'Keeping the warmth in our hospitality even behind the protective gears'

BW HOTELIER talks to Soumitra Pahari, General Manager of Mercure Hyderabad KCP, about the hotel operations in the new normal and his view on the industry’s challenges and opportunities.

With the lockdown being lifted and almost 6 weeks of planning to prepare for a gradual reopening in the new world order, tell us briefly about some of the critical operational areas that you must, as the head of your business, tackle?

At Mercure Hyderabad KCP, the hotel was not closed for operations since we had stranded guests staying with us. Since the beginning, our team implemented the guidelines laid down by WHO, local government health bodies and later as per Accor. We have now adapted the new normal such as practicing social distancing and more stringent hygiene and cleanliness practices. We are adapting and adjusting to new measures for our guests and employees. In our hotel, more detailed and wide-ranging health and safety measures are being implemented. 

We have also worked on keeping the warmth in our hospitality even behind the protective gears. Our teams were trained to ensure that our guests who patronise us for our warm hospitality do not miss the same. In terms of our business, team is exploring all streams of revenue such as day use renting of rooms for office spaces, F&B delivery through partners and tapping on the city audience. We are definitely seeing some positive signs in all of these avenues.  

How do you plan to implement social distancing and the new protection, cleanliness & hygiene protocols?

All Accor properties are adapting and adjusting to new measures for our guests and employees. Our hotel will adhere to the recently launched ALLSAFE label which represents our new cleanliness and prevention standards. The ALLSAFE label provides assurance that these standards will be met by our hotel in anticipation of the progressive reopening of our hotel. Every hotel will also have an ALLSAFE Officer and support team available 24X7 to ensure all protocols are followed. 

We have implemented a strict and comprehensive outline of measures that the team has to follow, including frequent cleaning of public spaces, regular sanitation of high-touch points such as elevator buttons and public sitting areas and enhanced cleaning processes for rooms.

At the restaurant, the tables and seats in our restaurants have been rearranged and placed at a safe distance of at least two metres to maintain social-distancing norms. Lobby furniture has reduced so that the number of guests in any waiting area does not exceed and social distancing is emphasised. 

As a standard procedure, we will disinfect guest luggage with prior permission of the guests. All employees & guest temperature checks at the entrance of the hotel is mandatory. Face masks, Sanitisers and thermometers will be readily available for guests on request. 

During check-in, we are requesting the guests to complete a self-health declaration form to declare their state of health; whether they have come in contact with any person suspected of the COVID-19; and their past travel patterns of the last few weeks. The guest is requested to share Photo ID, COVID-19 form, credit card authorisation form for payment and picture of a business card in the email to process the check-in formalities. No physical cards are taken or used for pre-authorization to avoid contact. All payments are accepted through digital method.

Room cleaning consists of the entire room sanitisation including room and bathroom accessories as well as hard surfaces including high critical touch point. In the room, we have removed all paper collaterals and reusable mugs, glasses and spoons. And replaced them with single use cups and stirrer sticks. Soiled linen such as pillowcases, bed sheets, curtains and used towels will be placed in leak resistant laundry bags and sealed before sending them to the laundry room for cleaning. Every guest linen is laundered separately as prescribed water temperature and chemicals.

Our restaurants will be following strict operating guidelines and has reinforced hygiene standards than before. Guests would be reminded when entering and leaving the restaurant, breakfast, or dining room to disinfect their hands with disinfectant gel, located at the entrance of the restaurant. Physical menu has been replaced with QR code for digital menu access on guest smartphones also a large printed menu is placed at the entrance for guests to read and place order without touching the menu. For payments, only digital methods are accepted.

In addition to the restaurants, protocols are have also been defined for the kitchen areas to be followed by employees in order that we do not allow any sort of contamination. 

F&B, MICE and weddings have been huge revenue drivers. They stand impacted now, at least in the short immediate run. How do you plan to recoup this revenue gap to recover and over what horizon?

Like any other industry, F&B sector has also been hit by the ongoing pandemic. Having said that, we have initiated take away and home delivery services via partners to ensure that our patrons continue to enjoy our delicacies in the comfort of their home. This was being appreciated and accepted by the customers. This is the testimony of the fact that guests trust us in terms of providing hygienic food. With our new inclusive approach, we are also working on growing the trust factor of the regular diner to visit us at our restaurants without any fear. We are engaging our digital and PR levers for the same.  We have also witnessed that weddings and social events have also realigned themselves and continue in a closed group of maximum 50 people with social distancing and hygiene being the most important criteria. This is definitely a positive start and we hope that things will settle down soon.

With a revenue dent that will go beyond a few months, what are the few cost control measures you are undertaking?

With robust methods and efficiency being in our DNA, we as a team always work towards ensuring minimalizing waste of resources. Since this catastrophe hit us, we re-engineered our systems and operating procedures. We re-aligned our small daily habits such as optimal usage of walk-ins and deep freezers, switching off lights in back of the house areas and so on. Such initiatives have helped us to save some additional amount. Our team also has restructured our support vendors to reduce the cost implications. 

Restaurants and fine dining have been a must have for any hotel of good standing, but now it seems in-room dining will be preferred by in house guests, while walk-in diners will take time coming back. What is your view?

