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FHRAI Golden Jubilee Convention: Bhubaneswar plays True Host

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 10:00 Hrs  [IST]

Smaller cities, I feel, are better hosts when it comes to larger events. They pull out all stops to make their guests happy.  Bhubaneswar has proved it in no uncertain ways. The whole city wore a festive look with welcoming banners all around.  From the airport to the city round-abouts  to the vantage points in the city, all painted green, with ‘Atiti Devo Bhubaneswar’ bill boards of FHRAI.   To my astonishment, the Mayfair Hotel staff was ready with a refreshing welcome drink at the arrival area of the Biju Patnaik International Airport when my early morning flight from Delhi landed.  It was just the beginning of boundless hospitality for the next three days. There might be conflicting views as regards the quality of deliberations at the conference, but over 800 delegates would agree that the hospitality, the care, and the overall experience was one of the best.

The convention was inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, in the presence of an array of central and state ministers.  In his inaugural address, Patnaik said that tourism is a flagship sector for Odisha and the government will provide all possible support to promote and market Odisha as a preferred destination. The state has rich diversity in terms of nature, long coastline, green and dense forest, culture and heritage, art and architecture, to attract tourists, stressed the Chief Minister. Talking specifically on Buddhist heritage, Patnaik added that there is wider scope for tourism as well as research activities at the Buddhist sites in Odisha.

Speaking on the occasion, Dr. Mahesh Sharma, Union Tourism and Culture Minister and Minister of State for Civil Aviation said that the government and the private industry have to work hand in hand to take the tourism growth story forward. Mentioning specifically issues related to safety and security of foreign tourists, Dr Sharma said that this responsibility cannot be left to the government alone. Talking on issues related to funding and infrastructure status, the Tourism Minister said that the issue is under the consideration of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs and they are hopeful of a favourable decision on the minimum investment cap under the harmonised list of infrastructure.

In his address, Ashok Chandra Panda, Tourism Minister, Odisha said that the state has drawn a road map for tourism development and investment promotion. He cited that the Tourism Policy of 2013 and Industrial Policy of 2015 spell out clear guidelines for investment and the support and incentive system. He demanded support of the central department to improve air connectivity to the state and flights connecting Bhubaneswar to Varanasi, Kerala, Goa, etc.  

Debi Prasad Mishra, Minister of Industries, School and Mass Education, Odisha spoke on the investor-friendly policies of the state. He said that incentives are set, based on the capacity of the project to create employment. Approvals have been made speedy. Clearances for green projects would not take more than 15 days in the state, he highlighted. A GIS platform has been activated where prospective investors can get all the information on the land availability online, he asserted. “Even Tourism SEZ is possible in Odisha,” he exclaimed.

T S Walia, President, FHRAI said that the industry is going through myriad challenges and  the convention would  deliberate on these issues and arrive at  possible solutions.  He said that the decision to hold the convention outside metro cities was deliberate and would help in taking the benefits of tourism to smaller cities.

Dilip Ray, CMD, Mayfair Hotels and Chairman, Convention Organising Committee said that the convention would go a long way in exposing the innumerable opportunities for tourism in the East and North East of India.  

RV Deshpande, Tourism Minister of Karnataka,  Jual Oram, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs,  Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Minister of State (I/C) of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship, Vinod Zutshi, Secretary-Tourism, Government of India were present on the occasion.

Business sessions:
The business sessions at the golden jubilee convention were largely mediocre.  While some of the topics and the selection of panelists were excellent, few sessions didn’t make any impact, whatsoever.  Although the first session of the convention – Atithi Devo Bhava- The legacy continues - had some ‘star value’ with the likes of Mahima Chaudhry, and Gulshan Grover and Victor Banerjee, the deliberations  didn’t evoke any response, for mere lack of direction. An otherwise inconsequential session got an unwanted twist when Vivek Nair questioned the remark of one of the panelists that Indian hotels are exorbitantly costly compared to hotels overseas.  The Leela CMD was at his ‘repetitive’ best for the large part of his lightning visit to the convention.

