Aman Nath, chairman of Neemrana Hotels, talks about the future of hospitality in the post-COVID-19 world
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the hospitality industry. As a leading figure in the space, what’s your take? How will hotels cope going forward?
The nature and location of the hotels will decide their fate in the current financial year. The closed, air-conditioned, corridor hotels may not be sustainable for now. After the lockdown, people will want to be close to nature in open spaces. So how will modern hotels sustain themselves? Nearby, true city escapes—mountain, sea, garden, or riverside—should work. Hotels will have to reinvent themselves. Heritage and boutique hotels with plenty of open spaces and natural ventilation in the rooms should do well post the lockdown.
How can the government ease the pain? Do you have any specific expectations?
Our government has helped contain the virus well in time. India should now be projected as being the size of Europe—2,300km of just one mountain range, 7,500km of coastline… Space is what the world will seek. Social distancing is talking of one metre. India is spaced out—literally!
Financial help is always welcome, but we can’t do the national mathematics. The government has to step in to support the survival of the tourism industry—an industry which employs crores of people. The government has already been requested to step in immediately by waiving off GST for the entire financial year 2020-21, by permitting a complete deferment of all statutory dues payable by the tourism, travel and hospitality industry at the central, state, and municipal government level. Similarly, the government must step in to support salaries and establishment costs. This is especially relevant for the heritage hotel sector which supports locals in the nearby villages and prevents rural migration to urban slums. The unskilled and semi-skilled workforce needs to be protected the most—they form the backbone of the Indian hospitality industry.
What coping strategies is Neemrana Hotels adopting?
One should remain an optimist even in the most trying times. Neemrana has always followed a socially responsible tourism approach. Our focus remains to keep our head above water. Till now we have prevented layoffs and are managing with leave adjustments. We may have to explore other options in the near future but we shall always keep the best interest of our employees and the company paramount. Neemrana has always encouraged local employment and after the lockdown is eased and things return to normal, we shall have a greater focus on the local areas in which we operate. In the meantime, in conjunction with the local authorities, we have being doing our bit to provide food to people in the Neemrana region who are struggling to put together a meal for their family.
Are there any past learnings you can rely on at this time?
Plague had no medicine and neither does COVID-19 at the moment. It's an anti-gregarious virus, rebelling against touch and togetherness! Maintaining hygiene, social distancing, building immunity by daily exercise and yoga, consuming simple, home-cooked meals and natural herbs and remaining positive is what the world should focus on. No one can throw dice in the dark and add the figures now. But mankind has always survived on effort, hope and wishful thinking.
Going forward, what operational challenges do you anticipate?
There will be several operational challenges but Neemrana Hotels has always been a pioneer in facing new challenges and emerging victorious, so our team is already gearing up for the same. To enumerate a few important ones:
> Safety and security at the point of entry and exit of each hotel will become the key areas of focus. Any raw material and vehicle entering the hotel premises will have to be sanitised immediately.
> The hotels will have to stay abreast with the WHO, MHA, and MOT guidelines on a daily basis. There will be a greater focus on online learning specifically in the kitchen and housekeeping departments. F&B service will also have to be done using social-distancing norms—this will be a new challenge for our industry. At Neemrana, we have always discouraged in-room dining and encouraged guests to explore our multiple indoor and outdoor venues. This is now an area which we will have to look at with a fresh set of eyes. Our young and dynamic team is already working on tailormade menus that can be customised according to the palate and preferences of the customers and served with our well-known hospitality in guestrooms. For some meals, if we continue with the buffet option, we will have to ensure that only trained team members serve food as per the FSSAI instructions.
> The hotels will have to liaison more frequently with government authorities including gram panchayats, health authorities, and police for greater transparency and coordination.
> The housekeeping department will have to be much more vigilant in terms of sanitising surfaces, hand knobs, handles, and counters and ensuring best practices 24x7 to build confidence in our guests.
There are too many variables in an industry which is dependent on warm, human interaction, but we can't be casual and “chalta hai" about it. The challenges are there. Even after years of training on hygiene, clean drinking water, soap and snow-white linen, when one visits the homes of villagers, they still have a long way to go. India will have to raise the living and educational standards of all its citizens, including those in the hospitality industry, by constant training and monitoring, and each hotelier from their end can implement and insist on higher standards. It is a do-or-die situation.
Pundits are predicting that the future of travel will be short-haul and intimate (but social distancing is here for a while), and guests will give their custom to chains they trust. Your take?
I don’t think it’s going to be our choice. If you have to go long haul for business, one may combine it with a holiday. But short-haul with your own car and family in your safety zone, makes more sense. When we talk of the future, it's not common for all. We have at least three segments of travel: the bottom, the top, and the important middle one too. In all segments there first has to be a proportional excess of wealth before anyone thinks of travel. If business and trade do badly, then first the bread-earners' pockets have to be put in order and all fantasies of travel kept at bay. So it's difficult to predict. One variable, and the whole scenario changes.
Travel & tourism have faced many crises over the years. Many are saying the sector can actually help the economy bounce back once the lockdown ends? How likely is this to happen?
This is a time to give back to our own country and people—Incredible India will bounce back and welcome its own people in different parts of the country. Indians must discover the beauty and diversity of their own land. How many of us can actually say that we have seen every single part of our country? If we do this, the economy will certainly bounce back.
I have always been an eternal optimist and the Indian hospitality industry shall overcome this phase, stronger and wiser than before! Nature, health, spiritual retreats, and fitness within easy reach will be the winners.
What about the tourism of numbers in our country?
This is most important and we shouldn’t neglect it, especially if we want our economy to take off. I think ‘Bharat Bhraman’ trains can follow the basic model of Palace on Wheels. India has some 4,000 railway stations. Many of these can become the basis of our domestic tourism. The government can involve local industry, traders and philanthropists to create community kitchens and toilets so that many more people can travel at little cost. The divide can be on the price issue but not on sharing the spread of India. But let us not be Marie Antoinette! Let’s first put food on the table and work on health, education, and housing before we talk of the sights!
If we are basically a nomadic species, isn’t travel an ‘essential’? Can humanity survive without it?
People must eat, drink, procreate, secure themselves—and travel really comes after that. But today it is a part of urban survival sanity. We all drive ourselves harder than our ancestors did. We multi-task and try to live many lives in one. So travel has become an important way to detox and to survive the stress. We cannot survive without it.