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Published on: Sept. 20, 2020, 11:35 p.m.
Smize, we’re open
  • Safari Bar opened with all safety norms. Photos by Suvendu Banerjee

By Suvendu Banerjee

The word “smize” was coined by American supermodel Tyra Banks. To smize is to smile with your eyes.

Like in other sectors, there is a post-Covid ‘new normal’ in the hospitality sector as well. It is being called the ‘new modern’, which one has to readily accept, foodie or no foodie. Across the canvas, standalone restaurants to five star hotels, the dynamics of the hospitality industry are being redefined and reinvented in order to ensure that it survives and thrives. Offerings are being repackaged to meet customer expectations. Along with the new social distancing, hygiene and sanitation norms, menus too are changing. With the global pandemic changing working habits, the industry has cashed in on the work-from-home (WFH) trend by offering dedicated, quality co-working spaces.

“The Indian hospitality sector alone is looking at a revenue loss of Rs90,000-95,000 crore in 2020,” according to M.P. Bezbarua, former secretary, ministry of tourism, and secretary general, Hotel Association of India. Of this, revenue loss for organised players will be Rs40,309 crore; Rs8,378 crore for semi-organised and Rs41,130 crore for unorganised sector. In contrast, the revenue generated in 2019 was Rs1,58,113 crore, according to a recent report by HVS Anarock on India’s hospitality sector. The occupancy rate in 2020 is likely to fall by nearly 32 per cent.

An estimated 500 million Indians travel regularly. Of this, 25 million travel overseas. In normal times, the domestic travellers create a huge business opportunity for the hospitality industry, according to Veer Vijay Singh, CEO and MD, Trans Hotels. But with travel getting drastically curtailed by the lockdowns and restrictions on inter-state movement, this opportunity was denied to the industry for almost six months. However, the hospitality industry is hoping to tap the 25-million outbound Indian travellers, the most attractive segment for the leisure market who normally visit foreign tourist destinations in Europe for leisure and recreation. Most European countries and other must-visit destinations like the UK are now in the grip of a “second wave”. This will be followed by weddings segment which is expected to recover faster. Business travel will resume gradually in the second phase, as per the industry’s calculations.

Left to their own devices during the lockdown period, some hotels increasingly focused on services like food delivery, takeaway and laundry. Hotels, in particular, have always shied away from concepts such as food delivery as the focus was always on providing a rich dining experience at the property. But food delivery business was one of the very few services which were allowed to continue even under lockdown as an essential service.

Thus, hotels saw it as a perfect opportunity to enter this operation. Some hotels like Hilton Garden Inn in Gurgaon began innovative schemes like ‘work from hotel’ to break the monotony for those stuck at home for months. A daily package of Rs3,500 included lunch and unlimited tea/coffee, along with a day’s working space. Still, the industry was barely able to keep its head over water. Some hotels started a ‘dial a chef’ programme which involved sending a chef home to set up a catering meal for a small group of guests you have invited. The Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association of India (FHRAI) that represents over 55,000 hotels and 500,000 restaurants recently wrote to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, requesting immediate extension of bank loan moratorium by three months for the hospitality sector.

In the absence of any assistance from the state and the Central government, bars and pubs in Delhi have now been allowed to serve alcohol on a trial basis till 30 September 2020. “The temporary permission comes with a lot of conditions,” laments a bar owner. There are apprehensions in the industry that the permit to serve alcohol could be reversed at the end of the month with the alarming rise in the number of Covid cases. Also, a section of the hospitality industry feels that this could just be a tactic by the state government to collect the excise fee without any long-term commitment. The fee is paid twice a year for the April-September and October-March periods. Many are hoping that the excise fee already paid for serving alcohol from April-September 2020 should be adjusted in the October-March period as a gesture of support. Another issue is that stocks of alcohol (beer) past their expiry date have to be drained in the presence of an officer. Seating capacity is currently fixed at 50 per cent.
 
Painful recovery

However, Olive Group head, A.D. Singh is extremely positive and feels that alcohol is critical to the entire dining experience and allowing to serve will help with speedy recoveries. However, there is currently no service at the bar area and to standing customers. Distancing norms between tables are being strictly followed without exception.

With the Metro reopening in Delhi and other cites, vehicular traffic back to normal (petrol sales in September 2020 were higher than the comparative year-ago period) and alcohol being served in food establishments, the industry is sensing a better period ahead, though it will take some doing to recover to pre-Covid times. Undoubtedly, the recovery will be painful. There have been protracted rent negotiations which took their toll on restaurants in much sought after areas like Khan Market, Delhi and Cyber Hub in Gurgaon.

It is hoped that use of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will help facilitate quicker recovery. Earlier technology was used primarily at the backend to support personalised services. The technology has now come to the front office, with new applications replacing or minimising human contact. Customers can now book their rooms after viewing them, check-in and check-out, with the help of these applications.

With the festive season round the corner, hotels have started taking bookings for small gatherings and events. Soon the wedding season, a money spinner for the hotel industry, will be here. The industry is hoping that the city administrations will relax the laws further to allow bigger events to be held.

“The response over the weekends has been encouraging both in terms of table reservations and room bookings,” says Rajesh Namby, GM, The Lodhi. After the bars, the gymnasium and the Club have gradually opened up. “The Lodhi has designed a ‘Stay Safe Assurance Program’ to elevate health, hygiene and safety standards”, points out Namby. Special attention is paid to sanitising high-touch items apart from the provisions like a Gym Box in the room and digital QR Code-based menus.

