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Tech-Awareness, Creativity Non-Negotiables for Hospitality, Says Ajay Bakaya

Learning and Development | 6 Min Read

Tech Awareness & Creativity Non-Negotiables for Hospitality, Says Ajay Bakaya

Ajay Bakaya, Executive Director, Sarovar Hotels and Resorts, is an old industry hand and has been integral to the phenomenal growth story of Sarovar since its inception. He has extensive experience working across India, Australia, Africa, France and Scotland. He speaks to Mettl in a free-wheeling interaction on trends and challenges in hiring, skilling and talent management in the hospitality industry and how the hotel group is addressing them to pivot toward the after-COVID-19 marketplace.


Talent Strategies and Management

What are your priorities in terms of candidate fitment across seniority levels? Share with us some insights into your people strategy.

We need to put this in perspective: In the last six months, let us say from April until September, we were forced to let people go. Or put them on leave without pay, or where some could work only a few days a week with reduced salaries, etc. So, as things get better and they are not better yet, my first strategy is to rehire staff we have had to part ways with.

My second strategy is to completely change the paradigm. We realized in the days of the pandemic that we can work with fewer people, and it is possible. So, my strategy would be not to go back to the people structure we had in the past and evolve a new paradigm altogether – where we are working with a smaller number of more efficient people. And deliver similar customer service levels.

In terms of new hires at the line-level, we would look at hiring as many people as possible. At the apprentice level, there is a government-sponsored scheme, which offers a six-month apprenticeship program in the kitchen, maintenance, housekeeping, etc. – so bring in raw people, offer them training and develop them into more responsible professionals in possible roles.

These are the three strategies we are looking at quite clearly.


And characteristics?

When you talk about characteristics in potential hires in the hospitality industry, you need attitude, the ability to work long hours and a certain sense of creativity. We look for smiles, the eagerness to work, and a certain hunger in the belly. I think attitude is the foremost quality we desire. While we are at a nascent level, we are trying to accommodate people with special abilities.


You said your employees must be able to multitask. Is that a major change moving forward, learning from COVID-19-induced disruption?

Multitask, I don’t know. But multiskill, yes. A lot of people are committed to what they are doing. So, my kitchen staff can cook the food and talk to customers about their culinary experience. The front-office staff can do more, but they are largely restricted to their floor-level duties. Engineering teams do what they are supposed to do; the housekeeping does the cleaning.

While multitasking is there but it is not all-pervasive as the books, the theories, and the academics make it out to be.


Technology & Learning Agility

Aside from the ability to adapt to technology and reinvent oneself professionally, what may be the areas of the industry where there may be visible changes in terms of operations because of changing consumer preferences and behaviors?

I think kitchens are one area in a big way. There would be much more delivery than in-house dining. A lot of offices might adopt the food delivery concept without having to operate in-house kitchens and canteens. I think off-site kitchens with large facilities would gain more traction. We may see more of them in times to come.


What is the importance of learning agility in the hospitality industry? New skills are coming up, and old skills are fast becoming obsolete. What is your take on the subject?

This is a very valid question. There will be more and more technology coming in. Anyone looking at developing a future in the industry must reinvent every ten years or so. They would have to be technology-friendly, although I think technology will also get people-friendly. But they would have to adapt to working with technology, working on screens and machines, as much as they do physically. So, even someone cleaning the rooms would have to know how much time it takes and feed the information in the system, etc.

I think technology would also play a big part in making things, perhaps a generation down the line as time goes by, less contact-based. One must always be prepared to work at unsocial hours, and it will be there. But more than anything, it is to understand that the requirements of the job will change all the time. And if they don’t change, they may not be there!


Assessment Methods and Strategies

Do you have a set process for skill assessment? Is it an in-house mechanism?

It is all in-house. We go onto online job hiring portals and other such available portals on the internet. Then we screen, shortlist, interview and take it from there. But at the department head level, we don’t hire without a physical meeting.

We have internal audits that help us figure out where we are going right and where we are going wrong. We also closely follow unfolding trends, nationally and internationally, to see what everybody else is doing. It is a continually evolving process and not something you achieve overnight. And it changes from city to city, place to place and zone to zone. You need different skills in different places at different times.

We have very regular interactions with our general managers – that is where most of our feedback comes from. The corporate team has a defined structure where they continually keep track of their verticals. So, there are several channels of communication. It is not restricted to one channel.


As a hotel chain, you have maintained visibly high levels of quality and services. What processes go into ensuring consistent service quality? How do you go about it in terms of training and development of your staff?

