West Bengal being a major tourist attraction, it is also a big hub for weddings and MICE business. Gaurav Singh, multi-property VP – East India & Bangladesh and GM, JW Marriott Kolkata, shares about the dynamics of the hospitality industry in eastern India and how the Marriott branded hotels there are equipped to welcome the guests once again
How has the pandemic and the pandemic-induced nationwide lockdown impacted the hospitality business in West Bengal?
I believe that the pandemic has naturally impacted the world at large, but some cities are worse impacted than others. That’s the case in India well, for instance, Maharashtra and specifically Mumbai has been in the news for being worse affected than many other places. Cities like Delhi and Kolkata as a metro city itself has had a considerable impact as well. However, on the other hand, I must say that the state government, as well as the center, have worked incredibly hard to try and do their best to be able to support us at this time and ensure that this pandemic does not impact us in a worse way than it already has. That is not to say that the situation is not bad already, although, in the current environment, all the lockdowns implemented and the steps taken by the authorities have helped in making sure that we are able to maintain a set of protocols in the days ahead and safeguard ourselves to some extent. Bengal on the whole, and Kolkata especially, which is where I am based out of, is a major tourist attraction. It’s also a big hub for weddings and MICE business. A fair amount of corporate movement also happens in the city and unfortunately, during the lockdowns, all of that came to a standstill. As a result, most of our hotels have actually had almost negligible business over the last few months. So, yes, the impact has been quite severe, falling almost 90% from our pre-Covid business to single-digit occupancies. Many of our restaurants were unable to operate during the lockdowns, as directed by the mandates laid down by the state authorities and the center.
How has the scenario been for Marriott properties in the region? How did you optimise costs during the lockdown?
Fortunately for us, we’ve remained operational throughout the lockdown period. We have had a few guests in our hotel, who were either long-stays or were unable to travel to their countries or cities and continued to stay with us. Obviously, we have patrons who are members of our loyalty program, Marriott Bonvoy, some of whom have continued to use our services, stayed with us during the period of the lockdown and in the Unlock period as well, even as international flights today are essentially not open yet. We have also taken the opportunity to support civic workers and healthcare workers from different properties and locations and ensured that we participate in supporting our local communities to the best of our abilities. At the same time, obviously, it is a time when we have had to look at our costs critically, put certain contingency measures on the property, reimagine our services, adopt things that hotels never did in the past, or were not known to do in the past. Our specialty restaurants were all shut during the lockdown but employing a large number of chefs and servers, so we had to reimagine our services. During this period, we launched Marriott On Wheels, the home delivery offering of our restaurant menus across the city. Initially, they got launched at most of our properties as a hotel-operated service and some continued to operate it as a hotel-operated service. Eventually, we tied up with particular food aggregators who do home delivery, to be able to reach out to a larger audience. In taking those steps, we were able to optimise some of our costs in terms of utilising our resources as well as take all the measures to ensure contingency on property. We also reduced above-property charges or reimbursable charges to ensure that our owners are supported as much as possible. We were able to defer some non-critical initiatives and we invested in technology to be able to provide contact-light services. Therefore, much has been done over the last few months; in fact, it has been a frenzy of activity to try and move towards what the world will be as we come out of this.
With the announcement of Unlock 1.0, which revenue streams are driving the business for the properties that you are overlooking?
Even with Unlock 1.0 movement has been limited. While restaurants have opened now, we still have evening curfews or a deadline to shut restaurants, so people don’t necessarily go out for dinner. Currently, we are looking at more of a breakfast or lunch offering, but restaurants largely operate better for dinner than any other meal period. Alcohol is still not permitted to be served, bars are still shut, internationally flights are yet to resume and even domestic flights are limited in Bengal. In fact, in the last week, flights from 5-6 cities have been further curbed from flying into the state. Therefore, traction and movement are fairly limited. We continue to serve our patrons, our long-stay guests, some of our Marriott Bonvoy members and loyalists. We’ve also had some local staycations bookings from people who live in the city but wished for a change from their life at home or wanted to have a different meal experience out of their usual environment for 2 or 3 days. Some amount of expansion has also taken place in our Marriott on Wheels delivery offering owing to the larger reach that we have today and the greater offerings we are making towards our guests. We’ve been able to improve on those services in the last few days.
What new initiatives are you considering to entice travellers to stay and dine at your hotels?
We have reimagined all our offerings. We have stressed on our commitment to clean protocols within our Marriott properties. We have done a substantial amount of work on ensuring that all measures are in place, to ensure heightened levels of sanitisation, making it extremely tangible for our guests to feel safe. I believe that in the near future, the confidence that we will build will set the path for how the world will travel again. We will have to pave the way for guests to feel confident about our commitment to clean protocols. So, we have tirelessly worked to ensure that multiple steps have been taken towards these measures. At the same time, we have revisited many standards and we have had to go back to the drawing board once again! Let’s take a case in point. With regards to buffets, we have had to move from those large offerings towards single-serve portions, live cooking, fresh food and sustainable eating, seeing that we support the immunity and wellbeing of our diners. Our menus today have evolved; they now have larger offerings of organic food, farm-to-fork food, as well as items that are better for the immunity and good health of our diners. We’ve also had to look at protocols of cleaning in terms of technology, thereby introducing the use of barcodes to ensure that processes remain contact-light or can be done on the personal mobile phones of our patrons and guests. We are also focusing on showcasing the work that has been done through videos and social media platforms to guarantee that our guests are able to visit the exact steps that we have taken, allowing them to feel safe and trust us. It is very important that our guests are enabled to experience the steps that each of our hotels have taken over the last few months.
Your future vision for the hotels and strategies to attract business in the new normal?
In the past, we have had various incidents such as 9/11 or the Mumbai attacks and since then, we’ve seen a lot of change in terms of security protocols at various places – we had x-ray machines installed, we adopted hand-held scanners and security checks in hotels and public spaces and they eventually became part of our normal life. Today, thermal screening, sanitisation, hand sanitisers, wearing masks, social distancing, all of these measures have already been embraced to a very large extent with our guests and with the community at large. I think that the world is changing and it is changing at an extremely fast pace. We need to be able to keep up to the speed of this change and ensure that we accept the change and embrace it. However, at the same time, we need to do everything with due diligence, with care, with compassion and sincerity. The reason I say that is, when you implement new protocols, they require a substantial amount of training. We all need to ensure that we have spent adequate time and effort on research as we’ve done at Marriott. We have a council for our cleaning commitment protocols worldwide which has partnered with accredited firms such as Ecolab to certify the use of appropriate chemicals, technology and the best standards that are available, which are also the safest for our guests. Even when we use technology, we need to guarantee that we safeguard our data and completely maintain privacy norms so as to be effective in the use of technology. I guess we are all learning a lot, not just how Covid behaves but also regarding the different patterns that will emerge after we put this pandemic behind us. I truly believe that we will travel again soon and I also believe that human nature is to socialise, to be out to be seen, to visit places, to have transformational experiences, to enjoy varied cuisines and food and beverage experiences. So, my hope is that the world will come out stronger and more committed to enjoying all these pleasures that have been part of our journey so far. That we have reimagined our services and offerings according to the times that we are in, stands testament to the fact that were are able to adapt. Those that do that best will possibly lead the path of recovery when people come out to enjoy and experience all the services of hospitality again. I do believe that we still don’t know what the new normal will be. While some of it has taken shape, some of it will continue to evolve and we will continue to learn. I do hope that we move towards putting this behind sooner than later and I do wish that we start to travel again very soon.