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Vijay Dutt: Sustaining India’s MICE segment in the post-Covid-19 era

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As businesses may limp back to some semblance of normalcy, in the due course of time, revised ground rules are being put in place adhering to the new normal under Covid-19. Vijay Dutt, general manager, The Ashok, New Delhi shares details about some key anticipated trends that the hospitality industry will follow to sustain business in the post-Covid times

Worldwide, developed and developing economies have all been disrupted in an unprecedented way by the hyper-contagious coronavirus. In averting catastrophic morbidity and mortality rates, more than half the world has imposed national lockdowns. Only essential services, including hospitals and public utilities, are being allowed to operate.

In an unparalleled scenario in modern human history, public transport, logistics and aviation have all been grounded in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the mass suspension of businesses has led to record job losses and the risk of soaring starvation, with millions being pushed below the poverty line. As India Inc. reels from the sudden stoppage of economic activities, the worst-hit industries include travel, tourism and hospitality.

Since tourism and hospitality have myriad upstream and downstream linkages, tens of millions of jobs have been disrupted directly and indirectly. As of 2019, 4.2 crore jobs were created in the tourism sector in India which was 8.1 per cent of total employment in the country. According to WTTC, India ranked third among 185 countries in terms of travel & tourism’s total contribution to GDP in 2018. Overnight, Covid-19 has disrupted the entire hospitality sector.

Recognising that closure of industries is leading to a mayhem being created, the Centre and State Governments are preparing to ease stringent lockdown restrictions. As businesses may limp back to some semblance of normalcy in the due course of time, revised ground rules are being put in place adhering to the new normal under Covid-19.

As operations resume gradually in the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors, priorities will change. Some key focus areas and anticipated trends would comprise:

Higher Health and Hygiene Norms: Medical analysts aver that Covid-19 is here to stay and will only come under some control once a vaccine is discovered, perhaps by end-2020. Therefore, hotels with liveried staff donning gloves, masks and caps will now be the order of the day. Thermal checks before entry will become mandatory in most hotels. Guests would be required to disclose their travel and health history during bookings and before checking in. In essence, health and hygiene may override bottom-line concerns to safeguard the well-being of hotel guests and employees.

Social distancing and the dining experience: With social distancing part of the new normal, buffet breakfasts may no longer be as popular as before, with wary guests preferring in-room dining and à la carte options. From food arrangements during the journey or at the destination, the dining experience will involve higher hygiene standards as well as innovative packaging, swift service and well-spaced seating arrangements. Food sharing may not be lavish as before, portion size would be better controlled and optional buffets will offer a wider spread even as dishes are kept at an extra distance to minimise chances of close contact between guests and staff. The industry is also expected to witness a rising trend for takeaways, on-table and room services.

Event and tour management: Like tourism providers, event organisers are equally sensitive to Covid-19’s impact. As the industry recovers, MICE organisers will begin via downsized events (and expenses) with smaller halls and fewer delegates while leveraging digital technologies for wider connect. Combining the best of both worlds – physical and virtual – will make e-audiences and e-panellists a reality. Since exhibitions need a high number of participants to be viable, digital participation can offer a new revenue-generating model. Meanwhile, live streaming will facilitate knowledge sharing as well as networking with remote delegates, making digital more mainstream in future travel events.

Investment in technology: The biggest disruptive factor, it will help the industry in finding its feet faster. Robust investment in technology will result in superlative services and contactless interactions. Travellers will be offered the option of remote or online check-ins and checkouts, including digital access to various facilities. Virtual participation and digital engagements will rise rapidly, emerging as a new revenue source.

Safety certification and workforce reskilling: Periodic audits and timely certifications of hotel and travel services, as well as accommodations, would play a critical role in boosting consumer trust in the industry. Safety certifications would no longer be an added advantage but become mandatory. HACCP and FSSAI-like certifications may emerge as a standard feature. Workforce reskilling as per new safety and service protocols will be equally essential in boosting people’s trust and driving greater growth of hotels.

Competitive pricing and new contracts: As tourism gradually gets into its stride, accommodation and its allied services would need to be competitively priced. The industry must rethink discount and value-added strategies. India’s Exhibition Industry generates a huge amount of direct business for exhibitors. But with recent cancellations contributing to losses, the segment may take some time to bounce back. Overall, contracts and T&Cs will have to be revisited by all stakeholders. Cancellations, refunds and rebooking policies will need to be rewritten as per new ground realities.

Besides the above, the industry will need a more conducive policy environment. The RBI and other regulatory authorities should ensure there is greater liquidity in the market. Unless the overall market sentiment improves, discretionary spends, including travel and tourism, will not come back on the consumer’s agenda anytime soon.

As Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asserted, the nation needs to become self-reliant. Accordingly, homegrown hospitality services and solutions should be preferred over overseas ideas and investments. In the new normal that slowly takes shape, individual and institutional support can ascertain that India’s MICE segment emerges stronger than before.

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