Technology, air bubbles, holograms and strategic reopening: CII lays down the ground rules

The COVID-19 pandemic has upturned the world as we know it. ‘New normal’ has entered our lexicon. And while the global health and humanitarian crisis has ravaged economies and businesses in general, some have borne the brunt more than the others. 

 

Cii lays down the ground rules
Public and private entities have used the lockdown time to either recalibrate
existing strategies or establish new ones

With the nature of the businesses necessitating physical people-to-people interaction, the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors have been particularly hit. According to data, in April this year, 91% of the world’s population stayed in countries with partial border restrictions and 39% lived in countries whose borders were completely sealed. The 133 million trips taken in March 2020, just before the pandemic started tightening its stranglehold, plummeted to 16 million in June. Social distancing measures effectively put paid to any sort of congregational activities. 

While the tourism and allied sectors have been in turmoil for the past several months, both public and private entities have used this time of upheaval to introspect and analyse, to either recalibrate existing strategies or establish new ones. 

Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) organised a webinar titled ‘India — A Safe Tourist Destination’ which brought together several eminent stakeholders from the travel and tourism sectors through four-panel discussions to spotlight challenges, possible solutions, new initiatives and the way ahead over the next couple of years.

Spread over three hours of conversations, it focused on what needs to be done to create safe journeys and communicating right with the travellers.

The first panel, chaired by Puneet ChhatwalChairman, CII National Tourism Committee & Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, IHCL, had panellists such as Aradhana Khowala, Founder & CEO, Aptamind Partners; Deep Kalra, Co-Chairman, CII National Tourism Committee and Founder & Group Executive Chairman, MakeMyTrip; Meenakshi Sharma, Director General, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India; Valsa Nair Singh, Principal Secretary, Tourism, Culture, Excise and Civil Aviation, Government of Maharashtra; and Thiru Vikram Kapur, Additional Chief Secretary – Tourism, Art and Religious Endowments Department, Government of Tamil Nadu.

Punnet chatwal, aradhana khowala and deep kalra speak with cii on the future of hospitality

Chhatwal set the agenda by spelling out the important role tourism and hospitality industries play in promoting economy, culture, heritage and employment. It is crucial that these industries be opened up by compliance with guidelines and safety protocols through three ‘Rs’: Restart, Refocus and Reimagine.

Tourism and hospitality

The restart needs to be done in a calibrated and graded manner, as the only way the industry could survive was by opening up safely and hygienically. Refocus, Chhatwal believes, entailed restoring traveller confidence around safety — by reassuring guests and employees by rigorously committing to protocols around safety, hygiene and physical distancing. “It is now more relevant than ever to embrace the power of digital transformation,” he stated. “Technology can play a huge role in the assurance of safety by contactless and zero-touch experiences across all customer touchpoints.” Reimagining the business, Chhatwal propounded, was possible by looking at the domestic sector and stimulating demand by catering to the sharpened appetite for quick getaways, staycations, family driving holidays and wellness retreats. This would require better infrastructure and greater connectivity as personal vehicles would be the means to fulfil such activities.

Aradhana Khowala, Founder & CEO, Aptamind Partners, specialist strategic hospitality and tourism consulting practice said there were lessons to be learned from how others have dealt with the situation. She encapsulated these in five action points: Don’t hide, remain in the news; focus on domestic tourism; ditch traditional approaches; ensure healthy destinations and employ technology.

Illustrating her insights with innovative, out-of-the-box engagements such as sensitive-about-safe-travels by Portugal, Japan’s Go To Travel that subsidies domestic tourism, Bermuda and Barbados’ Work From Holiday packages and Cypress’ CovID 19 travel insurance, Khowala emphasised, ‘“India needs to come up with its own set of consistent rules so that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.”

Deep Kalra, Co-Chairman, CII, National Tourism Committee said that while the larger hotel chains were doing a great job of putting safety regulations in place, it was the budget hotels that needed support. Consistency of protocols, right through the eco-system of this industry, was key to avoid confusion in the customer’s mind. “People need to be reassured,” said Kalra. “And the only way to reassure them that travel is safe, albeit a little uncomfortable is what I call the silver bullet: mandatory testing, with emphasis on both mandatory and testing.” The rapid antigen test for domestic travel and the full-blown RT-PCR for international journeys were the way forward.

While the tourism and allied sectors have been in turmoil for the past several months, both public and private entities have used this time of upheaval to introspect and analyse, to either recalibrate existing strategies or establish new ones. 

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Meenakshi Sharma, Director General, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, stated that the viewpoints of the speakers so far were aligned to the government’s agenda, within limitations. “The Ministry of Tourism is very keen we should have a common protocol across states, and we’ve taken up this matter. However, we have to wait for a little while,” she cautioned. 

