By Tanya Banon

New Delhi, January 23 (IANSlife): Travel has been one of the industries hardest hit by COVID and the impact of the pandemic continues to disrupt travel around the world. During this crisis, Preferred Hotels & Resorts launched Beyond Green, a purpose-driven hotel brand. It also added 19 new member hotels to its global portfolio and 11 new member hotels in 2021 with enhancements to the company’s loyalty program.

IANSlife sat down with Saurabh Rai, Executive Vice President – South and Southeast Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australia, Preferred Hotels & Resorts (PHR) as well as Seema Roy, Regional General Manager – South Asia, Middle East East and Africa at PHR for industry insight for 2022.

Read excerpts:

The hospitality industry had its hopes in revenge travel and the industry boom in 2022; but with new variants wreaking havoc across the world, is the mood in the industry still optimistic?

Rai: Although we take a 12 month view for the completion of the financial books, in reality it is a quarterly forecast and a quarterly review of things, because about 90 days is all what you can plan to make sure you are on point. In line with the pandemic scenario, it evolves so drastically that you basically have to shorten the duration, so there are quarter-by-quarter replacement strategies.

The most important thing and the second aspect when approaching our business is related to agility. Many of our businesses have been agile. There is something very deep in today’s world about not spending too much time on planning and preparation, because if you plan for the long term, by the time you move into execution, you you will find that more than half of them become useless or obsolete due to the speed of change.

2022 will be about staying resilient. Maintain your limbo and your agility. There will be sudden slips in quick sparks and a quick response to the frequency of opportunity will help you follow the curves. You just have to accept all these crazy fluctuations and hope that the average average level of travel in 2022 simmers to a point that we can consider acceptable in terms of business returns and allows us to pay salaries, keep people on board and remain intact. So much for 2022.

2021 has been even more chaotic and complex than 2020, I think once bitten twice shy we are wiser from this experience. As our group enters 2022, we do so with a very real set of expectations, eyes wide open, no exaggeration or hope but with multiple dampers, this is how we approach 2022.

Domestic travel for 2021 has more than made up for India’s lack of international tourism, with hotels operating at full capacity and rates revised in pre-pandemic times. Do you think this trend has encouraged the Indian traveler to explore their own backyard, and will it continue?

Rai: I think so, because if you look at Western countries, they have a very rich domestic travel base. Countries like the United States, China, Australia, South Africa, and even the EU as a region have a huge domestic travel market, the vastness and diversity of experience, these destinations offer from within their own regions is absolutely incredible for the traveler within this country. I think we would all agree that whether it is a 5-7 day holiday, long weekends or school holidays, it is very common for Indians to travel within 5 hours of flight to places like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai, and these countries have invested more to attract tourism from India and have benefited more than India. So Madhya Pradesh tourism, Tamil Nadu tourism or Karnataka tourism or Assam tourism has so much history, food, local experiences that I think there’s a lot going on for the Indian domestic travel product one simply needs to focus on and invest in.

In terms of the industry, Covid has been our best CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) in terms of teaching us how to be able to market the maximum of our hotels and destinations, which some accomplished professionals couldn’t, the stressors COVID forced them out and put them on the map.

I believe the momentum is like we’ve never seen it before, I think hotels, state tourism boards, the whole travel and tourism ecosystem needs to do their job right, we don’t cannot take this request for granted! The experience should be enriched, the experience should be curated and the experience should provide a value for money product for the national portfolio in India. With these three components, I believe the domestic demand is sustainable and the market size is huge, so that’s key.

Many hotel chains have used this time to their advantage to acquire new properties and develop smaller destinations, what is the idea behind all this?

Rai: Sri Lanka has a small population, Thailand has millions of visitors, if you look at the large population and the disposable income of those who travel every 3 months, even that is going to be in the tens of hundreds of millions, so we’re talking huge base as long as we can curate the experiences and deliver value for that dollar.

