‘Drivable hotels and destinations shall dominate the hotel industry for the year ahead’

Neemrana Hotels has been one of the few hotel chains that have been able to bounce back post the Covid-19 pandemic. Their average group occupancy in the month of November 2020 was 41 per cent versus approximately 60 per cent for the same period last year. In an interview with BW HOTELIER, Aman Nath, Founder & Chairman, Neemrana Hotels shares more.

2020 has been a challenging year for the hospitality industry to say the least. In hindsight, what is your take? 

While 2020 has been a huge setback to the hospitality industry, it has also taught seasoned hoteliers and experts to rethink their business strategy entirely. There have been some major lessons learnt such as the importance of technology (digital and contactless check-in experiences), the renewed focus on safety and hygiene, the importance of mental health and balance for our team members and various other cost-cutting measures that hotels must do constantly. The entire travel experience now revolves around the safety of the guest and training the team members regularly to reinforce the Ministry of Tourism protocols that were implemented in June 2020.The emphasis on marketing and engaging with guests on all online and offline platforms as well as a flexible approach regarding bookings and date change policies has also positively contributed to the success of the hotels that have been able to bounce back post Covid-19.

Kindly articulate for us as to how experiential and niche tourism is truly the way forward post the pandemic?

Drivable hotels and destinations shall dominate the hotel industry for the year ahead. Hotels within a span of 100-200 kms from major cities will continue to do well. Guests will continue to drive in the safety of their own cars. Motor able holidays shall continue to prevail over destinations that can only be accessed by air travel. Families and young travellers are likely to drive out for short breaks and long weekends.

Since June 2020, hotels with plenty of outdoor spaces, natural ventilation, and recreational activities have been preferred. Hotels that are located in the mountains, by the riverside, and the beach will naturally do better than over-crowded destinations.

The Neemrana non-hotel Hotels are strategically located near Delhi-NCR and major cities and guests have the option to arrive safely in their own cars. Our historical and experiential hotels, that span from the 14th to the 21st centuries, have been lovingly restored over thirty four years by the expert Neemrana team. These hotels offer plenty of outdoor spaces, gardens, and natural ventilation in all guest rooms which make them a preferred choice for anyone that is seeking rejuvenation. We will continue to offer guests the option of a contactless check-in experience, room service, and bio-degradable crockery and cutlery. In addition to the new protocols, the hotel teams continue to emphasise training across all departments to ensure a high level of guest satisfaction and delight. 

The Neemrana Hotels have always been popular venues for intimate, destination wedding ceremonies. Since August, we have witnessed a steady increase in demand for pre-wedding photography, as well as commercial photo, video, and music shoots. These trends will continue to play a significant role in generating revenue for niche hotels in the winter months. 

Since the swimming pools and Spas will probably not be operational in the foreseeable future, we have created a range of other activities for our guests with adequate social distancing measures. These include a historical tour of the properties, interactive cooking classes, the bartender’s classroom, and folk performances on the weekends to entertain our guests. Neemrana is committed to preserving India’s rich and diverse culture and thus the classical dance performances by renowned artistes have at our flagship Neemrana Fort-Palace on each Saturday from October 2020 have been greatly appreciated. These take place outdoors in the open-air amphitheatre and shall continue till April 2021. The team has also been focusing on curating private dining experiences for guests that are celebrating special occasions like anniversaries and milestone birthdays. We have quite a flood of honeymooners.

What has the revival been like for Neemrana Hotels? Kindly support the revert with average group Occupancies. How many of your hotels are operating currently?

We are delighted to share that Neemrana Hotels has been one of the few hotel chains that have been able to bounce back post the Covid-19 pandemic. Initially Neemrana Hotels displayed small signs of business recovery in terms of revenue in the summer months which gained further momentum October onwards. We have immense reason to have a positive outlook for the upcoming months and specially for the fourth quarter of the current fiscal. The average group occupancy in the month of November 2020 was 41 per cent versus approximately 60 per cent for the same period last year. 

All our hotels are operating except for The Glasshouse on the Ganges which is scheduled to re-open its magical doors next week i.e. on December 15, 2020 to herald Christmas and New Year celebrations. The hotel has been re-modelled to cater to the needs of our discerning guests post Covid-19. The Glasshouse on the Ganges enjoys the most exquisite location along the banks of the holy Ganges, which is considered the most auspicious.

The hotel comprises of 20 exclusive rooms and suites with stylish interiors that boast of breathtaking views of the river from the early morning mist to the surreal late evening beauty of the water. The manicured lawns, yoga pavilion, and the ultimate luxury suites on the river, with large private terraces and spellbinding views, are a great choice for those that want to escape from the chaos of city-life. The Glasshouse on the Ganges offers modern, progressive global cuisine with fresh ingredients available in the region. Guests can allow the chefs to take them on a journey of modern gastronomic delights that are tailor made to satisfy every palate. The Neemrana team goes the extra mile to organise exclusive private dinner set-ups on a deck that overhangs the Ganges.

The flagship Spa by Forest Essentials at the hotel is a must for holistic treatments. In addition to this, the hotel arranges private yoga sessions and the most personal and intimate Ganga Aarti by the banks of the river Ganges in the evening. The various other activities guests can indulge in during their stay are river rafting, adventure sports, nature treks, temple visits and spiritual excursions, local shopping near the Lakshman Jhula and day excursions or picnics.

What are the trends that you are noticing among travellers in the revival stage?

In the revival stage, majority of young families have preferred travelling in small groups of 6-8 people to nearby destinations by car. Driving holidays and staycations are here to stay. Hotels like The Ramgarh Bungalows in the Kumaon Hills, Uttarakh and, and The Bungalow on the Beach in Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu, have seen a faster revival compared to destinations like Kerala due to the many restrictions. 

