Time To Reconstruct! It is Happy Days for Indian Hospitality! Time to Position Afresh, in Keeping with its True Relevance and Outreach!

These are excellent times for the hospitality industry. On a personal note, I can share modestly that I have witnessed the hospitality industry from up close from the mid-seventies to now, which is a good span of 50 years, right from the top, meaning even then and now. I have been an editor of a hotel magazine and I’ve had the privilege of knowing and interacting and engaging with the hospitality czars of that time, as even now. So, with that vantage point, I can share or say that hospitality has seldom seen such a good environment to grow. There is no looking behind. I see only an upside, no downside unless we plan our own demise. The market has boomed beyond recognition, the number of hospitality majors then were a handful, now almost a hundred of them. Brands were unknown except just a few, today each brand has its own 20 and more! Hotels are no more ‘oases’ in a land of poverty; today, they are mainstream as part of the social and economic fabric of the economy.

The pipeline, howsoever robust that all the chains share, and indeed it is robust, is not going to match or is not likely to match the kind of demand that we will witness in the immediate years to come, in the next three to five years. Full credit to our growing economy, growing relevance in a multi-polar global environment, an aspirational middle class that wants to experience every luxury, available at its own price points. So, one can expect high occupancies, very good returns on investments, very good ballooning of allied verticals like weddings and sports and more, way above what we had seen from inbound tourism groups, on which our traditional business has rested.

India is also going to engage more with the world at large. You will have more hospitality conferences more, more international diplomacy meetings. As a strong emerging economy, with government capex in infrastructure, on a previously unimagined scale, will witness ease in travel, giving rise to demand on hotels across all price points. So, if hotel business has always been a matter of demand and supply, and it was meant to be cyclical, for the next five to seven years, we will see only a steady growth in demand. The cycle, if any, acquires a larger diameter!

A growth in supply, but not likely to meet up with the demand. That’s the current scenario. And this is not at the five-star in the premium. It will also be at the mid-market. It will also be at the lower end. And I see more and more ballooning or emergence of star categories among branded hotels. Some more branded categories are going to come up for sure. Likely, in the months ahead, professionals will leave their jobs, set up their own brands, grow in size. This was earlier a practice seen more among Indian tour operators, less among hotels.

Now, I think a lot of this above, all of you know, probably better than I do. So, what is this story about that I am going to share?

Good times are good times to enjoy, but they are also the most favourable time to look inwards and see where your growth is going to be, and how you can become responsible citizens, a responsible industry, a responsible part of the growing economy of the country. And that requires a lot of serious introspection. That introspection is more convenient and possible only because you are in good times. You are not actually having to bother about meeting your targets, repaying your loans. I mean, bottom lines are only getting healthier. So, this is a good time to introspect. And like I said, how do we project hospitality, hotel industry as a responsible engine, responsible growth engine of a growing economy, which is going to witness upwards of 8% growth over the next eight to 10 years. And it’s time to become realistic and not just pat ourselves on the back. Not just that where we may, or may not, have gone wrong in the past, but to more effectively, more importantly, where we must go as an industry, where we wish to position it in India’s future roadmap.

The big challenge is how and where we can actually join hands and make things different, make things better for hospitality in the country as a whole. How can hospitality become an important engine, a true and important engine of India’s growing economy?

In a moment of honest introspection, I think the time is ripe to go beyond ‘tokenism’. I personally feel that a lot more can be achieved, given the wisdom and the insights and the knowledge that the hospitality industry enjoys today across the spectrum; the leadership is more empowered than has ever been before in the last 50 years that I have seen. These are not just passionate people who have believed in hotels. These are people with insight, fully aware of the technology advancements, fully aware of new age developments like power of digital, the outreach that the world of web can provide. So, the leadership is savvy and they are most suited to making the big change. And there, I feel it is time to go beyond tokenism. Some of it is going to cost small bits of money, small bits of time, small bits of attention. And I think the leadership must look into the larger hospitality canvas. The minds are there, the passion is there, the willingness is also there. What we need are more avenues, new initiatives for the composite industry to come together and signal the big change.