People had nowhere to go for two years so they visited inbound destinations hotels that charged all kinds of rates many of us paid those rates in domestic hotels that are in the tens of thousands and even more than a lakh per night, and people are paying that kind of money. Some leisure properties across the country provided their highest occupancies on record at their average daily rate; is this occupation sustainable? I believe the answer is yes, because the market size is huge. But are the prices sustainable? The answer is no! These are overheated fares, and if they have to compete for the domestic traveler when international borders are open, they won’t succeed. However, that doesn’t mean they have to lower their rates to pre-pandemic levels, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.

Owners and managers of the asset need to start thinking about how they remain price competitive while providing good value in the experience offered; value made up of two things, the right price with the benefit. At such a high price you have to take responsibility to be an ambassador for the destination, you have to represent the best of all things local, everything has to be the absolute best or at least best in class.

With sustainable travel in the spotlight, the launch of Beyond Green by Preferred Hotels & Resorts is timely?

Seema: Couldn’t have been a better time. We acquired Beyond Green Travel before the pandemic. We worked during these first months of the pandemic to launch this brand. Beyond Green, was launched with dye at the heart and center of everything the brand does.

From a development perspective, with Beyond Green, the primary goal is to bring leaders into the hospitality space who have sustainability at the heart and center of everything they do. It’s not just about giving back to the planet but to all the pillars of sustainability, so the community as well as the preservation of local traditions and heritage. With regards to property, all the boxes and the UN sustainability indicators are what we consider our guideline, as long as properties are good on these they are accepted into the program. This is probably the first of its kind in the hotel space, there are many ecotourism companies for responsible travel, but from a hotel perspective, there was no brand moving forward in this space.

Beyond Green comes from the passion of the owners, who are very passionate about this space and we have some very exciting properties in the pipeline. It couldn’t have been a better time for the launch of Beyond Green.

The Imperial New Delhi and The Park, Kolkata

You have included a total of 30 (19+11) new member hotels in the global portfolio since 2021, please share the idea behind the expansion.

Rai: The number of relationships that have been renewed is over 20 hotels in 2021 alone, so this is a great achievement for all of us and the team led by Seema for other regions, and also shows how point progressive thinking aligns with the future, and the opportunities of the future. The progressive thinking of our hotel owners and leaders has been very inspiring, and our commitment is demonstrated by this retention and renewal.

So the region we are overseas from is South Asia, Middle East and Africa, which includes India, Sri Lanka, Indian Oceans and all of Africa, we have integrated seven new preferable properties and in India there are The Leela Bhartiya City Bengaluru and Le Park Kolkata, and we made our foray into Nepal with Kathmandu which is our latest entry awarded in November 2021. There are seven new Beyond Green properties , and which has provided the fastest growth in the region led by Africa and the Middle East and we have very promising talks regarding India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

We are very optimistic and there is a great sense of optimism, as the business has remained energized, stakeholders and the industry peer group have not been shy about making positive investments in the future beyond the current situation.

With platforms like Airbnb taking a big chunk of market share, do you see the future of travel looking very different from what we know?

Rai: So there has been a catalytic disruption within our industry, but the market size is large enough that different models coexist. It’s not a winner take all, there’s enough and more for everyone. There are 2-3 very different subcategories of the type and nature of hospitality that exist in the travel industry today. You can choose in which category you want to play. You need to decide which sub-segment of the travel universe you are in, and then inspire yourself to be the market leader and trendsetter in that territory.

Just like Amazon is a tech company and leads e-commerce worldwide but that doesn’t mean brick and mortar doesn’t exist, so with Byjus it’s an edu-tech company that’s huge but field education is up to very much existing.

Such developments and disruptions are the greatest gift to the industry, forcing everyone to innovate and recognize changing realities. The evolution of marketplaces, the evolution of consumer purchasing preferences mean that everyone evolves with the times. Millennials and Generation Z are at the center of this change, for them sustainability is not seen as a matter of choice, it is one of their three priorities. So I think Airbnb is great that they came. They defined a new kind of experience within the industry. It is not a hotel business. They are a technology company. They are a mediator connecting experiences and available accommodations to travelers in need.