Puneet Chhatwal, and Hotel Association of India, have been relentlessly pursuing solutions for the hospitality industry, post the COVID crisis. Continuing their efforts, in a recent interview on ET NOW, shared his views in what can be described as a broader expression of industry’s concerns and interests as it moots ways to undo the damage. As President, HAI, he has sustained the association’s efforts to represent before the government to underscore the sector’s importance in national growth, foreign exchange earnings, among others, qualifying that the industry was in the survival phase. He was optimistic of a revival in the medium-term and expected the business to begin bounce back in three-odd months. Chhatwal is also the MD and CEO of IHCL. Here are some excerpts from his free-wheeling interaction with Nikunj Dalmia, Senior Stocks Editor, ET Now:  

Reaching out to the government

“As the President of the Hotel Association of India, we have been making consistent representations to qualify the current situation as the survival phase, also outlining how to revive,” he said, detailing how the industry was communicating with the government on the road ahead for the hospitality industry. Surviving, reviving and thriving were the key themes of the ongoing discussions with the government, he explained. Chhatwal was optimistic about the government’s support and intervention “now or in some time.” 

When asked to react on a tweet by Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, The UK, who had rolled out the ‘eat out and help out’ scheme where the government was subsidising sit-down meals by 50%, up to ten pounds, per person, he believed that the Indian industry could not exactly emulate others. “We must understand the reason for their actions and take inspiration from them,” Chhatwal reasoned. That the government had offered the industry nothing, gave him hope that “something was going to come” eventually. 

“What is the need for a country, such as UK, to incentivise people to go out and eat in restaurants,” he wondered. He believed that Sunak’s initiative only underlined the importance accorded to the hospitality sector by The UK government. He noted that the Indian government had given due importance to several industries in the last few months, which had given him hope on “something coming along for all sectors under the umbrella of tourism.” 

Hospitality and tourism add much more than monetary value

The hospitality and tourism industry was creating 12.5% of direct or indirect jobs in the country, he said, adding that it played a crucial role in earning foreign exchange revenue and contributing to the GDP. “It also has a feel-good factor, which is psychologically important for any economy. It is important in building cultures and educating people, among others,” Chhatwal said. Tourism was an essential pillar of any economy, India in particular, he added, sharing that the PM had also emphasised its importance in driving national growth. 

Business blues: Not so much

Albeit slowly, the business was coming back to normal, Chhatwal shared, adding that Taj Hotels’ critical sources of revenue were operational again. The hotel in Mumbai had recently been opened for guests, while the Bengaluru property had commenced operations a month ago, he said, hoping that hotels in other key metros were going to begin operations in ‘the next weeks’.

“There won’t be a very long road to recovery as we hope business would bounce back faster,” he detailed.  

He clarified that an immediate timeline for a complete recovery of business was an unpredictable goal post and believed that a 60-90 days timeline after the lockdown was lifted completely, was perhaps a fair estimate for a visible improvement.

“Only time will tell whether it is a right or a wrong assumption but the fact that people would like to put 2020 behind them, gives me hope that things would be back to normal by Christmas and the new year,” he reflected. 

Unfolding trends 

Guests were still apprehensive about travelling, which had extended the recovery timelines, he said. However, people preferred road travel to drivable destinations, he said, informing that sizable traffic was driving from Bengaluru to Taj properties in Coorg and Chikmagalur.

“People are travelling either for board meetings, family stays, or to get out of their homes. Those places have started filling up in no time. We expect a similar trend in August, especially for places like Goa,” he added. Whether for work and pleasure or solely for a weekend getaway, such travel was expected to kickstart the hotel business, he believed. He expected business travel to take longer to recover, but drivable destinations were going to witness improved footfalls, he said. 

The business of quarantine 

Chhatwal argued that maintaining the security and safety of its associates and guests, in equal measure, was the group’s foremost priority. All Taj Hotels in Mumbai, across categories, had been operating and housing people involved in essential services, as well as quarantined guests arriving from overseas, in repatriation flights, he shared.

“It signifies that hotel staff are used to revised safety and security norms and adhering to them before anyone else. Safety and security are paramount to us as a hotel company and as a group,” Chhatwal emphasised.

He believed that such measures enabled hotels to remain operational as commencing operations even after a brief shutdown had its challenges.

“Remaining operational is, therefore, extremely helpful, whether you are doing it for the society or getting some business – as long as you are not out of pocket and paying to stay open,” he said. He believed that a restart, such as, of Taj Mumbai, which was operating at 33% guest capacity plus essential services, was equally helpful as “you don’t have to start your business from ground zero.”

Chhatwal shared that Taj Hotels had been housing its staff in the hotels or accommodations close by to the hotels to ensure they did not need to travel. “It assures all our stakeholders that we are fit and ready to start and eager to welcome guests. We also hope our restaurants will open up in the next few weeks as F&B is currently restricted to in-room dining. We then get to the normalisation phase over the next 90-100 days,” he said.