The last few days have left India’s hospitality industry with frayed nerves, as they grappled with the fallout of news filtering out from Chennai. The staff of various hotels—including luxury hotels such as ITC Grand Chola and The Leela Palace, Chennai—tested positive.
Of the over 6,200 hotel staff who were tested across different hotels, 125 tested positive. “That is less than 3% positivity rate and things are very much under control,” says G Prakash, Commissioner, Greater Chennai Corporation.
Tamil Nadu government and the state health department have swung into action to deal with the emergence of clusters of COVID-positive by asking hotels to mass test their staff. The authorities are blaming the flouting of protocols when it comes to banquets. Most hotels have been hosting intimate weddings and small events and seemingly, haven’t been following the protocols mandated for banquets: Not more than 50 people and strict social distancing.
In a statement, ITC Grand Chola contested this claim, “From social distancing at public areas to rigorous kitchen hygiene, and regular health checks of associates, all safety and preventive measures are being meticulously followed. Every member of the team is trained and sensitised on following the prescribed prevention of Covid-19 protocol, in the interest of their safety and that of guests.”
Right now Tamil Nadu has fewer than 8,000 active cases and the state authorities are not taking any chances. Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan says, “We are stepping up testing, as a measure of abundant caution, in star hotels over the next three weeks.” The civic authorities have directed the hotels to also cancel all banquets and gatherings for 10 days and ramp up testing for coronavirus among its staff members.
The news came as a grim foreboding for India’s hospitality industry. While Chennai’s resorts have been attracting weekend/staycation travellers, city hotels—whose business has depended on corporate travellers—have dealt with low occupancies. News about COVID-positive clusters in star hotels couldn’t have come at the worst time.
Most hotels in Chennai had slashed rates by almost 15 to 20% to attract weddings and other smaller events such as birthday celebrations, engagement parties and such, besides staycations, to make up for the loss of corporate travel business. This fact was particularly true for the 18 properties located on the OMR stretch, which once catered to a largely IT crowd who are now in ‘Work from Home’ mode.
Hotel groups such as ITC, GRT, Ibis and Novotel were also offering ‘bubble’ venues. ITC’s ‘Gourmet Bubbles’ were meant for people to indulge in the year-end festivities and savour the specially-created safe enclosures. ITC Grand Chola was offering short-stay guests 15% savings on room rates.
“The booking window now is just one-and-half days. There are no bookings for one week in advance. So, it is a tactical game now amongst the hoteliers. Pricing is the only deciding factor amongst the travellers and we see to that we are not outpriced,” said Prakash Jayadevan, General Manager of the 167-room Trident Hotel.
Till the COVID controversy hit them, Chennai hotels registered occupancy rates of 35% during the weekdays, and almost 45% during weekends. “From November onwards, we found some executives of the automobile and electronics sector were travelling. Some foreigners also flew in,” says Rahul Nama, General Manager, Mercure Chennai, Sriperumbudur.
However, hoteliers do have to worry much, says Mandeep Lamba, President (South Asia), HVS Anarock, a hospitality consulting and transaction advisory firm. “While the existence of COVID clusters is unfortunate, it will help luxury hotels to tighten their sanitisation norms.”