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Jean-Michel Cassé: 70% of Accor’s business in India is domestic dependent which is a huge opportunity for us

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Though the hospitality industry in India is reeling with multiple obstacles due to the pandemic and the subsequent nationwide lockdown, hospitality players believe that the crisis will not stay for long and the robust domestic market will ensure a dramatic recovery of the business. Jean-Michel Cassé, COO – India & South Asia, Accor, in a detailed interview with Akshay Nayak, highlights how they are bullish about the domestic market for their flourishing business in India moving forward

While the industry has been shuttered for long, how does the performance for this fiscal look for the Indian hospitality industry and for Accor in India?

The travel and tourism sector across the globe is undoubtedly the biggest casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic with demand hitting an all-time low. The country has been under a lockdown for the last seven weeks, which has majorly hammered the summer season. Having said that, there is always light at end of the tunnel and after seeing a recovering trend from the domestic market in China, we are confident that the hospitality industry in another region will bounce back soon.

To experience the return of normalcy, it is imperative that state border restrictions are eased in order to instill the confidence to step out in the sunshine amongst people. On the upside a gradual recovery in the business prospects may be anticipated ahead of July-August. Our success in Indian tourism at Accor is largely constructed upon our massive domestic demand, which gives us an edge over others in the business. As the sector resumes to develop contingency plans to alleviate the fallout of the crisis, we aim to deploy marketing campaigns encouraging customers to experience India until frontiers open.

What are the many initiatives that you at Accor in the Indian subcontinent are practicing ensuring support to the employees and the community?

Welcoming, protecting and taking care of others is at the very heart of what we do and who we are. The last couple of months have been unprecedented, with the pandemic affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the world.

As we try to navigate through this global novel coronavirus pandemic our properties continue to serve the community.

Fairmont Jaipur engaged in a series of initiatives to directly help the frontline workers. The team donated medical equipment like shower caps, pillow covers and bed sheers to Sawai Mansingh Medical College and Hospital. They also distributed sanitizers, gloves, liquid soap, mineral water bottles to the ACP Traffic Police, Chandpole Police Line and SHO Amer.

Pullman and Novotel New Delhi Aerocity distributed food packets at nearby police stations and police check-posts.

Movenpick Hotel Colombo, together with the Colombo City Tourist Hotels Association (CCTHA), provided lunch packets to all doctors, nurses, patients and hospital staff of the IDH (Infectious Diseases Hospital), the primary hospital treating all COVID-19 patients

Grand Mercure Bengaluru at Gopalan Mall reached out to more than 100 daily-wage workers at a construction site in their vicinity to provide them lunch and daily necessities.

Grand Mercure Mysore Security team visited our brave police force and donated face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers. Novotel Kolkata Hotel and Residences donated food at an orphanage every alternate day to help them in this world situation of the Pandemic with the assistance of CII. Chef Neelabh Sahay and Executive Assistant Manager at Novotel Kolkata Hotel and Residences hosted an interactive online session with Hope Foundation orphanage students to teach them summer mocktails.

Novotel Goa Candolim and Novotel Goa Resorts & Spa distributed food boxes to the police force at various locations around Candolim. They also donated dry ration to the Candolim Panchayat, which helped 400 families in the area.

ibis Pune Hinjewadi team distributed gloves, sanitizers and food boxes to policemen in their area.

ibis Jaipur Civil Lines is hosting a team of hospital staff and ensuring that them a comfortable stay.

ibis New Delhi Aerocity provided complete support and assistance to the Delhi Government as a quarantine centre for medical care and observation for the Indian guests who returned from abroad.

At Accor, we have also been working closely with our sanitation partners Diversey with local medical and government authorities to ensure even more regular cleaning protocols to protect the safety and well-being of our guests and staff. We have implemented a very strict and comprehensive outline of measures that all hotels have to follow including frequent cleaning of public spaces, regular sanitation of high-touch points such as elevator buttons and public sitting areas and enhanced cleaning processes for rooms.

To ease the burden of numerous household chores that one needs to manage during lockdown, many restaurants at our properties have initiated food delivery and takeaway service. Participating hotels are Sofitel Mumbai BKC, Pullman New Delhi Aerocity, Novotel Ahmedabad, Novotel Mumbai Juhu Beach, Novotel Chennai Chamiers Road, Novotel Chennai SIPCOT, Novotel Visakhapatnam Varun Beach, Novotel Vijayawada Varun, Novotel Chennai OMR, Novotel and ibis Bengaluru Outer Ring Road, Mercure Hyderabad KCP. Also, some Novotel properties organised live cooking, baking and yoga sessions for our guests.

For our colleagues working from home, we are providing free online learning opportunities to them. Accor Academy has partnered with multiple learning partners like eCornell, LinkedIn Learning and getAbstract to offer select courses for access to all its Heartists. The courses will help in improving the skill set and leadership qualities of our employees.

