The new normals in a world where Covid-19 unfortunately is becoming a part of our life will bring about many changes in the way businesses will be conducted, and more importantly the way we live our life.
The tourism and hospitality industry is one of the worst hit sectors because of the pandemic. Businesses in the sector have bled for more than three months now and the way forward also doesn’t look so rosy as leisure travel will be reduced to absolutely nothing.
In this supremely challenging business environment and a cloud of complete uncertainty, the road ahead seems to be very foggy. And to demystify the uncertainties of this important sector we spoke to Ramesh Ramanathan, CMD, Sterling Holiday Resorts LTD to understand their post-lockdown comeback strategies and the way forward.
How are you coping with the impact of Covid-19 on Sterling Holiday Resorts? How effectively have you used the lockdown period?
The outbreak of COVID-19 has made social distancing and hygiene a part of the new norm and will be an integral part of holidaying as well. India will come out stronger than ever when these challenging times are behind us. The Indian tourism industry is dominated by domestic tourism and local demand – and this will be all the more so for the near future while international travel remains subdued. We see demand coming back post the lockdown is lifted in resorts which are at a drivable distance being preferred.
Social Distancing at Resorts
Resorts by definition are spread-out, they are not vertical structures unlike most hotels. It’s a huge strength, considering the strict social distancing norms that one has to practice in the new normal. Resorts are designed on a larger land parcel, and multiple rooms and facilities/amenities are situated at a substantial distance from one another. There are multiple venue locations offered by resorts to carry out different activities. Because of all these characteristics, maintaining social distancing at resorts is a common occurrence and even easier in comparison to hotels.
Sterling Resort’s Hybrid Model
What is unique to Sterling is that it functions on a hybrid model. We have equal opportunities with members as well as non-members, in fact both these assets contribute equally to the overall revenue of Sterling.On one hand, the timeshare business or membership as a product does very well during recessionary period, it sustains because people realise the value of holidays and the need to book something which is inflation proof, which will assure them of good holidays. That is one of the reasons what tends members to come now, because there is no room rent to pay. All the expense they need to take care of is travel and food. On the other hand, we also receive substantial bookings from non-members – especially the FITs who are looking forward to holidaying with us from time to time.
Earlier we managed our sales as direct sales, and that would take place face-to-face either we used to meet people at different venues or when they would visit our resorts or in their homes. Now because of the social distancing norm, we have now converted our entire selling mechanism to sell over phone or over a visual medium like a zoom call, etc. We have quickly changed our mode of operations, our entire presentation and communication to go on to that sort of a platform till we can go into back to the usual.
To make the best of the time at hand, we also spoke to our 1,00,000 members one-on-one to understand their wellbeing and if they faced any challenges with the brand in this period or if there was anything that we could help them with.
Basis of their requirements and understanding from the call, we then re-aligned our strategies with our business partners. While talking to our members we were surprised that 70% of our members expressed that they would like to holiday with us as soon as the lockdown is lifted, although, they have prominently mentioned that they would prefer self-driving to drive-to resorts from their base locations.
We are expecting our existing members as well as FITs (people who are going to take short holidays) to travel to resorts as soon as we re-open.This exercise sheds some light on the possible trend of revenge spending that can be witnessed by the sector in the near future. There is a strong sense that people are wired to go out, explore and travel, therefore many travellers will look forward to go on holiday or take road trip after the lockdown is completely lifted and they can leave the confinement of their homes, safely.
During this period, we also launched the “Sterling CARES” program to re-build our members’ confidence in us. The reason why we call the program “Sterling CARES” is to convey the idea of the warmth and passion of the Sterling employees in ensuring the delivery of enjoyment and fun that customers will look forward to. Furthermore, a unique offering, which is complimentary to all our guests, is the ‘Holiday insurance’ product. This insurance covers the guest from home-to-resort-to-home and covers and encapsulates features like: Trip cancellation, emergency treatments, loss of baggage etc. with a value up to Rs.3 lakhs per person.
