Socially-distanced events, contactless stays and the new rules of hospitality

While all these changes might seem cosmetic for guests, the pandemic has meant an entire paradigm change for the hotel management and staff.

The difference between a pre-Covid world and a post-one is felt right as we drive into the Taj Mahal Hotel in the centre of New Delhi. There is no valet opening the car door with a flourish to whisk away the vehicle for us; instead we are directed to an available spot and asked to park it ourselves. Valet parking becomes ‘guided parking’.

We are welcomed by the staff as usual, and requested to undergo the ubiquitous temperature check and sanitiser spray. The doors revolve automatically, allowing a contactless entry.

The staff inside are all sporting masks and face shields even as we are assured that the air circulating inside is from state-of-the-art filters that eliminate all kinds of microorganisms. We can’t help recall how last winter in Delhi was all about pollution-free air, with hotel chains competing on ‘best air quality’.

Coincidentally, as the Taj Mahal Hotel was under renovation when the pandemic struck, it was easier to incorporate new measures meeting current demands, and which are likely to be the new normal for several years to come.

As Satyajeet Krishnan, area director (north) and general manager, Taj Mahal, New Delhi, says, “These are extraordinary times that call for resilience, agility, planning and monitoring various aspects of our business. We have been innovative and have synergised our learning and efforts through the unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic.”

A contactless stay
For guests checking in, technology is more at service than humans. Taj hotels across the country have adopted a special software, I-Zest, which facilitates contactless and digital services right from when a guest checks in to paying the bills and checking out. From lift buttons, opening room doors to placing orders and payments, everything is possible without the need for any contact.

It starts at the door, which open automatically. Guests will encounter welcome desks with glass shields and placards with QR codes to help check-in digitally. Aarogya Setu app and a health declaration form is a must for every person checking in. Guests are encouraged to carry their own luggage while heavy pieces are transported in a trolley. All pieces of baggage arriving inside are sanitised first.

A tour of the rooms reveals housekeeping personnel in a PPE kit spraying the room with cleansers, after which the entire room is given heat treatment and rested for a minimum period of 24 hours before a new guest checks in. The housekeeping staff is separate for each floor to avoid any cross-contamination.

All linen in the rooms is freshly washed and tumble dried. Contents in the minibar, including crockery and cutlery, are not waiting and are made available on request. There is no newspaper delivery; what you have instead is a small placard on the desk with a QR code that takes you to an app with a range of newspapers and magazines. TV remotes are sanitised and in protective covering. Bathrobes are missing and available only on request. For in-room dining, expect the food to be left at the door and not laid out elaborately by the staff inside the room. After eating, leave the tray outside to be picked up.

A cookie not to be shared
With many visitors walking in and out of a hotel all day for business meets and social catch-ups, the lounge and coffee shop are some of the busiest areas. We see tables with placards “table not in use” to maintain social distancing at this hotel’s coffee shop, Emperor’s Lounge. As soon as a table is vacated, we see a staff member immediately spray all surfaces and furniture to ensure sanitation. Every table in use has a QR code that takes you to the menu. A new menu has been designed for the coffee shop, which encompasses several regional delicacies and allows visitors to have a whole meal there itself without having to shift to one of the restaurants. The cutlery is encased in an envelope. There are no shared condiments or even boxes of sugar sachets. Each requirement is served separately, including salt and pepper. Every person gets a separate plate of cookies to go with the coffee. A social meet complete with social distancing!

New taste of dining
As we walk into the 24-hour restaurant of the hotel, Machan, we notice that none of the tables are laid with the usual spotless while linen, sparkling glasses, shining crockery and cutlery. What we see instead are disposable placemats, coasters, napkins, individual water bottles, a placard with QR code for the menu. And, of course, tables with placards saying ‘not in use’ for social distancing.

Buffets have been done away with, even for breakfast. Set meals are offered instead on the tables, which prevents overcrowding as well as cross-contamination.

The staff is in masks and face shields. No chairs are pulled out; we seat ourselves and pour our own water in a glass that appears only after we are seated.

Glass partitions separate our party of three, ensuring safety and distancing. The cutlery comes in an envelope and we are also given an envelope to store our masks while we eat. However, there is no compromise in the service and the actual meal is an experience that takes you back to a more carefree time.

