TD Conversations: Rajat Sethi, GM, ITC Grand Bharat, Gurugram

He speaks about the USP of the prestigious luxury retreat, his winning strategy through the pandemic, and upcoming travel industry trends that he has been tracking.

An alumnus of IHM Chandigarh, Rajat Sethi started his career with Carlson Hospitality Worldwide as a management trainee and since then, he laughs, there has been no looking back. With more than two decades of experience in hospitality, working with some of the most respected brands in the industry such as the Oberoi Group of Hotels, Indian Hotels Company Limited, Hilton Hotels Worldwide, Carlson Hospitality, The Grand New Delhi, he is now happy to be with ITC Hotels.

Pleased to have been chosen as General Manager of the Year in the Luxury segment for an industry award, he also believes that his personal triumph was sitting in the driver’s seat, successfully steering the retreat through a global pandemic. Not only has it been the most challenging time for the industry overall, but, he says, it forced hoteliers to think outside the box. That ITC Grand Bharat fared well is thanks to his capable captaincy.

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The approach to the retreat is certainly grand. Image: Courtesy ITC Grand Bharat.

We spoke to Rajat Sethi, GM, ITC Grand Bharat, Gurugram,to understand what makes him tick. Excerpts from the interview…

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GM Rajat Sethi in the lobby. Image: Courtesy ITC Grand Bharat.

What were your toughest challenges running a hotel during the pandemic?

It cannot be reiterated enough that while the pandemic has had an impact on every sector, perhaps no sphere of activity has been quite so affected as travel and tourism. While the ongoing global pandemic has forced the hotel industry fight for its survival, it has also given the sector the time and the space to adapt and redesign its future course. If there is anything I have learnt during this time more than ever, it is the importance of teamwork and keeping the morale of the team high. But I think we were able to successfully overcome this challenge and present a stronger and more united approach to dealing with the challenges of the pandemic.

How have you re-strategised? What are the new avenues of revenue?

The sentiment to travel is on the rise once again and the response we have received has been overwhelming given that ITC Grand Bharat is ideally suited for a ‘drivecation’ for those in and around Delhi NCR. Additionally, the retreat has also emerged as a preferred choice for destination weddings.

Our focus on offering our guests unique experiences without compromising on the aspect of sustainable luxury experiences of contact light dining, digital check in and check out, QR codes and safe staycations, remains unchanged despite the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant. While we follow stringent sanitisation and hygiene practices as part of ITC Hotels’ path breaking ‘WeAssure’ initiative, we received the DNV platinum level certification which brought a great sense of confidence to our discerning guests.

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The retreat has also emerged as a preferred choice for destination weddings. Image: Courtesy ITC Grand Bharat.

Now that things are opening up, how do you see the situation panning out for the hospitality sector in Gurugram and India in 2022?

The pandemic has changed MICE events as we know them and, needless to say, COVID-19 has seen MICE trends transition rapidly. Large gatherings have now been replaced by comparatively more intimate events. However, as vaccinations increase and restrictions ease, we will see a gradual increase in the group size along with business conferences resuming once again. We are certain that as more of the population gets fully vaccinated, this segment will also see sustained growth not only in Gurugram but nationwide.

Another segment which is witnessing immense popularity is experiential travel. Tourists and travellers are constantly evolving in the kind of expectations they have from a destination. There is a desire, an urge to go beyond the superficial elements of a place and explore it more comprehensively. Travelling has taken a more experience-driven route, which is why experiential travel has steadily been on the rise. This is also an area that offers great scope for innovation.

What is your vision for the hotel, both short term and long term?

While we at ITC Grand Bharat strongly believe that there still remains a need to be cautious, we are more than prepared for the challenge ahead of us. At ITC Hotels, we have left no stone unturned to make our guests and associates feel safe.

