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Sonavi Kaicker: Neemrana Hotels continues to be a financially solid, debt-free company

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As the industry prepares to recommence operations following the nod by MHA to open hotels and restaurants in India in a phased manner, Sonavi Kaicker, CEO, Neemrana Hotels, in conversation with Express Food & Hospitality highlights how the company, which manages heritage hotels in the country, is well prepared on all fronts to welcome back their patrons

What are the key challenges that you are facing at Neemrana Hotels amidst the pandemic and the lockdown?

Our biggest challenge at the moment is that our heritage hotels across the country have not been allowed to open as per the revised guidelines issued by the MHA dated 17.5.2020. Majority of our hotels are situated in Green or Orange zones and therefore we would urge the government to consider re-opening the hotels in the first week of June 2020. Further, none of our hotels have centralised air-conditioning and with the natural ventilation and open spaces that heritage buildings offer, we cannot be categorised into the same category as standard, modern corridor hotels. The guidelines issued by the Ministry of Tourism have already been implemented at the hotels and thus the Neemrana Hotels are ready to welcome guests at a day’s notice!

We have already started receiving queries for our hotels that are situated in the hills, by the riverside, and in the countryside including Wallwood garden (Coonoor), The Ramgarh Bungalows (near Nainital), The Glasshouse on the Ganges (23 kms above Rishikesh), and the majestic countryside properties close to New Delhi which include Neemrana Fort-Palace, Tijara Fort-Palace, and Hill-Fort Kesroli in Rajasthan. Our repeat guests are keen to visit after the extended lockdown which has been ongoing since March 2020. Needless to mention, the restrictions on inter-state travel will also have to be relooked at by the government as this is essential for the revival of tourism.

Tijara Fort-Palace

With no mention of the industry in the relief stimulus package, how are you at Neemrana Hotels strategising to reduce costs and have a strong balance sheet?

The lack of government support for the hospitality sector has been a huge shock and setback to the entire tourism fraternity. Tourism contributes approximately 10 per cent of the country’s GDP and employs nearly 4 crore people across the country and cannot be neglected. We would still humbly request the State governments to consider the waiver of all statutory dues, payments and annual license renewals for the entire fiscal year. This is especially relevant in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab.

Majority of the revenue generation takes place between October to March so we are still hopeful for a steady rise in business as people start moving out. Neemrana Fort-Palace (120 kms from New Delhi) and Tijara Fort-Palace (100 kms from New Delhi), and The Baradari Palace in Patiala continue to receive destination wedding enquiries for the winter season which is a very promising and healthy sign. Neemrana Hotels offer guests plenty of open spaces, gardens, individual rooms with jharokhas, verandahs, and terraces to rejuvenate and unwind. Similarly, there are individual air-conditioning units so this prevents cross-contamination. Our team is undergoing training on the new guidelines that have been issued by the Ministry of Tourism as well as a host of other internal initiatives that have been taken in the best interest of all stakeholders.

The Company has always followed a conservative approach so this shall continue to remain our focus this year. The company has taken a number of steps to reduce various costs internally whilst ensuring that employees do not face any job insecurity. We have pioneered in the concept of local employment and as a socially responsible chain of hotels we shall continue to support our Neemrana family members through these unprecedented times to prevent rural migration to urban slums in the future. The senior management has opted for voluntary salary revisions in the best interest of the company. Neemrana Hotels continues to be a financially solid, debt-free company.

How will businesses for heritage hotels market be impacted in the post-covid era?

We are extremely hopeful that Quarter 3 and Quarter 4 of the FY 2020-21 will see an increase in domestic FITs, intimate destination weddings, as well as small-scale Corporate events. However, heritage hotels will also take time to reach the occupancies and ARRs that they were achieving earlier (pre-Covid-19). It could take up to two years for hotels to recover fully but the Indian travel industry will certainly bounce back stronger and wiser than before. The Honourable Prime Minister’s initiative of encouraging Indians to discover at least 15 destinations within India by 2022 will play a key role in the revival of the tourism industry. However, this cannot replace the role that inbound travel has had in the past and will continue to have in the times ahead. There is no one solution for all at a time like this!

What dynamic contingent plans have you chalked out to retain business while adhering to safety measures issued by WHO?

The team at the hotels have been given a revised set of protocols which shall include thermal scanning, PPE gear like masks and gloves, and the entire focus is now to ensure the greater frequency of cleaning high touch surfaces. We shall also be moving towards contactless Check-in and Check-out experiences and tailor-made menus delivered to guest rooms along with staggered timings for buffets whenever required. Our travel partners have already been updated with the measures that have been implemented to ensure guest safety which will boost confidence in the Neemrana brand once travel resumes gradually. We shall be focusing on the individual requests of each and every traveller to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable historical experience.

There is a range of very attractive packages that have been floated on our website for our guests and our friends of Neemrana card holders. The Neemrana Gift of Heritage Vouchers continue to remain a favourite for our customers as these can be bought now and utilised till 31st March 2021 and beyond at select hotels too. There will be a focus on long-staying guests too at the hotels that are far away from cities. The entire Sales approach has to be flexible and practical.

Hill Fort-Kesroli

While hoteliers are acting diligently to retain MICE and weddings business, how at Neemrana Hotels are you eyeing other revenue streams in the future?

Neemrana Hotels is a pioneer of heritage hospitality and thus this shall continue to remain our USP. Small off-sites and retreats are essential for all management teams when creative, out-of-the-box solutions have to be sought. What better venues than Neemrana, which can be accessed in private cars?

In addition to weddings and MICE business, we have always been a popular choice for movies, advertisements, and pre-wedding shoots. The Baradari Palace in Patiala has been featured in famous Bollywood movies that include Gold, Phillauri, Raazi, Mausam, Bodyguard, Yamla Pagla Deewana to name a few. Dil Se and Major Saab were also shot at Neemrana Fort-Palace. Besides the many styles of architecture which the Neemrana non-hotel Hotels offer, there are many wondrous natural sites: the two billion-year-old Aravalli ranges; a white sand beach by The Glasshouse on the Ganges above Rishikesh; the Himalayan foothills in Ramgarh, Kumaon; the Bay of Bengal at The Bungalow on the Beach in Tranquebar, the haveli-streets and sand dunes at Bagar, Shekhavati; the Chinese fishing nets at Cochin on the Arabian Sea – and much more that can be made from the imagination of directors and those who use locales with an inventive imagination.

Neemrana Hotels are family-friendly hotels and thus we hope to see this segment come back stronger than before in the times ahead.

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