In a free-flowing chat he talks about dealing with the pandemic, his vision for The Leela Palace, New Delhi and the future of the hospitality industry.
Anupam Dasgupta, the new General Manager at The Leela Palace, New Delhi brings with him over 25 years of extensive hospitality experience having worked with leading hotels like The Oberoi Grand Kolkata, Yak & Yeti Kathmandu, The Trident Hilton Jaipur, Ananda in The Himalayas, Ista Hyderabad and ITC Vilasa.
Prior to joining The Leela, Anupam was the General Manager at The Oberoi Mumbai.
Over the years, Anupam has honed his skills in understanding nuanced luxury and is a highly motivated and dynamic leader. Technically sound, he has pursued excellence, consistently ensuring that his team performs at the highest level. He has independently handled large operations and possesses an astute business acumen with a keen understanding of finance, marketing, strategy development and communications. Passionate about talent development, he has mentored many industry leaders with elan.
Anupam is an alumnus of IHM Kolkata. He is also a Post Graduate Diploma holder from The Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development (OCLD). In a free-flowing chat he talks about dealing with the pandemic, his vision for The Leela Palace, New Delhi and the future of the hospitality industry. Excerpts:
TD: You have been a hotelier for a quarter of a century. What has the journey been like?
AD: The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to be in any industry which was like a 9-to-5 desk job. I wanted something that was a little different so obviously, it had to be a little vocational in nature. And that’s how I got into hospitality. It has been an amazing journey so far. The last 25 years have been amazing and if I was asked to go back in time and reassess my position I would choose hotels again.
I started at the Oberoi Management School, what is today called the OCLD (The Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development). I got into the Oberoi system and worked my way up the F&B industry which remains an enduring passion for me. It’s difficult to get the F&B guy out of me, many of my colleagues will attest to that. My love affair with the industry has been growing over time and now we are totally inseparable. I can’t imagine not being a hotelier.
TD: What were your toughest challenges running a hotel during the pandemic?
AD: Most importantly the health and safety of the team has been a challenge in all the hotels that I have worked in. I have been at Leela for just around six months now. Prior to that, I was at The Oberoi Group in Mumbai. Now we know a lot more about Covid than we knew before. When the first wave hit last year in March, we didn’t know where to go and what to do. We didn’t know how long it will last. How infectious it was. People were affected in more ways than one. Looking after the health and safety of the people was of course the first challenge.
The second challenge is managing the cash flow. The business has been down except for that little period between the first and second wave. Business has been down 70 per cent and we have huge fixed costs. So cash flows have been a tough one to manage but having said that the pandemic has taught us to be better leaders. We are all now doing a lot more with a lot less. Making sure you pay your vendors on time, making sure salaries are paid on time, these are things that are important and thankfully have been quite seamless in my present organization as well as the past ones. And a lot of that has to do with the team that is working with you.
The third challenge is to keep the team engaged. Things are not regular right now and we need to show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel. How do we get there? What do we need to do to stay sane and to stay committed to the task is important.
TD: What opportunities do you see for The Leela Palace for a saturated market like Delhi?
AD: I don’t believe New Delhi is a saturated market. There is a fair amount of absorption capacity in the city. The city can easily accommodate more rooms. The hotels that are there are not filled to capacity. Just to put it into context: London has 75 five star hotels while New Delhi only has 39. New York and Dubai have 49-50 hotels. So we are still under capacity.
I also feel there is a lot of scope in F&B. Yes, covid has been a dampener for us but the potential for F&B is huge. From small curated really high-end events at people’s homes to outstanding meals at restaurants. I think we are in a position to cater to the entire gamut.
The other opportunity is on the wellness front. People will start looking after themselves a lot more than they have over the last few years. People have been running the rat race, they don’t look after themselves but that has changed now. The pandemic has been an opportunity for people to press the reset button on that.
So I feel there are plenty of opportunities if you know where to look.
TD: What is your vision for the hotel both in the short-term and the long-term?
AD: In the short-term, of course, it is to navigate through this current crisis because we are not really out of it. I think we will go back to 2019 occupancy, not before the third quarter of 2022. So it’ only around September-October next year that we can look at some amount of revival in the industry. Inbound international business is not going to open till then. International business travellers who are fully vaccinated will start travelling hopefully around that time. So navigating 2021-22 is equally important.
