Hilton Chennai celebrates 10 years of meaningful hospitality
Hilton Chennai recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. In a recent interview, Ruban Das, General Manager, Hilton Chennai discussed the hotel's journey, their part in travel and tourism growth, and more.
Weathered the ‘COVID’ storm
2020 was an unusual year and its repercussions are still evident around us. Braving the storm, Hilton Chennai successfully celebrated its 10th anniversary. Commenting on the journey so far and the inception, Das said, “It has been a great journey because this hotel was the first built to specs Hilton Hotel in the country. The Hilton's team guided designs and the project. And when we got ready in 2011, it was a very stunning-looking hotel similar to any Hilton Hotels across the globe in terms of its look, feel and ambience.”
The brand Hilton, having More than 6,400 properties worldwide, is a well-recognised brand by international travellers. Highlighting this fact, Das stated that their hotel has been a top choice amongst. “Our geographical origin of business, if you take the last five years trend previous to the pandemic here, where there was a travel ban, we have lost 68 per cent of international travellers and 32 per cent of Indian travellers. And most of our clients are from continental Europe, UK as well as the United States,” he elaborated.
Das mentioned that Chennai, in terms of tourism, is a gateway city to South India. Because of locations like Tirupati Balaji temple, a lot of pilgrimage tourism takes place through Chennai. Though the city does not have leisure tourism, because of Chennai's location, they get a lot of transit tourists going to South India to visit and pilgrimage.
“The hotel has contributed immensely because of the 101-year-old brand landmark. Anywhere in your city, if you're having a Hilton, it becomes a landmark in itself,” he added.
As the situation worsened last year, the city was taking care of stranded international travellers, domestic travellers, doctors, other frontline workers, etc. During the pandemic, all the hotels barring a few were shut as per the National Disaster Management Act. Commenting on their contribution during the early days of pandemic, Das said, “We are the only hotel, which remained open for all 365 days last year. We got permission to host stranded travellers as well as Vande Bharat guests last year.”
He continued, “So, it was a very prestigious moment for us when we partnered with Chennai Corporation and started taking the first Vande Bharat flights, the passengers who were quarantined institutionally for 14 days because of the safety protocols.”
Giving credit to Hilton's expertise, Das informed that specific guidelines were followed at the property as per standard protocols that were implemented from the brand’s sister properties across the globe. Hilton observed, understood, learnt the protocols and launched a well-planned programme in May, called Clean Stay.
“Clean stay is an industry-defining protocol of cleanliness. Prior to the pandemic, in hotels, the cleanliness was attributed to the aesthetics and Clean Stay has taken it to a clinical level,” he further explained.
This was possible because of their focused partnership with some of the leading institutes in the United States, and partnership with the leading chemical solution providers, namely Dettol, Mayo Clinic US while launching Clean Stay.
Reckitt (earlier known as Reckitt Benckiser) which owns Dettol brand, is a trusted and well-known brand. For hygiene and safety, Hilton Chennai partnered with them for their disinfectants and chemicals. “Things actually instilled a lot of confidence in the case, when we saw guest satisfaction scores, we understood that unlike in a non-pandemic era, where food and beverage, breakfasts, et cetera, are given a lot of importance. But last year onwards, the only single factor for the hotel is cleanliness,” he expressed.
He continued, “As a result, in month of June, when the entire country was having an average occupancy for a branded five-star segment hotel business in single digit, we were doing 86 per cent occupancy, because we were hosting the, Vande Bharat passengers.”
“And we gave confidence to our team members saying that we will be okay. It is risky obviously but the idea is not to get afraid of the pandemic whereas it was to fight it out with the right protocols and methods,” he further added.
For their efforts, the hotel received a certificate of appreciation from Chennai Corporation at the end of 2020. Additionally, the hotel partnered with the FSSAI, and hosted doctors, and other medical practitioners, who were serving under the National Disaster Management Act in all the hospitals treating COVID patient.
“In little ways, we can think that even in our 10th year, we provided some meaningful connection and gesture with Chennai and our guests, and spread the light and warmth of hospitality,” he said.
Hotel faring well despite challenges
While talking about the occupancy rate of the hotel, Das said that they closed with 78 per cent occupancy for February, which has been slightly higher by one per cent than its previous record. “Due to the ban on the civil aviation across the world, we are not seeing a lot of international travellers traveling. Whatever business is coming is through domestic and through project business,” he added.
He believes that Chennai has been lucky because it serves as the automobile hub as well. Automobile as an industry is booming, people are avoiding travelling in public transportation, and they are aspiring to buy their own two-wheeler or four-wheelers.
He highlighted that automobile is doing all-time high sales and as a result, automobile and ancillary industries are really doing good. “We are capitalising on securing project-based business as a result of automobile. Some of the very unique research, ISRO recently launched satellite or on the other country now ISRO is in Sriharikota and Chennai is its nearest big city. So, we also get a lot of international scientists and delegation. And again, here we leverage on the fact of Hilton's global presence, you know, if you are booking from Brazil, then if there is a Hilton in India, somewhere in Chennai, you will be assured with certain levels of standards and comforts that we will be offering,” he said.
