'Domestic leisure market will be a key focus over coming months with emphasis on staycations, daycations and workations'

In an exclusive conversation with BW HOTELIER, Rahul Puri, who is the Multi Property General Manager - The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi & The Westin Sohna Resort and Spa, talks about new trends in the hospitality industry.

In an exclusive conversation with BW HOTELIER, Rahul Puri, who is the Multi Property General Manager - The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi & The Westin Sohna Resort and Spa, talks about new trends in the hospitality industry. He also shares the market response in terms of reopening of hotels and how new protocols have been set in place keeping the guests’ safety and hygiene in mind.

Briefly tell us about the market response to the reopening of hotels in the city?

We were operational during the lockdown and had our long stay guests staying with us. Once, the lockdown was lifted, we saw an immediate surge in the weddings and socials front and leisure segment for staycations. With this pandemic bringing a slow-down for dine-in at-least in the foreseeable future, entering and strengthening the delivery channel was a must-do and we launched food deliveries under Marriott on Wheels umbrella, which helped us capitalize on the trend. 

After we re-opened dine-in services, we saw our regular guests coming back slowly and steadily. When we track weekend brunches and dinners, we see a good number of regulars coming back, if not every week –every alternate week, and that is a testimonial to things we are doing right. In our case our brand is a huge pull factor, hence the safety promise we make to our guests is of utmost importance. My team and I have a huge onus to constantly deliver exemplary service standards, in line with today’s requirement to keep our guests coming back to us.

MICE has been one of the major revenue generators for hotels in Delhi-NCR region. With the current scenario, what market segments are going to drive the performance of hotels in this region?

The recovery trajectory for hotels will vary for individual properties, even those within the same market. For example, two hotels in the same city—one previously filled with domestic business and another with mainly inbound international demand—will see their occupancy and market mix rebound differently. Given corporate travel has been limited by many companies and MICE activity is anticipated to remain subdued, hotels should anticipate the domestic (or even micro-domestic) leisure market will be a key focus over coming months with focus majorly on staycations, daycations and even the new trend of workations. Business travel will resume slowly and gradually in the second phase, as companies come out of the Work-from-home phase; pending business trips, important deals / negotiations that cannot be done online via technology, and face to face meetings that were put on hold, finally happen. Weddings including social events will continue to be important, since they get a big volume of business with multiple revenue generating streams for ancillary departments in the hotel. 

We should be thinking creatively yet relevantly about how extra space on the property can be used more profitably. This is what drove us to launch over 25000 sq. ft. of premium luxury co–working spaces in July this year. Hotels stand to gain in the long-term and benefit from the extra revenue during traditionally quiet weekday mornings and afternoon periods and add more value to business guests, thereby increasing loyalty. Also, from where I see it – it only encourages more footfall to onsite food and beverage outlets and lounges, while simultaneously encouraging and fostering brand awareness. 

F&B has been another significant contributor for a hotel. What creative initiatives have been taken by you to maximise your F&B business?

We have always aimed to set benchmarks by constantly evolving to match the refined palates of our guests, yet being advocates of keeping up with the pulse of the market. While we are now ready to welcome our esteemed guests back to the hotel for exclusive gourmet experiences, we also take pride in continuing to being a part of their dining conversations in the comfort of their homes; through our delivery and drive-thru pickup services. The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi started delivery services in May, under the Marriott on Wheels umbrella and our delivery menu features signature specialities from all our dining outlets including EEST and Prego. The hotel also launched a first of its kind in Gurgaon, luxury Gourmet –To Go Drive Thru service which allows guests to pick up their order from a dedicated pickup junction in the driveway of the hotel, with minimal contact from the comfort of one’s car seat. We have seen a major spurt in this segment, and I am sure this demand will continue for some time to come. As we strengthened the delivery channel, we did a deep dive into the dynamics, as having a clearly crafted delivery strategy is paramount to thrive in this hyper-competitive space. The need was to re-look at the “delivery menu” and experiment with different ingredients to ensure the product when it reaches the customer meets the visual appeal in addition to taste and texture. 

Our menu offerings too, both at The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi and The Westin Sohna Resort and Spa have been re-engineered, keeping wellness in mind. While we have always had an “Eat Well” menu, as a signature brand offering, we now have a dedicated space in our menu for special dietary requirements like keto and vegan items and special immunity boosters, especially for the current scenario. 

What was the percentage of revenue that you used to generate from Weddings market in the pre-covid times? What are the latest developments in this market?

Weddings was always a good segment for us but now it is the key segment driving revenues and helping recovery. While pre-covid weddings and socials segment generated around 32 per cent of the revenue from an events perspective, the revenue from the segment has now gone up to almost an 85 per cent share for The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi.  For The Westin Sohna Resort and Spa, it would be around 20 per cent pre-covid and 87 per cent share from an events perspective, in current times. From June till August – we would have hosted approximately 60-70 wedding and wedding related events and social functions between the hotel and resort.

Weddings and related events, as a segment, has remained relatively resilient even in the current situation. The wedding industry post-covid is a new reality following new formats keeping in mind health and safety parameters and rethinking the guest experience.  The big fat wedding has given way to intimate weddings, adhering to social distancing norms. As weddings become smaller affairs, “Quality” in weddings has become even more important in today’s time. Our specially curated menus are planned around the preferences of the families and offering bespoke services to guests along with aesthetically crafted meals and desserts is also a priority without compromising on hygiene and safety. Our service strategy at the hotels restaurants and banquets has been revisited entirely for experiential weddings in line with our safety promise and Commitment to Clean.

