Lean, efficient, productive – that’ll be the post-pandemic mantra in India’s hospitality sector: Michael Dominic, CEO, CGH Earth

michael dominic CGH Earth

Michael Dominic, the Chief Executive Officer of CGH Earth, one of Kerala’s best-known hospitality brands, believes efficiency and productivity will define the way forward for the Indian hospitality sector. He refers to the coronavirus crisis as a catastrophe that will force changes in the way we perceive the tourism sector and even entrepreneurship as a whole. In an interview with TourismNewsLive’s Editor-in-chief DJ Hector he talks about how there will be a paradigm shift in the business with “lean organisation” becoming the watchword. Excerpts:

Q: Best wishes on reopening all your properties across Kerala. Probably, CGH Earth was the first major hospitality group in Kerala to do so, after being locked down for weeks together. What’s your assessment of the current situation, as we start to unlock the industry?

Our source market is essentially international. So, when we reopened there were hardly any visitors, at least in the first couple of weeks. But the situation is improving gradually. What we have to keep in mind is that, this pandemic is a global phenomenon. It’s unlike the annual floods that happen in Kerala or even the Nipah virus situation that we had. This is a catastrophe.

Q: Do you think our lockdown strategies were appropriate from a hospitality perspective?

We do not have a precedent in this case. Hence, it’s difficult to have a success metric. For instance, let’s take Italy where there was a big outbreak of the coronavirus. They seem to have come out of it now, after going through such a difficult period, and that could be on account of herd immunity. They didn’t have a prolonged lockdown. Lockdowns, essentially, buy us time but we cannot keep prolonging it. At the end of the day, a vaccine has to come in.

Q: All hotels in Kerala are looking towards leaders like CGH Earth to see how you react to the situation. What were the measures that CGH managed to take during this period?

Everyone is waiting and watching how some of us do, after reopening. Like us, a few others have reopened too. Our thought process was that we have to give hope to people working in the sector. We had to keep the morale of the staff high.

We focused on training the employees, be it heads of departments, general managers and the front office staff about how to conduct themselves in the pandemic. We got them trained with the help of a doctor. They were educated on how to keep the hotel healthy and safe. We laid out the protocol and developed a standard operating procedure to tackle the crisis. The employees were given training for over two weeks.

The infrastructure too had to be upgraded. We had to add to our wash areas and train the staff on disinfecting luggage etc.

Q: How different will the post-pandemic industry be? Airbnb’s co-founder Brian Chesky for instance had remarked recently that travel as we knew it, is dead. Do you see that as an over-reaction?

The glass is half-full. That’s how I would like to see it. As you can see, we are going through different stages of reactions. Initially, when the lockdown started people were ultra-cautious. No one stepped out and if they did, they took bath immediately after coming in. But now, people have dropped their guards. They are going out much more freely, though the coronavirus cases are far higher in number.

Just like that process, I believe travel too will make a comeback. All they need is some confidence. Wearing masks and maintaining social distancing will remain fundamental.

Q: From CGH Earth’s point of view, how did you take care of the employees during this period. How do you think we can limit the impact of job losses in the industry?

We took all employees aside and told them that survival is the name of the game now. The key is to put food on the table. From April we decided to cut the salaries of the employees, so that we could continue functioning. At this stage, we cannot predict how long will this (salary cut) continue.  Hopefully things will improve soon.

Q: What are the important learnings from this pandemic? How will it change the Indian hospitality sector?

There is going to be a paradigm shift and efficiency will be the name of the game. Productivity will count. In Europe there are 50 room hotels being run with a 5-member staff. Automation will play a big role in the future. In fact, it’s already happening in many parts of the world.

The shift will be towards a lean organisation.

Q: What did you make of the responses or lack of it from the Central and State governments? The Rs 20 lakh crore package announced by the Indian government had nothing in it for the tourism sector and the Kerala state government promised a stimulus package but we haven’t heard anything of it since. Why is there such a poor attitude towards tourism which employs millions of people?

The governments have to realise that it’s not a luxury sector. We represent 10-12% of the country’s GDP and provide enormous number of jobs. It’s about time people understand that we are not just employing the highly qualified. We recruit a large number of unskilled workers, train them and make them employable. The governments – both at the Centre and the State – have to factor that in.

Initially, the Kerala government was sympathetic but it looks like they don’t have the funds to help us. The Central government hasn’t stepped in either.

Kerala has done well to control the pandemic. Yes, it has got tougher for them after the repatriation of non-resident Keralites but overall it’s been a great job of containment. Do you think the state is well placed to take advantage of this healthcare feat and use that to build a better brand image for Kerala Tourism?

Kerala is in an advantageous position. News has got around internationally that it’s a safe destination with excellent healthcare facilities. International news organisations like the BBC, The New York Times and The Guardian have spread the word. International tourists who tested positive were given such good care, and they said this wouldn’t have been possible in their own country. This fact will surely help us going ahead.

Many nations have announced schemes to support the industry. For example, Malaysia has introduced a special tourism fund and Uzbekistan has said it will grant $3,000 to any tourist who gets infected while visiting the country. Do you think India will show enough political will to do so?

Kerala has done as good a job as any other country. One has to realise that we are getting many enquiries from overseas. They are calling to check when they would be able to travel to India, but they can’t because international air connectivity has not been restored yet.

What we really need to do now is promote domestic tourism. There are so many places in Ernakulam district for example that need to be discovered. Let’s take the case of Kumbalangi. After the movie Kumbalangi Nights got released, people are aware of the destination nationally. Likewise, there are so many tourist spots waiting to get identified.

What are some of the aspects that we can learn from other countries to improve our tourism culture?

I feel we can do a lot more in the sphere of garbage disposal. Malayalis are known for their personal hygiene but we can do better in community cleanliness. Effective recycling of garbage and limited consumption of single-use plastic need to be encouraged. If we do this, we will be able to compete with some of the European nations in terms of protecting the environment. We can be leaders in responsible tourism.

Ayurveda is the cornerstone of Kerala’s tourism industry. But with the advent of Covid-19, Ayurveda may face some challenges as it involves high degree of physical contact. How do you view this scenario?

Both persons, the customer and the person giving the treatment, should get tested before proceeding. It’s not enough to have a Covid-19 negative certificate in my view. It’s important to ensure they don’t have any symptoms even just before starting a massage or any other form of treatment.

You belong to one of Kerala’s prominent business families. While tourism is one of the state’s strengths, there is hardly any other industry that’s worth mentioning. For decades, Kerala was not known for a proactive industrial climate. Do you think some of this could change post-pandemic?

Well, we may indeed see some changes. Let’s take the case of Kuwait for example. The media has reported that 800,000 Indians will return back to India due to some policy changes there. Many of them will be Malayalis. The government, of course, cannot give all of them jobs. So, what can they do? The immediate option will be to do some business. I hope more and more people become entrepreneurs in the state. We need a critical mass.

Even our farms can be better utilised, not just for traditional cash crops but also for horticulture. I’m confident the pandemic will speed up the entrepreneurial process as more people will begin to realise that they cannot find jobs.