Win guests back with value, recognition, and safety: Malla

In an interview Aditya Shamsher Malla, GM, DoubleTree by Hilton Pune Chinchwad shares lockdown diaries, digital connect and strategies to get business going.

Do you have any inspirational stories to share from the lockdown period?

As we all know, the lockdown was introduced with no notice at all. There were no SOPs for us to invoke in dealing with a crisis of this sort. However, it was heartening to see that recognising the possible inability of Team Members to reach the hotel the following day, our Team of Heads of Departments HoDs volunteered to move into the hotel at once, prioritising their responsibility towards guests over their own family and self. In the uncertain climate, all our HoDs continued to hold fort within the Hotel along with a small Team that was moved into the Hotel from the apartment provided by the Hotel. Not only did the HoDs attend to stranded guests, but also initiated cleaning and maintenance protocols along with providing relief material to the neighbourhood. The hotel managed to provide support to the Covid warriors throughout the lockdown inspite of suspension of operations as mandated by the administration. The HoDs and team members of the hotel set an example of selfless service within the Hilton organisation in India and in the community.

How has specifically the digital medium become very important for communicating, marketing as well as networking, especially for hospitality? 

Keeping pace with current trends hospitality companies were already treading towards a greater quotient of technology and digital in the guest journey. However, the crisis provided the much needed impetus to the effort and we had to move up many notches almost overnight. An industry known to work on personal contacts, relationships and experience suddenly saw itself distanced from its stakeholders and guests due to the pandemic. But we were quick to adapt and invoke all our knowledge in the digital space – upgrading along the way – to connect with our customers, our teams and our suppliers. We upskilled our workforce so they could continue to contribute in the new normal and ensured we try brining in a ‘personal’ touch to our communications even through the digital interface. From using Microsoft teams for meetings and interactions, to uploading updates and information on social media and using delivery platforms to ensure our guests continue to enjoy the taste of our award winning gourmet delights in the comfort of their homes…I think technology showed the way forward.

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

Answer: An industry first initiative, Hilton Cleanstay program was launched at Hilton hotels across the globe in partnership with RB. The program clearly identified touchpoints in guest areas and heart of the house outlining cleaning and sanitisation processes. Additionally, all precautions with respect to personal protection, like masks, gloves and other accoutrements were identified and implemented across our hotel to align with the Hilton promise of safety along with the signature warm hospitality. The detailed sanitisation and safety process at DoubleTree by Hilton Pune incorporated and, in some instances, went beyond the minimum requirements mandated by the local administration to comply with the Hilton Cleanstay program.

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

This is an opportunity for us to re asses our business plans and identify activities and processes that are just good to have, and not necessarily of value. Things that do not contribute to making a guest’s experience more comfortable or memorable should be revisited and re-aligned to ensure inefficiencies are eliminated. We too have relooked at our supply chain and questioned the allocation of resources and skill sets. Identifying opportunities for cutting waste in HLP, consumables, skills and allocation, we have managed to make our operations leaner and more efficient. Some examples would be to redefine our inventory threshold, vendor management while contracting out certain activities for specialised skill sets, combining roles for rationalising FTE and multiskilling the workforce to address customer anxiety by ensuring minimum human intervention.

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

 We are all facing an event that is creating fear, anxiety, and stress in all of humanity. However resilient may hoteliers be, this event has been equally crushing on their morale creating insecurities at all levels. We have been proactive in engaging with our team members, through the lockdown and thereafter. We have also had virtual and in person interactions with families of our team members to dispel any unfounded fears. We conducted regular communications and virtual townhalls and organised regular health checks including antigen tests for our team members and their families. We realised that in the face of a social media epidemic of sorts, we needed to engage equally with families of our team members and help educate them with the latest facts and help them build mental strength. As we started getting them back on shift in stages, we ensured we conduct counselling sessions and sensitise them to the new layout incorporating social distancing and hygiene protocols, both in guest facing and heart of the house areas. It is still work in progress and some of our talented team members are still stranded in their villages/ hometowns, unable to travel due to erratic connectivity or even resistance from the family. This crisis has unraveled a whole new paradigm and taken the role of leaders and HR to a new dimension.

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

Well, in the short term, we will have to be extremely cautious and mindful of various aspects including the guest’s state of mind, frustrations and fear all across. Constant reassurance and maintaining an incident free record will be priority areas. Once guests and team members begin to understand that we need to wade our way through this situation, we will see a more relaxed atmosphere and life may slowly limp back towards what it used to be. Some protocols will remain entrenched as we adopt social distancing and masks as a way of life. However, the intrinsic social nature of hospitality, of discovery and exploration will only keep it bound to it’s roots and guests will continue to expect personalised experiences as the differentiating factor as they have over decades.

What are the main challenges for the hospitality industry in Pune and specifically Maharashtra? How many licences are required to build a hotel? Is it easy to obtain liquor licenses?

 We are working closely with the administration through our very active and visible Poona Hoteliers Association (PHA) where I am also an Honorary Secretary to create a roadmap to ease restrictions in stages. As the city grapples with rising cases, we see our role in assisting and aiding the administration in their efforts, and many of our hotels have been proactive in providing accommodation, meals and other relief material in this war against the virus in Pune. Slowly and surely, we will find opportunities to work towards greater allowance in inter district and intra state travel so we may progress on the path of recovery with staycation/ domestic tourists while corporate travel inches towards resumption. The Government has so far responded positively to our representation and we hope the pending requests would be addressed in due course, which includes rationalisation of licence fees and other statutory payments, for which the PHA has submitted a request.

What now is going to be the direction of your marketing and sales strategy to get the very competitive little business in the market that is out there.

All our efforts at DoubleTree by Hilton Pune will be directed towards building confidence of travellers in general and sharing stories from those who are beginning to take the first steps by checking in for a staycation or work. It is imperative for us to connect guests with memories of their experience at our hotels for them see beyond the screen (literally) at the human experience of warmth, care and recognition as we come to terms with life with Covid. Building in a unique experience into the stay and a little something to say they were missed will go a long way in addressing their anxiety. After all, for most of our guests, this was their second home and we were all part of a family till the pandemic came along. Our effort is not to win guests back with reductions and price incentives, but with value, recognition and safety, and of course our signature warm DoubleTree choco chip cookie!


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