As far as the long term is concerned, I think The Leela Palace, New Delhi has the potential to be the number one hotel in the world. My vision is to create an oasis of luxury for the discerning traveller. I am single-mindedly pursuing that.
TD: How do you see the business developing in the days to come? Will the Leela brand have an edge over all the other hotels in the space that you operate in?
AD: I think so. I feel we are uniquely positioned. We are a relatively younger brand in the business. We are also extremely nimble and our decision making is decentralized. We have a lot of leeway to make decisions while keeping the luxury ethos intact. The Leela as a brand is uniquely positioned in that sense to make sure it grows in the right way without diluting its luxury quotient.
TD: What as per you is the future of the leisure travel industry and how will it affect you?
AD: The second vaccination is the key. The various governments have to agree on some sort of travel passports or travel documents. In various parts of the world the Covid problem is still there.
In the meantime, the domestic business is up and running and will continue to run. If it wasn’t for the second wave, we would have seen business coming back to 70-80 per cent of pre-covid days, purely from the domestic demand which is there in India. MICE will come back and so will corporate travel but the second vaccination is the key.
In terms of the future of leisure travel, hotels that are within driving distance of big cities will continue to do well. As will hotels that assure their guests’ safety and security. Like we have our ‘Suraksha’ programme. People know how serious we are about it. Also, activity and experience-based holidays are here to stay. I think that is the future of luxury travel. It is not about how much money you spend but you should have the luxury of space and time. The greatest luxury is when you are able to slow down. You can’t have hurried luxury.
TD: What is your vision for the hospitality industry emerging from these times?
AD: I feel many operators and owners will come out with scars that will be difficult to overcome in the short term. We are a resilient country. As a nation, we bounce back rather quickly. As an industry we have seen the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen 26/11, we have seen 9/11. So we have seen various Black Swan events, as they say, in our business. The first thing that gets impacted is travel. Will corporate travel go back to what it was pre-pandemic? I don’t think so. Maybe we have lost around 25 per cent of corporate travel forever – both domestic as well as inbound.
But as an industry, we have learnt to do more with less. We have become better leaders. The fiduciary responsibility that is invested in everybody will have to be taken way more seriously. Bringing down fixed costs, managing cash flows are now essential.
TD: Have you faced a disrupted supply chain? How are you managing that?
AD: Supply chains have been impacted. Like I said inbound business and MICE has completely vanished right now. We are trying to find new areas of revenue and business. That’s another learning from the pandemic – to try and be flexible with our decisions. So if one thing doesn’t work then it’s another but while keeping the luxury quotient in mind. Of course, we have to start everything from the ground up. Whether it’s the delivery and takeaway initiatives or the initiatives to do small luxury pop-ups in people’s homes, where you replicate Megu or Le Cirque in someone’s home. These are not things that you can do overnight. You have to build processes, train the team. We have been able to do that very quickly and I think hotels that have managed to do so have reaped the benefits of it.
TD: You spoke about new avenues of revenues. Could you please share some details?
AD: So in F&B there has been the whole delivery model. We are delivering the romance of Le Cirque, Megu and Jamawar in people’s homes. We are also trying to see what retail opportunities we have.
TD: What advice will you give young people joining the industry today, given the status of jobs?
AD: This is a business for someone who is in it for the long term. Enter it only if you are passionate about it. The gestation for you is a really long one. It takes a lot out of you in terms of family time, carving out your hobbies etc. It’s an incredibly satisfying profession if you love it. Things do take time but you have to stay the course. The pandemic will not be there forever. The industry understands that. We have collectively been counselling a lot of colleges. But this is also a good time to gain new skills. Try and understand the financial aspects of the business as well as the finer aspects of F&B. Both these are difficult to pick up while you are on the job. In the hotel industry, there is no non-finance person. If you are associated with the hotel, in whatever capacity, you are contributing to the P&L of the hotel. So utilize this time well so that when the job market opens up you are raring to go.
TD: You said hoteliering is a passion for you. But during the pandemic did you pick up any hobby?
AD: I have always believed in keeping fit. So I utilized this time to make sure I started doing yoga. I have always been a very passionate runner. I have done half marathons. I have also done a few courses during this time. I like to upskill myself, so whether it is on design or finance or strategy. I have also done a refresher programme in French.
TD: If you could travel right now, where would you go and why?
AD: The one thing that seduces me about travel is nature. I love the mountains and the jungles. If I have them in any geography, I am willing to travel there. It’s the mountains for me more than the beach.