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Indian hospitality industry will reinvent itself to fit the changing needs of guests, says Anuraag Bhatnagar

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For the last three decades, the Leela brand has come to be known for delivering an uncompromising level of personalised experiences with the true graciousness of Indian hospitality. Anuraag Bhatnagar, Chief Operating Officer, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts firmly believes that even though they embrace the “new normal” and the new Leela experience may look different, they still want their guests and associates to know that it is thoughtfully curated so that they can continue to feel as welcome and comfortable as they did before.

Prashant Nayak

Q. How are your hotels faring in the current situation? Is it the same struggle you have seen a year ago?

At The Leela, we have committed ourselves to readapt through the current situation and have been spending the last couple of months to think creatively about our operations and reimagine the guest experience based on our insights into the changes in consumer behaviour. Our focus has been to Reimagine, Redesign and Reset while keeping abreast with the evolved expectations of guests and ensuring we not only meet but exceed them. We are directed at delivering luxury experiences as we continue to remain true to the values of our brand. As a business, we want to remain agile, to be able to quickly adapt to an ever-evolving tomorrow.

The focus has been on four things – safely reopening our hotels and carefully preparing for our teams to return to work; gradually and slowly building consumer confidence and trust and engaging with our customers and associates, reassuring them our hotels are sanctuaries of cleanliness and remain at the cornerstone of sanitization; devising strategies and initiatives that will help elevate the guest experiences; driving demand through compelling and meaningful offers with inclusions and value additions built in around what matters most to our guests.

And to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our guests and associates, we have ensured all our associates are 100 per cent vaccinated. We have also implemented Suraksha by The Leela, our enhanced safety and hygiene protocols in partnership with Bureau Veritas India. Today, all our hotels are Platinum certified.

Q. Tell us about the recently launched Leela Gandhinagar?

The Leela Gandhinagar, together with Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition Centre, is set to offer a distinctive and convenient complex seamlessly blending state-of-the-art facilities with the graciousness of Indian hospitality. The hotel is an architectural wonder and the first of its kind; located atop the concourse of the redeveloped Gandhinagar Capital Railway Station. It is India’s first luxury hotel to be constructed on the airspace of a conventional railway station and is built 22 meters above the ground. The hotel houses 318 tastefully appointed spacious rooms and suites, with contemporary interiors impeccably blending into grandeur, comfort, and modern sophistication. It delivers a rich culinary experience with dining venues spanning across a host of cuisines served in picturesque environs and also boasts of a private lounge and an exclusive party room with stunning views of the city.

From elegant ballrooms to a holistic world-class spa, state-of-the-art gymnasium, a pool and stately meeting rooms, the hotel’s inspiring venues provide the ideal backdrop for any occasion. The hotel’s indoor and outdoor event spaces span across 30,000 sq. ft. and are well-matched with the legendary Leela hospitality. The Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition Centre offers both choice and flexibility with state-of-the-art facilities to host conventions for up to over 15,000 people. Four seminar rooms, three exhibition centres, seven conference halls and a meeting room are all equipped with every modern amenity imaginable.

The momentum of growth the brand is gaining is exhilarating and encouraging. The opening of The Leela Gandhinagar and the traction it is gaining has restored our confidence in how the brand resonates with today’s luxury travellers and we are committed to further strengthening our positioning as an epitome of true Indian luxury.

Q. Do you see the Indian hospitality industry still evolving despite the pandemic? By when do you expect to see stability in the industry?

Due to these unprecedented times, the world around us has changed rapidly, and we have had to adapt and become more thoughtful in the way we do things. As hotels begin to return to some sort of normalcy, the one thing we know is that the definition of “normal” as we knew it has changed forever. The industry must continue to evolve and prepare to take advantage of opportunities that will gradually but undoubtedly arise. While previously people visited hotels for a sense of community, now exclusivity is key. Guests are looking for luxury and comfort with the benefit of privacy and during COVID times especially, hotels can make for a safe haven. They also have the advantage to offer public spaces while still providing ample room to socially distance.

New opportunities have emerged with ‘Work From Hotel’, or rather ‘Work From Anywhere’ gaining popularity, food delivery has opened up new opportunities, and dine at home experiences have become a new option for guests who feel more comfortable dining in their own space and environment.

I have tremendous faith in the resilience of the Indian hospitality industry and know that it will reinvent itself to fit the changing needs of guests, especially during this pandemic. I believe that the industry will only see stability once international borders open, international flights resume and 60 -70 per cent of the population is vaccinated.

Q. With the industry resorting heavily to technology due to the pandemic, what about the human element that your organisation firmly believes in?

While technology has been one of the biggest reinventions for the industry, we believe it to be an ‘Enabler of Experiences.’ Owing to the current situation, health and wellbeing are of utmost importance to travellers, and technology and digital tools are the keys to meeting these new expected standards by expanding existing “no-touch” options. While there is a significant spike in the adoption of contactless services, we are confident that through months of austerity and isolation, customers may, indeed, be willing to go back to their lives and enjoy luxury services including luxury travel, entertainment, food and beverage, and spa services. And as they do, we want to be ready and provide for them a safe and welcoming environment where they can continue to enjoy the distinctive experiences and unparalleled service that The Leela brand has come to be known for.

COVID-19 might have changed the way we work, interact, shop, and spend time, but it will not change who we are and what we want from life. We believe that the world will want to experience life again and companies which will figure out how to offer experiences instead of services will be leading the way and this has been reiterated by the traction our resorts are gaining, with occupancies reaching and, in some cases, exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

Q. How are your hotels reaching out to new, evolved and changed customers?

We know that the “normal” we have returned to will not be the “normal” we knew. And that the trends and behaviours that were predicted at the start of the decade are no more applicable.

Our approach has been two-pronged.

There is no denying that safety and hygiene are at the forefront of our lives, so naturally, the first is to rebuild consumer confidence and trust and reassure guests of our commitment towards ensuring that our hotels continue to remain safe environments for them. We, therefore, launched SURAKSHA, a comprehensive program that redefines our processes so our guests can continue to enjoy our indulgent services and distinctive experiences with peace of mind. It emphasises The Leela’s existing rigorous cleaning protocols and is aimed at elevating sanitisation, hygiene, and safety procedures to deliver a safe environment for guests and associates.

The second is to generate demand through offers that are intriguing, meaningful, and memorable. So, when our guests travel and feel comfortable in doing so, we are there to welcome them with experiences and benefits that matter to them.

Q. What are your brand’s plans for India? Are there any plans to take your brand international?

The Leela is committed to growing in key gateway cities and marquis leisure destinations. We are also exploring development in the luxury wellness and wildlife space and believe in the opportunities that the country provides. Given the diversity and the richness of the country, I think we have a lot to do within the country before we can start looking outside.

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