Exclusive Interview with Srijan Vadhera, General Manager, Conrad Bengaluru
Operating a hotel in India’s ‘Silicon Valley’ is not a piece of cake. But Srijan Vadhera, General Manager, Conrad Bengaluru gets the ball rolling at a hotel where guests can experience international-standard service and style.
What are the transformations you have effected in the property?
I am privileged to have the opportunity to lead a young, enthusiastic team and work towards taking the hotel to greater heights. My focus areas at the hotel have been to a) Retain and motivate the right talent pool; b) Make Conrad Bengaluru a preferred hotel for the talent in the city so that aspiring hoteliers look forward to being associated with a brand like Conrad; and c) Focussing on our brand values. Our team members need to understand the core of our existence, which is to deliver exceptional experiences at all times.
What are the numbers as they stand today? How have they grown?
The hotel has seen tremendous growth in its first full year of operation with all the revenue streams exhibiting a healthy double-digit growth. The Bengaluru market is one of the most buoyant in the country and has remained resilient in the face of an uncertain economic outlook recently. The total hotel revenues have seen almost a 60% growth over 2018, with all segments heavily contributing to this growth. RevPar growth has again been the highest amongst hotels in the central business district, with occupancy growth of almost 75% over 2018. Food and beverage contributed approximately 46% of the total revenues this year. For Conrad Bengaluru, large-scale conferences and social celebrations are great contributors to our success. Restaurant revenues have again doubled over 2018, driven by a consistent focus on creating unique culinary experiences.
Conrad Bengaluru is the second Conrad in India and marked by a chic design and superlative experiences.
What are your major revenue streams and how have they grown?
Rooms contribute almost 50% to our revenues, followed by F&B, which contributes approximately 46% . While we remain focused on developing other revenue streams, their total contribution currently remains at 4 to 5%.
Is there going to be big money in the MICE/convetion segment or will the market still be driven by rooms and business travellers?
Bengaluru is still largely driven by business travellers considering the overwhelming presence of IT and ITeS companies in the city. Aerospace also contributes to the business, owing to the presence of HAL. The city has Grade-A aviation and defence suppliers who work with global corporations such as Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, etc. While MICE contributes approximately 10-15% of revenues, it is still not as significant as other metro cities in India and not aligned with global metropolitans.
One of the key reasons is the lack of suitable large-scale convention facilities. While the Bengaluru International Exhibition Centre (BIEC) has proven to be an effective option, there is a lot more to be done. Additionally, it is also about being able to market the destination along with other infrastructure around. We have been adjudged as a city with the worst traffic situation in the world and it is unlikely that the MICE segment will grow significantly.
How would you compare the Bengaluru market to Delhi or Mumbai?
The Bengaluru market has seen a considerable amount of supply addition in the last five years. And yet, while the occupancies in the luxury space may have remained at around 70-75% levels, the ADRs have seen a YoY growth of around 4-7% for the last three to four years, despite the added supply owing to continued investments by global and Indian corporates. Capacity expansion at the international airport will ensure that the momentum on increased travel remains. The next phase of airport development will see Bengaluru airport as the busiest hub in the country.
What space does Conrad Bengaluru occupy in a mature market such as Bangalore?
A hotel is a place where guests can experience service and style on their own terms — all while connecting with the local and global culture. Each of the 39 Conrads worldwide is a dynamic reflection of its city and culture, as well as a showcase for striking design and distinct surroundings. Our strength would be the power of our global brand — Hilton and the brand Conrad itself. The 100-year-old brand Hilton has a base of 100 million+ loyal members throughout the globe. While globally, the brand has a footprint across several continents, our focus remains to educate the Indian consumers and other relevant stakeholders about brand Conrad.
Are there any tech innovations that you have incorporated?
One of the key brand ethos of Conrad is to fuse art, design and technology to deliver a more inspired stay for guests. The Hilton Honors app gives the traveller the option to select his room before arrival. The guest would also be able to utilise their digital key via the app, which can be used to access the room, gymnasium, elevators and other areas. Kipsu is an in-house messaging tool used to internally communicate with guests. This is again a 24x7 service; an in-house guest can message his preferences or requests to be catered to, from his or her meal service or arranging an airport transfer next day or keeping his/her invoices ready at a time of their preference. The hotel also subscribes to a PressReader. Every guest can access digital versions of 7,000 newspapers and magazines in more than 60 languages without any additional charges. The hotel utilizes motion sensor electrical utility equipment to drive efficiencies and lower costs.
What are the sustainability initiatives you have introduced?
Conrad focuses on the reduction of plastic and contributes to the reduction of carbon footprint through the installation of an in-house bottling plant. Spread across 50sq.ft., this will reduce the use of transportation, contributing 30% towards carbon footprint. The usage of plastic will be drastically reduced. The electricity required is as low as 0.0028 units per litre of water. The 285 rooms and all public area bathrooms are equipped with occupancy-based sensors installed with an intelligent automation system, which turns the lights OFF and changes the FCU temperature setting to the pre-defined (default) set point.
This has brought down the average energy consumption from 2,600kwh to 2,250kwh. An ultra-filtration system in sewage treatment plant recycles the water to its maximum utilisation in toilet flushing, which has brought down water purchase by 7,850kl in four months YTD.
