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TD Conversations: Zubin Songadwala, Area Manager South, ITC Hotels and GM, ITC Grand Chola

He talks to us about the challenges faced during the pandemic and the opportunities that it presented.
Zubin Songadwala is entrusted with the mantle of overseeing ITC Hotels’ operations in the Southern region of the country.

An alumnus of the Institute of Hotel Management, Mumbai, and a graduate from the ITC Hotel Management Institute, Zubin Songadwala is entrusted with the mantle of overseeing ITC Hotels’ operations in the Southern region of the country. His responsibility also includes the setting up and launch of ITC Hotel’s first international foray in Colombo and the expansion of the ITC Hotels’ footprint in Sri Lanka. Prior to this role, he had the responsibility of the Western Region – ITC Hotels.

A lifer with ITC Hotels, Songadwala’s journey began with ITC Windsor, Bangalore and since then he has held senior management positions at several ITC Hotels in Agra, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, setting definite and impeccable examples for his successors. He talks to us about the challenges faced during the pandemic and the opportunities that it presented. Excerpts: 

TD: What were your toughest challenges running the hotel during the pandemic?

ZS: For me, it was a bit of a double whammy. I took over this role in the third week of February 2020. I was new to the hotel and I didn’t get a chance to familiarize myself with the business in the southern region, before the pandemic and the lockdown hit us. I have now seen this from ground zero. It has helped me look at things from the absolute grassroots. If I took up a role in a hotel that was flourishing then many things would be taken for granted. Things would continue the way they were and one would see what value addition one could do. But this presented an opportunity for me as a professional. The decision we took among the 11 hotels that come under my purview in the southern region – we had to decide which were the hotels we should continue operating and which were the ones we should consider suspending operations. We realized that we would lose more money keeping a hotel open than shutting it down. So in every city where we had two hotels, one stayed open and in one we suspended operations.  In Coimbatore we suspended operations. In Vizag, we have only one hotel and it is rather small, we kept the operations going as we had a segment of business that we were servicing and it made sense for us to keep it open. Mahabalipuram we had to shut down as beaches and resorts were shut. So a calibrated call was taken for each hotel. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic I myself haven’t been able to visit all the hotels except the ones which are within driving distance of Chennai.

There is so much that we have learned to live with and accept.

The size and scale of ITC Grand Chola provides an advantage over other city hotels.

TD: What is the status of all the hotels now?

ZS: All the hotels started reopening in June 2020. Through the second wave, all hotels remained operational. We started reinventing because by that time we had understood the business and the requirements. For instance, in Coimbatore, we were operating at a 60-70 per cent occupancy. We created a bubble there and provided an extension of the hospitals. In Chennai, we supported the government doctors who were assigned Covid duties and could not go back home. They stayed with us at WelcomHotel Chennai. At Grand Chola, we have long-staying guests. There was repatriation business and quarantine business happening.

During the first wave we were all struggling to understand what was happening. By the second wave we had so many more learnings. We had protocols that were well defined.

TD: If we talk specifically about ITC Grand Chola, what opportunities do you see for it in the given circumstances?

ZS: We have to keep looking for opportunities in the face of adversities. We are a huge hotel. We have 600 rooms. There is a huge cost to running this hotel. The challenge is to get revenues going, to get a return back and yield on the bottom line. But what is the opportunity? The opportunity is that when you have such a large hotel with three distinct blocks, we were able to provide facilities that no other hotel could provide. For example, if someone needed to isolate, we could isolate an entire wing. Give them separate access, entry, restaurant space, kitchen space etc. We could continue to run one wing for our long-term guests. Operate the third wing for transient guests.

Our banqueting facility is over 70,000 sq ft. At one point they said you could operate your banquet with a 50 per cent capacity. At a 100 per cent capacity, I can take 2500 people. So even at 50 per cent I could have a large gathering. But more importantly, I could break my banqueting space into 8 sections. So the opportunity was that I could provide banqueting that no one else in the city could do.

Then there was the opportunity in the takeaway vertical. It has given us great yields. We have been able to provide our specialty gourmet cuisines to our customers. And the takeaway vertical is here to stay. Even after the restaurants opened, the demand hasn’t gone down for home delivery.

We have gotten on to platforms such as Swiggy and Zomato. We would never have thought of getting on to them earlier. By doing that we are expanding our reach to a market segment that we never targeted.

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

ZS: A lot of it depends on factors that are beyond our control at the moment. The hospitality industry has always had a high dependence on international travel. Till the time international travel doesn’t return to what it was, we need to focus on the domestic clients, understand their requirements, and tap on that. Destination weddings which were popular abroad are now coming to the city. We need to customize our offering to cater to domestic tourists.

TD: What advantage will ITC Chola have over other hotels?

ZS: The scale and size. The assurance that everything is safe through our WeAssure programme. Our cuisine offerings are certainly the best in the city. I don’t need to tell you the position that ITC enjoys in the F&B space. These are the distinct advantages that the hotel has as being part of ITC.

TD: MICE has always been important for a hotel the size of ITC Grand Chola. With MICE almost gone, what is the future like?

ZS: There are going to be small events and functions. Very niche catering and events that we will continue doing. I will not be able to replace that volume and scale but at least I will be able to ensure that I get more than my fair share of the business that is existing in the market today.

TD: What is the future of leisure and business travel and how will it affect you?

ZS: Business travel is anybody’s guess. Leisure travel we are already seeing signs of it, it will come back with a vengeance, especially in destinations you can drive to. And it’s no longer restricted to weekends. If you can work from anywhere then you can check into a nice hotel in the middle of the week too and take advantage of the better rates available. With families, we see it’s no longer restricted to school holidays. You can travel any time. We see that at our Mahabalipuram property. There are many leisure destinations in India that are probably doing better than pre-pandemic. Business hotels are also adapting to see how they can woo this leisure customer. So you have staycations.

TD: What advice will you give to young hoteliers?

ZS: I believe there is going to be a comeback. In the six-month‘ open period,’ we saw great opportunities. As business comes back and international travel returns there is going to be huge demand for skilled and trained employees. They shouldn’t get disheartened.