Our Approach is that of 'Heartists'
To ensure guest delight, following accor's philosophy, the swissotel team reacts from the heart and creates experiences with an artist's creative eye.
Subhrajit Bardhan, General Manager, Swissotel Kolkata
FROM A short-tempered chef in Europe to an approachable boss as GM of Swissotel Kolkata, Subhrajit Bardhan has journeyed not just as a person but in person, having worked across Europe, Hong Kong and India.
BWH: How did you make the journey from being a chef to becoming the GM of an international chain hotel?
Bardhan: In Europe, it is a common thing to do. In India, it is still a trend that is catching on. To be fair, a few years ago, one of the first chefs-turned-GMs I knew was Dominique Nordmann, whom I reported to in my time at The Oberoi Grand. In Europe, nearly everybody starts as a chef or a kitchen steward.
I worked for seven years in Europe out of which three years were in Ireland. I was the head chef at the Dublin-based restaurant Blue Orchid and then went on to run restaurants for the Choice group of Hotels, which got me to come back to managing operations. They had seven hotels in Ireland and when I was offered the position, I was already looking beyond kitchens and F&B.
At the school I trained in, Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development (OCLD), the focus has always been on all-round development. A chef does not train only in the kitchen. One had to train in all aspects hoteliering -- from the kitchen to housekeeping to front office. Which is ideal because it gives you a great perspective.
BWH: Do you miss cooking at all?
Bardhan: Chef Ashish Rout, Swissotel's Executive Chef, was with me in Ananda. With his coming on board, I have actively and consciously stepped away from the kitchen. When I get those cooking pangs, I head to the home kitchen. But that does not happen to often, because whenever I go into the kichen, I expect everything to be laid out like it is in the hotel -- and the household help gets a scolding.
At this point, my wife protests, saying the help is more important than you! I have therefore reached the healthy compromise of cooking at home during our help's off days. I also make it a point to cook at special events in the hotel, such as Women’s Day or employee appreciation events.
If you were to do a SWOT analysis of Swissotel Kolkata, how would it fare?
Bardhan: Strength: Our F&B is one of our key strengths and after we upgraded the banquet facilities, we came to specialise in pre- and post-wedding ceremonies. For a 147-room hotel, the calling card cannot only be that of a ‘shaadiwalla’ hotel, but our F&B at social events is getting a great response.
We have handled events where caterers such as Munna Maharaj were involved, where we more than held our own with Indian set-ups, along with Continental ones. I would say our F&B, even for our banquets, is a strength. Thanks to our wedding promotion -- 'Shaat Paakay Swiss' ('seven pheras with Swiss') -- we handled more than 35 NRI Bengali weddings. And our banqueting facilities were booked for a far higher number of days than the total of saya or auspicious dates in the year.
Weakness: It is the distance from the CBD. I came to this hotel in 2011 as a guest. From 2011 to 2016 this area saw tremendous growth. Thereafter, there's been a slowdown of sorts. One can see the future is bright, but right now it is not coming any closer. None of the big residential projects have come in yet. The only infrastructure growth we are seeing is in the hospitality sector.
Opportunity: It lies in exploring our other F&B options. Café Swiss is well-respected among the foodies of the city. Individually speaking, we haven’t yet been able to execute all our plans for the restaurants. This will be Wykiki’s first proper season since it opened in May this year, which is considered the beginning of the low season in Kolkata. As Wykiki has transformed into a nightclub, Maaya will be reinvented as a lounge which we hope to open by 2020. Until then we will keep hosting interesting pop-ups at Maaya.
Threat: More hotels coming in is a threat only at first glance. It is also an opportunity. With Novotel’s 334 rooms, Westin’s 304, our own 147, 180 of Fairfield and smaller hotels such as Lemon Tree and Ibis, the area has close to 2,000 rooms. That kind of supply can only be met when all of us as, including hotels and the government-run convention centres, pitch jointly for major conventions. We already have the infrastructure. We now need the business to come in.