Business travel has decreased significantly and as the last eight-nine months have seen, virtual meetings will be the new norm. Conference business has begun but been negligible and this trend will continue in 2021 too. Group travel and religious tourism will be adversely impacted as they will not be in sync with social distancing norms that will be present in the near future. Travellers have shown a preference for hotels that offer them good value for money whilst ensuring no compromise at all on hygiene and safety norms. 

How is the local market performing for your popular resorts- in terms of F&B, weddings, and banqueting? Would you like to share with us any ongoing, recently conducted, or future promotional plans for this market?

Intimate engagement ceremonies and destination weddings will continue to stay in fashion for the next few years. Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Kerala will be ideal destinations for such celebrations. Although the scale of the events have reduced in size due to government restrictions which have impacted the total revenue generated in the wedding segment, the number of events continue to remain similar to last year.

Neemrana Fort-Palace (120 kms from New Delhi), Tijara Fort-Palace (100 kms from New Delhi), Hill Fort – Kesroli (160 kms from New Delhi) and The Baradari Palace in Patiala continue to be the preferred destinations for intimate weddings as they have plenty of outdoor spaces, gardens, and individual AC units in the rooms. We have also seen a huge demand for pre-wedding shoots in these magical destinations. Deo Bagh in Gwalior has also seen a demand for intimate weddings as it has its own private Nau-Bagh.

The “Beat the Heat” Cocktail & beer promotion, Biryani & Breeze Cocktail promotion, Bartender’s Classroom, Far-East Fest, and Asian Monsoon Combos at Neemrana Fort-Palace were well received by guests over the last few months. The ongoing weekend gala dinners at Neemrana Fort-Palace continue to be the highlight as they have been further enhanced and are held outdoors under the magical stars.   

What will be high on the agenda for you in 2021? What kind of developments & challenges are you expecting in 2021? Any new openings scheduled for 2021 in India?

Due to our focus on local employment and community initiatives, Neemrana Hotels retained the entire team through the pandemic. In addition to skill-training, we have organised various initiatives like motivational talks and stress management workshops for our team members to help them cope with the adverse effects of the pandemic. This will continue to be our focus in 2021. Our focus will be to boost our Revpar across the chain, improve our services and facilities and return to pre-Covid revenues in the fiscal year 2021-22. We will only look at expansion once there is stability in the aviation and travel sector.

Which states have gone ahead and made some fantastic policy changes, kindly explain with examples? How can other states emulate these changes and help grow hospitality and tourism in their respective state?

Most of the states like Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra have deferred SGST & income tax.In a bid to provide boost to hospitality industry, Delhi government issued an order discontinuing a scheme under which approvals were required from the Tourism department to open stand-alone restaurants.The Delhi government has decided to waive off the liquor licence fee for restaurants and hotels during the lockdown period, announced due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Punjab Government has announced that it plans to waive off annual licence fee of marriage palaces, bars, hotels and restaurants for the year 2020-21, proportionately for April to September 2020. Besides, the quarterly assessed fee for first the two quarters (April to June and July to September) has also been waived off in view of the losses suffered by these businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rajasthan Government has reduced basic licence fees up to 50% for bars in hotels, clubs and restaurants but the refund has not processed yet. If this is expedited, it shall give immediate relief to stand alone heritage hotels.The Maharashtra government recently introduced the ‘ease of doing business policy’ for the hospitality sector thereby bringing down the number of licenses required for hotels.

The Madhya Pradesh government announced its decision to waive the excise licence fee across all licence classes. The fee waiver was applicable pro-rata from April until August, during which hotels and restaurants remained shut on account of the lockdown. Thus to summarise below :

  1. Restaurants, hotels, pubs and nightclubs were seeking refunds, waivers on excise fee on liquor with licenses rendered useless since March 2020 and continuing restrictions.
  2. The entire tourism sector has been seeking government aid to provide GST waivers among other demands to revive tourism in India.
  3. Subsidies for 3 months by government contribution per employee of 50% of the salary has been sought.
  4. Providing a discount on taxes applicable to the customer so that they are comfortable spending at hotels or restaurants.
  5. A waiver of all fixed charges such as electricity, water and property for the period of lockdown. Although various State government introduced a deferment, a waiver is what is required and can still be done retrospectively.

The other State governments can consider the initiatives of the Maharashtra government which are conducive to hospitality and tourism and will encourage new players to enter the field in the future.

What do you feel can be done to grow brand ‘Incredible India’ especially post Covid-19?

The Prime Minister’s Dekho Apna Desh campaign will continue to help boost domestic tourism since most people have deferred international travel indefinitely. While the Incredible Indian campaign has depicted the many facts of India in the past, the most important factor for the brand “Incredible India” is to gradually revert to India being a safe destination which will encourage inbound travel. With multiple vaccinations in the pipeline there is great hope that the country will achieve herd immunity in mid 2021. 

Social media and user-generated content can change the way travellers perceive India as a safe and magical destination. With its rich cultural heritage, incredible sandy beaches, delectable regional cuisines, warm hospitality, and price competitiveness, India can emerge as a destination of choice for mid-segment to luxury travel. However, the government policies must support tourism in a concerted fashion instead of an ad-hoc one. The poor connectivity, exorbitant taxes, unsanitary conditions along the highways and in remote villages still need to be addressed. This is the need of the hour.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'BOUNCING BACK - FROM SURVIVAL TO REVIVAL ISSUE VOL 6, ISSUE 6'

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