For the hospitality sector (especially the small units), the government is working with the Quality Council of India to provide a certification under the Saathi initiative. The Dekho Apna Desh program, showcased on a digital platform and targeted towards the domestic tourism segment, has been successful beyond expectation since it was charted by the industry partners. The most significant remark Sharma made was how the pandemic had brought the whole industry together. “In the worst time possible for the tourism industry, everybody has shown extreme maturity and solidarity. I would like this camaraderie, this maturity to go further,” she stated. 

According to Valsa Nair Singh, Principal Secretary, Tourism, Culture, Excise and Civil Aviation, Government of Maharashtra. In the case of Maharashtra Tourism, she said, the state saw the current situation as an opportunity to draw new road maps by looking at low-hanging fruits within the domestic tourism sector. 

“In Maharashtra, we have always talked of 10 to 12 big destinations such as Ajanta, Tadoba and Elephanta. With this crisis, we need to open up new destinations which are otherwise back of beyond and have not been on the tourism map for some time — like Bhandardara and Igatpuri,” she revealed. The state was also formulating policies on adventure tourism, beach shacks, agro-tourism and caravan tourism. Simplification of licenses and introducing ease of business on new investments were also among the new initiatives.

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The stakeholders in the travel industry need to work on the demand side to stimulate people to spend on travel.

 

Thiru Vikram Kapur, Additional Chief Secretary, Tourism, Art and Religious Endowments Department, Government of Tamil Nadu says the hospitality sector was now open, starting with temples, hotels and restaurants with all the health and safety SOPs in place. Kapur also mentioned the suggestions from the hospitality sector had found a place in the voluminous report by an expert committee headed by Dr C Rangarajan on getting the state economy back on track. Given the extreme pressure on the fiscal health of the state exchequer, there was very little elbow room for the state government to concede to the demands of the hospitality industry. 

Kapur talked about looking at demand rather than only supply. “We’ve all talking mostly of supply-side solutions, as to how to provide financial aid to the tourism sector, how to make the industry ready to accept tourists… I request all of you to consider working on the demand side: What is keeping people from travelling, from spending on food and beverage, or generally on the hospitality sector. One is the fear of the virus, of course. But the other issue is that people’s earnings have reduced and therefore people are prioritising their expenditure.” 

Air Bubbles: Is this the only way forward for international travel?

While the tourism and allied sectors have been in turmoil for the past several months, both public and private entities have used this time of upheaval to introspect and analyse, to either recalibrate existing strategies or establish new ones. 

While the tourism and allied sectors have been in turmoil for the past several months, both public and private entities have used this time of upheaval to introspect and analyse, to either recalibrate existing strategies or establish new ones. 

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The second panel, moderated by Arjun Singh, Director of the hospitality and tourism management program, University of Texas, had on it panellists Conrad Clifford, Regional Vice President, Asia Pacific, IATA and Anita Mendiratta, Special advisor to UNWTO

Anita Mendiratta, Special Advisor to UNWTO, opened her presentation by stating that the current times seemed out of fiction. She emphatically pointed out that this was not an economic crisis, or a travel and tourism crisis, or an aviation crisis. This, she said, was a healthcare and humanitarian crisis that has caused all the other crises. 

“As we still go through that journey, we need to make sure that when we open our critical sector to lives and livelihoods, we do it in a way that it is safe and keeps it open rather than perpetuating a second and third wave…” Mendiratta highlighted the emotional side of travel. “We are focusing so heavily on the technical side that we need to remember the motivation to travel.” 

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The Indian government’s new tourism policies to bolster demand through a slew of different initiatives will bring in glad tidings. 

 

Her biggest fear was that travel was becoming so difficult and stressful that it eclipsed the joy. We are being served in an industry that’s all about emotion and smiles by people who love their industry but can’t show their smile because they have masks on. We need to be careful that we don’t get caught in overpromising, overpricing and disruption of protocols to get people back,” she cautioned.

Conrad Clifford, Regional Vice President, Asia Pacific, IATA, decoded the meaning of travel bubbles, air bubbles, green lanes or safe corridors. These are temporary arrangements, he stated, put in place by governments in an attempt to restart air connectivity between countries. Currently expanded to 13 countries, they have limited capacity so that public health systems that cope with the number of passengers coming into the country. 

In India, air bubbles started with repatriation flights, and they’ve done a wonderful job of getting Indians home. Clifford was of the firm opinion that we need to increase testing to instill passenger confidence and do away with quarantine. “If we can implement testing in a widespread, scalable way, and we can do away with quarantine, we can certainly spur international travel back up to its heights again.” 