BWH: As you mentioned Kolkata has added nearly 2,000 rooms to its combined inventory with most of it being concentrated around this area. How is Swissotel poised to take this challenge on? Is it looking at MICE?
Bardhan: MICE has its limitations for a hotel like ours with 147 rooms. Our core business is from our transient and corporate guests. If we were to break it up, then the guests are of four or five kinds – the transients who book via a website or an OTA, the contracted corporates who are often long-stay guests too, MICE events and group businesses, the ones that come in from old school travel and tour operators, and airline crews.
At any given time, we cannot do more than 80 rooms for MICE and we have to tread that path very smartly, for the transients tend to pay more per room. Our long-stay base has been good. When I joined, our weekend occupancy was down in the 30s. That has seen some improvement with weekend and staycation packages. We needed a permanent business -- an airline crew -- so we have signed up with one of the premier airlines.
Another thing we did is do a long-stay package and provide custom-made amenities to our guests in this category. Our long-stay guests prefer the hotel’s ethos. Often when guests check into a hotel they want the showier aspects for social media. Long-stay guests prefer a more cosy environment. That works in our favour. In fact, when our long-stay guests leave, the goodbyes do get almost tearful. The relationships are personalised.
BWH: How do you distinguish yourself for the transient traveller you mentioned as being important for Swissotel?
Bardhan: I think hospitality is all about small gestures and the service you provide. Even more than the rate that is offered, it is the service you provide that is essential. It is all in the intangibles now. We have this belief in Accor Hotels about being “heartists” -- that is, we approach our work from the heart like artists.
When you feel for something, it is your heart that is at work, but when you do something about it, you become an artist. Suppose a guest likes a particular kind of tea. Now, the heart bit comes in when you make a record of it and make it just right each time the guest comes for breakfast. But the artist in you is at work when you serve the tea with a more than special accompaniment.
I must say here that our team has been able to strike a rapport and establish connections with our guests. One guest wrote nearly seven lines for our driver because he made it a point to accompany him to every temple he visited during his stay here.
BWH: How is Swissotel geared towards the millennial customer? Especially the likes of Airbnb and Oyo providing stiff competition?
Bardhan: Well for many a millennial the add-ons don’t really matter. All they need is just basic cleanliness and security. To be honest I am not a big fan of Oyo-rooms. I do realise they are thinking out of the box. But I think Accor as a brand is very attuned with the millennial mind. Concepts like Onefinestay or Mama Shelter are quite ground-breaking and have been well received across the world. But having said that, in a city like Kolkata where there are so many options amongst “branded hotels” for within INR 5000 to 6000 sometimes even as low as INR 3000, the millennial customer is not someone, we can ignore.
BWH: How would you say has Swissotel distinguished itself in the F&B space?
Bardhan: Our newest offering is our nightclub-restaurant named Wykiki. Our Indian restaurant Durbari should be ready in three-four months. But I believe Swissotel has distinguished itself not just for its restaurants, but for its gourmet food too. We are known in the city for our gourmet spread and for our low-key yet prestigious wine dinners. Our 60-day aged beef steak has become the Swissotel signature for Kolkata. We are known for our excellent brunches. And most of the consulates love our breads. The Germans love our pretzels in particular.
BWH: Rajarhat Newtown has changed a lot since Swissotel first opened doors – how has that changed the business proposition for Swissotel? Is the area finally creating its self-sustained demand that is separate from the rest of Kolkata?
Bardhan: Certainly, things have changed. But not at the pace we would like. We keep on hearing that the footfalls in the mall next door (City Centre II) are getting better year on year. But this area is still considered the boondocks. People who live in neighbourhoods beyond the airport do not have the spending power for a five-star hotel.
We have a high number of expat guests. And a fair number of corporates. But not so many local residential leisure guests. In that sense, Kolkata feels like a small city when you go out looking for 'five-star gentry'. It is the same hundred-odd families whom you see at every social do.
This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'The Spice on MICE'
Around The World