Immunity-boosting welcome drinks provide a sense of well-being, as does the safety seal that is placed on the main door leading to each guest room after deep cleaning. The immunity drinks change every day and contain bitter gourd, beet root, carrots, honey, among other ingredients.

The F&B outlets at the malls are also gradually picking up business and in spite of rising Covid cases, a sense of confidence is slowly evident. That has been the case at popular venues like DLF Avenue in Saket and Epicuria in Nehru Place which report a good turnout over the weekends. In properties like Le Meridien, wedding bookings and requests for small gatherings and events have started trickling in.

Prashant Gaurav Gupta, VP & head, Luxury Malls of DLF, manages over half a million sq. ft. between DLF Emporio (three lakh sq. ft.) and The Chanakya (two lakh sq. ft.) built by DLF for an opulent and luxurious experience. He is happy to see the recovery after three months of closure and emphasises that footfalls over the weekends are particularly encouraging. “Most luxury brands at Emporio and The Chanakaya have seen healthy sales as the domestic Indian consumer (unable to travel overseas) shopping from Dubai, London, Paris and Singapore is now buying their choicest brands in India,” says Gupta. The F&B sector is also undergoing a recovery as it is evident from the bookings at the restaurants which are in operation there.

Even though several restaurants closed down in Connaught Place and Khan Market, many others are taking a chance and gradually opening up. Chef Vikramjit Roy, a new age food entrepreneur, has put his heart and soul into a takeaway setup Hello Panda in Gurgaon, after manning luxurious kitchens at The Taj, ITC and Michelin-starred restaurant Okura in Tokyo. Hello Panda was launched right in the middle of the pandemic three months ago and serves authentic Pan-Asian takeaways. “Hello Panda was set up also to help unemployed restaurant professionals and small-time farmers and breeders. Contact-less delivery and building confidence in guests and respecting their choice are of key importance,” says Roy.
 
New patterns and trends

Chef Manish Mehrotra, who put India on the global culinary map, runs India’s most acclaimed restaurant, Indian Accent in Delhi and Comorin in Gurgaon. Indian Accent ranks amongst the world’s 50 best restaurants. Mehrotra has a slightly different take on the current scenario and feels that a majority of the people are still scared about eating out. “Covid has no relationship with food and like in the UK, the Indian government could consider giving incentives to people to go out and dine,” says Mehrotra.

Indian Accent will take a while to reopen since the 150-cover restaurant has a larger infrastructure than most. Specialised suppliers are being lined up and repairs are currently underway. “The focus will be on the back of the house rather than just the front and we will ensure hygiene for both customers and the staff,” emphasises Mehrotra.

Indian Accent in New York is currently operational and so is Comorin in Gurgaon. Chef Mehrotra is looking at introducing a vegan tasting menu as people are becoming most conscious about what they are eating. He is not thinking about profit in the near future but recovering some of the losses in the recent past is the goal.

The pandemic has thrown up some very interesting patterns and trends. ‘Smize’ has been a real saviour in these Covid times. The word “smize” was coined by American supermodel Tyra Banks. To smize is to smile with your eyes. It blends the word smile with the sound of the word eyes, hence the spelling “smize”. The hotel staff are being taught to smile with their eyes, even their body and voice, instead of the lips which are now covered by masks. The hotel and service sector has been integrating “smize” as a routine drill for the staff while dealing with the guests.

Ordering in and dining on Zoom is yet another trend. Some five-star hotels are accepting takeaway orders and serving butter chicken and biryanis in the comfort and safety of customer’s homes, creating a restaurant-like virtual experience with background score and shots of actual cooking being done.

Among the food trends, ‘veganism’ provides an opportunity to make a difference. “Animal proteins like meat, dairy and eggs are skipped in favour of a plant-based diet. Interesting vegan dishes are being curated for a healthy, low-fat meal,” points out Namby. Chefs at The Lodhi have designed special meals which are vegan, keto and gluten free – a rare combination indeed. Zucchini spaghetti with basil pesto strips and chilgoza baingan bharta are currently in high demand. Regular ingredients have been replaced by items like Himalayan pink salt and wild honey. L’Opera is offering an entire range of desserts without butter, cream or milk while the demand for Mediterranean dishes based on egg plant and chick peas has shot up immensely. There are options of vegan and gluten free breads in the market as well.

The recent lockdown has had many fall-outs. It has led to a manpower crisis in the industry. Many chefs and hotel staff who left for their homes are yet to return. Coupled with financial challenges, this may result in hospitality projects being postponed or cancelled. With home cooking becoming a favourite lockdown pastime, the demand for professional cooking equipment, meal kits and recipe videos has shot up. Also, most families in the kitchen are experimenting with new dishes due to the popularity of YouTube, resulting in more viewers of cooking shows. The visits to food markets are dipping due to the fear of contagion in buying and consuming food. Lower restaurant traffic, increased e-commerce deliveries and a rise in eating at home is bringing greater cohesiveness in family ties. Branding is likely to signify hygiene; so safety and in-house store brands will get increasing focus.

Besides, the inflight catering business, which contributes substantially to the industry’s coffers, took a serious knock. It has only now started picking up. However, as a senior inflight catering company official reveals, “the current business is not even a fourth of what is used to be in pre-Covid times”. After rushing up cold meals, flight kitchens are gearing up to serve hot meals to Indian carriers, though the modified guidelines call for hassle-free meals and disposable cutlery.

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