It is not just about me and how well I have provided for my company; it is also for your industry, because the name ‘hotel’, the name ‘hospitality’, is not just ascribed to A or B or C company, but to the totality of the hospitality experience. And I dare say in recent times, there have been many instances when hospitality has come for a fairly negative connotation in terms of responsibility. What I am emphasising, again, is responsible hospitality. A chain may be and is responsible, but is the entire hospitality industry responsible? And the answer could be a decisive no! There are issues and concerns, but there is fortunately also a new awakening! A more concerted and sustained effort is required of industry bodies, old and new, to forge alliances that break new ground.

1. There is the most critical concern about skilled manpower. There is the big announcement of IHCL that they will open 50 skilling centres around the country, to train a lakh of young men and women, that will include some 30% women, over the next five years. We need such commitments from across the leading players, and also from stand-alone hotels. Who will help them go about it, assuming the spirit is willing? That is the crunch, going forward? One suggestion is how an association such as HAI can look around the country, scout for retired professionals, they are eminently knowledgeable and between themselves represent a very rich body of knowhow, get them on board to create a national pool, a consortium, if you like, that can be assessed by anyone who is looking for ways to skill. Presently, we are managing to do more and more with less and less qualified people. You need to be a customer yourself to go, and experience how the delivery falters. Let us not look at those ten-twenty top five-star hotels in Delhi or Mumbai. Let us go to the smaller cities. Everybody is talking about the big growth in tier two and three, but let us go to these cities, witness the growth, and also the yawning gap between expectation and delivery.

2. Rates are an issue. A tricky one, but allow me to say that there can be a ceiling! Let us not say that the sky is the limit. Is there a tendency to short changing in the industry? Consumers have often complained about the difference between the ‘asking’ rate and the final ‘negotiated’ rate.

3. Inclusivity is a big word. Today, it is a great jargon word being used left and right indiscriminately, assuming if we have all understood it. I’m still trying to understand how and where it can fit our industry. Indeed, small steps have been taken by quite a few hotel companies as a policy to say that we are going to employ differently abled people. There is also a policy to employ women more and ensure gender parity. But is the gender parity also showing parity in pay scale? Like in men’s and women’s tennis, it shows there is a long way yet to go! That’s a big question. Is the gender parity narrowing or equalising over a period of time? Do not forget that in the fifties and sixties, hotels had women housekeepers, even then. So, it’s not as if we have introduced some new, new novelties today; women chefs were a common practice. Today we have also male chefs. So, the question of gender parity, inclusivity how we can also employ less privileged people into our industry.

4. How we can be inclusive in terms of the local environment in which we are situated, our local community. Are we employing enough people from our own immediate community as in the village or city that you are in? Or, are you importing staff all the time? Is the local guy also becoming a manager?

5. Education and knowledge sharing is another need of our times. All these are critical issues for inclusivity and I think as an industry, we need to create a charter. For now, I keep thinking that perhaps the big chains know it all, but is that knowledge being disseminated adequately down the industry at large? Is that happening? There are many entrepreneurs who are making it big in the same tier two and three cities of business interest or tourist interest. I don’t think they know where to go for gathering best practices. There is no single source in the open domain, as far as I can tell. That too, at a price that is affordable. They are actually on the loose end aspiring to do well and they don’t know where to go. Is there any possibility that our industry associations open the doors to saying, we will provide education, such knowledge. These can be in the form of workshops, learning courses, in cities around India, and possibly in close connect with state governments, who ought to be willing to help, and also fund, and why not? To just say “we will provide technical expertise for a song – just come and grow the industry”.

