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Let me show you the Gym

Has anyone ever realised how dull property inspections are in Indian hotels? Where has the passion gone?

Rajeev Kohli, Joint Managing Director of Creative Travel.

Something happened a few weeks ago which prompted the idea for this article. It’s a personal opinion, but relevant I feel. I am addressing this to my friends and colleagues in the Indian hospitality industry. One thing that has always bothered me is the manner in which hotels handle property visits. I have travelled the world and have experienced some of the finest hotels. India is fortunate to have an amazing hospitality culture, no matter what level of hotel you experience. The philosophy of ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’ does indeed run deep in our blood.

Yet, when it comes to doing a hotel show around to a visiting client or even us, we surely put people to sleep. Hotel inspections here tend to be lacklustre, bland and emotionless. Hotels may have a plan on what to show on a site visit, but no plan to train their sales teams with a story or with a narrative on how to pitch their hotel. It seems hotel inspections in India are just a process that has to be done and whoever in sales is available, let’s throw them at it. Granted, the inspections I do these days are for incentives or luxury clients, but that is even more of a reason for a hotel’s sales person to turn on the charm and impress us. Doesn’t happen!

Sales is about spinning a story, about capturing the dream. It is about sharing moments of inspiration and connecting with the client at a deeper level.
I was doing a site visit of a luxury hotel in Ireland two years ago (was not staying at this property). I walked into a suite and on the table was a photo frame with a picture of me and my family that they had made an effort to research. Chocolates with ‘Welcome
Mr Kohli’ written on the plate (they heard I had a sweet tooth) and Champagne was on a tray. Bang! Impression made.

I remember visiting a hotel in Europe where as they showed us the various rooms, each one had something going on. One had an elegantly dressed couple talking about their plans for the evening, one had a violinist, one had a beautiful model soaking in the tub. Each room was made to feel alive, giving us a sense of what we could expect. All of a sudden, the room had a story to narrate.

What do we do in India? Meet in the lobby, exchange cards, fumble to get the keys, show rooms, show restaurants and so very often insist on showing the gym. Then invite for an obligatory coffee. The whole process is so plastic and canned (An insight for my hotel friends, I always tell my clients to refuse the coffee unless they really want one. Wastes time on a very busy day).

I find that 9 out of 10 times the hotels sales team made no effort to know who is coming, what they are coming for, what is their interest or type of business they wish to place with them. The robotic approach of sheer boredom is so very visible on the sales person’s face. So what do I do? I end up doing the show around myself as I need to make the sale to my client. I need to give them the confidence why that product fits their business, and why I as a DMC will stand by it. As the hotel can’t express their passion, I have to jump in. I can now probably do a better show around of most of our luxury hotels than by the hotels themselves.

Now, am I being overly critical? Perhaps. But as a part of one of the top DMCs in the nation, it is my right to be demanding and expect our hotel partners to match our speed. I want them to be partners in the passion and dreams we try to sell. As it is, selling India is tough. Having boring people assisting you makes it tougher.

What would I want to see? Here we go

• First, ask us the objective of the visit and what we are looking for in product and categories. Maybe sending in a short advance questionnaire is in order.

• Judge the level of the visit and assign an appropriate sales person. Don’t assign a trainee if I am coming to talk about a group of 50 rooms.
• Create a story about your property. Invest in training your team. If the sales pitch is only to be on how many rooms and restaurants you have, your website does the job.

• Asking to have a cup of coffee is the blandest thing you can do. And we all know it takes no effort. What about a quick small sampling of food from your restaurants? Even if it was just a few canapes. Give the visitor an experience of what you can do. 14 years ago, I did an extensive visit of Sri Lanka with a partner after the Tsunami. I told her to refuse all artificial fruity welcome drinks. When we got to the St. Andrews in Nuwara Eliya, there was no welcome drink. But what they brought out was a bowl each of fresh strawberries and cream. Score! So different. I still talk about that till this day.

• Be ready. You know we are coming. Don’t go and get the keys after we have arrived. And for god’s sake, please check the keys and do not stumble with doors that don’t open. Know where the rooms are when you get off the elevator. It would not hurt to send someone in advance to have each door open.

• Keep it simple. Focus on the needs of the client rather than showing every corner of the property.

• Be innovative. Express passion. Make the visit experiential. Try to create hands-on experiences. Get the visitor physically involved. Create a first-hand story to tell.