Developing tourism safe chains

The third panel, moderated by Dr Sanat Kaul, Chairman, International Foundation of Aviation Aerospace and Drones explored the possibility of developing tourism safe chains with Kapil Kaul, Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation; Narasimha Rao, Managing Director, Vizag Conventions; Andreas Scriven, Head of Hospitality & Leisure, Deloitte UK; Julian Matthews, Founder, TOFTigers; Dr Shubnum Singh, Advisor, CII Healthcare Council, and Dipak Haksar, Advisor, CII National Tourism Committee

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This session, Dr Sanat Kaul said, would focus on the lack of confidence that travellers are experiencing because of fear of COVID-19 and how it could be overcome by building a travel safe chain that would cover the journey right from home to the eventual destination. “With the government having its problems, the solution about how to ensure safety of the traveller from home to the destination and back,” Dr Kaul emphasised, “has to be found within the aviation, hospitality and tourism sectors.”

Dipak Haksar, Advisor, CII National Tourism Committee, it is very important to restore consumer confidence since there was a latent demand, albeit for short-haul destinations. “People are seeking consistency when it comes to obeying the rules. It is important to come up with a set of actions that will help the stakeholders to move forward and enable some sort of a regulation or a self-certification to create confidence amongst people.” Weighing the options of a lockdown or opening up, he said both weren’t the way forward as a lockdown stifled demand and an opening up would mean a surge in infections owing to unsafe travel. So, we need to find a middle path with uniform rules that everybody—including roadside eateries, smaller establishments and people in rural areas—can be educated about.

Narasimha Rao said rethinking, rebuilding, innovating and reimagining were inevitable, but in the backdrop of these things, he wondered if, without the government’s involvement, can the industry achieve what it needs to do? “Is it time we need a one-nation approach to handle the pandemic?” he asked. “Can we build COVID care insurance in the pricing of our packages?” 

Andreas Scriven, Head of Hospitality & Leisure, Deloitte UK, offered an international perspective: “What we are seeing in the data and research we are doing is more positive than what we would have expected back in April or May. The trend around some of those confidence elements is getting slightly more positive.” 

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Scriven said there’s no one size fits all approach in hospitality. “Some of the solutions that are being proposed come with pretty significant capital investment requirements, which may work for global brands, but not for smaller hotels.” So, finding solutions would entail correct approaches for different segments, or moving up from the lowest denominator. 

While the tourism and allied sectors have been in turmoil for the past several months, both public and private entities have used this time of upheaval to introspect and analyse, to either recalibrate existing strategies or establish new ones. 

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Kapil Kaul from the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation had several points to make. “Though travel is returning, on the ground we are seeing the load factors are similar, whether it is a morning, afternoon or an evening flight. The structure that was driving the revenue management of airlines has completely changed.” The people flying now, he continued, included traders, business people, leisure flyers and (increasingly confident) emergency fliers. “The specifics of the data are with the hotels and the airlines. And they need to share this data collaboratively across the value chain so that you learn and make targeted efforts… maybe make digital marketing more proactive and start building confidence that travel is getting safer.” 

It was also important to take a measured call concerning short-term business vis a vis medium-term and long-term gains. The government, he added, was looking for a strategic, long-term revival. “To increase tourist confidence, travel leaders who are themselves travelling for various reasons should put in on their social media platforms

Julian Matthews, Founder of TOFTigers and a huge advocate of sustainable tourism, concurred with Kaul’s viewpoint on reshaping the fundamentals of tourism rather than a knee-jerk reaction for short-term gains. “I think the government can play a much stronger role in the laying down of protocols particularly interstate protocols and how people can move between them much more seamlessly.” Matthews suggested a creation of a kind of badge or sticker indicating the organisation’s adherence to COVID 19 safety protocols. 

According to Dr Shubnum Singh, Advisor, CII Healthcare Council, the hologram is extremely important. “As far as I know, the World Tourism Council has identified countries with this kind of a hologram,” she said, adding that NABH and NABL themselves are not government-managed or promoted activities.  

For the travel and tourism industry, the absence of an end-to-end chain of implementation of health safety and hygiene was going to make things extremely tough to manage. The quarantine issue could be eased by a staggering reduction of the duration of quarantine with periodic testing. 

Reimagine Tourism: Destinations, Business Models, Financing & Marketing

Panel 4 took, chaired and moderated by Deep Kalra, took on the task of reimagining tourism for destinations as well as business models. Onboard was Peter J. Bates, President, and Founder, Strategic Vision; Ged Brown, Founder, Low Season Traveller; Dov Kalmann, Founder, TerraNova Tourism Marketing & Consultancy; and BM Gupta, Director, Tourism Finance Corporation of India (TFCI)

Kalra began by stating, “It is a fact that the industry has been severely impacted in the short-term. It is also a fact that when we come out of this, we are going to have to change a lot because the industry will be restructured fundamentally… New players, some players will not exist the way they do today, so they need to reinvent themselves. My first question is: what would be that biggest structural change we can expect overall, post COVID-19 vaccine?”

