In its fifth edition, Rajputana Collective gets into a conversation with Shivendra Singh Jaisalmer, the CEO of Mandir Palace, which is WelcomHeritage’ flagship property in Jaisalmer. Off-late, he has been occupied with the transformation of Shri Mohangarh Fort into a premier heritage hotel, which is situated 59 kilometres from the Golden City. One amongst the young scions of Jaisalmer, he is suave as he is gregarious, resolved and grounded in equal measures. The proud bearer of an MBA in management studies from the United Kingdom, Shivendra Singh makes his debut feature in Rajputana Collective through in insightful exchange of his in-depth knowledge of hospitality after serving over a decade in the industry. Broadly speaking, Shivendra Singh serves a perfect example of the archetypal young regent and host amidst the glorious Indian desert, nestling a welcoming oasis of Indian heritage and warmth. And yet, what sets him apart from this archetype is a genuine intent that drives him to delve deeper into the technology and workings of the hospitality industries and share that knowledge in order to enlighten tourists, travellers and hoteliers alike.
Q1. Hospitality and hotel management is the fastest-growing industry in the world today. Having been a seasoned professional in the field, what would you briefly state as the major changes and trends that the industry has undergone in the past decade?
There are a whole lot of ingredients which have shaped the hospitality industry and shall continue to do so. In the times to come this mix may be redefined with a set of new ingredients. Some of the important ones which I feel are as follows:
1. Rise in Competition: The hospitality sector has witnessed stiff competition and because of this we have started thinking of how to equip ourselves to survive. Local and International brands have made inroads in almost all tourist destinations. They have learnt to fight competition by making their offering more local – a strategy of thinking globally and acting locally has worked and this shall be a mantra for survival. The industry has also seen refinement in the way hotels and the travel industry present themselves to the customers. Hotels have improved their services and their products to a great extent. They are providing a bundle of activities under one roof, giving the travellers enough choice.
2.‘Change’: Change is a part of life and the faster one adapts to change the better it is for one’s survival. Change in every way – the way we think and the way our customers want us to change our product offering. There has also been a rise in wellness services in this sector for example. Those who have invested in the same in good time have done well and learnt how to improve on the same. Improved infrastructure and focus on customer experience has led to development of various off-beat destinations and adventure activities which this sector hesitated to invest in earlier. Time spent with loved ones has become the most important criteria for taking a holiday as the work-life balance has changed.
3. Technology: Technology has played an important role in shaping guest behavior globally. It has not only simplified operations for businesses in this sector but also become a major tool for the hospitality sector to present themselves to an audience far and wide. Dramatic shift from PCs / laptops to the usage of smartphones and mobile apps are forcing industry players to get accustomed to the ways of the technological bubble. For example embracing virtual reality will be a new phase where guests can try before they buy the holiday. Virtual assistants and chatbots are increasingly becoming popular as customers look forward to gain a deeper insight.
4. Social Media: The industry is collecting customer data and investing in understanding customer behavior for the hospitality sector. Social media channels like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter help in gathering relevant data needed by us. We can closely watch, follow and analyse the comments posted by different people and then use this data to present ourselves better to our target audience. In short we now know our customer and what they might be looking for. Today’s traveller is always looking for something new and then wants to share it with friends and colleagues over social media which demands our industry to be more creative.
5. Geo-demographics: Hospitality industry can predict the need of a person wanting to take a holiday based on the geo-demographics and the country of origin. Technology and social media have helped shaping this to a great extent. Data collected from mobile apps and social media has helped us to understand travellers behavior and needs in their respective cultures and different stages in their life cycle. Solo travellers across the world are on the rise for example and this trend has also picked up in the Domestic market. Solo women travellers have shown a steady rise in almost all destinations. Better education, independence and higher disposable incomes have been the main factors for this rise. It comprises of both business and leisure travellers.
6. Overall Experience: Customers are now looking for an overall experience. They have become more curious and do an in-depth study about the places they want to visit. They want to understand the local culture as well as taste the local produce from local kitchens. Technology has largely shaped this move and made it easier for them to explore new places. Micro-adventure activities are being encouraged as they are small and achievable activities by normal people. They involve low risk and have a deeper connection with the activity or destination. Such activities will be the driving force of this industry.
Q 2. The Indian market serves an interesting example of a dynamic hospitality market that has witnessed a sizeable boost in all categories of travel over the past few years. How do you perceive meeting the challenges of a multifaceted gamut of prospective competitors in the market?
Everybody now wants a holiday. Indians have become conscious about travelling and seeing new places. It is not just that they like doing it – it has also become an important social factor in our geo demographic society. Opening up of the Indian economy, financial stability etc have been the main reasons of boost in the domestic market. Change is the key to survive in this market. Harnessing technology and maintaining positive guest relations at every step will be the key ingredients to gain a competitive edge in this sector.
Hotels are cropping up now and then it will be those which survive which can differentiate their offering by providing an overall customer experience which enhances the value proposition. The key also lies in adding the local cultural flavours to the experience being provided. Timely Damage control by ensuring positive guest relations and customization will be the key for hoteliers to survive. It is pivotal to be transparent and give the correct picture to our clients.
Q 3. With the various genres of hospitality that have emerged/ are emerging, a customer today has everything to choose from in between- luxury, semi-luxury, mid-range, boutique, budget-friendly, home-stays, etc, all in a click. Which segment would you say stands at a maximum advantage out of the lot and why?
All segments have their target audience as clients are diverse with varied expectations. There is no definition of Luxury today as it is perceived differently by different people. Luxury is now an experience of the journey, the destination and quality of service provided. However, I feel that it is the hotels which are customer focused and have received good accolades from their guests will do the best. The idea is to remain focused and adapt to the changing needs of the guests. Customers do not expect Luxury from a budget hotel and vice versa. They know what they are booking and the click bubble has just made it easier.
