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Tech to the rescue

A shortage of manpower and soaring overheads have forced hotels to adopt technology to lower costs and improve service.

You walk into a hotel lobby, select your room from a touch-screen kiosk, swipe your credit card and quietly collect your encoded key card from the kiosk's vending slot. Nope, that's not the future of the hospitality industry but the present and it's happening at Ginger Hotels, the no-frills brand from Roots Corporation of IHCL.

No long queues at the reception counter, no waiting for the luggage to be brought in and no traditional welcome tika and garland (for the die-hard tika fans, their TVC does show a guest applying it himself!).

 
The face of hospitality
The face of hospitality: But some no-frill hotels are doing away with reception
Welcome to the world of automated hospitality. In an industry that is renowned for its human interface with guests, brands like Ginger are not just redefining the rules of the game but in the process changing the game itself. "Mom-n-pop no-frills hotels have been around in India for a long time, but because of their limited investment and know-how, many of them offer poor value," says Prabhat Pani, CEO, Roots Corporation, which offers rooms at Rs 999 a night (at select properties) and competes with guest houses and unbranded hotels.

While Pani's reason for cutting down on human interaction is his focus on the no-frills segment, a shortage of skilled manpower is the reason for the larger and more expensive hotels. While earlier it was the BPO sector that dipped into the hospitality pool, retail and airlines are now taking turns draining manpower away from the industry. Some, like Lemon Tree Hotels, have introduced employee stock options (ESOPs) for supervisors and above, while others such as EIH offer them only to senior executives. Given an attrition rate of 20 per cent, players like Sarovar Hotels, a mid-market brand, are dangling substantial retention bonuses in front of employees to make them stay.

Salaries in the sector-especially for managers-may have increased by 60 to 100 per cent over the last three years, but the work-life imbalance continues to take its toll on the human resources pool of hotels.

Trimming Costs

With talent in short supply, hotels are on overdrive on the cost front. They are looking closely at both fixed and variable expenses, including things like energy consumption and even project costs. Hotel construction technology, which used to be a major reason for a facility's long gestation period, has ushered in some new concepts. Berggruen Hotels, which is introducing its Keys brand in India in the budget segment, has adopted a cookie-cutter approach for its venture with hotels having the same design, a similar room size and detailing, and standardised tangibles. The blueprint can be executed anywhere, according to Partha Chatterjee, CMO, Berggruen Hotels.

 
Palm-top PDAs for taking guest orders mean less cumbersome paperwork

THE FLIP SIDE OF AUTOMATION

While technology will play a leading role in budget to mid-market segments, it will only be a facilitator in the upscale and luxury hotels, feels Prakash Shukla, Senior Vice President and CIO, Indian Hotels. "See, the back-end operations like reservations, property management systems (PMS) and loyalty programmes have already been automated, eliminating the need for human interface, which is only limited now to front of the house areas," he elaborates.

Mandeep S. Lamba, Managing Director, Dawnay Day Hotels India, considers technology important, but says that it is a cyclical phenomenon. "For the next 5-10 years, technology will play a huge role with the internet emerging as the single-largest sales tool for hotels.

However, there will be a return to human interface," he predicts. A fact corroborated by P.R.S. Oberoi, Chairman and CEO, EIH (Oberoi Hotels), who feels that while technology can improve efficiency, in hospitality, it cannot replace the human element.
 

Others like easyHotels, which is coming to India in a joint venture with Istithmar Hotels, is opting for stack, connect and stick technology to not just cut down construction costs, but also payback periods.

 

While the concrete shell will be prepared onsite using pre-fabricated columns, the rooms will be mass produced at a "factory" off site at an Istithmar facility in Dubai. It would include the room's structure made of steel, the flooring, which will be built from a composite material, all internal plumbing and wiring, furniture, flat screen TVS and even bedding and towels.

Each room will be 15 square metres in size and will be shipped to the hotel site to be stacked and stuck inside the concrete shell. Each room will be connected with the others through pre-fabricated corridors and lifts. Istithmar claims that if the concrete structure is in place, a typical 200-room easyHotels can open its doors within five months.

Energy costs, which typically jack up a hotel's operational expenses, are being bettered with the latest in technology. "Typically in India, energy costs are 10 per cent of operational expenses for a hotel-that is twice the world average," points out Ajay K. Bakaya, Executive Director, Sarovar Hotels, which has installed Variable Refrigerant Volume (VRV) systems that Bakaya claims have cut energy costs by 50 per cent.

Hoteliers say that with customers becoming cash rich and time poor, operational efficiency is becoming the key differentiator. For instance, the Palm-top PDAs used by stewards in restaurants (Taj Connemara in Chennai, among others) to take guest orders have not only improved the speed of service and, therefore, faster turnaround of tables, but have also done away with the cumbersome paper kitchen order tickets that needed to be made in triplicate-one each for the cashier, the kitchen and the order taker. Now, all a steward does is make a selection from the stored menu items which are transmitted to a printer in the kitchen, which will print out a kitchen order ticket (KOT) for the chef.

Soon, there may come a time when only a computer at some hotel knows when you came and when you went. And if that makes your stay cheaper and better, you'd have no reason to complain.