Industry Update
Opinion Article 1 October 2021

Lessons from the Taj on tackling the present Crisis and beyond!

By L. Aruna Dhir, Author, Columnist, Communications Specialist, YouTube Show Host of "High Priestess of Hedonism"

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It is always the hard times that serve the role of a tough teacher, leaving in their wake lessons that become ineffaceable. It is human nature to gloss and glide over the good times and take them for granted. But the difficult phases are the time when thought processes are put into active gear, strategies are formulated and fine-tuned, perspectives are widened and a long view is taken of the status quo.

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In this, the Corona virus pandemic has coerced industries and their mandarins to rethink, reshape and redesign their existing business model and practices and bulletproof their brands.

Several wise, well-conceived and enlightening operating procedures and business master plans are being brought to the new normal table.

I decided to speak with Gaurav Pokhariyal, Senior Vice President & Global Head – Human Resources, at the Indian Hotels Company Limited (IHCL) – the parent company of Taj Hotels.

Gaurav, an alumnus of the Glion Institute of Higher Education, Switzerland, and the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, New Delhi, is an IHCL veteran and a primo hotelier with three decades of enviable experience.

As an industry leader, fine decision making ability, staunch commitment and passion towards work, an innate understanding of people, ability to present out-of-the-box solutions and rally teams aiming to get the best out of them are Gaurav’s hallmarks.

Gaurav has had a long innings heading operations for Taj’s key markets and enjoyed successful stints at marquee IHCL hotels. As the Head Honcho of Human Resources for Taj, Gaurav’s critical focus areas are strategy for long term growth, strengthening the Company's market and brand leadership position, strategic and innovative initiatives relating to organizational culture, business excellence, people enablement and employee centricity.

With an extremely well-rounded experience and well-fleshed out portfolio, Gaurav Pokhariyal brings in a sound voice of wisdom, acutely meditated methodologies, and blue-chip blueprints to ably map the road ahead.

Here follows my dialogue with Pokhariyal -

L. Aruna Dhir - What broad lessons have you learned, as a hotel company, from the severity of this Crisis?

Gaurav Pokhariyal - IHCL has a legacy of over 118 years and, by virtue of its lifespan, has been through crises of a similar or varied nature at one time or another. These have always provided crucial learnings to handle the VUCA world, helping the Company withstand volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity with courage and compassion.

Therefore, the three most significant, time-tested lessons would be -

  1. Invest in our people, our community, and stakeholders. This is true to our philosophy of Tajness.
  2. Demonstrate strategic spryness.
  3. Continue to learn and reinvent. Look for opportunities in every situation and never waste a crisis

L. Aruna Dhir - What specific lessons have you learnt as a people-oriented Company to deal with similar crises in future?

Gaurav Pokhariyal - The crisis has reinforced our belief in our people processes. Learnings for the future are manifold and I enumerate them here -

  1. Resilience, Adaptability and Agility have all emerged as key leadership behaviours.
  2. Continuous communication is critical to sustaining a positive and engaged workforce. Also a high level of probity in communication ensures a high level of integrity from all quarters.
  3. Continue to associate with a larger purpose. Look beyond and support the community and the less fortunate, it builds compassion and pride.

The present crisis has brought home the essential truth that we must learn to be inclusive. The able must carry forward those in dire need in order to create a happy, productive, peaceful balance.

  1. When we operate together as an industry, we achieve far greater results.
  2. It is imperative to innovate and to embrace new streams of knowledge and technology, so as to stay relevant.

L. Aruna Dhir - How have some of the SOPs changed, specifically those around employee management?

Gaurav Pokhariyal - Most employee experiences onsite have been made touch-less. To start with, there has been a non-negotiable emphasis on disinfected uniforms and Personal Protective Equipment for all employees. We shifted from the manual attendance capturing system to a Facial recognition system which also allowed employees to self-check and correct any discrepancies.

The employee dining moved away from community meals to pre-packed bento boxes for individual consumption. Fully cooked meals are preferred to avoid contamination and focus is on serving immunity booster menus.

Over 10400 employees have been trained virtually and through socially distanced classrooms to ensure readiness to deliver a safe and healthy work place for all our stakeholders.

During the intense pandemic period, in order to limit the exposure, only employees who had personal transportation were called to work to start with. Employees had to report personal details of travel before entering the hotel premise and were tested for body temperature and symptoms, if any, daily during briefings.

The Aarogyasetu App as advised by the Ministry of Health was made mandatory for everyone entering the hotel. This helped in employees becoming more aware of their health and taking required precautions if they, inadvertently, had been in touch with someone who tested positive.

Heart-of-the-house employee areas were marked throughout to ensure physical distancing. Foot operated elevators, sensor based utilities such as two way doors, soap dispensers, and lights etc. were quickly installed to ensure touch-less experience.

