Globally experienced and worldly wise, he believes that experience-rich staycations and exceptional F&B offerings will be the saving grace for hotels all the way into 2022.
Each time we meet him, we find the charming General Manager of The St Regis Mumbai playing the perfect host – hospitable and brimming over with bonhomie and humorous stories. Nicholas Dumbell, part British and part Mauritian, has a broad world view. You could put this down to the fact that he was born in Brunei, grew up across Asia – mostly in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Dubai in the Middle East – did his secondary education in the UK and then went on to college at the Cornell Hotel School in the United States. This certainly stood him in good stead for his career, providing him influences and insights from so many different cultures and making it possible to mingle with people of varied backgrounds with consummate ease. Excerpts from our interview with him…
Please tell us a little about your career, your stints at various hotels, your personal triumphs…
The start of my career was in the US and subsequently, I moved back to the UK. My background was in F&B, predominantly in restaurants and I later moved into banqueting and operations. Looking back, some of the finest jobs that I did was opening what was then the Renaissance London, (now the Rosewood London). I opened the Pearl there, which had an independent restaurant feel to it. I took over my first GM’s role in 2007 and am now in my fifth hotel as a GM. The hotels were very different – the first one was a business hotel, the second, a golf resort located in Marriott’s oldest building, which was built in 1260. It was a lovely country house where Charles Darwin used to play as a child, it being his grandparents’ country home. Then my first role outside of the UK was in Kiev, in the Ukraine, where I opened the Renaissance Hotel. From there I moved to Bengaluru to run the Marriott Whitefield, then onto the Renaissance Hotel here in Mumbai and finally, here I am at The Best Address – The St Regis Mumbai!
What were your toughest challenges running a hotel during the pandemic?
The toughest aspect was that no one knew what we were going through, and I think that meant, as humans, we always like to be in control and know the answers to everything and the whole world was learning how to steer the way. The customers were unsure what was happening, and our hotel teams were unsure what was happening. The most important thing, the biggest success that I personally saw, was being there with the team, I was in the hotel the whole time during the pandemic and ensuring that we implemented the process set by Marriott International around the ‘Commitment to Clean’ and ‘We Care’ scenario, elevating all our standards in all our areas. Most importantly, making everyone understand the reasons behind what we were doing and that built confidence amongst the hotel team and filtered to the guests. Now we see many families coming back to the hotel, which show that they have the confidence in the team here at The St Regis Mumbai, the confidence that they know exactly what they are doing, doing all they can to create as safe an environment as possible.
How did you handle the disrupted supply chains?
There were some stages, around last year in May or June, where we were not able to get supplies. We had to start planning well ahead on what we had at the hotel, talking to the chef on new menu items. There was never a stage where we couldn’t get anything. However, there was a stage where things were hard to find, to source, and we kind of got creative and tweaked our menus according to the availability. One thing that the pandemic has taught us that everyone understands that it is definitely not as easy as it was before. People have come to understand that there are some changes that needed to be made. As long as one is honest and open and transparent about it, as long as you make the effort to do something else, which is personalised towards them, they happily accept it. We have had amazing feedback on the food and the offering throughout the pandemic.
Now that things are opening up, how do you see the situation panning out for the hospitality sector in Mumbai in the next few months? Especially given that other hotels in the category are struggling and some have even had to shut down?
There is no doubt that domestic business is going to be key over the next six months to a year. We are already seeing a huge increase in Staycations, which is what we saw by the end of the first wave. That I see continuing to grow and one thing that makes me happy is that we are starting to see business customers coming from overseas. Now that the Indian Government is giving visas for business travel, we have had a few guests come over from international destinations to do business here in Mumbai. That is a green shoot and, if US and Europe, start coming out of this situation and somewhat returning to normal, there will be a confidence from people living in those area that they can travel and return to what is normal. Whilst I know that there is a discussion around everyone will continue to work from home, we need to be conscious that relationships are key for all business, sales and human interactions. There is no doubt about it, everyone I talk to says that they have to go and sit with their teams whether they are in a different country, they need to sit with their clients, they need to rekindle and build their relationships. I don’t think any of us know how long it will take but I am filled with a lot more confidence than I was coming out of the first wave in Mumbai. I do think that with the vaccination program here in India, we will see a lot more resilience from the teams and the guests and with that a lot more confidence to be able to travel.
What is your vision for the hotel, both short term and long term?
My vision and thoughts about the hotel… in the long term we want to regain our reputation as The Best Address where all the big events take place in Mumbai, take place at the hotel. We are the place that you come and stay at and for us to achieve that we need to continue to give the confidence to everyone that we have the process in place – whether it is our highly evolved electrostatic sprayer system or the knowledge of our employees around the hotel. We are investing a huge amount in our restaurants right now and our banqueting facilities. You will see in six months, five of our outlets are being completely redone and I am excited that we will be opening them in the new avatar. I believe F&B will be key for the next six months to a year, which is why we have re-invested in our facilities. We have also invested into our banqueting spaces, recreating a much bigger, brighter exciting pre-function space for our Caroline Astor Ballroom as well as redoing some of our smaller more intimate ballrooms on Level 8, whether it is the amazing Pallazzio’s new pre-function space, which is a lovely area as well as the Imperial and The Grand Hall that we have there. I am excited to launch these to everyone and to the guests that we have been missing and entice them with something new and exciting for them to come to back to.