As a combat plan, while entering the lockdown, we had shut down our resorts but maintained the skeleton which helped us ensure the cleanliness of the property, rooms, in-door and out-door activities areas, and other amenities. Hence, we are all set to go about our services in 24-48 hours across our key resorts as soon as the lockdown is lifted.
We have survived this period successfully and made ourselves ready. We foresee growth and activities moving towards normalcy once the appropriate vaccine is in place. The next six months are going to be low in terms of demand. Slowly once the customers’ confidence picks up, we will see us coming back to normal. However, we are optimistic that next year will be as good as any other year.
While some parts of the country have become Covid-19 free, cities like Mumbai and Delhi are still in a lockdown situation. How are you planning to resume business across cities that are not in the Red?
We have formed a schedule of opening of the resorts phase-wise, except we do not know the start date, as there are underlying factors like the green-zone and red-zone areas. If the resorts themselves are in the green zones but the catchment areas are in red or orange zones, then commuting becomes a challenge for the travellers.
Having said that, we created our schedule based on a very simple logic – Drive-to-resorts. This means whichever resorts are within a maximum radius of 4 to 5 hours of a catchment area, we decided to open them partially. So, the idea was to gradually open up some rooms and slowly increase the capacity basis the demand, we also have an advantage that most of the resort staff are local and scaling up operations will not be a challenge for depending upon how the demand also plays out.
However, we will adhere to guidelines issued by the local state government to open up the resorts. We see that the demand coming back in the next few months by December 2020, unless we do not have fresh wave of new cases coming in accordance with the basic guidelines that we follow.
Furthermore, the selling model is also re-designed. We have shifted to the digital selling platforms to reach out to customers, this has enabled us to penetrate into all areas irrespective of their zones. Even for our FITs, Sterling is developing a long-term product that guests can avail and utilise in the span of a year.
What will be your communication strategy post the opening of the lockdown? Understandably bringing customers back to you would be difficult… What will be the objective of the communication/marketing strategy?
The main objective post this phase would be focus on reassuring the customers of their safety and hygiene during their stay with us. Being a holiday provider it is crucial for us to enable our customers to have a refreshing and carefree holiday in the new normal.
We have already begun to witness some green shots. People are coming forward and making bookings for July and some months ahead for September and October. This is a resilient industry and we have survived this trying time, going forward, I foresee growth by Jan-February-March 2021.
Given the pros and cons of this pandemic, people are learning and understanding the hygiene and social distancing protocols, and are also cautious of their food consumption and buying habits. Hence, it is safe to say that there has been a substantial rise in consumption of local produce for health purposes as well as due to constraints on international trade.
Innovative F&B Options
Sterling is also coming up with a whole set of innovative food and beverage options for the customers since we expect that they would prefer not eating outside the resorts during their holidays with us.
India has a backpack of many traditional attractions and destinations; it has abundant hill stations, beaches, forests, cultural sites, or any other iconic attractions which will help the Indian travellers to plan pocket-friendly stress-free domestic vacations in the upcoming months. We definitely being the brands that offer a more hyper-local experience will see preference from the consumers.
How did you keep the morale of the employees during this lockdown period? On a personal note, what kept you positive?
This phase has proved to be a major shift in our work lives, lifestyles, and other needs. It is all the more important to communicate and support each other mentally in these unpredictable times. We are Sterling have kept communication across channels as key to keeping all employees informed and mentally healthy. I have written detailed e-mails to all the employees regularly, laying out how we are visualising the future, what is happening, how the organisation is reacting to the challenges, etc.
We have also created WhatsApp groups for people who are at home and might not have access to e-mails from home. Interesting contests and games are also being organised for the employees on these groups. We have also involved a larger set of senior employees to connect with our 100,000 members to understand their needs and nurture our relationship with them.
