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The Impact of COVID-19 on the Hospitality Industry

In an exclusive with Today’s Traveller, Dietmar Kielnhofer, General Manager, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar shares deep insights on critical questions related to the impact of COVID-19 on the hotel and tourism industry in India. 

TT Bureau:How do you assess the COVID19 long term impact on the Hospitality Industry?

Dietmar Kielnhofer: There is no way to sugarcoat the impact COVID-19 has on the Hotel and Tourism industry. It has devastated a commercially thriving industry and compelled us to examine the way we work, sell our inventory, clean guest rooms and public areas whilst simultaneously providing a high level of personalized guest services. The silver lining on the horizon is that COVID-19 is also a great learning experience and a game-changer, albeit an extremely expensive one. As the crisis will eventually subside we will emerge stronger, well prepared and equipped to address all the changes that were imposed on us.
TT Bureau: How can Hotels create new revenue streams to recover faster? Can you give some examples

Dietmar Kielnhofer: COVID-19 has made us all rethink the way we approach our business. It is a major paradigm shift from what we have done in the past. I would like to term it as a wakeup call. We had to carefully re-examine existing processes, systems and protocols, methodologies etc. and to reinvent ourselves in order to cater to the situation at hand. 
This “outside shift” that was imposed upon us by forces not of our making made us more agile, efficient and certainly productive; it forces us to reinvent our business model in order to survive. Restaurants and function rooms will certainly see fewer covers than before (due to social distancing), but I see a substantial upside in Marriott On Wheels which is our Home Delivery model. Thus, COVID-19 made us look  intelligently at new revenue streams as consumer behaviours have changed as well.
TT Bureau: What kind of transformation and reskilling will take place for players in order to survive? 

Dietmar Kielnhofer: It is not so much a question of reskilling (new skills can always be learned; for me, it is a question of unlearning old skills; and it’s our attitude to learning that makes a difference) but more a question of adaptation and changing our mindset to the ever-evolving circumstances.
Our industry has been very traditional (to a certain extent even archaic). We got used to working methods and behaved in certain ways that don’t always add value. Human beings are always a little reluctant to change, we prefer the comfort zone of the status quo. 
So what COVOD-19 imposed on us was a critical look in the mirror. Now is the perfect time for self-awareness, self-reflection and introspection. If a company or an individual doesn’t have the mental capacity and agility to change, evolve and adapt to the changing environment, then the future looks very depressing. 
The “New Normal” is about reskilling and multitasking, and it has to begin at grass root levels at catering colleges itself. The way we learn and get an education in the post-COVID-19 world needs to be examined for its relevance and validity. More emphasis needs to be paid to hygiene and sanitation, IT will become increasingly more important as focus shifts to hotels providing contactless service.

TT Bureau: What kind of technologies for customer interface are likely to be adopted?  

Dietmar Kielnhofer: Focus is on a contactless interaction without losing the human element. After all, we are in the hospitality business and change is the only constant. What has not and will not change is the innate hospitality mentality for which India is famous. The sincerity and genuine hospitality, the
“Take Care” approach will remain unchanged. 
Technology has to be seen through the wider lens as an enabler. Technology facilitates processes and efficiencies – and to a certain degree prescribes the desired outcome, but it doesn’t alter the hospitality mindset. Technology will not replace the human touch or guest interactions, but it creates a safer environment for all parties. Who will argue against mobile check in’s or check out’s, wireless payment options or QR coded menus?
Let me illustrate some examples: Mobile check-in and the mobile key is the preferred mode for guests today using the Marriott App. Not only is it convenient but it avoids any physical interaction with any associate. Many hotels have also started electronic registration cards where check in’s happen on an iPad and all the data is saved securely. Online payment methods like bank transfer, UPI, credit cards have increasingly become popular as it involves no physical handling of cash. Use of QR codes all across the hotel is the new norm, be it for digital menus for restaurants, wine lists, In-room Dining, guest directories etc. 
We have gone high-tech. Gone are the days when you would see any paper compendium or physical menus in hotels. Use of upgraded technology for increased sanitation in hotels from automated soap dispensers to foot-operated sanitizing stations at every nook and corner of the hotel are the new standards. We are now using fogging machines and electrostatic sprayers to ensure a clinical level of sanitization in all front of the house and heart of the house areas. As an international brand, we don’t compromise on the safety and security of our guests, and that includes now world-class hygiene and sanitation standards.
TT Bureau: Being a convention hotel, maintaining social distancing norms would be quite challenging. How do you plan to cope up with it?
Dietmar Kielnhofer: There will be long term repercussions to the industry as a whole. Social distancing is here to stay and legislation in this regard is very clear and we will not compromise on guest safety. We have altered our capacities keeping in mind the current social distancing norms across our restaurants and meeting spaces which will be applicable until we hear further from the government bodies.
As a trusted brand we have left no stone unturned to ensure the safety of all our guests who book events with us and our associates. We have heightened hygiene precautions and protocols across all 222 touch points of our hotel. The competitive landscape has changed and will continue to change drastically unless a vaccination is developed soonest, but for the time being, we have to observe, learn to adapt and live with the New Normal.
TT Bureau: How can Hotels create new revenue streams to recover faster? Can you give some examples?
Dietmar Kielnhofer: Whilst hotels have allocated a large amount of space for their restaurants, I could recommend we look at co-working spaces as a serious concept for our coffee shops and any other area that can support this concept. Another viable option for an alternate revenue stream would be to take the experience to people’s homes where one of our Master Chef’s and Mixologists caters to private get-togethers. We may look at selling rooms as private dining spaces for special occasions too.

TT Bureau: What are the newer ways of experiencing a hotel stay post COVID19? 

Dietmar Kielnhofer: Improved processes, faster check-in’s and check out’s, embracing technology as a means to get things done fast and in an efficient manner. I have no doubt that sanitation and hygiene standards become the new brand differentiators and play a critical role in future bookings. As a company, either we embrace and adopt the new Zeitgeist and become an industry leader or we became a “has been” the choice is ours.
TT Bureau: Your thoughts on Domestic travel in the post COVID19 context  

Dietmar Kielnhofer: We all have to realize business has to continue, we cannot be held hostage by COVID-19. Industries the world over need to ask themselves a critical question: “do we want to perish from a potentially lethal virus or do we perish from economic hardship based on managerial
inertia”? 
Travellers need to take the necessary precautions such as wearing a face mask when in public and adhere to social distancing norms. In the long run, I see more opportunities for the domestic market than ever before, synergies have been created between operators and third parties. The airline industry is an integral player in our success story and needs to get on its feet again. Due to travel restrictions, many people are forced to cancel or postpone their 2020 international travels, therefore, domestic travel will be more dominant than before, from a business and leisure standpoint. 
Domestic tourism will also have a role in the renewal of economies as people will desire to stay close to home (Goa and Kerala will have an amazing year when the monsoon is over). Staycations are expected to become a popular choice of travel in the short to medium term. Hence, it is imperative for hotels to research industry trends and analyze data on domestic travellers and consumer behaviour and develop appropriate strategies to capture this demand.

Suffice it to say that, in the aftermath of COVID-19, the world we knew is a thing of the past, we can’t turn back time, this is not the time for being nostalgic; the virus caused such a cataclysmic shift in the way we conducted business that the only way forward is to embrace the winds of change. Consumer and purchasing behaviour has always been subject to trends, thus adapting a flexible mindset and surviving has become a sine qua non for our industry. Let’s not forget, our industry is characterized by perseverance and resilience, we will bounce back and yes, we will travel again. A crisis brings out the best and the worst in people now is the time to exercise leadership.

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