Rakesh Mathur is a hospitality industry professional with over 47 years of leadership experience in Indian and Global Hotel groups.
An Economics Honours Graduate from SRCC, Delhi, he joined Oberoi Hotels in 1973 as a Management Trainee and grew in the Industry and worked with Global and Multinational Hotel Organizations.
Rakesh co-founded the Responsible Tourism Society of India, to spread awareness about sustainable tourism practices. A recipient of several awards, Rakesh continues to contribute his experience and expertise as a Board member to the IHHA, INTACH Tourism Committee, Auro University, Surat, (Tourism), and HI AIM as Chairman. He is a Paul Harris Rotarian, Hon. President of Save the Children India (Delhi), and supports a personal Charitable Foundation engaged in poor and orphaned children’s health and education and women’s empowerment.
I consider myself a Tourism Baby!
The foundations of the tourism industry in India were laid the same year that I was born. So said Mr. Som Nath Chib, the acknowledged ” Father” of Indian Tourism. Several years later I was very privileged not only to meet him but also to work closely with I consider myself a Tourism Baby! him at the headquarters of The Oberoi Hotel Group where I was heading the Manpower Development Division and he was a guide, mentor, and Advisor to the group. I, my several colleagues, and he would meet over a quick lunch at The Auberge Restaurant at Oberoi Maidens Hotel, and we would listen in rapt attention as he narrated how the Tourism Baby in India was born.
A civil services officer, Mr. S. N. Chib, returned from a global government assignment and with great difficulty convinced the Government of India to set up the Tourism “Department”. He was appointed its first Director-General. Thus started the Tourism journey in India.
Coinciding with this there were the trailblazers, the pioneers who laid the foundations of the Hospitality Industry in India. The migrant entrepreneurs who bore the brunt of Partition and through sheer hard work, perseverance, ambition, a vision and some luck, invested their life savings and jewelry to establish hotels wherever there was an opportunity. Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi is the acknowledged legendary Father of the Hospitality Industry, The Taj Group led by Mr. J. R. D. Tata, Mr. Ram Pershad of Ambassador Hotel in Delhi, Sardar Ranjit Singh Akoi who built Imperial Hotel, the Spencer Group, are some that stand out. The Government too stepped in with The Ashoka Brand to initially cater to official guests and functions.
And what good are Hotels without Tourists? To bring them in, egged on presumably by Mr. Chib, the torch was carried in the firm and able hands of Mr. Inder Sharma, Mr. Gautam Khanna, Mr. Nari Katgara, Mr. Vinoo Ubhayankar, to name a few. Legends all!!
A small industry then, created largely by the spirit of entre-premiership and vision of these pioneers. But deservingly supported by the then “Department”.
So when I joined the Industry in 1973, it was young, sturdy, on a growth trajectory, supported by the “Ministry” to which the “Department” had been upgraded. Close-knit, and small enough for everyone to know everyone and work closely. It was a “people’s” industry.
It matched my age and ambitions. It meant a lot to me at that young age.
There was a spurt in growth for Asiad 1982, but the Industry came into real adulthood in the 90s and the first decade of the 21st century. Global companies came in and I was privileged to have been at the helm of one of them. Huge investments flowed in. Tourism, both inbound and domestic, grew with the grow- ing disposable incomes. Domestic Chains grew, replacing the monopoly of foreign brands, and successfully too. Technology brought about a change in operating styles and even contributed to further growth by creating new opportunities and markets. From a “people’s” industry, it became a “stakeholders” industry.
I too aged gracefully with it. Everything looks hunky-dory till, just when you’re about to settle in comfortable retirement, a bolt of lightning hits you from the blue. An earthquake shakes the very foundations that you helped build. Almost crumbling it. And to top it all you find yourself rudeness. An abandoned orphan without the last straw to hold. That’s the way I feel. That’s what this pandemic has done to me, my Associate Companies, and my Industry that nurtured me and that I nurtured. No support insight. From anywhere.
An endless bottomless sea with no land in sight and hundreds of desperate colleagues trying to row the boat of which I am Co-Captain. That’s how we all feel.
One bitter lesson I have learned is that from now on, pandemic or no pandemic, I and we, all have to learn how to swim ourselves. And that’s my first message to myself, my colleagues, and my Industry.
The Tourism Industry has to learn to swim on its own!!!!!
That’s the singular most important learning that hits you like a sledgehammer. But first, where do we stand? What is this ground Zero?
It’s that uncertain uneasy feeling you get when you’ve been laid off from a job and don’t know where the next meal will come from. Or how the next installment of the home loan will be paid. To be honest, this is currently the actual brutal truth not only for employees but also for Companies and, surely, the Industry too.
What is the ground reality?
We are fighting an enemy we don’t know and can’t see. We have no known weapons to combat it. All are gripped by fear and the uncertainty of what will happen next.