Kitchen with new recipe
Even as guests enjoy their food in the restaurant, a peep into the kitchen is a realisation of how much tedious work goes into ensuring a safe experience for visitors. Sous chef Aman Khanna shows us how despite the pressure of running a hectic service at meal times, the kitchen manages with reduced staff to ensure social distancing. Everyone is in masks, face shields, head gear and gloves. Only those managing the hot plates have uncovered hands. Moreover, gloves are changed and hands washed every half hour. Work stations and all surfaces are cleaned every half hour too.

Crockery is air dried and brought in only as per demand and not left lying around to catch germs. All fresh produce coming into the kitchen is washed with prescribed strength of chlorine cleansers, at 100 parts per million.

Executive chef Arun Sundararaj comments on the irony of providing an experience of taste, aroma and texture to guests while working in a clinical, sanitised environment: “To me, one of the most important considerations about preparing food is that it is both a science and an act of love and care. I believe that if one has the science perfected and has the passion for creating food, one will be able to deliver culinary delight on the plate and palate each time.”

He adds, “In the prevailing circumstances, we have enhanced our already stringent safety, hygiene and food handling protocols at various stages starting from procurement to the preparation of food. My entire team has undergone extensive training to reinforce the processes. This is part of our daily life now and we have adapted to it while ensuring that we continue to delight our guests with delicious flavours.”

Socially-distanced events, wedding
With the wedding season upon us, hotel banquet halls are gearing up for the busy months and their most lucrative revenue source. While the government has a cap on guests allowed, the other safety protocols remain a hotel’s responsibility. F&B assistant director Manpreet Chabba shows us how on arrival every guest has to fill up a health form which will help in contact tracing in case of any outbreak. Everyone gets a health kit with mask, sanitiser, etc. A look inside the hall reveals tables placed adequately apart, with each table of eight now hosting only four. Chabba tells us that buffets are being discouraged but if guests insist on one, it is served by the hotel staff standing behind the counters. Subtle barriers are set up to ensure smooth flow of guests and prevent overcrowding. The hotel has also come up with its own version of bento boxes, which is essentially a tray of small bowls on which individual portions can be put and a tray served to each guest instead of guests lining up for food.

The backend churn
While all these changes might seem cosmetic for guests, the pandemic has meant an entire paradigm change for the hotel management and staff. The biggest challenge has been the training of staff and sensitisation toward the new demands created by the pandemic. Standard operating procedures were formulated in consultation with various agencies and shared with the staff pan-India. The instructions were passed on through videos and slides. Aarogya Setu is mandatory for each staff member, as is a Covid test every 15 days.

Two floors of the hotel have been dedicated to housing the staff that cannot commute daily. It is taken care that no staff member uses public transport. Also, staff members over 50 years of age have been working from home.

“We have effectively implemented augmented hygiene and safety measures in our hotel in accordance with guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), ministry of health & family welfare, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Government of India. From regular health check-ups of all associates, including vendors, to an enhanced role of our microbiologist who tests random samples across the hotel and daily audit and analysis of on-ground adherence to the new normal processes, there have been multiple processes set in place,” says general manager Krishnan.

A hopeful future
As we move into the coming days and people become not only more aware of the necessities of precautions, but also accepting of the new normal, things are bound to improve on the travel front, both for business and leisure.

Rohit Khosla, executive vice-president, operations, north & west India, IHCL, the parent company of Taj Hotels, certainly is optimistic. “With the recent phase-wise unlocking across the country, business is showing gradual signs of improvement. While we are seeing a healthy pick up in leisure travel, corporate travel is still limited. As restrictions ease and traveller confidence increases, we remain cautiously optimistic about travel showing some levels of stability by the year-end,” he says.

As for the lull in revenues during lockdown and additional costs imposed by the new SOPs, Khosla says, “Whilst the new standards will have an additional impact on costs, it is absolutely necessary to deliver these experiences that our guests expect from a trusted brand like us. At IHCL, we have always had the most stringent hygiene protocols. In order to reassure guests and give them greater confidence, our commitment of heightened levels of safety has only been re-strengthened.”

He adds, “Recovery to pre-Covid levels could be another 12-18 months from here. This, however, hinges on how the pandemic behaves in the next few months.” For the present, the industry is opening its doors with the new rules in play and hoping for a quick revival.

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