• Inspire us to sell your property.

• Make us feel special.

It’s really not rocket science. Making a property visit feel different doesn’t require any investments. It just requires creating pride in what you sell. I want to share a short piece from a professional friend’s blog. Worth the read, www.shawnasuckow.com/a-tale-of-two-site-inspections/

Here is a challenge I will throw out to my hotel friends – any hotel who wants to show me they can blow my socks off, give me a call.

Your success is our success.

Happy to get feedback and thoughts on this issue. As I say, debate is healthy, rajeevkohli@creative.travel

When Price is the Weapon of Choice

Cutting prices is the Nuclear Option. Once executed, there is no going back. You have to live with what you did for the rest of your lives

There is no question that business in India is under stress. It doesn’t matter which segment of the economy you operate in, everyone is facing some level of disruption that is causing us to react in various ways.

The Indian tourism industry is no different. There has set in a very strong sense of the “Chicken Little Syndrome’, a sense of despair or passivity which blocks the audience from actions. (Google it, its comes from an early 19th century folk tale).

What makes me say this? You do. Because it’s the only thing I read on Facebook and WhatsApp everyday. Complaints, moaning, despair. The level of pessimism in our industry seems to be high.

The reaction has also been pretty consistent. Fight on price alone. We have taken the culture of Athithi Devo Bhava a bit too far. When the customer says jump, we say how high. When the client says drop prices, we say by how much.

This is NOT a discussion of big agent versus small. Because I see this behavior more from the smaller and medium companies where the desire to get business at any cost has overtaken the sense of business sustainability.

Competing on product, competing on innovation, competing on creativity are all tough. It takes investment of time and money. Competing on price, is easy. I can see how in a tough market one can see reducing prices as an easy and a reversible action. This may give short term gains. But it also leads to a price war and long-term consequences.

I remember when in the early 2000’s the Hyatt in Delhi dropped its rates for a particular operator to $52 cpai. The reaction was severe with every other hotel matching or going lower to survive. Tour operators did the same with their margins. The recovery never came. We know of so many great European accounts where business was taken at a loss. No one has ever been able to make real money of those since.

Price – the only weapon that seems to be left. A weapon that erodes brand value, that erodes all the hard work one puts in to building their business.

Cutting prices is the Nuclear Option. Once executed, there is no going back. You have to live with what you did for the rest of your lives.

Why are so many behaving this way? Well, there are two key reasons. First, dropping prices can be done quickly and doesn’t require much thinking. Changing product or introducing innovation takes more time and effort. The Second reason is that dropping prices look like a cheap option. In the marketing mix of the ‘Four Ps’ – Product, Place, Promotion and Price. The price is the only one that does not cost money.

Many think price reductions are reversible. Has anyone in our segment ever been able to increase prices after a drop? Is the foreign agent sitting with a kind heart to help us be profitable? Or he is sitting playing one tour operator against another? Keep in mind, when you drop price, your competitor’s response is to do the same and the loop starts. There is rarely reversal. I have never seen it.

So, what can companies do instead of cutting their prices? There are several things, all of them connected with adding value to the consumer or the client.

The first thing is to rethink your value proposition by offering more for the same price. These can be things that cost relatively little but have a meaningful impact for the customer. Would it not be smarter to give the customer more value for what they are spending? Offer more options and choices?

A second option is to have brand differentiation and sell different things to different segment. Like hotels do with luxury brands and budget brands in the same portfolio. We know of companies doing this.

Third is to be better at the way you communicate your value proposition to the customer. My business philosophy has always been that when business is down, you need to increase your marketing and communication. That’s when you need to express your fresh ideas the most. Unfortunately, the conventional action is to do the opposite.

Finally; as one looks at price, one also needs to look at costs. How can you reduce your costs? Realign your expenses. Firing employees is not the only solution. Find other areas where you can squeeze out a few dollars. Every little bit counts.

When all of this has been done is when you should look at price reductions as a tool to compete. It should be your last option as it is by far the riskiest of all action you can take.

The light at the end of the tunnel

So, we are at the start of a new year. It’s been 27 years since India’s economic liberalisation started, 18 years since the millennium, 10 years since the dastardly terror attack in Mumbai, 8 years since India’s first mega private airport opened in Delhi, 4 years since India put a spacecraft into Mars orbit, 1 year since the sloppy demonetisation, 9 months since GST rocked our world.