The convention was also conspicuous in many ways. For a ‘guest appearance’ by Rakesh Sarna, Managing Director, Taj Group, the big brands of Indian hospitality had no representation in the convention. Interestingly, one who got the most ‘star value’ at the convention was the young entrepreneur, Ritesh Aggarwal of Oyo Rooms at the convention.  

Skill Development in Hospitality Industry:
The second day’s deliberations started with a lively presentation by Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Union Minister for Skill Development & Entrepreneurship. He spoke on the huge gap that exists in the skilled manpower space despite the advancements that the country has made in education in the last six decades.  Quoting a sample survey, Rudy said that while 96% educated Koreans, 80% of educated Germans, 46% Chinese are skilled and employable, for India it is mere 4.5%.  Twelve years of schooling may not make one employable, but 12 weeks of training can make one employable, the Minister said.  India would require three crore additional skilled people in the next five years, around five million in tourism and hospitality, the Minister said.  He said that the government has set up 36 sector councils to achieve this mammoth target.  “There is a commitment to change things,” the Minister said.  

Heart Talk turns Hard Talk:
The veteran journalist, Prabhu Chawla’s face to face with equally senior and hardcore hospitality professional, Rakesh Sarna of Taj Group turned out to be an interesting dual. Chawla posed some hard questions which at times made Sarna uncomfortable.  It’s a fact that hotel industry professionals are seldom exposed to such hard talk.  Chawla started with a straight forward question about whether Indian hotels require foreign trained imported managers, with obvious focus on Sarna who spent more than three decades in the Hyatt Group. Saying that the ‘imported’ tag  doesn’t fit him, Sarna said that India has to “resist the temptation” to imitate the West. Talking specifically on the Taj Group, which has a heritage of over a century in hospitality, Sarna said that miracles cannot happen in the group by bringing a foreign manager.  Taj has become the “custodian of Indian hospitality” because of the hard work of 26,000 strong people who work day and night to uphold the brand ethos, he said.

Chawla  tried to corner Sarna and find out answers for the Group diluting its luxury hospitality branding by launching Vivanta, Gateway, Ginger, etc.  “Have you lost confidence  in the Taj brand?” Chawla asked. Sarna reacted by firing a witty question back to Chawla. BMW launches different series of cars, that doesn’t mean the car manufacturer has lost their confidence in 7 series, Sarna said.  He said that the biggest challenge before Indian hotel industry is poor infrastructure and shortage of skilled manpower.

Voice from the Top
Moderating the panel discussion on ‘Voice from the Top’,  Mandeep Lamba, Managing Director-India (Hotels), JLL India said that a lot of changes have come in the industry over the last couple of decades, and the industry has started proliferating beyond the metro cities. It is important that the industry remain responsible in Tier II and III cities, otherwise,he said, it will be driven out. Subin S Zongadwala, General Manager, ITC Maurya New Delhi said that hospitality has evolved from an art to a science too, with the advent of cutting -edge technology. “Process driven operations are increasingly  important in the changed scenario,” he said.  

To a question on the relevance of human touch with the advancement in technology, K Mohanachandran, Area Director and Zonal General Manager, Taj Krishna, Hyderabad said that human interface will remain forever in the hotel industry and what is paramount is how hotels deploy technology without impacting the human touch. “Technology will help in cutting wasteful expenses and will free up manpower in the process  which can be utilized for delivering memorable experiences  to guests,” he said.

“Technology should make life easier rather than complicated,” opined Prof David Foskett, Emeritus Professor, University of West London.

Social Media & Technology: Influence on Hospitality Business

The session on social media and influence on hospitality business had a nice mix of speakers and therefore evoked good response from the delegates as well. The session was moderated by Ronald Scott, an industry expert from the UK. Participating in the discussion, Ritesh Agarwal, CEO, Oyo Rooms said that social media is a big enabler for smaller hotels to compete with bigger brands. The millennial traveller doesn’t care about the heritage of the brands, he said.  Agreeing  with the comment, Binu Mathews, CEO, IDS Next Business solutions said that there has been a large shift in the customer base of hotels, 10 years ago, and now.The millennial traveller follows peer recommendation rather than brand reputation, he said.