A rigorous once in 15 days sanitization and pest control schedule was followed in employee accommodations provided by the hotels to ensure their well-being. Common Employee transportation was sanitized post every use.

To enable the robust implementation of new processes, the Covid Marshalls checklist was put in place to ensure compliance. A Cross-functional team of Marshalls was created to conduct daily audits and maintain health, safety, hygiene, and physical distancing standards. All non-compliances were escalated daily to guarantee tighter processes.

To combat the pandemic, the organization provided a panel of on-call doctors pan-India with specialist doctors emplaned for consultation by employees. This was especially useful for employees who resided in remote locations where medical facilities were limited.

All guest SOPs were realigned so as to uphold safety of our colleagues. Servicing the rooms in the absence of another person, delivering in-room dining at the door step, contact-less arrival and departure experience etc being a few highlights

Administrative tasks became online. Using technology to the optimal advantage, regional synergies and HR/ Finance/ L&D multi-functional approaches were defined.

The organization also used this opportunity to redesign work processes and we now have shared services for HR & Finance and the L&D hub structure which provide remote assistance to colleagues across geographies.

Needless to say, all the changes brought into place to face the pandemic-driven challenges have become par for the course.

L. Aruna Dhir - How are your hotels more safe and ready for the guests now?

Gaurav Pokhariyal - IHCL has transformed its approach and framework ever since March 2020 when the pandemic impacted the world. From the early period itself of augmented safety and cleanliness protocols, to adapting digital technology for providing contactless stay and dining, access, travel, and well-being to the customers and all stakeholders, we have taken the lead and learnt to work with many variables.

From the initial days of opening our doors to the medical fraternity and international and domestic travelers who were left in the lurch with cancelled flights and road travel to redoing our SOPs so as to implement the new protocols, we conscientiously pulled out all the stops.

As a step forward, we trained our staff, vendors and partners to take our hotels home to guests through endeavours such as Hospitality @Home and Qmin - our gourmet food delivery service and App.

With an unwavering and relentless focus on a customer-centric approach, we have rolled out six new brands, and over 12 new offers such as 4D, Urban Getaways, Bizcations, Wellness retreats and more to cater to evolving customer needs and the business ecosystem.

Today, travelers are more discerning, looking to indulge in not just the hotel but immersing themselves into the destination and all that it has to offer – be its food, culture, heritage, or legacy. Guests are looking at India and other leading destinations in a new light and are keen for consummately-enveloping, experiential holidays in the cocoon of a hotel; given that health safety protocols are critical and paramount.

By anticipating needs, espousing the fast-paced changes, consciously and compassionately understanding the constantly changing climate, the Taj has stayed ahead of the curve.

L. Aruna Dhir – Can you share with us some of the measures you have adopted to ensure the above?

Gaurav Pokhariyal – Yes, sincere thought and serious strategizing has gone into embracing new approaches and repurposing the earlier practices in order to ensure safety of all stakeholders and meet their needs; with equal premium given to both internal and external customers.

With Tajness - A Commitment Restrengthened, IHCL has come out with two key components for Safety and Precautionary measures, placing supreme importance on well-being and protection.

Developed in collaboration with some of the leading players in the field of safety and hygiene, this framework is representative of IHCL's augmented safety, hygiene, and physical distancing standards. Created in accordance with the norms laid down by the World Health Organization (WHO), Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Government of India, it reflects our assurance of safety and comfort for our guests and the well-being of our associates and partners.

Some of the concrete steps undertaken as a part of this assurance include:

  • Resting our rooms post check-outs and prior to reoccupation
  • Thermal screening of entrants and regular health-checks and counselling support for our associates
  • Mandating use of statutorily prescribed protective equipment, by our guests and associates
  • Use of digital technology for seamless check-ins, check-outs, payments, and dining experiences
  • Use of proven disinfectants for regular and deep disinfection of all hotel areas
  • Remodelling of layouts and fixtures in our guest and service areas as per physical distancing norms
  • Extensive training of our associates in practicing safety, hygiene, and physical distancing norms

I-ZEST, IHCL’s Zero-Touch Service Transformation, leverages technology to ensure heightened safety for guests and employees. I-ZEST’s new digital features allow guests to interact and engage with IHCL hotels by minimizing the physical touch, but maximizing quality of service.

Digital menus have been installed across restaurants which facilitate dining orders through QR codes and digital payments. Digital pre-check-in registrations, contactless guest access to their rooms via optional digital key cards, and Check-outs with online invoicing services have been brought into play.

To ensure that everybody was on the same page for effectively managing the Crisis, we avowed adherence to Government Travel Advisory and Guideline, for guest arrivals and stay protocols.

IHCL devised 4 Ps Framework which entails - Prevent Infection; Protect lives; Provide the support; and Persevere on sustained safety moving ahead with a sole objective of providing support towards its colleagues, customers, and community.