The assured safety and hygiene measures in place as part of ITC Hotels WeAssure programme only add to the charm of the hotel. Short term or long, on our part, we are working hard towards curating memorable experiences without compromising on safety, hygiene and sanitisation protocols for our guests, associates, and vendors alike. As I previously mentioned the response we have received has been overwhelming and we hope to remain the preferred choice for staycations and celebrations by our guests and patrons.

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A world of capitals, domes, frescoes, and plinths, of stonework with intricate carving, regal pavilions, and gentle fountains, of reflection pools and verdant gardens. Image: Courtesy ITC Grand Bharat.

What would you say is the USP of ITC Grand Bharat?

What sets ITC Grand Bharat apart is that the retreat is set amidst the verdant greens of the ancient Aravalli hills, is conveniently located just 45 kilometers from New Delhi. The retreat symbolises the concept of ‘Bharatvarsha’ which encompasses the essence of India and brings to life myriad facets of the great nation through its architecture, interiors, services, cuisine, décor, and ambience.

Conceived as the next step in luxurious Indian hospitality, ITC Grand Bharat is an architectural confluence of some of the finest details and techniques that India has witnessed. The result is as rich as the heritage the resort proposes to honour: a world of capitals, domes, frescoes, and plinths, of stonework with intricate carving, regal pavilions, and gentle fountains, of reflection pools and verdant gardens.

Do describe the specialty restaurants and other features that you think set the hotel apart from others.

ITC Hotels’ tradition of culinary excellence is reflected in its well-researched cuisine concepts that enumerate the chain’s endeavours to present, the ‘Globe’s Best Indian Cuisine and India’s Finest Global Cuisine’. With ‘Responsible Luxury’ at its core, ITC Hotels

ensures responsible sourcing of the best ingredients. A holistic culinary philosophy underscores a ‘well-being’ approach and caters to the discerning palate of the evolved traveller.

The tradition continues at ITC Grand Bharat with unique gourmet experiences orchestrated by the culinary team, with a ‘Well-Being’ chef at its helm. Our restaurants cater to a wide variety of cuisines and have something for everyone.

The India Room at the retreat celebrates ‘DumPukht’ inspired classics and showcases the culinary legacy from the kitchens of the majestic Awadhi Nawabs which resonates with the pomp and pageantry of that era. Apas Promenade is our open-air restaurant by the pool, which celebrates and brings regional Mewati cuisine and local favourites to the table, with a special emphasis on the ‘Farm to Plate’ philosophy. This restaurant is exclusively for resident guests only.

Aravalli Pavilion is our all-day dining restaurant. The warm and friendly bistro serves three delectable meals in a period ambience. On the menu are curated dishes from across India and the world. Inspired by the national bird of India, our Peacock Bar is an ideal place to unwind and indulge in the retreat’s extensive wine and malt library. The theatrics of the mixologist blend with the gentle Jazz strains, abetting the energy of the bar. Embodying its name is the piece de résistance of the bar; a stained glass, peacock motif!

What opportunities do you see for your hotel in the rather saturated market of the region?

While business hotels may see a saturation in the region, we are uniquely positioned as a retreat and are ideally suited for those looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of the busy city life. The verdant greens and starry night skies at ITC Grand Bharat coupled with the mesmerising confluence of some of the best architectural practices India has seen, indoor and outdoor activities for adults, a dedicated play area for children at the exclusive Ollie’s Club along with the quintessential warmth and hospitality associated with ITC Grand Bharat make us a preferred destination in the region.

The ITC group is well known for its sustainability initiatives. How has your hotel kept in step with this?

With ‘Responsible Luxury’ as its guiding premise, ITC Grand Bharat is committed to delivering luxury experiences with sustainable practices embedded in the process, an endeavour which has manifested in the coveted LEED*® Platinum rating for the luxury

retreat. The hotel stands testimony to the grandeur of India, India’s rich heritage and culture, both past and present, reflected in its architecture, interior design, and warm Indian hospitality, complemented by ITC Hotels’ bespoke services and commitment to world-class quality. ITC Grand Bharat follows ITC Hotels’ ethos of sustainable business practises which respect the environment and society. As part of this, ‘WeAssure’ initiative by ITC Hotels provides the discerning guests of ITC Grand Bharat reassurance under risk management and certification provider DNV’s My Care Infection risk management programme.