6.There is the other buzzword of our times – Experiential! Now that too sounds like it has just been discovered. Heritage hotels have all along been just this. So, has a group like CGH Earth, earlier known as Casino Hotels; or, InDeco Hotels floated by Steve Borgia. It has gained prominence in recent times, post the covid recovery as more and more domestic tourists wanted to get away from the big cities, for fear of contracting the deadly virus. Many of the well-heeled booked villas for months, some of them even the smaller boutique resorts, and worked out of these confined spaces.

Heritage hotels have always been a product of their own local ethos, immersed in their history and traditions. Employed local staff, local produce, have been lords and masters to the entire local community. Everything about them has been born out of local.

Perhaps what is dawning anew is that this earlier experiential is merging into inclusivity for the industry as a whole. And most of the produce, at least the vegetables and the eggs and the poultry, all of it is also coming from neighbouring clusters of villages. It’s fresh, it’s guaranteed, and above all, it’s cheaper as you buy direct from the grower. There is no freight involved, there’s no logistics involved, there’s no uncertainty whatsoever. So, I think it is all coming in for the good. And I think a lot of these experiential properties are also bringing in a training manager, and they are at every property. They are training the local people to becoming waiters, chefs what have you. Among them are players like StayVista, Saffron Homes, Isprava and numerous others, building vacation homes for the family.

What is now growing is beyond heritage properties, even new ones are being made. Local people are eagerly introducing their local cuisines, their local crafts into the experiences. And the entrepreneurs or the hospitality managers are gladly encouraging them to “show-off”, how they are rooted in the local soil or how successfully they are ‘inclusive’.

Some bit has been encouraged by recent government initiatives like going strong on millets. So, the story of the bajra and the ragi, and all the rest were already being consumed in the villages, as common place. So was jaggery. But it had lost currency in the cities, and the industry is now nursing its grand revival. So, the wheel has turned full circle. Many of the traditions which had survived in the rural are now coming back to the urban. This reverse swing will also help in the integration of India with Bharat.

7. My other issue is tourism per se. Today we are still promoting only individual hotels and not cities. And destination marketing, to my mind internationally, has moved to cities away from states. It is no longer like selling Gujarat. Or, sell Andhra. It is destinations such as Hyderabad, Vijaywada, Vishakhapatnam, Tirupati, Ahmedabad, Gir Forest. So, all these are destinations in themselves. It’s not Uttar Pradesh as much as Varanasi or Agra. Even in smaller countries around Europe, the focus has moved to cities, and there are organizations that are funded by EU bodies, only to learn best practices among cities, as destinations in themselves. So, I think this perspective needs to come around in India as well. And, in fact, such teaming can also be extended within South Asia. City based evolution, grouping and marketing!

8.In the absence of any tangible tourism lobbies in the country, it is the hotels that can provide leadership in channelizing, coming together with the larger tourism product of individual cities and bringing them around and saying, we will provide the core. City based clubs, promoted by hotels, bringing together the tourism interests of the city. We will provide the time and opportunity, but you as tourism people, give us leadership in promoting the destination and we will back you up. So that could be a quantum leap for tourism as a whole, whether for domestic tourism or for inbound, or verticals like weddings. Why not say weddings in Agra? It is the city that immortalises love. Why not say weddings in Tirupati, what better a location for solemnity and piety and getting blessings? Not just individual hotels for themselves but collectively as a city/destination!

The essence is collaboration, not through tokenism, but collaboration in the real sense where you are not collaborating simply to make a presentation to the government, but you are collaborating to educate the industry at large and giving hotels and hospitality a good name and providing the customer experience, which is warranted at the price points that are being charged at various levels across the system. The whole ecosystem must change, evolve, and I think it’s the big calling right now only because the times are good. We are in an upbeat mood, it is the right time to consolidate upon the gains, the opportunity to get our act together is now and here!


Navin Berry, Editor, Destination India, over five decades has edited publications like CityScan, India Debates and Travel Trends Today. He is the founder of SATTE, India’s first inbound tourism mart, biggest in Asia.



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