The top five star chains are offering competitive prices, loyalty schemes and value added benefits to attract customers. On the contrary, even an individual hotel in a remote location can do well and is doing well by getting the guest satisfaction index correctly in its favor. It does it by maintaining good guest relations, strategy of differentiation and adding the local zest to the package. Pricing and cost control mechanisms will be key factors in determining the profitability.
There is an increasing shift towards cultural experiences i.e living the local way of life and gaining different perspectives of different cultures. Travellers want an in depth understanding about the local customs and want to connect with the local people. They have become more participative, adventurous and curious about the place they visit and stay. Planting a hospitality unit in the right location at the right time is also an intelligent strategy.
Q 4. According to your expert opinion, what is the one USP that is absolutely crucial for the successful running of a hospitality venture?
Total Commitment is very crucial for the successful running of a hospitality venture. This is a macro term and engulfs a whole lot of elements like attention to detail, proactive attitude of staff , an outward-inward approach to understand the customer expectations and keeping your product (property) tip-top at all times. Investment in staff mentoring, training and welfare are important since the hospitality sector needs the human element. Without the human touch this industry will become boring. A dedicated owner or top management is needed to guide the staff in the way they want their guests to perceive their property. The idea is also to have an ideal blend of technology combined with the human touch so that the basic experience is not lost. However, you cannot just stop here, you need to take feedback and then further gain insight from the feedback and review this strategy.
Q 5. Which hotel sub-department do you find most challenging to operate and why? Alternatively, which do you find the least challenging to operate and why?
Dealing with the Human Element in the services industry is most challenging. Our industry requires a high level of human contact. The behavior and attitude of individuals varies and we have no control on what they think or might do even after several efforts have been made in recruiting, training and mentoring them. The overall conduct of staff in service delivery has a direct correlation with how our product will be perceived by our customers. A bad service delivered sends a wrong message to the customer.
On the other hand, a good delivered service which exceeds client expectations is a great ‘Delight’ to the customer. There is another problem in our industry that we do not get people with the right attitude. So we have to make up for this with lots of efforts of supervision and training.
Developing something is very interesting as it allows me to be creative. I can think out of the box for new ideas. This certainly does not answer your question of ‘least challenging’ – as anything done to perfection would involve a challenge. However, I must be honest that I am not very creative and take most of my ideas from my mother who indeed is very creative and has good taste. I have learnt a lot from her and am still learning. My father has full faith in me and has given me a complete free hand on running and developing Mandir Palace. He has guided me about people skills and taught me about heritage conservation. Today it is under my parents guidance that I have been able to successfully develop a Hotel and Museum at Mandir Palace which is also our home in Jaisalmer and also develop another hotel by the name of Kalyan Bhawan in Jaisalmer. Now I am working on my latest project to develop Shri Mohangarh Fort into a Heritage hotel situated 59 KMs from Jaisalmer. The fort was built for my grand father Maharaj Hukam Singhji by his father Late H.H. Maharawal Jawahir Singh ji. My grand father takes a lot of interest in the restoration and development work at Shri Mohangarh and keeps encouraging me along with my parents.
Q 6. What is the most rewarding aspect of being a hotelier? And what is the most challenging aspect?
Receiving accolades from guests staying in your property is certainly satisfying. At the same time it is very satisfying to see that our home (Mandir Palace at Jaisalmer) has been restored well and transformed into a hotel and museum with guests appreciating our efforts and also enjoying themselves. I have seen those times when guests said that the property needs good upkeep to the times when they say that it is a well maintained property. Changing and adaptation are most challenging as they don’t’ come easy. They require huge amount of money, effort and time which are very precious. However, I perceive that we will need to keep changing with the requirements of the travellers and mold ourselves to their needs to remain competitive in a rapidly growing destination like Jaisalmer. We will also need to keep investing in retaining the right talent and training staff in such a way that they deliver good services to our guests, i.e. practical knowledge along with soft skills. Hence, the process of reviewing and improving with the wheel of change is a constant one.
Q 7. Which Indian hospitality venture do you find to be an ideal exemplar and why?
The Oberoi group is a perfect example of an Indian luxury hotel chain which has made inroads into foreign land. The Oberoi’s have compelled larger international brands from developed nations to rethink about the definition of hospitality. Their commitment to serve the luxury market along with the right mix of talent and finesse is a live example of how luxury market has been redefined by an Indian Brand. It should be very motivating for youngsters like us to try and achieve something extraordinary in our lives. Their vision that people are the most valuable assets along with the determination and commitment have helped them achieve the world class status amongst the best hotels in the world.
8. Lastly, please spare a few sentences to state how you perceive the future of Indian hospitality industry.
The hospitality industry has a bright future as the Indian Economy progresses. India is a diverse country with unique locations and a whole lot of cultural experiences which can be shared with the world. Hospitality is deeply embedded in our culture. The Culture of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ - where the guest has been treated in equivalence with God. It is the relationship between the host and the guest, where the host receives & treats the guest will full honour.
We have a large population of youngsters which is an added advantage to our nation compared to the ageing population of Europe provided we utilize our talent judiciously. The role of women in the hospitality sector is going to increase as the government is keen to empower women and many companies only want to employ women in key positions as they believe that women are more receptive and can handle real time situations in a more composed manner.
The development of Heritage buildings may be by means of privatization like the Red fort will highlight our country. This move will provide enhancement in basic infrastructure facilities along with needed restoration work. It will boost employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for a whole lot of stakeholders.