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The travel industry needs to focus on deep, structural changes to survive the pandemic-led downturn. 

 

“I think one of the key resets that’s going to happen is that people will look for different types of destinations. They will want to go to places where they will have privacy — private homes, villas — where they won’t be with masses of people all the time,” opined Bates. Brown agreed and stated, Tourism is subject to seasonality; we’ve never marketed destinations all year round. One more fundamental change gets into tourism management. We need to understand the real capacities of our tourism destinations and carefully manage them.” 

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Kalmann spotlighted the collapse of the global village as the main fallout of the pandemic. “All the accomplishments of global solidarity, of cross-border curiosity, or equitable distribution of money between nations… all that is at risk,” he rued. “Tourism is the key to overcome this dangerous nationalism. Our struggle to create hope and resilience is far beyond the economic interest of our particular travel industry. Travel makes us better people, makes us a part of humanity.” 

From the perspective of the India market, Gupta added: “Everyone has been affected. Tourism spend is discretionary. Those who can spend have gone into saving mode. In this unprecedented situation, the response has to be different. All stakeholders need to come together to induce people to travel. The demand is there but they need assurance about safety and hygiene. This assurance needs to be brought to the table and advertised.” 

Kalra asked the panel a crucial question: How do we reposition India as a destination to the international market, given the realities? “It will be a while before we get back to India,” confessed Bates. “But it’s a great opportunity to reset tourism promotion. When the time is right, we need to start storytelling, showing India in a new light. Start getting journalists to experience it and start rewriting about India today,” he said, adding that India had done it in the past with the Incredible! India campaign. 

Keeping the dream alive, reaffirming the beauty of traditional Indian hospitality, letting them know about the cultural assets and treasures still being there was, according to Brown, a good strategy to apply. “In the meantime, it would be about inspiring people to wish to travel to India as well,” he remarked. “The hotel associations should be on social media. There could be virtual events that could give us a taste of India’s culture and heritage.” He recommended exploring the youth market that will be prepared to weather the discomfort of post-COVID travel. 

Kalmann talked about the enormous opportunity that India has — the inspiration, spiritual and well-being angles were a huge advantage. A rebranding was the order of the day, he said. Gupta echoed Kalmann’s views, rationalising his opinion through India’s response to COVID (low fatality, high recovery) which could be developed into health programs. 

Responding to Kalra’s question to ‘Who finances the industry?’ Gupta said they were confident that hotels would achieve 30-40% average occupancy throughout the year, which would be sufficient to have the cash breakeven before interest. “The only thing we need to be proactive in reviving this market and the economy.” So far as the funding is concerned, the solutions would be tailor-made for different situations. “After the expansion of the MSME scheme, most small hotels or those with 100 rooms in the three/four-star category have for 20% of the existing outstanding as a loan.” 

This would take care of the interest requirements. This, along with the cash breakeven projections, establishments would be able to generate a part of the interest from next year. For principal repayments, the banks would have to take a more proactive role, he added.

The Solutions

No one could have analysed the various sessions better than Chhatwal. He said that the Indian government’s  initiative to bolster demand through a slew of different initiatives, such as different kinds of tourism policies and identifying new destinations or spotlighting existing ones which hitherto had been waiting in the wings, will eventually bring in glad tidings. 

Everyone agreed that the industry needs to look inwards in the short term at least, to the domestic traveller. This would assist air travel in India. “This is a chance to prove that India is a safe destination, and we can drive that change,” Chhatwal reiterated. 

Special COVID-19 insurance that could be added to existing travel insurance policies was a definite refrain. Testing was another, as this could help instill confidence. Data sharing was important to understand which demographic was traveling more actively so that targeting marketing initiatives could be undertaken to bolster demand. Uniformity of protocols for a heterogeneous country like India was paramount in safety corridors and creating a seamless, less stressful travel experience. 

While the tourism and allied sectors have been in turmoil for the past several months, both public and private entities have used this time of upheaval to introspect and analyse, to either recalibrate existing strategies or establish new ones. 

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The Indian government is considering establishing safe air bubbles for tourists between states with low COVID numbers

 

Chhatwal remarked it was a lot of fun to reimagine tourist destinations. “I have to thank each eminent speaker for speaking on our behalf loud and clear that if we get the status from the center as an infrastructure industry, we get loans at more attractive pricing and they can be restructured.” 

It was also important that we embrace best practices and learn from each other as there is no reference point to this crisis. “We can’t solve current problems with our learnings of yesterday. They have to be the learnings of today with the solutions of tomorrow.

 

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