Sub-metering of electricity has been installed in guest rooms, kitchens, the banqueting area and public area bathrooms. After analysing the data, Conrad Bengaluru has optimized electric energy consumption through the installation of sensors that switch when the room is vacant. Before we took this initiative,the consumption of electricity was at 4,000kwh; today, we are at 3,400 (15% less).
What are the innovations you are effecting over the next year?
My focus will remain on constant innovation in the F&B space as it defines a hotel for the locals. In the year gone by, we have created some exquisite experiences that are still fondly remembered by our patrons. One of the key brand pillars of Conrad is Infinite connections. At a Conrad, guests can take advantage of experiences that are curated around passion points such as food, shopping, art, culture, wellness and adventure.
Wellness is another area we are focusing on. A guest who is devoted to fitness has various options such as jogging around Ulsoor Lake (Conrad Runners Club every Sunday at 6:30 am), access to the 24-hour fitness centre hydro-fit training every morning at the temperature- controlled infinity pool, the signature Conrad Spa that specializes in various body therapies, and at the end of the fitness session an indulgence in a specially curated wellness menu.
What are the unique challenges you face in the Bengaluru market?
As I briefly spoke about earlier, infrastructural woes in the city are certainly something that needs to be addressed given the pace of supply and development is not proportional with the infrastructural development. Current business mix of most hotels in the city is skewed with heavy dependence on 2-3 segments only, of which 60-70% contribution is business travel driven and again heavily dependent on IT & ITES industry. This shows excessive dependence on a single industry segment which can cause heavy turmoil in the economic down cycle.
The city also needs to start planning on building large scale convention facilities supplemented by the required infrastructure. Again, this is a long term project and would need initiation now to see some positives results in a 5-10 year horizon.
What does the hospitality industry expect from the state government?
As part of my role as the Chairman of Tourism Committee of Bengaluru Chamber of Industry & Commerce, we have drafted a guideline that discusses hotel projects, which is fairly exhaustive and takes into consideration the views of industry and allied stakeholders. While the state has done a great job in marketing Bengaluru as the Silicon Valley of India, the focus should have be on marketing other cities. The Ministry of Civil Aviation has recently approved five new airports in Karnataka (Vijaypura, Karwar, Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru, and Bidar). Karnataka has a lot of hidden gems — from mountains to beaches, which need to be exposed to the world outside.
How big a focus area is F&B for Conrad Bengaluru?
Given the location of the hotel and the innovative team of our culinary experts, Conrad Bengaluru has made a significant mark on the city's vibrant culinary canvas. F&B contributes approx. 46% of our total hotel revenues. Our restaurant revenues have almost doubled over 2018 by having a constant focus on delivering consistent experiences to our customers. Tiamo is popular among guests and locals owing to the ambience and the quality of cuisine. We have created some masterpiece events which are being still spoken about, such as the preview of the Star World’s Game of Thrones season III, which was innovative. The Absolut Art Bar at Tiamo appeals to the young and affluent.
How has the definition of luxury changed over the years?
Luxury is no more important for new age/millennial travellers. What they look for are experiences to remember. For a business location like Bengaluru, it is the efficiency and seamless delivery of services that distinguish a luxury hotel from others. Bells and whistles do not motivate a luxury connoisseur; it is the experience and efficiency that defines luxury in today’s context.
What have been your biggest takeaways from the industry?
Our industry still works on relationships and emotions, in spite of many technological advancements. We need to maintain a high level of relationships with all our key stakeholders, even as we maintain transparency and empathy, coupled with passion. To sum it up: Always be surrounded by awesome people who inspire you to be a better version of yourself. Never accept mediocrity. Always strive for the best. If you are just good, you are no good. Always do the right thing (you will never lose sleep). Whilst most of our industry peers are trying to attract and retain the right talent, there have to be proactive steps taken to increase the talent pool, given the growth projections for the industry over the next 5-10 years. Increasingly, social and political issues across the globe will be a cause of concern for the industry. Case in point is the unrest in Hong Kong or the after-effect of the unfortunate terrorist strikes in SriLanka, which their domestic hospitality industry is still recovering from.
How has the role of general manager evolved over the years?
The role has evolved from being an innkeeper to a business leader with an entrepreneurial outlook. The role is more measurable as the years have passed and not just on one but all three variables of revenue, quality and cost. One of the key missions for Hilton is to create value for the owners, with a greater focus on operational efficiency, quality and profitability. In today’s day and age, Return on Investment (ROI) is considered more important than Return on Ego (ROE). As the old saying goes, a GM, today, cannot command but has to demand respect of his/her teams, which, in turn, will result into a successful business operation.
What is that one thing you would like to change about the industry?
The current time frame for a hotel project commencement and completion are way off the mark in India, owing to multiple challenges. Streamlining this would have a positive domino effect if projects are completed within the defined timelines and the defined budgetary parameters. There have been numerous recommendations by our industry peers on considering hospitality business as an infrastructure industry and I would certainly advocate this, having seen the pressures that our stakeholders go through.
If you had one piece of advice to give someone starting out, what would you say?
Something I had read in a book by Simon Sinek and has caught my attention ever since — “Working hard for something we do not care about is stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.”
What does success mean to you?
A never-ending journey where every milestone is a catalyst as our goals and dreams only get bigger, better and harder with times. I have never measured success through superficial metrics like money stocked up in my bank account. Success is living a life with a great positive attitude, passion for the job you do, a heart full of passion, by which I mean devoting my energies to what feeds my soul.