F or those who had been stuck inside their homes, working on their laptops, tablets and even mobile phones, the lockdown relaxations announced by the government, which allowed them to resume life as they knew it before the pandemic, was a welcome change.
Denied the opportunity to go on holiday for over one-and-a-half years, they have started visiting hotels and resorts in droves, so much so, that finding accommodation on the weekends has now become impossible, and room rates, which had dropped drastically in the interim period, have gone back to pre-pandemic levels.
However, safety and comfort also come at a price. Post pandemic, hotels have had to spend more on hygiene to ensure the safety of guests and staff. In fact, even for hotels that were following reasonable hygiene standards, the expenses have gone up by 15% while those that already maintained high standards have had to shell out 5% to 8% extra. For others, this figure could be as high as 20% of their budget, said an industry expert, who wished to remain anonymous.
“After we reopened and the number of guests and events started increasing, we kept adding things almost daily. Extra masks for guests and staff, more pens at the reception, sanitisers and dispensers in more locations. We are spending more to ensure hygiene. Since staff cannot wear the same clothes outside, we have spent on additional washing machines and dryers. Earlier, only kitchen staff used to wear gloves but now everyone in banquets are required to wear a pair,” another industry source said.
Hotel chains, including Novotel, ITC, Taj, Hyatt and GRT, have ensured that their safety protocols are certified. “The well-being of guests, associates and partners has always been of paramount importance at ITC Hotels and more so in these testing times. All our hotels follow stringent health, hygiene and security measures certified at the Platinum Level under DNV’s ‘My Care’ Infection Risk Management Programme. This enhancement of our ecosystem is a big boost to the confidence of our guests, who feel completely reassured in our environment,” said Zubin Songadwala, area manager-south, ITC Hotels, and general manager, ITC Grand Chola.
The pandemic has also managed to rationalise staff strength in hotels. According to Jegan S. Damodaraswamy, executive director, Sree Annapoorna, the biggest challenge across the industry is shortage of manpower. This is due to several factors. Many who left the job do not want to return. There is fear of further waves, and people prefer to stay in their home towns and do jobs that pay less, than returning to work elsewhere, he said.
On the other hand, with jobs in other countries offering better salaries, many have found employment in places like Dubai, Malaysia and Qatar, where international events are just around the corner. A few others have settled into their current lifestyle and pace of work.
Padmaja Divakaran, who used to work as a chef in a hotel, left her job and started her own venture called Insalata. “Although I do miss the hectic schedule sometimes, I’d never be able to go back to the hours I worked while at the hotel. I now work out of the comfort of my home and choose what to pack and send to a small dedicated group of friends who like good food. This allows me to relax when I feel like it and also keep in touch with my job. It gives me enough time with family and friends,” she said.
A driving factor
Along with guests who are going on staycations — meaning they work from hotel rooms — weddings have also been fuelling business at resorts.
Shabin Sarvotham, general manager at Temple Bay Resorts, Mamallapuram, said the leisure segment was doing well. “People, who are fed up with staying at home and cooking and cleaning, want to stay out. A lot of weddings are happening as well. The ‘Great Indian Weddings’ are back. Though they are themselves restricting the number of guests attending the event, they want to make the events memorable occasions,” he said.
Kirti Fomra, who along with partner Vinay Bantia of Rayale Fiesta, has been busy this season creating stories for fairy-tale-like weddings with designers and her staff, said families were spending anywhere from ₹30 lakh to even ₹20 crore on weddings.
“And this expense includes catering, stay, décor, logistics and entertainment. Since we are still in the middle of the pandemic, we are ensuring that everyone in our teams is fully vaccinated. There is a team just to ensure that COVID-19 protocols are followed,” she said.
ECR, especially Mamallapuram, is doing well when it comes to weddings since it has a lot to offer to wedding parties and planners, she added.
In smaller places like the Wild Rock Country House, nestled in the forested interiors of Athoor village in Dindigul district in the Western Ghats, businesses that would have otherwise gone to big city hotels ensured that the place kept itself open these past months. Baby showers, naming ceremonies, first birthdays, milestone anniversaries came their way.
Last month, Srinidhi S., 16, and her cousins drove down for a Halloween party, which turned out to be their best outing in two years. The 23-room resort owner, K. Mohamed Saleem, played along. “With travel on pause, the path to recovery is long and requires more adaptability and creativity,” he said.
Till the rain intervened last week, the winding traffic from Perumalmalai to Kodaikanal was enough of an indication that people were waiting to get away for a good break.
According to S. Dheenadayalu, the occupancy at his Thapovan resort in Vazhaigiri en route to the hill station, has seen a substantial jump since August.
“The direct bookings are increasing due to increase in domestic travel,” he said and added, “Travellers are returning to buy experiences.”
His ‘Active@60’ short stay packages are running houseful. Children of non-resident Indians (NRIs), who have not been able to visit their retired parents and have been home alone over the last two years, are making the bookings. It includes pick-up and drop from home in Madurai or the airport, railway/bus station, three days at the property with farm visits, mind-gyming and meals.
After a protracted struggle, the smaller resorts are perhaps kick-starting the tourism economy. Many places in south Tamil Nadu have revised and restarted their commercial strategy with exclusive packages, including writers’ retreat or detox, yoga for health, fun in water and sunrise/sunset watching, in the new year.
“It’s back to focussing on the basics. Every traveller is seeking more cleanliness and hygiene. Something that was once implied is now being celebrated. Advertising safety protocols helps ease the fear of infection, and is the foundation for people to enjoy the place,” said R. Sunethra of Tranquil Nest in Thandikudi.
But properties dependent on inbound tourists are continuing to have difficulties as they are hit by cancellations of flights and bookings. It is not viable for them keep a few rooms open with skeleton staff and scaled-back services for occasional guests. “There is more loss of revenue and reputation. It is better to save than make money now,” said an unhappy property owner in Kumbakonam.
Business-class hotels in cities, however, are yet to see much action.
Given its strength as an industrial region, Coimbatore and nearby districts, such as Tiruppur and Erode, get a large number of business visitors.
The meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) segment is yet to revive fully. But there are people visiting Coimbatore from other cities, and the average occupancy at hotels ranges between 60% and 75%. However, it depends on the hotel and the facilities offered, said the general manager of another five-star hotel. The revival is not as high as pre-COVID-19 levels but certainly better than expected, sources said.
People still expect pandemic rates of ₹2,500 and ₹3,000 per day per room, which is very low. “But we are yielding to that too since otherwise, our rooms will remain unoccupied,” said a hotelier in Chennai, where many hotels were full last week due to the unprecedented rains.
Some of the larger hotels have planned to have special dinners and events for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. In case of restaurants, the recovery after the second wave has been faster than the first wave, said sources in the industry.
If the trend continues, restaurants could see pre-COVID-19 levels of business next month. However, a lot of smaller restaurants have seen change in management or have just shut down. This is due to lack of funds or loss of manpower.
The Omicron scare
However, with a few cases of Omicron being reported in the country, people are already on tenterhooks.
“A wedding party that had planned to hold the event early next year is having second thoughts after the news came in. They are afraid since they have senior citizens in the family, and they will have to travel from various parts of the country to attend the wedding. We are waiting and watching the situation, and if there is any announcement from the government about a safety protocol, we will implement it immediately. But we hope it doesn’t develop into anything alarming and is handle at the earliest,” a worried hotelier in the city said.
(With inputs from M. Soundariya Preetha in Coimbatore and Soma Basu in Madurai)