We have minimised customer touchpoints and have adopted digital solutions where possible: Keswani

All set with their ‘Rest Assured’ initiative in partnership with Diversey, Lemon tree Hotels are operating 100 per cent of their inventory, they are seeing the flow of individual business travellers (from SMEs) and leisure travellers. All their brands are picking up business across India with occupancies at 60-65 per cent in mini-metros and leisure destinations. In an exclusive interview with BW HOTELIER, Rattan Keswani, Deputy Managing Director, Lemon Tree Hotels Ltd. shares more…

How would you as a leader and visionary encourage people to keep a positive mindset and carry on?

The impact of COVID-19 has been deep and profound on the economy and specifically on the hospitality sector. Citizens have been afraid of stepping out due to the highly infectious nature of the virus, and its possible impact on themselves and their family. As leaders we have focussed on strengthening our employee morale through retention of all our team members, regular interactions (a hybrid of online-offline), reinforced online training, redefined standard operating procedures and very clearly defined hygiene and sanitisation processes to ensure the health and safety of our employees and guests. As a result, our employees have shown great courage and maturity during this time and have been available round the clock at operational hotels. 

From the customer lens, one of the biggest challenges so far has been gaining the trust of guests in terms of cleanliness and hygiene standards post the outbreak, to deal with which we have laid down a set of House Rules as part of our ‘Rest Assured’ initiative (in partnership with Diversey), at all our properties. This is very important as most of our guests enquire about our sanitisation and cleanliness measures, social distancing, food safety and other norms, before they finalise their reservation with us.

How is the technology shaping the hospitality industry in the new normal of the revival stage, especially for the Lemon Tree Hotel?

It is imperative to curb the spread of coronavirus in the hotel premises, for which we have introduced policies and procedures that are being strictly followed by all our hotels. For instance, in front of the house areas most of our operations have been transformed to contactless modes, right from the check-in procedure to check-out formalities. We have minimised customer touchpoints and have adopted digital solutions where possible, such as development and deployment of digital menus, house rules and directories of service, which can be shared with guests electronically, and are viewable on personal phones. Also, contactless payment methods are available which allow the guests to swiftly check out and not come in contact with cash/card machines if they do not want to.

At our restaurants, we have made the ordering and payment process contactless with the QRestro app. This allows guests to scan a QR code and access the entire menu of the coffee shop/In Room Dining, select the items they want to order and place the order from their phone. Our team calls the guest to reconfirm the order and then delivers it hygienically in the defined time. Once the guests have finished their meal, they can pay online with the link sent to their phone. Our guests feel safer with this entire process being contactless.

Inclusivity has always been the cornerstone of your brand philosophy, how are you managing the Human Resource problems that have surfaced during the pandemic?

As I said, we have engaged with teams at all hotels on a regular basis both online and offline to motivate them and ensure their physical and mental health is taken care of. Training sessions have been conducted continuously to keep all employees updated about the revised SOPs and guest interaction processes. From an HR perspective, there has been no compromise with the health and safety of our employees i.e. we continuously make available masks, gloves and personal protective equipment; temperature checks are done for anyone entering the hotel, etc. 

It is important for us to gain consumer confidence once again. This is impacted by many external factors – the environment, confidence building measures by the government and co-ordination between the Centre and states. However, we are ensuring that everything we do is focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of our guests and team members, with the highest level of hygiene across all touch points. As the economy starts to perform, confidence and trust will enable travel.

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

The pandemic has had a far-reaching global impact on the hotel sector and the overall economy since February this year. The travel and hospitality industry across the world has been among the most severely impacted sectors. The fear of the virus spreading is going to persist with people minimising travel until therapeutic treatment protocols reduce mortality (already happening) and/or herd immunity with or without an effective vaccine (expected within the next few months). Besides the looming uncertainty in the near term around the financial impact on the hospitality business, there has also been the big challenge of simultaneously revising our operational practices to ensure zero chances of transmission of the virus amongst our guests and staff.

Our approach to handle this recalibration of revenue has been to align our costs – fixed and variable – to match this reduced revenue and thereby minimise the negative impact on profitability. Special attention was paid to large and fixed cost contributors like manpower costs (through substantial pay cuts for the leadership team and rotational leave without pay for other team members while ensuring no job losses); power and fuel (by reducing energy consumption to match the lower occupancies), lease rentals, etc. 