As business travel may not happen full-fledged for a while, how have you re-strategised? How do staycations work as a business model for you? The St Regis rituals are well-known. What function do they serve vis-a-vis guest satisfaction, repeat business and/or brand awareness?
I think that Staycations have been the key business that hotels have been driving since October last year and will continue to be important. What would attract these guests are fabulous experiences, ensuring that we can show our truly valued guests the famed St Regis rituals and offerings, the sabering, the Mumbai Mary cocktails, the amazing butler service. That is going to be key there. Marriott Bonvoy on Wheels, the food delivery service, is a big revenue generator and that is whereby we have been very creative, and our chefs have been curating special menus for our guests to enjoy in the confines of their home. The reality is that weddings are very big in India, and we will continue creating exceptional moments for guests to have memorable experiences.
What would be your advice to young hoteliers, or to those who have graduated now, given the status of jobs?
Our perception for people who are graduating and coming into the hospitality workforce, jobs might not be in plenty as business is down, but we are actually seeing exactly the opposite in the US and Europe, where they are unable to find people in positions, and this is becoming a real issue for them. This is being driven through a lot of people moving into new industries. I do think that there will be positions there, but one thing that I have been saying to number of students that I have been meeting with, is don’t be scared to jump into something else before you jump into the hotel business. I mean – go learn a little bit about retail, go learn a little bit about marketing, digital promotion. This will only help you when you do join the business. I look at that as the back pocket skills and whatever you are able to put into that back pocket will only help you in the long run. The worst thing to do is to sit at home and be sad, waiting for that position to come. Go and find something that you can learn. I remember way back when I was in between visas, and I was looking for a job as a restaurant manager in London having come from the US. I took up jobs in independent restaurants as a waiter for a little while and really learned a huge amount like motivating teams with sales goals and I learned a huge amount from doing that. So, don’t ever give up, use this time to hone your skills.
How do you maintain diversity in leadership positions in the property?
It’s all about diversity, whether it is gender, orientation, background etc, the reality is that a successful and effective team is one that comes with multiple perspectives. It is important that we create an environment where those perspectives are welcomed or sought and actively shared and discussed. We need to make sure that we consciously have representations throughout the hotel within all positions with persons from diverse backgrounds. We don’t want all of us exactly the same because then we all be doing and thinking exactly the same and then we will have no creativity.
What do you love about the hotel? Do you have any favourite spots?
There are certain areas in the hotel that I love. I love Equus, our members only club on Level 36. I love the Astor Terrace on Level 9. Especially during the lockdown, it has been a Godsend because you have the ability to be on the outside and yet you are not on the ground floor. Given the hesitancy you may have about being along with everyone bustling on the street wearing masks, the terrace is perfect where you have the lovely fresh breeze surrounding you. Sitting in our Drawing Room, having a Mumbai Mary, looking towards the Grand Staircase and watching the hotel come alive is also very, very precious to me.
On a personal note, is there a skill or a hobby beyond work that you picked up during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, I have started listening to different podcasts. I listen when I run and nine times out of 10, I am learning something new. I have a range of about 15 different podcasts with different subjects like sport, luxury, economy, forward thinking. I have picked up some amazing ideas from it.
If you could travel now, where would you go and why?
Interestingly, I have just come back from a holiday in the US. What I enjoyed the most about it is that we decided to go on a road trip, and it is interesting to note that quite a lot of people that I am talking to are doing road trips. I believe it may be a reaction to being forced to stay in one place for a time and we got we that opportunity to explore. We went and saw the Grand Canyon, drove from Texas all the way through to Vegas and we had some really memorable moments. We visited restaurants and had opportunities to sample multiple cuisines in multiple areas and access to the wide wonderful outdoors. Hiking down the Grand Canyon was amazing and three months ago, I didn’t think that I would be able to do it. That wanderlust is the exciting part and the opportunity to see family with the feeling of not being confined is the biggest joy.
Recommend three offbeat things a traveller can do in Mumbai that you discovered when you moved to the city.
One of the many things I love is to embrace the old Mumbai, have a cup of tea at Bombay Gymkhana, looking over the lawns and seeing how the Mumbai elite live. The second thing I love is going exploring in the busy side alleys around Chor Bazaar. I found so many wonderful treasures. Just stop and listen and smell and you will see the amazing energy of Mumbai. During the restrictions, I discovered the joy of being at the racecourse, one of the green lungs of the city. You see varied personalities walking with you around the loop. I also had a lot of fun walking around in Mumbai during this time, all the way to Nariman Point and back again, and exploring the beauty of Malabar Hill. Mumbai has a lot to offer and when you enjoy it without all that bustling traffic it is even more exciting and magical.