  • PREVENT Infection - Besides the stringent and consistent safety and hygiene protocols across all our hotels and offices, the Company has also been facilitating vaccinations for all eligible employees and will continue to drive the same for remaining age groups. IHCL has set up COVID testing camps for ease of testing and established a panel of doctors across India, accessible to all employees.
  • PROTECT Lives - In support of our frontline COVID warriors, IHCL has once again extended its #MealsToSmiles initiative and delivered over six and a half lakh nutritious meals to the healthcare fraternity across 35 hospitals in the country to date, in addition to hosting over 9,000 room nights for doctors. 17 IHCL hotels across 12 locations have partnered with hospitals to provide quarantine facilities for asymptomatic to mildly symptomatic patients, and this scope expanded when the situation became more dynamic. These facilities extend to employees and their families too.
  • PROVIDE Support - IHCL continues to extend support to its employees during these trying times through end-to-end support for impacted employees and their families including rehabilitation, care, and leave.
  • PERSEVERE Sustained Safety - The company is focusing on providing sustained health support such as upgrading safety protocols, introducing more nutritious meals for employees at staff cafeterias, organizing annual vaccination drives, driving awareness about regular medical check-ups and other endeavours towards the long-term commitment of the safety and health of all our colleagues.

L. Aruna Dhir – What significant steps have you taken around your CSR initiatives and Community Care? Please list all your CSR outreaches.

Gaurav Pokhariyal – Through the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust, IHCL has also supported many initiatives such as ‘meals to smiles’, which has to date provided for 3.5 million meals to migrant workers and medical staff in 2020 and now during the second wave, we have already delivered over six and a half lakh meals to medical fraternity. This was done through the company’s gourmet delivery brand called Qmin.

We have been front runners in supporting the Government in the Vande Bharat exercise, providing isolation and quarantine facilities for citizens who were repatriated from across the world. We provided 70000 plus room nights for health care staff and essential services. Many of these initiatives have engaged our employees in the frontline also, giving them a sense of larger purpose.

For a Tata company, community is not just another stakeholder in business, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence. Upholding IHCL’s values of Trust, Awareness, and Joy and in line with the Tata spirit of benevolence, IHCL sensed its responsibility and dedicated itself to making a positive social impact to the community and people from the industry that were adversely impacted by the pandemic resulting in loss of livelihood.

Through its disaster response vehicle the ‘TPSW - Taj Public Service Welfare Trust,’ IHCL created positive impact through various initiatives including COVID 19 Disaster Response, Taj for Family, Meals to Smiles, Healthcare professional support, and quarantine centres.

IHCL donated PPE’s worth 2.01 crores and 30 state-of-the-art Ventilators. During the 2nd wave of COVID, we re-started meals to smiles program in 35 Hospitals across 9 states in India.

Despite all odds brought in by the ongoing pandemic, IHCL has focused on building livelihoods in the country by skilling less-privileged, school dropout youth and by extending handholding and business opportunities to micro enterprises, artisans & social impact organizations. IHCL Tata STRIVE Hospitality Skill Centres continued to mobilize students, conducted sessions, undertook practical session, and carried out assessments, all through Virtual Modes. This determination resulted in training over 700 plus students. As the lockdown restrictions are easing and the COVID effect hopefully dissipating, they are in a strong position for placements.

Our Procurement team encourages local sourcing with special focus on vendors from marginalized community, small scale farmers, and women self-help groups. This generates impact of supporting livelihood of these people and communities at large. To this end our hotels work with small scale entrepreneurs, women SHG’s and NGO’s income generation project, to source select goods and services.

As a result of these efforts in Financial Year 2020- 21, our hotels supported over 23 vendors from under-served community members in earning a regular livelihood. Apart from this, the needs of local community are addressed through various welfare activities such as donation of food, supporting charity homes and orphanages undertaken in association with local partners, including communities, NGO’s, and government bodies, as appropriate.

Further, in the arts and heritage section, IHCL is evaluating opportunities to promote and safeguard ICH - Indian Intangible Cultural Heritage which includes measures to ensure the viability of intangible cultural heritage, such as identification, documentation, research, promotion, transmission, revitalization of such heritage sites. This, we reckon, will provide an impetus for community livelihoods and income generation in these destinations.

My conversation with Gaurav Pokhariyal reaffirms my belief that the individuals, communities and companies that are inclusive and weave others into their future vision and system design are the ones that will be most profitable business–wise given that they will have longer innings. Besides, they will also be those who will be the most respected and sought after.

The Pandemic has been universal and unbiased in the unleashing of its devastation. It has been undiscriminating, effecting people from any caste, creed, gender, age, geography, financial background, with as much ferocity.

The ultimate lasting lesson has to be that we must learn to unlearn and relearn and evolve in order to move forward from the Pandemic that has brought so many of us down to our knees. Also that the strong must carry along the not so sound in order to form a healthy, whole, gainful picture back again!

L. Aruna Dhir

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