“More than anything else, we need to fix the foundation first”, says Rakesh Sarna

He was most informally attired,​ as his flight from Male to Mumbai was diverted through a series of incidents and 19 hours later he was in New Delhi to keep his commitment to Dilip Puri, made last April, that​ we would be glad to attend and address this conclave. When the top boss of Tata Hospitality Rakesh Sarna took the stage to deliver his keynote address at the recently held ​Oberoi School alumni, he stumped the gathering by his plain speak. For he did not dabble in the nitty gritty of the hospitality business management, which many may have expected​. He rather chose to speak on the value system which is driving the business, mincing no words in pointing out the serious faultlines. ​Highlights​ from his speech:

Rakesh Sarna1All of us sitting here may belong to different groups and different brands. But if we really are guardians of the industry, then our concerns for the business should transcend the brand barriers. If the past is any signal, then the future promises to be very bright. The doyens of the industry – J R Tata and Rai Bahadur Oberoi – have painstakingly created a vibrant platform. And we are privileged to be standing in their shadow.

​But standing in their shadow also imposes a great sense of responsibility upon our shoulders. ​

Some of the events happening around us globally are terrifying. But business wise, there are reasons to feel excited. In this scenario, where do we fit in? We need to ask ourselves. All of us have our own share of day-to-day operational struggles. But many of these could well be resulting from the fact that our basic value system is not in fine fettle. I find myself struggling because I notice an absence of mutual respect in the 5000​ ​-year-old culture. In our industry, I notice ​an ​absence of empathy, ignorance to gender specific issues and nobody seems to be bothered about doing away with the element of servility which has set into the value system. The Indian metropolitan cities today are the major hospitality hubs. And our personnel in these cities​,​ like any other average commuter​,​ have to deal with three-four hours of traffic blues everyday. How can we expect them to come to the office with a smile on their faces? Do we take these factors into the account in our management processes?

​We are doing great things in our industry. ​I firmly believe that any good manager can come in, fix the balance sheet and may even create right EBIDTA margins for the unit. But how do we deal with more pertinent issues like inequality, low self-esteem of majority of hospitality industry personnel? Do we acknowledge the importance of valuable contribution which a dishwasher is making? These issues are not going to be sorted out by somebody outside. They are our problems and we will have to join hands to resolve them while tending to improve our value system which in my reckoning is the core issue.

When it comes to industry representation, we have plenty of associations – HAI, FHRAI and God knows how many other I’s. But they simply don’t talk to each other. Why can’t we have one hospitality body which should work for Mother India?

The way business scenario is unfolding, a significant change in the value system is critical and coming together seems to be the only solution. Indian hospitality has to indulge in a competitive brawl of a different kind at several fronts and this would need a sincere collaborative effort. For instance, we can’t wait for an administrator like Amitabh Kant to do something path-breaking every time and get us the right numbers from the overseas markets. Expecting the government to intervene in resolving our issues amounts to asking for too much. Its hands are full with plethora of issues – Kashmir, RSS, Pakistan, China, etc.

We would simply need to take the battle in our own hands. Let’s make it a collective goal to bring in more people in India. Getting a meagre 7 million tourists every year is a huge embarrassment.

​What can we do about the competition, not between Starwood and Marriott but with the arrivals in Thailand, and for that matter, ​the arrivals in France and compare them with those in India. I cannot do this by myself. I can at best contribute some ` 50 crores to some marketing fund, but then what happens? Only if we can all get together, then thins can change. We certainly deserve to do much better than this. We are an amazing culture and that is a natural strength. But we have hardly used it as an ammunition. We are owners of spirituality but nobody seems to be talking about it. And considering our basic cultural premise, we are also the rightful owners of hospitality, this business is in our DNA. All these factors can only produce results if we put up a collective fight. Let’s come forward and make a meaningful contribution in selling our tourism sector the way we sell our hotels.

​How do we go from our present 7 million to 45 million? We have E-visas in place and I dare say they are working very well. ​People are prone to only talk of the two three times when somebody or the other has got stuck, but what happens every other day when thousands of tourists are effortlessly landing using this facility.

​Only seven years ago, we did not have these world class airports as we do in New Delhi and in Mumbai. If then somebody had said that this is what we were going to get, he would have been laughed at. But then we do have them. People like Sanjay Reddy have done us proud building them and truly we are proud of them.

Supply in India of hotel rooms is still aenamic. ​A few years ago, we had less hotels in 4 and 5 star category that there were in downtown Manhattan. And look where we have arrived today.

Our manpower issues also need a collective effort. No doubt, we have tremendous talent around. But, by and large, it is in a raw state. They might not be as good as what we would like to believe. But have we done anything to make a difference? The point is: all of us share the good intents but there is a huge gap when it comes to execution. We certainly need a new bunch of leaders with larger industry-specific vision to bring in the critical changes, people who are committed to change the eco-system wherein everybody who is part of the industry has high-esteem and act as the guardian of the industry. No gain saying, what we need to do most urgently is to fix the foundation.

Marriott and Starwood alliance: Its implications for Indian hospitality

Marriott is a formidable travel company and its current president Arne Sorenson has never pretended to be a hotelier. He wants to be the biggest and strongest travel company in the world because he realises that OTAs are going to kill us. So what Marriott has done is brilliant. It is equally good for Starwood for they have joined forces with an equally strong player and together they can offer more value to their customers.

Now, what does it do to us? There could be some initial setbacks because people in India are no different than others when it comes to being addictive to loyalty programme cards. People would say why should I buy a Taj card when a Marriott card can serve me in more destinations in the world. So what are we going to do? Rollover and except defeat. No way. We have to create distinctions in our services. We have to stop being like them – Starwood or Marriott. We have to start being more Indian. Let’s put Indian hospitality’s best foot forward, create new experiences. From the standpoint of supply and demand equation, I have no doubt in my mind that the pie is too big. So I am not worried in the long run. It will, in fact, be good for India. The presence of more foreign brands only validates India’s growing reputation as an international destination.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *