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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

‘We are open’: Post-covid world of a five- star hotel

This week, Delhi announced reopening of hotels in a bid to kick off the economy. But with few travellers and no tourists, the industry’s climb out of the pandemic is expected to be the hardest and the longest.

Written by Sadaf Modak , Divya A , Amitava Chakraborty | Updated: August 24, 2020 1:26:26 pm
No-contact check-in at front desk at The Meluha-Fern. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

This week, Delhi announced reopening of hotels in a bid to kick off the economy. But with few travellers and no tourists, the industry’s climb out of the pandemic is expected to be the hardest and the longest. The Indian Express goes behind the doors of one five-star in Mumbai to capture a post-Covid world.

On a rainy afternoon, as guests enter the gates of Hotel Meluha-The Fern in a well-pruned area of Mumbai’s suburb Powai, the first sight that greets them is a staffer with a manual sanitising spray machine strapped onto his back, and a disinfectant container near him. The first is for sanitising the luggage of guests, the second for hand bags. On the floor is a rug layered with sanitiser, to ensure that even shoes of those walking into the five-star hotel get a Covid cleansing.

In the lobby, the visitors are first directed to a ‘hand-sanitisation zone’, a contact-less, foot-operated stand disposing hand sanitiser, followed by a ‘temperature screening zone’ where staff wield infra-red thermometers.

Both the welcome drink and valets who park vehicles have been done away with. Only visitors who have already checked in online via a link are entertained. At the front desk, they have to fill in self-declaration health forms, including that they have not come from a containment zone. Each guest is handed over a separate pen, with boxes clearly marking ‘new’ and ‘used’ pens.

The luggage is santised. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

Each item touched by the guest or staff during that interaction, including documents, is put into a UV sterilisation box that sanitises the objects “within 3 minutes”.

Explained

Needed, a helping hand

More than two and a half months after Unlock 1.0 began, and one month after hotels first got the go-ahead, revenues remain a struggle. The government is seeking to boost tourism, especially domestic, to get them going, but the industry is hoping this will be combined with loan moratoriums and special packages.

Front Office Manager Monty Chhabra, who has spent two decades in the hotel industry, says post-coronavirus, it’s a new world. “Earlier, it was only hospitality. Now it is hospitality with responsibility,“ says Chhabra.

Read | ‘Our focus is to create demand.. History proves the resilience of tourism’: Prahlad Patel

At any time of the day, the staff can be seen cleaning — any of the many “contact” surfaces in the 141-room, seven-storey, 10-year-old hotel, from door handles to lift buttons. Staff otherwise engaged in the hotel’s restaurants, bar, gymnasium, spa, salon, swimming pool, buffets, the banquet hall and the three board rooms are now assigned these tasks as the above services are yet to be offered. The Meluha has 200-odd employees on its rolls, and while it hasn’t laid off anyone due to a fall in revenues post the pandemic, they are paid now only for the days they work — usually two weeks a month. The last full pay was in April.

On July 6, as part of its Mission Begin Again to ease lockdown restrictions, the Maharashtra government had announced the reopening of hotels outside containment zones — at maximum 33% capacity. Besides Maharashtra, hotels have reopened in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. On Wednesday, Delhi announced it would allow hotels to open, with the state government eager to kick off the economy.

At the front desk, they have to fill in self-declaration health forms, including that they have not come from a containment zone. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

***

Around 12 pm on a Thursday, a guest checks out of Room No. 611 at The Meluha, and Ganesh Dhule enters wearing a PPE. After ensuring that nothing has been left behind by the guest, he removes all the linen — bed covers, pillow covers, comforter — and puts them in bags, before locking the room and leaving. The room will now remain shut for at least 24 hours. This is part of the SOP being followed by most hotels that have reopened, to reduce the risk of any residual viruses in the room exposing the staff or the next guest.

Dhule says he and the others in the housekeeping team of 40 are getting used to spending their entire duty hours in PPEs. “We are required to wear a PPE each time we do a delivery to a room,“ he says. At the end of each day, the staff discard their suits for a new one.

Housekeeping at The Meluha-Fern wears PPE for every service call. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

With restaurants closed, every meal is delivered to rooms — left outside on trolleys, like other services requested by guests. With occupancy low, the hotel has segregated staff allotted to guests floor-wise, to further reduce risk of any infection.

Dhule, 30, who lives in Mankhurd in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai with his mother, goes home once in 15 days now. “I do not step out of the hotel and there are regular checks by the in-house doctor,” he says. Whenever he is home, he stocks up all the essentials so that his mother doesn’t have to go out.

Assistant Manager, Housekeeping, Suraj Mulik says they hold a staff meeting every alternate day for feedback. “Since reopening, there have been many additions based on the inputs received from the staff. Each guest’s usage differs and makes us realise what more we need to do. For instance, from only a few obvious touch points which were cleaned in a room, like door handles, taps, over 70 of them have been identified now, including TV and AC remotes, curtain edges, mirrors.”

When Room No. 617 is reopened after 24 hours — through a contact-less system now instead of keys — two-three staffers enter wearing masks and gloves. Aside from the usual cleaning equipment, they carry several kinds of sanitisers and a portable UV wand. Each of the 70 items above, including plug points, are wiped and sanitised, and the linen replaced. An assistant manager uses the UV wand — the portable ones weren’t easy to acquire, says the hotel — for a final sanitisation via radiation.

The Meluha has cut back on the tea bags, coffee, sugar and milk powder sachets provided in rooms, as well as toiletries. “A guest can ask for more and these are immediately provided,” Chhabra says.