He further talked about the emergence of revenge tourism in the scene. As people had to restrict their movement during the lockdown, it resulted in the newfound urge to move outside and suddenly people started looking for options to indulge themselves into a staycation experience or weekend vacation within the city.
Commenting on this segment of travellers, he said, “We are seeing a lot ‘staycationers’ and we have a package to offer them called ‘great small breaks’ where we are giving a value for money package at a very attractive rate which is seeing a lot of traction among the ‘staycationers.’ It’s kind of business, where forecasting is a challenge because of a very dynamic scenario of transport, travel and pandemic looming at large in different countries across the globe. But on the month, for the month, we are doing pretty well.”
Food and Beverage: a minor revenue-producing source of business for Hilton Chennai
Das maintains that when the hotel was in the stage of survival, a new door got opened, which is the delivery business. Hilton was doing delivery business before pandemic as well, but at a B2B level. As the food in a five-star hotel is not inexpensive, competing on platforms like Swiggy and Zomato was difficult. However, Das stated that the food products provided by the hotel is incomparable but choice lies in the hands of customer.
Elaborating further he commented, “Challenge has been there of price point. What we did is that we offered a price-sensitive menu because, for me, my brand is very important. Our food is going from Hilton, so, we cannot compromise on certain standards. Without compromising the standards wherever we can, we cut down on the portion size or made it a mono portion instead of a family portion. We have done that, and we have seen some traction.”
During the lockdown, the hotel witnessed a lot of traction in their delivery orders. But as things started to open, they saw that they were not getting similar response. “And I'm not complaining. As I said, it's a new course of business, a new thought process for me to address.”
“There are some challenges but we are working on it, and very soon, I'm sure we will be emerging it in the same manner,” he maintained positively.
Ensuring a hygienic experience with ‘Clean Stay’
Explaining the importance of Clean Stay programme Das said that it is not a programme only addressing to the guest, it is a three-pronged programme. One of its aims is to educate which is providing training and education to the staff. So, as a part of the state, all the team members are subjected to do six modules of training which are derived from the WHO guidelines.
The second stage of the programme is communication. The communication programme covers the different signages which they are using across the hotel to educate their guests. This includes the social distancing signages, queuing up signages, ‘wear your mask’ signages, elevator signages. Also, it refers to the different signages in their restaurants, educating their team members.
The third part is the product itself like the introduction of 10 touchpoint of cleaning, which they introduced in all their rooms where 10 touchpoints like the doorknob of the main door, the toilet seat, the TV unit, the telephone, the remote control, the writing desk, etc., are covered.
After their general cleaning, the rooms are further cleaned by using the fogging machines as well as the VireX solutions, ULV treatment to kill the virus and bacteria and keep their rooms safe for the guests.
Besides, they seal their room with a sticker, using a unique Clean Stay sticker that Hilton has innovated. Where guests would walk into a sealed room and when they open the room the sticker breaks. The sticker will be only put by the housekeeper once he completely cleans the room and the supervisor checks and releases the room. So, that adds confidence to the guests.
Banquets are one of the good sources of income for all their hotels. Hilton has invented a programme called event ready by Clean Stay. Similar methodology of cleaning is applied like sanitisation, ULV treatment, etc. As a part of this programme, the guests are provided a Clean Stay event-ready checklist that would help the guest measure the level of safety employed by the hotel.
“So, if you are conducting a wedding in at our hotel, we come at say at six o'clock as a host. I would ask you to fill in the event ready checklist by sending you the checklist through a messaging platform. You will open and even physically check the venue the food area, etc. You will fill in that checklist and say that whether you are satisfied with the cleaning or not,” he explained.
"And when you're satisfied, you are actually ticking off and closing the sheet by saying that this is fine to go ahead. And this will be particularly helpful as when the corporate starts to travel and do meetings because there also there will be a question of accountability," he added.
"Corona can come and go, but life and livelihood balance has to be maintained. And the business has to run within the limits of the stipulated hours of operation and government rules and regulations, we have to function. As I said, 365 proud days of operations in a pandemic year is quite commendable, and this could have only been possible with the help of Clean Stay and the implementation of it,” he said.
En route to Revival
Das anticipates that corporate travel will take some time to start. “Maybe by the end of this year or the beginning of next year, we will see fully the corporates traveling if the vaccination programmes are robust and effective,” he predicted. Till that time, the hotel will be focussing on their retail segment, that is, online sales through different packages that are value for money and attractive to their clientele. "We have to get that most robustly—also, scout for project-based business,” he added.
Chennai's metro rail projects, which are starting the new phases of metros, are starting, a lot of international players, and big domestic construction companies and other allied manufacturing companies are roped in to build this project. The hotel will be targeting this business in the coming days.
The hotel is also planning to leverage their Hilton Honors guest loyalty programme to attract guests. As the domestic airlines travelling is growing month on month, he believes that attracting the crews would help the business to flourish.
“Hilton can leverage its safety and security aspect and allow hospitality aspect and attract this client. That is how we will sustain ourselves and revive ourselves till we see business travellers travelling to the full extent,” he concluded.
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