E Cornell
A total of 19 courses are offered and with these programmes, the Cornell faculty provides short instructional videos to help employees practice their skills. There are helpful downloadable tools and Blended Learning Guides that help and support employee growth. There are various lessons on different topics such as leadership qualities, managing emotions, virtual communication, teamwork, problem solving, among others.

LinkedIn Learning
This platform offers 16 LinkedIn learning courses on topics related to successfully managing change and helping employees remain engaged and productive while working remotely.

getAbstract
All employees have been provided access to the getAbstract app which summarises business books, articles, and video talks. The summaries are easy to read and to understand, making them more time efficient.

Podcasts & Virtual Sessions
The Accor Academy In House training team have also designed short learning podcast series entitled “Antidote”, and conduct daily virtual sessions on soft skills and behavioural topics to enhance continuous learning.

Additionally, activities like Desktop Yoga Sessions, live virtual guided yoga sessions are organised to help employees stay calm, focused and feel connected. Employees are encouraged to reach out and ask for professional help if they need it through Accor EWAP that provides a number of services that are confidential and free for employees and their family members. These include confidential counselling with stress, grief, anxiety, or any concern they might have.

For all our employees, who are working at the hotels, we have elevated precautionary operational protocols, including deep-cleaning measures in the employees’ locker rooms and back-office areas in the hotel to keep them protected. The limited number of operations staffs working at the hotel, stay at the hotel and strict instructions and safety precautions have been implemented to ensure there is no hand-shaking and physical contact of any manner. Social distancing is being followed between team members and guests too, and we have been very careful in maintaining a distance of about six feet from each other.

What does the investment scenario look like for Accor in India in the post-covid period?

Accor is an asset-light company and operates primarily under long term management contracts. The advantage of the asset-light strategy is that it creates a more nimble and agile company that has a strong balance sheet. It enables us to take advantage of merger and acquisition opportunities as they emerge, which obviously has led to a different mind-set within the organisation, which is more entrepreneurial and less risk-averse.

While MICE would be majorly impacted even in the post COVID world due to social gathering restrictions & consumer sentiments, which alternative revenue streams are you vouching on moving forward?

The world will continue to practice social distancing until the pandemic is controlled to a great extent and this will directly restrict large gatherings. Both MICE and wedding segments will take a step back. Weddings will be a lean and a close family affair. For large conferences and meetings, only senior management will get together and use digital platforms. We also believe that in the long-term large-scale weddings and meetings will return once there is a vaccine as people will always have a human need to connect with others and to celebrate in large gatherings. This is especially true in Indian culture.

While MICE will witness a short-term downfall, we are hopeful to see new trends making their way. In our opinion, demand would be driven by domestic travellers, who might still be cautious in taking longer flights and instead drive for short breaks over weekends. In hindsight, 70 per cent of the Accor business in India is domestic dependent which is a huge opportunity for us. Densification has been a development priority for Accor in India, and we offer multiple brands across varying budgets to guests, therefore, we are well prepared to cater to all kinds of customer demands. The silver lining to this pandemic is that we believe once it is over that Indians will witness a graded opening to the business.

As the domestic tourism market remains bullish to ricochet post the pandemic, what dynamic strategies at Accor in South Asia are you chalking out to reinstate consumer confidence?

The ongoing spread of COVID-19 has taken the world by storm, however, on the upside a gradual recovery in the travel business prospects may be anticipated ahead of July-August. India has a strong domestic base, and like the entire Indian hospitality sector we at Accor also believe that it would continue to be the key growth stimulator in this sector. In times to come, demand would be driven by domestic leisure travellers, who might still be cautious in taking flights and instead drive for short breaks over weekends. This would be a huge opportunity for all our fellow players in the travel and hospitality sector. We will also witness hotels, airlines, travel agents and experience providers collaborating to deliver unique and bespoke experiences to promote domestic travel. Additionally, with online campaigns and initiatives by the Ministry of Tourism like ‘Dekho Apna Desh’ going live, government’s focus has already been set to accelerate growth in domestic tourism.

Having said that, the top priority should only concern the safety and wellbeing of guests. As a plan of action for revival, the hotels should curate safety guidelines to make their stay or visit a seamless experience. This will ensure efficiency, consistency, and measurement of our industry-leading hygiene measures.

Times like these calls for immediate intervention and attention from the government, resilient and strong leadership in healthcare, business, government and wider society. Steps like deferment in tax structure of the sector and removal of fees for upcoming licences could contribute in bailing out those that may fall through the cracks. At Accor, we believe that from a social point of view, it is important to reinstate confidence amongst people to step out and encourage them to travel, dine and stay at our properties once it is safe to do so. The government can contribute by introducing a national certification for public places, which will provide assurance to people. We know that the industry will rebound, as it always does after any crisis, but we will need government intervention to ensure that travellers feel safe.

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