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How hotels are adapting to the unpredictable nature of post-pandemic demand

At the offices of French hospitality major AccorIndia, the numbers-focused cohort of revenue managers have been asked to reorient their analytical thinking to take into account travel sentiment,lockdown statusand fluctuating holiday demand across locations to predict room prices.

A deputy housekeeping manager at a top-end boutique hotel in Delhi has taken on tasks like attending requests for bubble baths in rooms, servicing in-room dining and even taking guests on walking tours.

The iconic Imperial Hotel in Delhi, which temporarily reduced staff as part of cost-saving measures, has introduced its employees to multi-skilling, in which employees were rotated across a host of different teams so that they could pick up the skills needed to work in each department. Says senior executive vice-president Vijay Wanchoo, “We also skilled them well so that the quality of the service isn’t compromised.”

Forhotelsof all sizes and stripes, the unpredictable, fluctuating nature of post-pandemic demand has led to a rethink in staffing strategy, product offerings and cost management. Call it the yo-yo model of hotel management: haphazard peaks of very high demand, which don’t correspond to traditional popular travel times, interspersed with periods when leisure travel dries up completely due to staggered lockdowns.

Add manpower challenges and low cash flows to the mix, and hotels have had to reinvent the wheel.


According to STR. a division of CoStar Group that provides market data on hotel industry, the resurgence of Covid-19 cases and lockdowns in India in April and May this year resulted in a steep decline in hotel occupancy levels. Preliminary data for May indicates that all-India occupancy levels were shy of 20% and revenue per available room hit rock bottom at under Rs 650.

Dilip Puri, founder, Indian School of Hospitality, says about 50% of jobs in the hospitality sector (which accounts for about 10% employment in India) have been lost. This has hit blue-collar jobs as well as at leadership levels. “Over the past year, we have found that the situation changes very quickly, requiring our teams to be agile and flexible,” says Anand Singh Shekhawat, regional director for Aman Resorts in India. Since most travellers are booking holidays at the last minute, it requires teams across departments to work reactively.

Like other companies, Aman has established flexible booking policies to enable guests to postpone or cancel their trips, something it did not offer before. But the hotel says it still has not compromised on its staff-per-room ratio, keeping it as high as 5:1 and 8:1, depending on the hotel.

For Ananda in the Himalayas and others, after a period of steady growth till mid-April 2021, demand abruptly petered out. While Ananda remained open for a few long-stay guests, costs mounted. “Having 100% staff has significant cost implications when travel is severely hampered. Within the hotel, all departments, especially engineering, focussed on optimisation techniques,” says Mahesh Natarajan, chief operating officer, IHHR Hospitality Ananda. So it reallocated customers to some wings and floors to save on energy.

At Niraamaya Retreats across India, small changes have had a big impact — like keeping 50 bulbs on in public areas instead of 100 to save on energy, offering limited menus and training 90% of its people to do 100% of the work.

Many hotel businesses have tried never-before-tested strategies like furloughing staff for a three- or four-month period on a rotational basis so that every staffer gets an opportunity to earn, despite the lack of operations. A hotel general manager tells ET that they may never go back to previous staffing levels, since multi-skilling employees has emerged as a big winner.


Lemon Tree Hotels

, clustering of rooms, special service zones and customised service have helped maintain service standards with minimal staff. In some cities, the chain is down to just 0.5 or 0.6 employees per room, almost half of what has been the norm in midscale hotels pre-pandemic. Staff schedules have been worked around in such a way that key team members are permanently living on hotel premises for smoother operations and minimal risk of infection, says deputy MD Rattan Keswani.

Puri says that in the coming years, hiring preferences will lean towards candidates who can understand and react to evolving guest behaviour. “Employers now have more efficient models where they have cut the flab from the system by reducing their fixed costs (of electricity and manpower) and are now looking for more and better skilled people,” he explains.

Shruti Shibulal, chief executive officer, Tamara Leisure Experiences, says they have learnt that their operations must now be geared towards rushed service and have, therefore, invested heavily in automating processes and training employees in the less busy lockdown periods.

“Our resorts have had to shut earlier due to environmental disasters and through those experiences, we have learned the importance of developing nimble teams that are continually trained to handle challenges. This gives us a reliable system and the confidence to shut down as needed and reopen very quickly,” she says.

At Accor India, outsourced contractual staff is being used to meet sudden surges in demand. Meanwhile, the full-time staff is also multi-tasking, says Kerrie Hannaford, vice president—commercial, Accor India & South Asia. “Everyone is trying to pitch in wherever support is needed. Some hotels have also been sharing resources to manage the high occupancy.” Manu


Guptha, CEO, Niraamaya, points to an unexpected spinoff: guests are now less demanding, and prefer a “less intrusive” experience (read: will settle for less pampering). For the beleaguered industry, that’s a silver lining they are happy to live with.


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