporting, reaching out and reinforcing, getting hit but endeavouring to get back up briskly and brightly!

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L. Aruna Dhir
L. Aruna Dhirhttp://www.larunadhir.blogspot.com
L. Aruna Dhir is a recognized and national-poll winning Corporate Communications Specialist and Writer. Currently, she is a Feature Writer for ehotelier.com and Columnist with Hospitality.Net – the world’s two highest-ranked Hospitality publications. Aruna is also an avid blogger and a published poet; with two anthologies to her credit. Her writings appear in several national and international publications. A seasoned hotelier, with over 20 years of experience with some of India and Asia's top hotel brands, Aruna’s industry writings are syndicated to the finest global hospitality bodies and used as references in case studies and hotel schools. As an industry expert, Aruna has launched brands, developed training modules, created standardization dockets on business communication and written manuals. Aruna has been engaged in freelance work for Doordarshan – the Indian National Television, All India Radio, and Times FM. Aruna also serves on the Board of Association of Emerging Leaders Dialogues (AELD), a front-running Commonwealth Body that works towards developing leaders and influencers of tomorrow, with Princess Anne as its international President. An All- India level topper in her Public Relations course, Aruna has represented India to a select group of opinion-makers in the United States, as a Cultural Ambassador under the aegis of Rotary International. She has also participated in the IXth Commonwealth Study Conference held in Australia and chaired by Princess Anne. L. Aruna Dhir is the first-ever Creative Writer for the Indian greeting cards giant – ARCHIES Greetings and Gifts Ltd. She is the only person in India to have contributed original verses and have her byline on the cards. In her official and personal capacity L. Aruna Dhir has and continues to work on several social awareness projects – People for Animals, Earthquake Relief, National Blind Association, PETA, WSPA, Change.org, Friendicoes to name a few. www.luckyaruna.blogspot.com

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