A True Loyalist of ITC Hotels

ITC Mughal's General Manager Ashutosh Chhibba speaks to BW Hotelier on his charge and the importance of the MICE market to this iconic property in one of India's most popular tourist destinations, Agra. It's what has kept the hotel afloat for the last three years, he confesses.

ASHUTOSH CHHIBBA, the General Manager at ITC Mughal, Agra, since 2013, is a true-blue ITC loyalist. Having graduated from the ITC Hospitality Management Institute 24 years ago, he has spent his entire career with the group. Before Agra, he served as the General Manager at WelcomHotel Rama International, Aurangabad from 2008-10 and as the General Manager at WelcomHotel, Vadodara from 2010-13.

The ITC Mughal is a splendid red brick edifice nestled amidst 35 acres of luxurious gardens in the heart of the city. The hotel has 233 rooms including 54 suites. It offers a choice of cuisines at its different F&B outlets. Maikhana is the well-stocked lobby bar, Taj Bano is the all-day fine-dining multi-cuisine ala carte restaurant, while Peshawari is the signature restaurant serving North West Frontier cuisine.

ITC Mughal specialises in customised banquets at its gardens that can accommodate 1500 to 3000 people. Besides that it offers superbly appointed state-of-the-art meeting rooms and convention centres. Dewan-E-Khas, the 636.54-sq metre convention centre is divisible in three equal parts and can accommodate 750 guests in theatre style seating. Majlis is 224.8 sq metre in size and can accommodate 175 guests in theatre style seating. It can be further partitioned into two parts – one accommodating 50 guests in theatre style and the other accommodating 125 guests. With that kind of space, it’s little wonder that the hotel focuses on MICE in a big way.

In a conversation with BW Hotelier, Chhibba talks about the importance of MICE, the different markets and the hotels attempts to attract the locals.
“For MICE as a segment Agra has really grown. In the last three years that I have been here nearly 25 per cent of our total revenues have been coming from MICE. Thanks to the expressway there has been a paradigm shift in the way MICE has come into the city. Connectivity is one of the biggest things when you are looking at MICE”, he told us. So it’s not just the hotel but the whole of Agra that has really grown from the perspective of MICE. New hotels such as Radisson are coming up with a 15,000 sq ft pillar-less banquet hall. They will obviously be targeting MICE very aggressively, he added.

“MICE has really kept us all afloat for the last three years. Of course, when I talk about MICE, I also include the wedding business. Weddings are much bigger than MICE in terms of spends. We get local weddings and also from nearby towns where there is enough money such as Mathura, Ferozabad, Kanpur, Lucknow,” Chhibba added. The feeder market for the hotel can go as far into UP as Gorakhpur. The hotel has done quite a few weddings from Gorakhpur. They take 150-160 rooms in the hotel. Then do a 3-day function which gives the hotel more revenue as it includes both food and beverage, he explained.

Weddings are also when guests really splurge. There is no question of cutting corners, while corporate customers are always looking at discounts and cutting corners, he added. MICE is not handled the way it used to be 4-5 years ago. Lead times are shorter, numbers are more limited and stays are around two nights mostly.

“The NCR is of course, our biggest market. But then there is also Mumbai. There is good connectivity by train from Mumbai. From down South logistics become a problem,” he said explaining his source markets.

Off-sites are very popular from Delhi with guests coming down for a couple of days. “The kind of space we have is ideal for team building exercises. We are a complete destination. They don’t have to step out of the hotel for any of the activities. We can organise, cricket, football, badminton and several other indoor and outdoor activities. The aim is to keep everyone from 14-30 years of age occupied. So whether you spend an afternoon in the spa or the pool or whether you drive around in an ATV, there is something for everyone,” he said.

“The hotel is 41 years old and has the strongest brand equity in the market. You can’t wish competition away so it’s better to start enjoying it,” Chhibba said. The hotel is constantly evolving and upgrading itself. There is constant renovation but apart from that there isn’t many challenges, other than finding and holding on to the right talent.

“There is huge turnover. But we don’t face that. We have had people who have been working here for decades. They are absolute pivots,” he said.
Chhibba was also at pains to explain that domestic tourism had more than compensated for whatever loss one would have had in in-bound tourism. In the last four to five years, domestic occupancy had a compound annual growth of six to seven percent.

“The propensity to spend among domestic guests is also huge. Time has become the most precious commodity so when they come for just two days, they want those two days to be the best experience,” he said, adding that domestic business also occupies weekends at the hotel throughout the year.
“Agra doesn’t have many places for the youth. We are creating a buzz and giving them a reason to stay back in Agra on weekends. We saw a gap, and thought we could capitalise. It also works for our in-house guests,” he added.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'Green Issue'

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