Therefore, we are trying our best in keeping the communication intact through all platforms that deem fit for being cognizant of the well-being of our employees at all times. It is important to ensure that the employees feel valued and that they are contributing to the company – this helps keep them positive.
What are some of the post-lockdown business strategies that you will use to bring the business back on track or at least get it in the right direction and also create demand for yourself?
We have developed a very comprehensive program called “Sterling CARES”. The reason why we call the program “Sterling CARES is to convey the idea of the warmth and passion of the Sterling employees in ensuring the delivery of enjoyment and fun that customers will look forward to.
Our program is sculpted based on the guidelines by WHO, FSSAI. Sterling Holiday Resorts has created an entire process that starts from pre-arrival and covers the stay until the check-out. Collection of guest details will be done pre-arrival for contact-less check-in. Amenities will be reduced from the rooms and alternate day cleaning will be organized to reduce staff contact.
As a part of the safety and hygiene protocol, restaurants table layout will be done as per social distancing norms. Multiple meal sessions with guest reservation will be organised to avoid crowding along with facilities of contactless takeaway and mini-buffets.
High-contact areas will be sanitized every 2 hours. Facilities like the Spa, Gym and Swimming pool will temporarily be unavailable to ensure social distancing. We have also curated a set of activities which guests you can enjoy while maintaining social distancing and other protocols. This will give them an opportunity to step outside in the sun. We have also given enough attention on improvement of in-room entertainment should guest choose to spend their time in-doors.
One of the major aspects of Sterling CARES is that it also includes an exclusive “Holiday insurance”. This insurance has been introduced because uncertainties of the current scenario. This service covers every individual travelling for up to Rs.3 Lakh and is being offered as a complimentary service to the customers but the customer has to opt for it. This will cover all the flight delays, flight cancellations, baggage loss, emergencies, etc.
Sterling properties are spread out over acres of land and the accommodation is dispersed providing plenty of space for guests to enjoy nature with social distancing. Sterling has designed a new set of games and activities, in the guests’ rooms and in designated locations within its resorts, conforming to the norms of social distancing, safety and hygiene, so that guests can enjoy these activities with their family in their respective rooms, and outdoors within the safety of the resort.
The employees have been meticulously trained and certified on the Sterling CARES protocols. Sterling CARES Champions have been identified in every resort to help the guests and to ensure the highest standards of safety are maintained.
For MICE guests, the check-in and check out process will be done with minimal paperwork. There are a range of venue options within the spacious resorts to split groups and activities along with ensuring social distancing between sessions in their large lawns and pre-function areas.
As mentioned previously, the hybrid model sets Sterling apart from its peers in the industry. The members and non-members equally contribute to the revenue of the brand, therefore, it is a boon for us when it comes to expecting a faster recovery of the business post-COVID.
What is your Post-Covid analysis of the hospitality industry?
Post-COVID, there’s going to be a lot of innovation in hospitality towards sustainability, exclusivity, creating safe havens for slow travel. There will be a shift towards more conscious travel, with sensitivity towards the impact of a hotel on both its environment and community. We will see people hop from one place to another less. You’ll stay longer in each destination. You’ll look at more offbeat places. To start with, you’ll fly less and self-drive more. This would definitely excite any traveller to holiday domestically and thereby create demand, paving way for growth of the sector at whole.
The fundamental need for people to travel hasn’t disappeared. The moment these restrictions are eased or lifted, you will see that the necessary travel will come back. Industries such as travel, which are going through an immediate shock, will lead the recovery.
As Sterling functions on a hybrid model, we are definitely looking forward to a fast-paced recovery. We have already begun to witness some green shots as people have been coming forward and making bookings for July and some months ahead for September and October this year. This is a resilient industry and we have survived this trying time. If we are able to contain the spread of the virus and come out of this pandemic soon, then we can expect normalcy in the holiday business to return by time of Christmas and New years’.