Moreover, it makes me proud to share that ITC Hotels is recognised for setting new benchmarks in planet positivity. From using renewable energy and recycling solid waste, to conserving water, banishing single use plastic, and reducing their carbon footprint at every step at all ITC Hotels, including the ITC Grand Bharat, has been everything and more. On a broader canvas, we support local artisans, while reviving and popularising ancient cuisines. We are actively involved in keeping alive our time-honoured rituals that promote well-being and take pride in becoming patrons of traditional music and art.

Our fidelity to their cultural roots is equally matched by our concern for the planet. Our over-a-decade-long commitment towards sustainability has resulted in over 50 per cent of the total electrical energy demand being fulfilled through renewable energy, fresh-water consumption being reduced by over 50 per cent in the last five years and 100 per cent wastewater being treated and recycled or reused.

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The GM in one of the stately corridors of the regal retreat. Image: Courtesy ITC Grand Bharat.

What is your leadership style?

I like to lead by example. I lead from the front by taking action, demonstrating what needs to be done, and keeping my team organised to make sure we are all on the same page and contributing equally. Communication is one of my greatest strengths. I lead by facilitating open communication and trying to bring out the best in every team member.

Do you have a success mantra that has got you through tough times?

I am a strong believer of the saying ‘Big journeys begin with small steps’. Whenever dealing with a challenging situation, I keep my end goal in mind and take things one task at a time. I like to plan and keep a clear mind which allows me to think strategically. It’s important to keep moving forward while learning from your mistakes.

What is your favourite thing about the hotel? (It could be a favourite spot to hang out, a special service, or anything else that comes to mind).

Living in busy towns we are usually surrounded by concrete building most of the times. What I enjoy most about ITC Grand Bharat is the open space along with the indigenous flora and fauna. Apart from the 100 suites and four presidential villas, we also have a 27-hole signature Golf-course. I must say, the verdant greens are indeed a sight for sore eyes.

Beyond work, is there a skill or a hobby that you manage to make time for? How do you like to spend your down time?

Spearheading the operations of a busy and popular retreat like ITC Grand Bharat hardly leaves me with much time. However, during my down time I like to spend time with my family.

If you could travel now, where would you go and why?

I think that the time has come to travel more considerately. While earlier, travelling came with environmental and, often, cultural costs – but by choosing to travel more responsibly and sustainably, travellers are now consciously trying to seek sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives. With this thought process, they are now choosing destinations that have already adopted locally beneficial initiatives, such as investing in the surrounding communities or pledging to look after nearby ecosystems.

I have been curious about Palau, an archipelago of over 500 islands in the western Pacific Ocean. They have launched a new project aimed at mitigating their tourism-based carbon footprint. The project’s long-term goal is to establish the island country as the world’s first official carbon-neutral tourism destination. I am keen to visit and learn what are they doing differently.

Tell us three offbeat things that a traveller can do in Gurugram that you would recommend.

I am a big nature lover so most of my suggestions would be skewed towards similar interests. I would recommend a visit to Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. This beautiful bird sanctuary is located only 15 kms from Gurgaon, so it is a perfect destination for a day trip.

This is a haven for bird watchers and nature lovers alike. Another suggestion would be to visit the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. The area has been recognised to biologically restore and safeguard the flora on the desert to arid land areas in the region. This park was opened on the instance of the World Environment Day in June 2010, after a Supreme Court Ban was executed on stone mining in the region.

And the third would be a visit to Damdama Lake which is not only beautiful but also has a calming and peaceful vibe. At present, it is home to over 190 species of the native and migratory birds. In the monsoons, water levels reach as high as fifty feet, and this is when most of the migratory birds are spotted here. Who would have though a landlocked, metro city would have so much to offer?!

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