It is important for all businesses to have a digital strategy, opined Farhana Haque, Head – Machine to Machine, Vodafone.  “Social media generates a lot of unstructured data.  It is significant how businesses analyse those data and evolve the right strategies,” observed Upendra Jit Singh, CMD, Webel.

Technology is not a threat to businesses, said Mike Kistner, CEO, RezNext. Hotels should consider it as an opportunity. As far as social media platforms are concerned, Kistner said that, they are here to stay. If businesses are not able to embrace it, they will be falling behind, he said.

Social media gives a lot of exposure to businesses if leveraged properly, said Nikhil Ganju, Country Manager, TripAdvisor. However, questions were raised by the delegates about why “good reviews” don’t last long on  the TripAdvisor platform while bad reviews, always pop up.

Iconic Developments: Is it Lack of Government Support or Absence of Entrepreneurship?
The session pondered reasons for India not able to attract massive investments and iconic developments in the tourism sector to generate interests for people to travel.  The examples of Sentosa island,  Genting, Marina Bay Sands internationally, and how they transformed  destinations have been discussed.  Moderating the session, BM Gupta, Senior General Manager, Tourism Finance Corporation of India (TFCI) said that the Corporation has suggested to the government to plan some iconic tourism projects with funding from international agencies way back in 1996. He said that the government has to create land banks and provide infrastructure like roads, electricity, water, sewage, etc. to attract investors to such projects. Ashley Monteiro, Managing Director, Pathfinders Travel Group from Bangkok citing examples of Singapore, Malaysia, Macao, etc. said that they are living examples of how iconic destinations could open up opportunities for tourism growth.  Marina Bay Sands Singapore delivers 0.8% of the GDP of Singapore, he said.  He also tried to draw parallels between Macao and Goa, two destinations with similar heritage.  Chender Baljee, Chairman & Managing Director of Royal Orchid Hotels explained how Singapore quickly responded with Marina Bay Sands integrated development to win back tourists which the destination was losing to Macao. From casino to cabaret to discotheque, everything is considered taboo here, he said.  Subhash Goyal, President, Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) urged for an integrated approach in tourism to attract tourists.  He also took potshots at the “hyprocratic” attitude of Indians which makes advancements impossible for Incredible India as an inbound destination. 

Online Portals- Boon or Bane?
The session moderated by Bharat Malkani, had experts like Avijit Arya, Founder of InternetMogul, Harish Chandra, General Manager-IT of Sarovar Hotels & Resorts and Siddharth Goenka, Executive Director of Octave Hotel in the panel.  Chandra said that distribution involves technology and online travel companies understand technology better than the hoteliers, and thus cannot be ignored.  Arya observed that while OTAs relevance in terms of its large reach is something that hotels cannot ignore,  the hotels should learn to convert the guests coming through OTAs as their own for future businesses.   Goenka brought the issue of “manipulation of rates” by OTAs  in the guise of “rate parity”.  “Lot of small independent hotels suffer because of this manipulation,” he said. 

Talking about the importance of digital marketing, Arya rued that while hotels invest in rooms, kitchens, chefs, GMs, etc., they try to cut corners when it comes to employing professionals with digital marketing expertise.  “It is high time hotels invested in digital assets so that they can acquire guests from other channels,” he said.

HRAEI gifts 360-degree map of Odisha to State Tourism:
Hotel & Restaurant Association of Eastern India (HRAEI), the host region of the  Golden Jubilee Convention, gifted a 360-degree map of Odisha to State Tourism marking the annual convention.  The map was unveiled by State Tourism Minister, Ashok Chandra Panda at the arrival area of Biju Patnaik International Airport at Bhubaneswar. 

Destination Odisha takes centre stage:

Odisha Tourism spared no efforts to take full mileage out of the three-day conference. The officialdom and the stakeholders of the industry worked day and night to make the event an all out success. They also presented innumerable opportunities for tourism investments in the state and the investor friendly policies guaranteed under the Industrial Policy Resolution 2015.

The networking dinners were a cultural feast in itself.  What stood out in the three-day convention was the grand parade to celebrate World Tourism Day. The parade eloquently showcased the cultural vibrancy of the state and its
social life.

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