As we look ahead to open our industry again, we must be cautious in how we portray ourselves as an industry: we must be seen as caring, sensitive and emerge as the first line of defence against the virus. And, we should not go aggressive in raising tariffs that may look like profiteering!
It is important that we are seen as sensitive and caring, and not catering to the privileged. Our messaging needs to be thought of, collectively for the industry.
For us to understand how the immediate future may hold, it may be worthwhile to look back at how the earlier lockdown worked, with what implications. Broadly speaking, every industry including ours asked for more, nobody knew what was really happening as no one had experienced anything like this before. It was first time for all, and the government locked the country in one go. No relief came for any sector, even though our leadership worked over time, but it was not meant to be. When the situation eased, and thereafter, everybody, including our hospitality industry assumed the covid virus has gone. We were asking for opening up. The scene looked quite hopeful. Inbound industry was looking at when the flights would open, when tourists can be expected to start checking in. But then all of a sudden, the worst happened, and again something that few imagined.
Hotels, like everyone else, believed Covid was Over!
As a nation we had thrown caution to the winds. It was over, we packed up the specific infrastructure we had made for covid relief. We talked of breaking new records in leisure destinations, we talked of never before rates we were getting. On the ground, like in every other activity, covid precautions became a ritual to be followed, with a customary hand santizer in one corner as symbolic of taking precautions. Not that anybody used it. Even masks had become optional; let us say only half the attendees were using them. Hotels was one public place where people gathered to eat and drink; it was only natural that masks were off!
This time, Covid has struck every other home, it has come into our own backyard, within our friends and families. Terror has struck like nobody had imagined. For the first time, people are actually afraid. They are staying indoors and nobody is taking chances – let us overlook the lakhs who went for Kumbh and those who turned up at election rallies, as these are not ordinary people and will remain inspired lives. As numbers begin to recede and we begin to gather hope that we will assume near normalcy, what could be a possible road ahead?
The Recovery this Time may be Slower, because of the Fear factor!
Air traffic is one indicator. At IGIA, traffic has come down to 20% of pre-Covid times. One terminal has been closed for lack of traffic. It will not be easy to get the numbers back. My sense is that it would take a longer time to get back where we left, to some 70/80% of the pre-covid times. Business travel will take further time. I don’t see hotels clamouring for public events to open up; it will seem wiser to sit back and wait for the authorities to take a better-informed decision. When to open what?
Relief for the industry, across the spectrum, is even more needed as more businesses are at stake, than the last time. Those without deep pockets will find it extremely difficult, leveraged businesses will be at great risk – though my sense is that many organizations found quick fix remedies the first time and are better informed on how to mitigate risks this time. Much of the cost cutting the first time will come in handy this time.
But the industry is working more quietly, on the side line. They are not rushing for television debates, giving interviews to the media on how they have been plumaged. In fact, no industry is doing it. What has happened is unprecedented, with sickness and death so rampant, that the nation is indeed in a sombre, reflective and melancholic mood. People are not even complaining about their businesses; lives and only lives matter most, livelihood will come later.
Choppy Waters will need Careful navigation
Going forward, Intra country travel is anybody’s guess. When any two countries open up, for how long, and with what restrictions, is all anybody’s guess. Variants, vaccinations, expected traffic, perceptions will matter. Perhaps some politics, as well. Protocols could also play spoil sports. Countries would remain eager to open up, but only with air bubbles approach. India’s recent profiling in terms of the rampaging virus, may only make matters more difficult for us. Domestically, states have been given the last word – they will decide on the ground, which means last minute calibrations will be the order of the day for a few months to come. As an industry we would do best to embrace uncertainty, which is the new normal. I also hope hotels will not rush to claim unprecedented business levels, and will also refrain from letting rates hit the roof. Restraint is advised; let us not look like another set of industry that is profiteering in times of demand! The same would go for the airlines – yes there have been unprecedented losses but these must be given time to recover – capping of fares is possibly a good idea. Should hotel tariffs be also capped?
Good Time to Reinforce that Tourism Cares and is Sensitive to Public Opinion!
The most visible manifestations of public spaces, apart from malls, would be hotels. My sense is this is also an opportune time, to express that Tourism Cares. That Tourism is Responsible, and doing its part. When hotels open, they should adopt visible and open demonstrations of saying they are responsible and are taking care. What does it cost any hotel to have a battery of staff in the lobby and all public areas, through 24×7, handing out sanitizers and offering complimentary masks, to every visitor? Can this be adopted as standard practice and would hotel associations like to consider making this a priority? We must become the first and most visible line of defence till we have not found some lasting solutions to the virus. Would large format hotels open up small centres to vaccinate? That would indeed be a step going forward! Now that the vaccine will be available in the open market, why not?
My other sense is that ‘celebration’ is not going to be in the air for some time to come. It would look being insensitive towards people and families that have suffered. It is better perhaps to impose a self-embargo on our choice of words and offerings. Just recall the outcry in social media where celebrities have been posting their pictures from beach holidays? Today, they are saying that even posting pictures of getting vaccinated is insensitive as people are not getting vaccines! It is better that we tread on the side of caution, and not appear lavish or catering to the privileged.
As we look forward to treading back in business, it would be slow steps, different to each part of the country, with its own variables. There may not be any common script. Being sensitive, concerned and caring could be the key words that we may focus upon, as our common narrative. Business will happen, gradually, but it is more important how we as an industry are perceived! And for this correct image is what we should collectively work towards.
As a hospitality veteran put it, we will need to ensure “Hospitality has a soul, built on trust and transparency”, and this is going to be our future. It will not be just about earning guest smiles but ensuring that we genuinely offer a true assurance that we care. Like so much else in our country, we too know we will emerge stronger, fitter, perhaps leaner and better equipped to accept and win over challenges, and that we are the first defence against threats like the virus.