Fixed menus, hygiene planners in kitchen. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

What the guests can’t expect is a lot of variety in food. Executive chef Parimal Sawant says there is a pre-decided menu now for all three meals — like poha and upma, bread butter, eggs, for breakfast; two vegetables and dal for lunch; and a non-vegetarian option in adfor dinner. Desserts are part of each meal. “If a guest wants to order something else a la carte, it is provided. But, to avoid wastage, food items are prepared only if ordered,” Sawant says.

The 43-year-old has had to rethink his kitchen, accordingly. “Instead of 100 kg of chicken daily, for example, to account for a banquet meal, buffet meals and full occupancy, we now need only around 5 kg,” he says. They have had to stock their pantry with essentials like pulses, rice, flour only once since the hotel reopened. Sawant tries to plan the menu around what is available, to avoid frequent shopping trips.

The 4,000-sq ft main kitchen serving the hotel has up on its walls weekly food plans and basic cooking instructions such as how to prepare dal, to ensure consistency, and how to present many of its signature dishes, to ensure uniformity. Now up there alongside are health advisories, including numbers of the emergency response team for Covid at the hotel, and a hygiene planner. This lists the disinfectants to be used for different equipment — the boilers, dishwashers, food warmers, chimney, silverware, as well as sanitising tablets for fruits and vegetables. “Every hour, an alarm goes off and we have to find the nearest sink and wash our hands,” Sawant says.

Since most of the kitchen staff belongs to outside Mumbai, they stay on the premises.

Punish Sharma, Vice-President, Operations, says they never considered layoffs as most of their staff has been with them since the beginning. “We have divided them into batches, with each group working for 10 days on nine-hour shifts. They are given accommodation within the hotel to reduce risk during travel.”

Some staff though have no replacement — “like the chef who is in-charge of the South Indian breakfast”.

With hotel now their home, the staffers play carrom, chess or watch TV in their free time. Sawant says they are like one big family. “One of our chefs is a singer. When it’s not the alarm, the loud sound in the kitchen is that of him singing, blaring out of the music system.”

***

But, the awareness that things can’t go on like this hangs heavy.

Located near the airport, The Meluha generally gets jet setters moving in and out of the business capital, apart from customers looking for a five-star “staycation”. From usual occupancy of more than 80% (100-120 of the 141 rooms), numbers are down to 20%.

Putting the cost of running a hotel at Rs 1.25-Rs 2 crore a month — maintaining just a room daily costs Rs 2,000-2,500 — Vice-President Sharma, who has been in the industry 30 years, says, “There has been no hike in tariff despite the increased cost of maintenance… In the first quarter, we earned 15% of our revenues compared to last year.“

In fact, more than a month after hotels were allowed to open in Maharashtra, just 50-60% have done so, as per the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India. “Many still have just single-digit occupancy,” says its vice-president Pradeep Shetty.

While the hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have allowed hotels to open in what would be the peak season, they remain shut owing to travel restrictions on borders. In Himachal, locals have been protesting the move to open the state for tourism.

The Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism & Hospitality (FAITH) says the industry is looking at an economic hit of Rs 15 lakh crore and job losses of four crore . “The direct and indirect economic impact… is approximately estimated at 10% of India’s GDP.”

Many in the hotel industry hope the government will offer an incentive to boost domestic tourism. Says Ashish Gupta, the Consulting CEO of FAITH, “We have requested both the Centre and states to waive off all statutory obligations (of hotels) and set up a tourism fund to cover operation costs and revive the business. We have also requested the RBI to extend loan moratoriums and restructure debts.“

Meenakshi Sharma, Director General (Tourism), Union Ministry of Tourism, says a national taskforce, headed by Tourism Minister Prahlad Patel, is looking at how to revive tourism and travel, and help hotels. One of the steps initiated is a checklist to declare a destination safe for visitors with the help of the Health Ministry. The sops announced for the MSME sector would cover 80% of tourism establishments, including hotels, Sharma adds.

Aditi Tatkare, the Minister of State, Tourism and Industries in Maharashtra, says they are also looking at a special package for the tourism sector and “what other states like Goa, Kerala and Rajasthan are doing for tourism.”

Only visitors who have already checked in online via a link are entertained. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

***

Meanwhile, with room occupancy stagnant, many five- stars in metros are taking their services to the doors of loyal customers. Several hotels of the Hyatt group began delivering food a month ago. Some chains such as Accor, Hilton, Conrad and Sheraton have tied up with Swiggy and Zomato for the same. Novotel Chennai OMR and Sheraton Grand Bangalore, Whitefield, have started laundry services for their members, so has the Hyatt Regency in Gurugram and Pune, within a limited radius.

The Marriott International has partnered with Swiggy to launch its own food delivery service. “As we adapt ourselves to the new normal, there will be a new balance in everything we do, including our approach to hospitality,” says Neeraj Govil, Senior Vice-President, South Asia, Marriott International.

Having remained open through the lockdown — housing families of Covid cases or overseas travellers looking for quarantine — ITC Royal Bengal, which boasts of a ‘WeAssure’ programme designed by medical professionals and disinfection experts, has re-started its chauffeur service, with polycarbonate screens shielding passengers from drivers, and gym and salon, as well as tied up with Swiggy and Zomato for food delivery.

Nitin Bahl, the Resident Manager of ITC Sonar in Kolkata, says, “We are receiving a lot of response online… The ITC F&B App too will soon be launched in Kolkata.”

***

Currently, The Meluha has three types of guests — those in quarantine after a domestic or international trip, people who have come to Mumbai for medical treatment, and those seeking a break from home.

Sharma hopes things will get better post-October when corporate activity picks up. If not, he is banking on that evergreen industry: weddings. Before Covid hit, nearly half the hotel’s business came from food and beverages, a huge chunk of it from hiring out banquet halls. “From January, the wedding season will resume,“ Sharma points out.

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