Time flies and we don’t even know it. Yesterday my boys were babies who needed their dad’s hands to go around. Today, they are strapping young men who offer me their shoulders for support. Many of us remember the days when we had more hair and flatter bellies (and boy do we wish for those days). We used to travel the world scouting for jeans and shoes of foreign brands. Today, we only have to drive to the nearest mall to buy the best of the world. The days of $1000 BTQ a year for foreign travel have long gone. Getting a new phone connection is now an hour’s job. You can walk into a car showroom and drive out with the latest model.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a different India we live in. My children cannot relate to stories of how we used to watch pirated movies on VHS, how Coca-Cola was a smuggled brand, how life could be without cell phones. Who could imagine that companies like Google, Microsoft, Pepsi could be headed by us tanned people. A country that is chaotic, that is disorganised, that is multi-cultural, that is corrupt and yet, despite all the sh** we deal with in our daily lives, we are still growing at 7 percent a year. Just imagine what would happen if we behaved more civilly.

We live in a country that makes me very proud. I am an optimist. I wear a swiss watch. I like my Brook Brothers shirts. I love Japanese food. But inside, I bleed Indian. I will defend my nation to the end. So, when I speak to my friends in the industry, it depresses me to only hear moaning, crying, bitching, backbiting and sadness. Have we really forgotten all we went through to get where we are today? Do we really not see the opportunities that lie ahead?

One can get consumed by looking backwards to what happened in the past. One can spend endless hours in pondering what should have been. Intrinsically, we are not people that believe in looking back. As a nation fascinated by astrology, palmistry, numerology, palm leaf reading and what you have, we always look at the future for what it holds and for the opportunities it will bring. If there is something we don’t like, there is always a religious ceremony around to fix it. We are a nation of contrasts, of challenges, of organised chaos, of enormous beauty. We are people who believe in the power of the self and the power of the almighty. India is an unexplainable phenomenon and Indians can sometimes be odd, but we are a people who truly believe the future holds better times for us.

I am blessed to have been trained by one of the pioneers of the industry, my father. I am fortunate that my parents were able to give me a solid global education. I am honoured to have played roles in some of the most prominent associations in global travel. I have done all this with my eyes wide open, listening to colleagues across the world, participating in educational forums, absorbing experiences and learnings that have helped me become a strong and successful professional.

Therefore this is what I think…

The issues in the Indian tourism industry are many and often intertwined and most of them can be very easily resolved if the players come to a table with a sense of maturity and leaving their egos outside the door. It is time to pause, take a deep breath and evaluate what we in the Indian tourism industry may have been doing wrong. Where have we made missteps, where have we had successes and where can we make a difference. Let me share my views on some broad areas where I feel some positive thinking would go a long way.

Again, this is just my opinion based on my life experiences.

Having curated the content for five IATO conventions, what frustrates me the most is almost a complete lack of desire in our industry for knowledge and self-improvement. I often travel internationally to participate in seminars and conferences. I find listening to speakers from outside our space to be most insightful. Listening to world leaders in tourism share their mind, allows me to pick up small ideas to use back in the business. I have taken many such experiences to create special sessions in IATO events that are very different from other industry associations. We have brought in fabulous speakers from different walks of life. We have focused content on helping our members improve our business. Yet, members show very little interest in sitting in the session and would prefer to be outside gossiping. There seems to be no internal drive to become better at what we do.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

Our engagement with the government, central or state has always been subservient, slavish at times. We attend meetings, say ‘yes sir, yes ma’am’ and take instructions. This industry has always kept its engagement on a one-way street. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the role the government has in our industry and understand the power they have to facilitate growth. There are some amazing people working at different levels of the administration. But we refuse to acknowledge that the policies followed by tourism administrations in India, state and centre, are archaic and no longer relevant in this new world. Our needs are different, the customers are different yet we keep doing the same thing year after year and expect different results. That is the definition of insanity. The fact is that we in the private sector understand the ground realities. We pound the pavement every day. We understand the pulse of the market. We know what sells and what does not. Yet our associations completely refuse to hold our ground and push a viewpoint that makes business sense. We are not assertive. We are not professional. We go into meetings ill-prepared. This is true across all associations, even my beloved IATO. Socialism is far from dead in tourism and we are suffering because of that.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