How many of your hotels are operational right now? 

In the early part of the lockdown, Lemon Tree kept more than 50 per cent of its operating inventory open and partnered with state governments to serve as quarantine centers for Indian nationals returning home from abroad. We have also partnered with hospital chains (Apollo Hospitals and Medanta) to provide specific hotels as centers for asymptomatic/mild symptom patients under the hospital’s care. These hospitals have set up 24x7 nursing stations at our hotels along with regular oversight by their doctors. Now close to 100 per cent of our inventory is operating and in addition to the above requirements the flow of individual business travellers (from SMEs) and leisure travellers (through our brand website, travel agents and online travel agents) has started and is slowly building up.

What has the revival been like for Lemon Tree Hotels in India? Kindly support the revert with average group Occupancies. Which of your brands are doing well in India currently? 

All our brands are picking up business across India with occupancies at 60-65 percent in mini-metros and leisure destinations. This is a little higher than the metro occupancies which are at 40-45 per cent, except for hotels that have partnered with the government/hospitals where the occupancy is usually 80 per cent or more. Corporate travel is yet to kick in and stabilise and we expect this to take a few more weeks.

While it would be best for hoteliers to remain self-dependant, what revenue challenges can we expect the government to smoothen for the hospitality segment? 

During this challenging period, government support has been needed in areas related to finance/loans i.e. moratoriums, reduced interest, etc. and licensing i.e. extending the current year’s license to the next financial year, reduction of fee, etc. With respect to revenue, the demand will have to come in from different segments including the public and private sector as well as leisure travellers – domestic and international. This requires consumer confidence in travel (safety/hygiene) to be rebuilt quickly. As a hotel company we instituted our hygiene/sanitisation program Rest Assured early in the pandemic and we ensure those processes are followed across the group.

What will be high on the agenda for Lemon Tree Hotels in 2021? What kinds of developments & challenges are you expecting in 2021? Any new openings scheduled for 2021?

Sanitisation, hygiene and revenue generation are our focus areas at present across all properties in India and abroad. As mentioned earlier, at all our hotels we are maintaining best-in-class hygiene standards, as per our Rest Assured initiative in partnership with Diversey. This program creates an environment focused on health, hygiene, safety and wellbeing of people. The safety and wellbeing of our guests and team members is of the utmost importance to us, and we want everyone to be rest assured that they are in safe hands. 

We are looking into every revenue generation opportunity so that we can bounce back quickly in this new normal. One area we have tapped into is day use accommodation and work areas with business facilities, high speed WiFi, etc. for the day for transient and short stay guests, and for those for whom it may not be convenient to work from home – whether due to personal reasons or infrastructure limitations. These days, WFH could mean work from hotel just as much as work from home. As the peak of the pandemic declines, we will see domestic travel picking up, which will continue to happen until the skies open up fully and international destinations have been cleared, and possibly even after. 

We expect an uptick in domestic leisure travel, and with ~80 hotels across the country, we are planning several packages targeted towards staycations and great Indian getaways. We have built a Lemon Tree property - #TrippinWithLemonTree - around doing road trips, in partnership with Evo India – a leading automobile magazine and blog/social media influencer. Guests are willing to travel to destinations easily reachable by road in the safety of their own vehicles when they know the hotel they are headed to is clean, sanitised and follows processes that keeps them safe. We are building routes that involve a number of Lemon Tree destinations and are places people would like to travel to e.g. Goa, Udaipur, Dehra Dun, Chandigarh, etc. So, we have assessed the nature of the current demand and developed offers to suit these new needs e.g. day use rates, Work From Hotel, Lemon Tree vouchers, seclusion packages, road trips, etc. 

As far as new opening in 2021 are concerned, within the half, we are scheduled to launch at least 7 hotels with 600+ rooms, which includes our second Aurika Resort opening in Coorg; our first Keys launch since the acquisition in 2019 - Keys Prima Aketa Dehradun; new Lemon Tree Premier properties in Vijayawada and Bhubaneshwar; Lemon Tree Hotels in Aligarh and Mumbai; and the rebranding and relaunch of Port Blair hotel. The roll out will be one hotel every month, if not more. Later in the year, a service apartment concept will come into play in Manesar, a second hotel in Bhutan, and then more across India.  

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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