The first to suffer are your people. Your staff who you trained and nurtured into your Company values, philosophy, and culture. It takes a year or two to build a hotel. But it takes far longer to build a cohesive, skilled, and efficient workforce, committed to your vision, poised for new challenges of growth.
It has been painful to see teams disintegrate because of shutdowns. Painful to cut wages and even more painful to lay people off even though we have tried to be very fair by rotating those laid off. But the ground reality is that there is no end in sight. There is no business. No anticipation of when things will start returning to normal. And, worst of all, no support system in this multi-layered, bureaucratic decision-making environment. And under these circumstances, how long we can support our people, is a big question challenging our minds.
Another challenge is the complete revamp of operating systems and processes with new priorities and protocols in place. The temperature meter has replaced the Aarti and Garland!! No more minibars and fruit baskets or turndown evening service!! Uniforms that look like spacesuits. Detached distance instead of the customary warmth of a handshake. Touchless, social distancing. We call it “a new normal”. New norms of foodservice and new menus to cater to local availabilities and new customer preferences.
The biggest challenge of course is the business. Who will travel? What kind of traffic will resume? With foreign traffic reduced to zero what level of domestic leisure and business travel can be expected? What kind of rates will sustain? And worst of all, a full hotel actually means 50% of rooms due to the need to sanitize alternately. Restaurant space is reduced to half. Weddings are restricted and conferences and meetings business has dried up.
So, in a nutshell, business models on which projects were made shall no longer be relevant. Losses will lead to great upheavals in the industry with transfer and sale of assets, some desperate. But, as the saying goes, we have to rise above the ashes and if we survive this Tsunami, we have to re-invent our business models. In any case, we have no choice. And in the absence of any significant support from the government, we are very much on our own
To begin with, hotel projects may not attract the kind of financing through bank loans or other vehicles that they enjoyed earlier. Mixed-use developments may become the norm. Hotel design and architecture will change drastically along with materials and fittings and fixtures. Operators are already looking at alternate sources of revenue, ie, laundry services, home food delivery, and even home sanitization services, etc. New skilling will be needed. New capital investments shall have to be made in re-designing areas and new equipment needed. Legal agreements, Credit arrangements, Insurance policies, etc, will come under review as relationships redefine.
Last but not least there will be huge pressure on operators to control costs in the two main areas of concern, manpower, and energy. With uncertain revenues, there is bound to be added pressure on these two major areas.
The next big question is that even if mankind is able to eliminate the pandemic through curative or preventive medicine or vaccine, will we as an Industry revert to our old ways, or is the “new normal” here to stay???
I do believe that ever so often, it is mostly a calamity, natural or man-made, that brings out the best in us humans. To my mind the greatest positive impact the pandemic has had is a concern for the Environment at all levels. Also a concern for hygiene, sanitation, pollution, energy and water conservation, etc.
Another impact is the tremendous amount of innovation that is happening in new technology in safety, security, communication, processes, etc. Changes in building materials and design which bring about more efficiency and hygiene, new materials for furnishings that are easy to clean and maintain, new fixtures, fittings, and machinery that minimize energy consumption, shall be the new norm.
There will be a shift towards local consumption to minimize inventories and cut costs of procurement and storage. All this and a shift towards advance payments shall reduce working capital requirements.
A very welcome fallout should be strict adherence to construction bye-laws, approved plans, health and fire safety norms, etc. The norms laid down by the National Green Tribunal and the Pollution Control Board may be strictly imposed and followed. Workers will get proper facilities to stay, rest, bathe, etc. It is sadly true that several buildings, especially in the unorganized sector blatantly violated these norms in collusion with corrupt officials in their greed for more saleable space.
So, will the Industry revert to pre-pandemic practices and processes and operating systems? To my mind, No. It stands to reason and is safe to assume that any practice and process that brings about operating cost efficiency will and should be adopted.
Any practice that impacts environmental sustainability, increased hygiene, and sanitation, decreased pollution, shall become a norm. Not changing bed linen and towels may become standard practice unless needed.
Any practice that ensures guest safety and health shall be adopted. But in the context of our tradition, nothing will make me happier if I can warmly shake hands with my guest, receive him or her the traditional way. Wine and dine with family and friends at the Bar or Restaurant.
And this is evolution. This is Change.
But as an Industry, my recommendation to my friends and colleagues it that let us not humiliate ourselves further by going to the Government with a begging bowl. Let’s fight for our rights and not free-bees. Give us some “time” respite from taxes, loan interest and principal repayments, liquor license fees, statutory payments, and taxes. Give us Industry benefits. Foreign Exchange earnings benefits. Give us what we deserve as major employers and foreign exchange-earners And, let us support each other.
I am confident that we will bounce back and make our pioneers and torchbearers proud, “Mr. Rakesh Mathur, Advisor New Tourism Foundation” said that.