Our associations are political cess-pools of greed and personal glory. At least, I know in IATO this is a bit less than others, but the fact is that all our travel associations have popularity contests every few years. Elections are not run on merit, campaigning is dirty and personal. Already, IATO is seeing finger pointing start as elections are in four months. No association has a strong secretariat and none has a top-notch professional running the affairs. I say this with the utmost due respect of course, but it is a fact. Look at NASSCOM, CII, FICCI, bodies that are not much older than the likes of TAAI and IATO. NASSCOM was started in 1988, a kid in our times. Yet, they helped create an industry that has completely taken away the golden mantle that tourism once held. How did they do it and why can’t we? Because we do not believe in hiring professionals to run our affair. The reason a handful of companies have grown the way they have is because they made professionals take accountability. I have been advocating this path for IATO for some time. It is an uphill task. The bottom line is that as long as members vote on issues other than merit, we will never get out of this deep hole. It’s as basic as that.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

FAITH is the tourism industry federation we created at the fourth attempt in 40 years. I along with a few other buddies put in sweat and toil in getting this off the ground. I am very emotional about this subject as it is my dream that one day we have one and only one association in tourism. There can be no difference in opinion in the fundamentals of the need and approach taken in creating a common federation. Yet, it became such a political issue that the levels of disgust went through the roof. Even today after five years of creating FAITH, there is still squabbling. The lack of unity in our industry seems to be insurmountable. The mistrust is intense. The desire to make a point at one’s own detriment is prominent. And because we are so disjointed in our voice and thought, we get taken advantage of. No wonder the Finance Minister hates us (my personal opinion as there can be no logical reason for him to consistently ignore a sector that makes for 9 percent of the GDP). We behave like school children.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

The spirit of support and volunteerism is weak in Indian tourism. Ask for inputs and suggestions, you get a handful. Ask people to participate in annual conferences, interest is weak. Organise meetings to discuss issues, few show up. The interaction between the stakeholders and their elected leaders is very weak and therefore the associations have very little to work with. There is no ground support. Fundamentally, we in Indian tourism do not seem to talk to each other. We do not share what experiences we have had. We do not help each other. We work in isolated silos hoping someone out there will fix things for us. And this is just talking about the individuals. It is even worse when we talk about the different segments of our industry. HAI doesn’t want to talk to IATO. IATO doesn’t want to talk to the guides. TAAI, TAFI and others fight for the same issues. ATOAI is happy being in the great outdoors (truly love hanging out with these guys). ICPB has been ripped with incestitous infighting. ADTOI is still trying to get their feet back on track. ITTA has squabbles at micro levels. One can go on and on. And all these folks are my friends and peers whom I do admire. But it really seems like everyone is hoping some God out there will pull a miracle that will turn things around. A strong industry is one where stakeholders are engaged in dialog. Engaged in debate. Healthy sharing of thoughts. Not screaming and shouting as we mostly see. Can we not simply talk to each other and help each other out?

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

I don’t want to forget the outbound segment for my company ventured into this area recently. It has been an interesting learning experience. It is very different from inbound and the opportunities are vast. Yet, look at the quality and content of what is sold in India as an outbound product. We have no base of luxury travel agents. We have completely lost credibility as an industry in the global market. To quote my many DMC friends from around the world – we shop around, we are rude, and we are unprofessional.
We don’t even have the courtesy of saying thank you. We make people work on proposals and go silent. Of course we have spots of excellence and people who do the industry proud. But as a whole, India has been branded as a very difficult outbound market that does not give a return on investment for efforts put in. It is a fact that in most destinations none of the leading inbound players want to operate with India. My playground is global, I travel the world interacting with people. This is the consistent feedback I get. I do not like to have to apologise for a country that otherwise makes me proud.

And then we wonder why we have challenges in Indian tourism.

So ladies and gentlemen, now that I have added many more to my list of critics, I want you to take a step back and without any emotions or feelings for me, ponder on some of what I have said. Am I really that far off from the truth? Do many of these issues need investment, government policies or major change to be different? Do we not have it within our power, our reach to make 2018 a true year of change and move forward together into a new era?
Nothing in the universe can stop us if we put our heads together. It is time to hold hands as one team and dream the same dream.
Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”
Smile and have a great year ahead.