The F&B sector will have to inculcate the confidence amongst guest that stringent cleaning protocols are being followed and safety of customers is a priority. Needless to say, health, safety and hygiene will take priority over everything else. While our hotel assures the guests a completely safe environment, we have seen guests have gradually started to come to the restaurant and enjoy their meals in peace or are ordering our wholesome combo meals and bakery products through our online delivery partners at their doorstep. We have also noticed a gradual increase in footfalls from our Accor Plus members enjoying at their favourite restaurant with the perks of discounts on F&B.

Do you think domestic tourism will be a game-changer with a likely drop in international inbound traffic for a while?

Domestic traffic was our base and will continue be the key driver this year. We foresee that domestic travel would start soon and grow with months to come. As people would be reluctant to take long haul flights and travel for their vacations, we see that there would be a surge in demand from interstate travellers who would combine the business travel with a short break and stay in a hotel like Mercure Hyderabad KCP. We anticipate business to generate from staycations, work from hotel and small meetings in the new normal. In my opinion once our feeder markets such as Mumbai and Delhi are back on track, we would witness some positive signs.

As part of Accor’s strategy, we have come up with a campaign called ‘Let us take care of you’ wherein we have rolled out exciting offers and discounts for our guests. Going forward, we will be adding more incentives and experiences to this campaign. 

As the head of your hotel, how do you keep the employee morale up during these tough times?

These have been the most difficult and testing times for every individual. Probably none of us have seen such pandemics in our lifetime. We have been hosting, virtual catch-ups with the team to keep them engaged and informed about every step as we navigate through these times as a team. We also conducted virtual training sessions for all team members with regards to the new normal and hygiene process. Accor has launched a 24X7 Employee Wellness Assistance plan which gives our employees access to trained counsellors.  Accor also tied up with e-Cornell, LinkedIn Learning and get Abstract for e-learning courses to benefit the team in future growth. The Accor Academy in-house training team has also designed short learning podcast series called “Antidote” through which daily virtual sessions are conducted on soft skills and behavioural topics to enhance continuous learning. With a smaller team like ours, I believe that we have been able to continue the personal bonding we had amongst us, just that it has now taken a digital route. To build confidence in our team members working in these testing times, we have tied up with best in class medical agencies for any assistance they may require.   

What changes do you think this pandemic will bring to the Hospitality sector in terms of running a hotel?

As head of the hotel, I developed my emotional intelligence to keep the show up and running.  Hospitality and the brand ‘Mercure’ are all about creating memorable guest experiences while staying rooted to local experiences. Human touch played a major role in the pre-covid times. With the pandemic introducing us to the new normal of moving to new contactless technology and social distancing, creating the same experience as before would be key for us. With our Heartist philosophy, the personal touch shall now be expressed through handwritten personalised welcome notes or a thought for the day card in the meal tray. At Mercure Hyderabad KCP, express check-in and contactless checkout have been introduced. Newspapers, magazines shall be replaced with e-newspaper and e-magazines. Buffet services have been passed for now and are operated via in-room contactless services for in-house guest and ala-carte orders for non-residential guests. Our sales call is now virtual. But I am a firm believer that warmth between two human beings can be expressed irrespective of the barriers of protection and that is especially key in these testing times.  

What is your message for the tourism and hospitality industry partners, as well as to your loyal clientele?

I am confident that the industry will rebound soon. The health, safety and hygiene will take priority over everything else. While our hotel will assure the guests a complete safe environment; it is imperative for us as individuals to be mindful of personal hygiene. Practicing hygiene, not stepping out without masks, minimum contact of hands on the face are a few measures we must ensure and strictly adhere to combat these difficult times. Be positive and stay strong.  

What has been your hotel's contribution towards the fight against this pandemic?   

Mercure Hyderabad KCP has always endured to serve the society through various ways. During this pandemic as well, we supported Cherish Foundation, an NGO for orphanage with food grains and essentials. Our hotel also joined hands with the Government and supported the Vande Bharat Mission by providing hotel rooms for repatriation travellers for seven days quarantine.

What are the key lessons for the future to be learned from fighting this pandemic?

As a hotelier, we have many lessons to learn from the pandemic. We need to understand that we do not have answers to everything and have to take one step at a time. Hospitality industry has been the worse hit and going ahead we have to rejig our strategies and adapt to the new normal. Safety and hygiene will be key and gaining customer confidence will be the game changer. 

Personally, these strange times that we are seeing today have taught us a lot, we never thought in our lifetime that anything would cause the world to shut down at the same time. The impact was swift and widespread that it forced us to learn new lessons and rediscover our old values. If any old lesson that came handy was hygiene- washing your hands frequently plays a vital role in our daily lives. The pandemic called for social distancing, but technically it is physical distancing and while adhering to this I learned that human connection during these crucial times are the best way to combat loneliness. It is important to be in regular contact with friends and family over chat, video, or phone calls. Technology has played a vital role these days and you need to be technically sound to overcome such situation. This made me learn new technologies and stay updated with the world. Staying positive and strong through every situation is very important to rebound and start with a new vision. These times thought us to train people, adapt multitasking and develop new skills for better tomorrow. 

To conclude, I would definitely explore possibilities of creating contingency funds at a personal and a hotel unit level that can be used in such situations, one of the best examples is the Heartist Fund rolled out globally by Accor that has helped so many team members across the globe.   


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