The pandemic and the impact of the nationwide lockdown have had a disastrous impact on the country’s hospitality industry. However, the industry is likely to bounce back as there is huge demand for business and leisure travel. The recovery, in fact, may be in double digits once the vaccine is freely available, says Vibhas Prasad, Director, Leisure Hotels Group, which is a major player in Uttarakhand’s hospitality industry with more than 30 years of experience, and also has strategic alliances with Taj Hotels & Resorts, Claridges Hotels, and Mahindra Holidays & Resorts India Ltd, among others.
In an exclusive interview with Sanjeev Sinha, Mr Prasad talks about the impact of Covid-19 on the nation’s hospitality industry and shares his business outlook. Excerpts:
The pandemic being the final nail, many sectors and industries, including the nation’s real estate sector, are going through a downturn for some time now. What is the case with the Indian hospitality industry? With Unlock 5.0, what are your key challenges today?
The COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the lockdown have had a disastrous impact on the country’s hospitality industry for now and perhaps for ever. It will probably take another 1-2 years to come back to pre-COVID levels or till the vaccine comes out.
The key challenges we are facing today include (a) sustaining current operational losses, (b) dealing with employee morale as most companies are working currently with paycuts and/or reduced manpower, (c) managing cash flows to meet with statuary and financial labilities, (d) meeting customers’ expectations in being COVID-compliant, and (e) ensuring that our associates and guests stay out of harm’s way till the vaccine comes out.
Which will be the major contributors to the growth of the hospitality industry in India henceforth and how will this sector contribute to the growth of the Indian economy now?
We envisage recovery to be strong, particularly on the domestic fore as currently the sector is as good as devastated. The industry will bounce back as there is huge demand for business and leisure travel and not to forget the large social events and wedding industry.
Already, some leisure markets are seeing a good recovery. The Indian aviation industry has seen some bounce back and the transport sector like railways will become the catalyst for the recovery as and when they are permitted to open.
We expect the recovery to be in double digits once the vaccine is freely available. Inbound, exhibition sectors will also recover in a year or two.
Would you describe in brief the latest trends being witnessed in this industry? How will the customers see these remedies to keep COVID away?
With social distancing being the need of the hour, we have tweaked the regular processes and activities to ensure that least human contact is required.
For instance, Digital Check-In & Check-Out and digital payments are already a new normal. We have altered the seating style in lobbies, restaurants, banquets, making fewer tables available and are also serving only ala-carte menu.
What is the speciality of your hotels? What is your USP which helps your hotels stand out from the crowd?
At Leisure Hotels, we believe that well-planned, worry-free slices of time away from the routine are indispensable for sustenance in a tense city climate. Leisure Hotels is the only Hotel Chain Company operating in the state of Uttarakhand with more than 30 years of hospitality experience. We, as pioneers in the field, feel it is our duty & responsibility in setting standards & driving quality by offering good facilities & services to our guests. The individual resorts & camps typically offer between twenty to fifty rooms, thus helping us in providing very warm & personalized services.
“The essence of Hospitality” we believe lies in the true Indian tradition of Atithi Devo Bhavo – “Guest is God”. It is such philosophy and though that has inspired us to consider guest satisfaction as supreme and has gone a long way in shaping our motto.
So far as our USP is concerned, all our properties are situated in natural surroundings that blend in with the environment and are ecologically sustainable. They are aesthetically pleasing and use local materials to create a sense of place & feel that is local.
As we ourselves live so much at the properties, we aspire to serve food as it were our own home. The focus is on fresh ingredients, local Indian and international cuisines.
It’s ingrained in our culture to go the extra mile to bring a smile on our guests. We also provide value for money offerings at each of our properties.
One peculiar thing about your hotels is that every hotel of yours has got a distinct name and identity. Why so? Don’t you think it may sometimes confuse even your loyal customers?
We call this nomenclature as “Named Collection” where each property is a brand in itself. Each of the resorts is inspired by the type of destination/ culture/ heritage and hence given a separate name so that no two properties are the same. Keeping an independent property brand helps us deliver the experience.
Our corporate brandscape “By Leisure Hotels Group” ties in all the properties of the group together so that we are able to offer unique and memorable experiences/ holidays to guests. We are able to craft and curate experiences for each of the properties that while being unique is so similar.
What are your plans for the future? Would you like to expand in the hospitality segment itself or try out something new also?
We have a three-pronged approach towards business development. One is through building our own hotels and another is through management contracts of properties in strategic locations. We currently have two properties with Club Mahindra and two with Taj Hotels as well.
We want to consolidate the business currently under COVID and will get back on the growth trajectory in the next few months. We are also expanding the missed use (ResiTel) vertical wherein we build vacation homes and rent them back as part of the integrated hospitality estate.
The group also has other interests in sugar manufacturing, real estate & agriculture.
What will now drive the tariffs?
Customers are currently looking for branded properties that they perceive will provide safe harbour. Properties are looking for more heads on beds and focus is on proving occupancies from near “zero”.
The sweet spot will be for branded up-scale, upper upscale & luxury properties for now and these type of properties can probably get away with higher yields, just so that they offer safety assurances to guests. Branded chains and independent resorts in the leisure segment are currently the flavour of the month.
Business hotels will take some time to pick up. Hence, their rates will be much lower as will their occupancies.