In his long innings at the iconic IHCL group, Ranjit Phillipose, Area Director, Middle East and General Manager, has faced several challenges. Over the decades, he has been associated with significant Taj properties, such as the ones in London, San Francisco, Mauritius, Mumbai, Seychelles and, now, the UAE, overseeing hotel openings, rebranding projects, and expanding to newer territories.
However, 2020 has probably presented a situation like none other. With the entire hospitality sector reeling under the impact of COVID-19, hoteliers like him have had to lead the fight on many fronts—from keeping operations running and maintaining the highest safety and hygiene standards, to sustaining customers’ interest in the brand as well as planning and adapting to new realities.
Taj Dubai has risen to the occasion with aplomb. There has been no compromise on their growth plans. The spotlight is firmly on the recently launched Taj Jumeirah Lake Towers and the forthcoming Taj Exotica Resort &Spa, the Palm Dubai, Taj Deira Waterfront, Dubai and Taj Makkah in Saudi Arabia.
In other news, the IPL is headed to the UAE and the buzz is that the hotel will be hosting a leading team in the tournament.
As he charts the choppy waters in the wave of the pandemic, Phillipose takes Traveldine through the process of opening up Taj Dubai and what it takes to win customer trust in these turbulent times.
What are the current challenges faced by the UAE’s travel and hotel industries?
The ‘new normal’ puts a lot of emphasis on innovation, hygiene and social distancing, with technology playing an even more important part in the way business is carried out. In the long term, as guests’ priorities and concerns change, the new normal will affect the design and operating procedure of hotels.
Guest experiences are already being relooked at to include touch-free moments with the adoption of new technology for higher levels of sanitisation, ensuring people are comfortable and safe. The hospitality industry will have to find a balance between creating contactless experiences while maintaining a high level of standards that guests are accustomed to. Now more than ever, we need to balance value for the customer as well as run a profitable business.
What were your biggest concerns regarding the opening-up of Taj Dubai, post the lifting of the lockdown in Dubai?
We had several long-staying guests at the hotel during the lockdown, post which we focused on the domestic market. We were able to maintain a moderate level of occupancy throughout that period.
Our biggest concern was ensuring the safety of guests and associates. Needless to say, we adapted to the new realities every step of the way by following the stringent health and safety measures defined by the Dubai government.
After a lockdown of over three months, Dubai welcomed tourists recently. How have things evolved ever since?
It’s definitely positive. The focus on the domestic segment has been working well for us on both, the rooms and dining experiences front. Since July 7 (the day Dubai started welcoming tourists), we have seen increased traction from overseas guest bookings, predominantly from Europe. I believe that this trend will continue through the year as more borders start to open.
Then there are packages such as ‘#TajLovesDubai’ that offers guests a refreshed destination experience in the heart of the city with access to local attractions including Burj Khalifa At The Top, Dubai Aquarium, Ski Dubai and La Mer Beach. With early check-in, late check-out and complimentary pick up and drop off for each attraction, the aim is to ensure that guests can fully unwind and take a break at the hotel and also make up for the time when they felt cooped up indoors.
Taj Dubai was very big on MICE and weddings. How is the UAE going to get that segment going?
We have already started to receive several queries for weddings. Of course, once it was unheard of to only have 50 to 60 guests at a wedding. However, people are very keen to host their social engagements and events in Dubai, with adherence to government-mandated guidelines. The scene will definitely look up as the events industry starts to open up offline as well and business travel resumes, albeit gradually.
Once the GCC borders open, we will look to focus on domestic business travel first, followed by international business travel. During summer, there are typically lower levels of corporate travel, so we are looking ahead to Q4, where we feel business travel and events will hopefully start to pick up.
Hotels, on the whole, will have to adapt and invest in technology as more business meetings will happen digitally. We currently offer an ‘Office with a View’ package, where guests can recreate their workspace in one of our rooms that includes high-speed internet and refreshments, while they continue to ‘work from home’. We are also looking at the possibility of creating small co-working spaces for people to work from whilst adhering to mandated social distancing guidelines.
How has the UAE government supported the industry during this period?
The extension of visas which were expiring and the various directives from the UAE labour department helped put things into perspective and provide guidelines on the way forward. We remain optimistic about Dubai’s tourism reopening and believe that this is a key milestone in the road to recovery for the hospitality industry.
For now, everyone is depending on domestic tourists. But for the UAE, is that a good captive market?
UAE residents do not usually spend the entire summer in the city and so it is definitely a captive market. Taj Dubai has continued to operate during the last few months and Taj Jumeirah Lakes Towers reopened in July and received great traction with Dubai’s residents for staycations and long-stay requests. More recently, we have experienced a pickup in bookings and reservations from overseas for Q4.
Dubai is known for its luxury travel and hospitality sector. What would be the ‘new normal’ for this particular segment?
Dubai will always be synonymous with luxury travel and hospitality. However, the very definition of luxury hospitality has undergone a complete paradigm shift. The ‘new normal’ lays heavy emphasis on redefining a guests’ journey with the implementation of stringent health, safety and wellbeing measures.
The adoption of advanced technology has played a defining factor. It will also come down to creating a fine balance between personalized service and health and safety guidelines.
Your latest property at Jumeirah Lakes Towers, the Taj JLT has garnered a lot of interest and appreciation within a short span of time. What is your vision for it?
We are especially proud to have won ‘Favourite New Hotel’ in the Middle East and North Africa region at the Conde Nast Traveller Readers’ Choice Awards. It is a beautiful hotel located in a vibrant neighbourhood and we are optimistic that following its reopening on July 16, the success will continue.
Given the circumstances, how important is India as a market for the Taj group in this region?
India has always ranked in the top three source markets for the Taj hotels in the UAE and the city of Dubai. The Taj brand is highly accepted and loved in cities with a significant presence of the Indian diaspora.
We were recently rated as India’s Strongest Brand as per Brand Finance India 100 2020 report, Indian guests recognize and show their support towards the Taj group here. Additionally, with the upcoming IPL 2020, we are confident that there will be a spike in bookings received from India.
How would you sum up your experience of the last four months? What are the lessons learnt?
It has been an enriching and enlightening experience as it has taught us to be more empathetic, agile, efficient, and innovative. Every step of the way, we have had to think out of the box to overcome the situation and encouraged the team to present unique and resourceful solutions that are in sync with the current scenario.
During this time, there has also been a huge focus on training and development, and cross-departmental knowledge enhancement. That, for me, is the biggest positive in an otherwise tough milieu.
We have also held interview sessions with all the HODs covering an in-depth view of their job functions, interesting facts about them and personal interests, with the aim of all departments getting to know each other at a deeper level. Mental health was given due attention to our wellness week which concluded recently, where associates engaged in yoga sessions, calming Afternoon Tea, healthy salad recipes and learnt stress-busting tips from our Director of Spa.