What will be your marketing strategy going forward?

The global impact of Covid-19 has been extremely heterogeneous. No one-size-fits-all model can be applied to unlock new opportunities and possible demand sources. It is important to observe industry forecasts and trends that will ultimately shape recovery strategy as hotels begin to plan for the initial rebound in travel demand. The challenge is to meet hospitality revenue goals while adhering to social distancing norms and doing so may require some creative thinking, including revamping business models. The need of the hour is to thoroughly review the marketing and business strategy and tailor it to adjust to the ‘new normal’. Virtual site inspections, contact-less guest journey, digitalized guest meetings, drive thru pickups, take-aways, home deliveries and expedited online ordering are just a few shifts we have seen recently.

It is imperative that we stay connected with guests through social, email, and digital content that adds value to maintain a strong brand relationship with empathetic, positive, and uplifting messaging. Providing the right content can strengthen the brand relationship long-term. It is essential to ramp up marketing efforts focused on brand awareness and fueling new guests into the booking funnel and to reach people beginning to daydream about rebooking and planning vacations. Direct booking perks, flexible date changes, cancellation policy and attractive packages with value add ons are key. We should focus to lower-funnel intent as well as targeting the right demographics and feeder markets with the right messaging and content. Promoting special offers and packages tailored to your target audience at this time is crucial. Going forward, it is imperative that we will have to will continue to diversify offerings.

Housekeeping has a leading role to play in the new normal. What is your take?

Social distancing and 360-degree contactless guest experience is the new norm and we are prepared for it. We at The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi & The Westin Sohna Resort and Spa stand committed to reinventing our services in line with the new normal and adhering to the guidelines issued by the government, while seeking ways to deliver enhanced guest experiences, safety and value. We have enforced elevated precautionary operational protocols to ensure that the latest guidelines on heightened sanitation practices, hygiene and clinical cleaning are met. 

We have in place a Marriott International branded program “Commitment to Clean” which defines enhanced measures to comply with the highest cleanliness and hygiene standards along with dynamics and nuances of how we operate. These include multi-faceted procedures both at the hotel and the resort, designed to address each aspect of guest journey- right from pre-arrival to a safe dining experience to the check-out, as well as back of the house operations, with the aim of supporting guests' well-being throughout their stay. Apart from safety measures taken for rooms, guest areas and restaurant services, guests are offered mobile functionalities like mobile check-in and check-out, key-less entry, digital QR code menus and payment options etc. 

Keeping guests visually unaware and tangibly separated from your day-to-day housekeeping operations had been part of the magic in presenting a seamless hospitality experience at one time. In the post-pandemic world, that prevailing logic has been turned on its head. The new approach needs to be carried out clearly to reassure everyone that you are doing all you can to maintain a safe and hygienic environment. The pandemic will continue to influence housekeeping — and what guests expect from hotels in this regard — for times to come ahead.

With the increased focus on domestic tourism, what is your take on the revival of the industry?

India’s domestic tourism market is strong, which will be a key factor in the industry’s recovery. Outbound travel will be minimal and discretionary – which means increased travel within the country for vacations/ breaks will be a key driver for the industry. Travelers prefer places easily accessible through roads and weekend destinations will witness larger footfall. So, overall, domestic business driven by the leisure segment, followed by weddings segment is expected to recover faster. 

We are channeling the current trend for staycations by rolling out attractive staycation and daycation packages for both the hotel and resort, with personalized, innovative and curated inclusions. Our hotel associates are being trained increasingly with pertinent know-how to become “experience makers” rather than just “order takers”, to enhance the guest experience while simultaneously maximizing spend through the delivery of personalized services and skillful upselling. To be able to anticipate needs and exceed expectations of guests in the new normal, while still not compromising on curated experiences and personalized service and for each and every guest, is an everyday challenge for us as a team, that helps keep us on our toes and sharpen our product and service delivery.

It is important to keep strengthening business continuity and prepare for a better tomorrow, putting in place indispensable measures that allow hotels to gain from the inevitable steadying (or even rise) of market demand. Let us take the lessons handed to us by our time dealing with this pandemic and these unprecedented times, and use it to our advantage to make us better prepared.

What would be your message for the guests who may be making their travel plans for the near future?

The safety and well-being of our guests remains our top priority. We have always placed emphasis on standards for hygiene and cleanliness and we will continue to strive for higher standards with enhanced protocols, without compromising the high standards and quality of guest experience, that our guests have come to know, love and expect in every stay with us. Hospitality is about treating guests like family and providing safe and comfortable spaces for a stay or a meal and memorable experiences. But, the focus has just shifted from aesthetic cleanliness to clinical cleanliness. Though there is no taking away from the fact that the immediate future of guest service in hospitality will be very different: no more handshakes, tikkas on the forehead, and garlanding; but the warmth in our heart remains the same. We are leaving no stone unturned in exceeding our commitment to deliver the same (if not better) impeccable service standards and warm hospitality, with utmost care and precaution. As passionate hoteliers, we love all that hospitality entails and we go out of our way to keep our guests happy and smiling, and that remains unchanged, unaffected, unscathed.


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