From day one, when we started the company 25 years ago, we decided to set up a corporate team at our cost, not at the hotel’s cost. And that team constituted corporate housekeepers, corporate chefs, corporate engineering services and corporate head of sales and marketing, etc. We have expanded those teams since then. We have a housekeeping team, an engineering team, a technology team, IT-related and finance teams, etc. So, it is a large corporate infrastructure.

All the senior corporate executives travel frequently and spend 50-75 percent of their time in the hotels—they layout standards, which are followed. We have manuals, learning material and training available online (for our staff). We closely follow all the guest comments made in hard copies and the ones appearing on the internet. We regularly scan them. We have a company based in the USA, scanning our guests’ feedback. We have intervened extremely promptly wherever needed.

But basically, there is a good core team that lays out standards and ensures those standards are followed.


Do you think that COVID-19 will impact the workplace ecosystem across industries, or do you think it is a blip, and we will head back to the olden days?

We don’t know. There will be some residual impact for sure. A lot of people have gotten used to the so-called ‘work from home’ concept. A lot of people hate it. But it has worked well for certain companies. So, we will see more of that and more of a blended work approach. Perhaps, companies will encourage people to work from home, time-to-time.


Trends in Hospitality

And specifically for hotels? 

Of course, running hotels is a different ballgame. You can’t run hotels remotely. You have to be there. I think in the industries, at the backend, in the corporate offices, things will change. And customers will require different things.

Yes, COVID-19 will have an impact; can’t say it won’t, can’t say it is a blip. All of us hope that it is a blip. But there will be pluses and minuses. For example, if you were to hire an office somewhere, you may knock on a hotel’s doors and block some space for office use intermittently. The consumer may not offer any deposits or securities. So, if occupancies remain a challenge, some of these answers may come out in terms of converting guest rooms into offices at good locations everywhere in the country. Customers would have access to all back-office facilities, 24 hours. It can’t get much better.


You have a deep presence in cities and towns that are coming up in a major way if I may use the term tier-2 and tier-3 cities. How is talent acquisition and management different there, from major cities? Have you faced any major challenges or peculiar opportunities there? 

Yes, we have. You are right. Those cities and towns can pose a bigger challenge. It depends on the kind of city. For example, we recently opened a hotel in Panipat and didn’t have a local talent bank to tap into. If I were to open a hotel in Jaisalmer, there are 20-odd branded hotels there. It would be that much easier to tap talent from within or even get our people to go there. So, it depends on the market’s maturity, the city’s population and its size in relation to the hotel.

Our long-term commitment is to find as many people as possible locally and mature them even to senior positions. These people do not tend to jump away in a hurry, and they are not doing you a favor by being there. They have homes there and wish to grow.

It has been the case in Puducherry. We started a hotel there 15 years ago and developed a local team of mid and senior-level management.

It should be mandatory and not optional for any hotel company to tap into the local talent pool and develop them. And it is challenging in the initial stages because they are not accustomed to what you are asking them to do. But it has to be worked upon; you can’t import talent all the time.


Things were looking alright in terms of ARRs and REVPARs in 2018 and 2019. Now we have hotels very much in survival mode. Do you have a timeline in mind where you see the industry going back to the pre-COVID-19 levels in occupancies, average room rates and revenue per room?

I believe we will do 65-70 percent of 2019 in 2021.


This is for your group or pan-industry?

This is for my group, and I am also talking pan-industry. I am certainly not aloof from the industry. I may be 5 percent higher, but I am no magician. Improvement will happen in the latter part of 2021. And hopefully, by that time, we will have vaccines available in the country for a certain number of people.

In 2022, the industry may register 80-90 percent business of what we did in 2019. By the way, we never got back to the 2007 levels. Considering that 2021 will see very little foreign inbound, it is a tall task. It won’t be easy.


Is this assessment across segments? Any thoughts on the mid-segment market? That is where your forte is.  

It certainly recovers faster. It is less price-sensitive than the upper segment or the luxury segment. Leisure destinations within drivable distances will see the first spurt of normalcy. They are already on the road to recovery. For us, Mashobra, Palampur and Shimla are working well. Kerala is beginning to pick up now, from within Kerala and from Tamil Nadu. Aside from that, Rajasthan and Agra.

Originally published January 15 2021, Updated January 28 2021

Written by

Shashank has been working in the publishing and online industry for eight-plus years now. He has donned many hats and has reported on diverse industry verticals, including aviation, tourism, hospitality, etc. He is currently the senior editor at Mercer | Mettl.

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