Post-Covid, Tourism-Driven Hospitality Is Making A Comeback, But It’s Coming Back Differently
Wary customers demand safer, contact-less, mobile-driven experiences.
Crowd avoidance is key: so offbeat destinations; caravan tourism takes off.
Hotels face a future of keyless check-ins, robot room service and chatbots.
The interlinked business sectors of travel, tourism and hospitality were among the biggest sufferers during the two years of Covid lockdowns — but the numbers suggest that the bad days are behind them.
A survey by credit ratings agency ICRA in June 2022 declared that the hotel business was on an upswing again and was expected to hit pre-Covid levels of occupancy.
During the fiscal 2022-23, the surge in leisure travel, the return of wedding events and a tangible return to physical meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) have ensured that the weathercock for hospitality’s health — the average revenue per room or ARR across premium hotels — was inching back to just shy of Rs 5,000. A few high-end hotels had even exceeded their pre-Covid rates.
With restrictions eased across the country, Indians are indulging in what the media has dubbed as ‘revenge tourism’ — travelling with a vengeance, after months of being cooped up, almost as an act of revenge. But revenge doesn’t mean recklessness.
Educated by the pandemic experience, travellers have become wary, demanding a safer, less-contact if not entirely contact-less experience at every point on their tours.
IRCTC’s online booking services are now a mature part of the train booking experience and have made pushing and shoving at reservation counters a thing of the past.
Airports are trying to reduce the physical contact during unavoidable processes like entry, check-in, security and boarding.
Swarajya reported recently on the use of face recognition by two airlines at two airports to eliminate the inspection of ID cards, boarding passes and the like. This is being gradually extended to other carriers and airports.
Keyless Guest Room Entry
As early as in 2015, Aloft Hotel Bengaluru introduced keyless check-in and guest room entry in India.
Customers can book rooms online, after which they receive a software ‘key’ on their mobile phones, even as they are en route to the hotel.
Avoiding long queues in the lobby or check-in counters, the guest proceeds to the designated room, where pointing the phone at the door opens it.
Hilton has embraced the same keyless technology across the 18 hotel brands in its group. Going a step further, the digital key is shareable between two or more guests in a room.
Keyless hotel access may soon become the new normal, trickling down from the luxury brands to other three-to-five star establishments.
Room service is another concern of travellers. They want minimal contact with other humans for information and in-room dining.
International hotels like the Marriott Group are experimenting with smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Nest in the guest room.
These can be programmed to answer frequently asked questions like ‘when is the gym open?’, ‘what are the attractions nearby?’, to control room appliances like TV or air conditioning — or to take room service orders for food, water etc.
The signs are clear: when it comes to customer contact, voice is the way to go for hotels in the future.
Humanoid robot waiters in restaurants have been around in India since December 2017, when an eatery in Chennai called Momo acquired four robot waiters and renamed the establishment “Robot”.
Soon after, the Indian Swag restaurant in Ahmedabad introduced Lexa, the robot waitress who could speak Hindi, English and Gujarati.
Globally, robotic butlers which execute your in-room dining orders or bring you fresh towels have been around in some high-end hotel chains but surprisingly have not come to India — yet.
But it is an inevitable development, especially as these humanoid service robots are increasingly made-in-India now. Technoxian recently compiled a list of the 'Top humanoid robots made in India'.
There are other technologies that are increasingly being deployed to increase guest confidence.
They include things like special chatbots to replace your friendly human concierge as a font of information, to virtual reality tours of places like museums to help tourists avoid human contact (and sore feet).
Google Arts & Culture has created 360 degree virtual tours of attractions at Hampi, Goa, Delhi and Amritsar. Many states like Kerala are following suit with their own virtual e-books of tourist attractions.
Here are six technology trends redefining the hospitality industry since Covid, compiled by Entrepreneur magazine
Post-Covid, travel options have evolved in response to customer concerns and a preference to avoid travelling in larger groups by public transport.
Earlier this year, the Chennai-based SRM Travels closed its long distance and interstate bus business and converted many of its Benz, Volvo and Scania buses into caravans.
These are becoming popular with some Indian tourists who want to visit offbeat, less crowded places and who want to avoid bus or train travel as well as the expense of hotel rooms.
Some states like Kerala have seen an opportunity in caravan tourism, and have created a separate Caravan Policy.
On one hand, the state has partnered with Pithampur (Madhya Pradesh)-based Pinnacle Industries to offer for hire two-person and four-person air-conditioned motor homes complete with kitchenette, toilet, beds and running water.
On the other, it has created caravan parks to park the vehicles and enable the visitors to spend a night or an extended period to explore the destination.
Perhaps, most usefully for post-Covid travel, Kerala was the first to offer a Rs 5 lakh insurance policy (with United Insurance) for tourists who visit any of 60 ecotourism centres maintained by the Forest Department. The premium per person is just Rs 250.
One new emerging niche is farm or agricultural tourism.
From bee-keeping centres to citrus fruit orchards to dairy-farms, city-bound Indians longing for change, seem to prefer the outdoor experience which might involve the family soaking in offbeat experiences — from milking a cow, riding a tractor or joining an outdoor cookout.
Farmers in Punjab and tea estates in Darjeeling and the North East have been quick to ride this new wave of interest.
Maharashtra has been a pioneer in this niche and has seen many private enterprises, trusts and NGOs like the Agricultural Development, Baramati or Agri Tourism Development Co to promote the concept.
The Times of India reported on 19 September that Uttar Pradesh has designated two villages in each of 18 districts to promote what it calls agro-rural tourism.
Workations For ‘Bleisure’
To combine business with pleasure has emerged as a challenge and an opportunity in the months since Covid restrictions began tapering off.
Many professionals needing a break after two arduous months of work from home, centred around laptops and zoom video conferences, feel the need of a breakout — and leaving the family behind is not an option.
Hence the new buzzwords: Bleisure — business with leisure and workation — combining work and a vacation.
Hotels including IRCTC have embraced these new trends and advertise a combo of rooms with a good work desk and WiFi connections and a slate of attractions for children. Beach guesthouses are particularly popular with this crowd and Airbnb has been listing many such options.
Last year, Intermiles, the airlines and lifestyle awards programme, listed the top 10 Indian destinations for a workation. It can be read here. Another more recent compilation from Trawell is here.
Short Term Luggage Storage
Not everyone travels by train, but almost everyone faces one problem: where in a strange city to safely store one’s luggage, leaving one free to move around freely for the day.
There are two services:
One such service is Jaipur and Bikaner-based Lugbee. For between Rs 10 and Rs 30 per bag per hour, depending on the town, one can find the nearest storage facility by using their mobile app, pay online and hand over their luggage with the assurance that they are secured with a seal, and insured for the duration of storage.
It concentrates its service in Rajasthan (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Kota) as well as Gurgaon, Delhi, Mt Abu etc, and soon in Ghaziabad and Noida.
Another such service provider is Delhi-based LugSto, which calls itself ‘India Ka Cloakroom’. It is present in over 50 locations in India with over 200 stores in total across Tier I, II and III cities.
OTP-based verification ensures security of luggage pickup.
Importantly, the heavy luggage is fully insured for up to Rs 5,000. Lugsto charges between Rs 40 to Rs 120 per bag per night.
In more ways than one, the story of the rebirth of travel, tourism and hospitality after the forced closure of Covid is a story of technology and innovation deployed in the right way, to assure Indians that foot-loose can be fancy-free — and safe at the same time.
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