Kurt To The Chase
How Kurt Straub, VP, India Operations, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, is re-ushering in the human touch in the business of hospitality
By Vinita Bhatia
Spotting Kurt Straub in a room full of people is very easy; at over 6 feet, he looms over everyone. And if his towering personality was not enough to miss, his twinkling eyes and quick wit when he starts talking quickly catches your attention.
And once you get his chatting about food, you can see his eyes sparkle even more brightly. Growing up in the scenic Rapperswil-Jona in Switzerland, Straub’s memories growing up are about time spent enjoying seasonal food with good wine and beer. When he was as young as eight, he would stand around in the kitchen, watching his mother cook and even help her chop produce for the Sunday meal, thinking this was the perfect life. So enamoured was he by the world of cuisines, that after graduating from the Hotel School Belvoirpark Zurich, at the age of 17, he started his chef’s apprenticeship program in Davos! This was where the foundation for his work ethics and his knowledge of food and wine was laid.
Straub’s first job was as a cook at a local restaurant in his hometown of Rapperswil – Jona in Switzerland. “As a rookie, I learned some valuable lessons there, which have remained with me throughout my working life. Being Swiss, one grows up knowing that hard work is the most important ingredient of success. However, it is perhaps even more important to keep your calm while working under pressure. Working in a hot, enclosed space with a bunch of other cooks, one learns that it is essential to be a team player. We all have to depend on each other to succeed and help out when needed,” he reminisced. This was also where he understood the value of being creative and not shying away from taking risks, and that at times, one has to work irregular, long hours in order to succeed.
THE HYATT YEARS
Straub’s association with Hyatt Hotels and Resorts began in 1993 when he joined Hyatt Regency Acapulco in Mexico. Over the years, he was worked with various Hyatt properties in Singapore, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Switzerland, Mexico and now India. In an industry where job-hopping has become an unapologetic norm, Straub has never felt the need to look anywhere else.
“I can honestly say that this one company has satisfied me professionally, mentally and emotionally. As part of the Hyatt family, I had the opportunity to travel around the world, explore different cultures and drive growth. I have come to realise that being at the right place at the right time helps propel your growth as an individual. I have had a fabulous time with Hyatt in the last 25 years and made the most of a large number of opportunities in various parts of the world,” he said.
At one stage in his career, Straub was the general manager of Hyatt Regency Mexico City and general manager of Park Hyatt Zurich. And during these, and other stints, he picked up several learning about managing operations, enhancing staff productivity, maintaining brand integrity and overseeing owner relation management. He is now emulating these in his latest role as VP, India Operations.
He agrees with the French saying, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they remain the same). “It is not so different working in hotels in different parts of the world; people are looking for the same emotional and mental fulfillment every time they enter our doors. It’s interesting to note, for instance, that Mexico’s workforce is similar to that of India and hospitality is also a big contributor to the country’s success there,” he said.
One of Straub’s epoch-making moments with Hyatt took place recently when he had to steer the company’s purpose in India, which is to care for people so they can be their best. “To take this powerful message to our associates and guests, and watch their faces light up as they absorbed the true meaning of it was a heartwarming and unforgettable experience. Our associates came up with so many different suggestions to make their jobs more meaningful and also more comfortable. And all it took from us was to give them the opportunity to speak freely and openly and have someone from the leadership team listen with care and empathy,” he recalled.
This exercise made him realise that a strong company culture helps in retaining the talent; and he was the best case study for this! And he had to look no further than his own experiences to understand the aspirations and expectations of a hotel associate.
DRAWING FROM EXPERIENCE
Straub recalled the time when he was part of building the reputation and brand for Hyatt Regency Mexico City and Park Hyatt Zurich. As general manager at Park Hyatt Zurich, he was in charge of one of the city’s exclusive hotels. “It was like being in the kitchen again and making sure the line cooks, sous chefs and all the other chefs and commis got it right the very first time. Back then, we worked as one team and we had only one goal – to make sure that every plate that re-entered the kitchen from the front of the house was scraped clean and no one left any food behind. Similarly, in the hotels that I worked in a leadership capacity, we were laser focused on caring for our customers and our associates and making sure that we knew what they wanted before they realised it themselves. And of course, we would try our very best to give it to them,” Straub reminisced.
His personal experience from working on these brands in different settings and catering to a diverse audience set helped him implement and adapt a variety of these strategies in the Indian market. Hence, his first priority was to establish immediate and meaningful communication with all stakeholders – owners, guests and associates – and to listen to what they had to say with an open mind and empathy.
He increased the frequency of the corporate team’s visits to different properties in India to help communicate and establish the company’s purpose, which is to care for people so they can be their best. “I have tried to establish a meaningful relationship with our developers and work closely with them to achieve common objectives. I also focused on establishing personal connections with the team members at each of our 27 hotels in India,” he stated.
After this initial set of priorities was established, Straub focused on making the work environment at Hyatt’s corporate office at One Horizon Centre in Gurgaon a happy one. This is where the team not only works hard, but can also enjoy a game of pool or grab a coffee in the café whenever they feel like it. “This stylish and inspiring environment has helped to change the way we conduct business in India and ensure that our work-life balance is in place,” Straub smilingly said.
The hospitality industry is characterised by long working hours, which takes a toll on an employee’s work life balance. The high attrition rate in the business, therefore, comes as no surprise. To address this pressing concern, Hyatt is introducing several new benefits for its associates, including eight weekly offs in its hotels, and part-time positions. Besides ensuring employee satisfaction, this also increases productivity at the property level. “Besides this, we are also looking at different ways to operate properties to stay competitive in the respective market as well as drive returns for our owners,” revealed Straub.
CHANGE, THE ONLY CONSTANT
While many hotel chains are busy putting more dots on the map in a bid to expand quickly, Straub claimed that Hyatt does not aim to be biggest brand in the world; it would rather be the most preferred. “In line with this, we have been very mindful about our expansion in India as we are laser-focused on serving the high-end traveller. It is our continuous endeavour to care for people so they can be their best, and we believe that this strong sense of purpose that we bring to the table will continue to power our growth in this country and around the world,” he added.
As a company, Hyatt is focused on building hotels in destinations where its guests are travelling. Since domestic travel has become increasingly important in India, it has have ramped up its efforts to increase Hyatt’s footprint in tier II and III destinations, as these cities and towns are underserved, and we believe that they have great potential. “We are also looking at venturing into markets such as McLeodganj in the Himalayas, where leisure travellers are a prime component of the tourism industry,” Straub stated.
With 27 existing hotels and several in the pipeline, India is prominent, along with the US and China, in Hyatt’s growth strategy. Expansion in a dynamic market like India is central to its global growth strategy as representation in key cities and resort destinations provides it with the opportunity to drive preference for our brands.
Though India has high growth potential and remains a market where the company can grow its brand representation, as a hospitality management company that is contracted to run hotels for local developers, Hyatt typically does not invest in hotels. Currently, the hotels in the pipeline include – Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, Hyatt Place Hyderabad and Hyatt Place Bengaluru, Hyatt Regency McLeodganj, Hyatt Place Jaipur, Grand Hyatt Gurgaon, among others.
At the moment, Hyatt’s India portfolio includes 27 hotels across 17 key destinations. With more than 6,700+ rooms in its inventory, it aims to add approximately 650 more keys by next year.
In December 2016, Hyatt debuted the Andaz brand in the country with Andaz Delhi. Looking at the enthusiastic response to this launch, does that mean that India can expect other brands from the Hyatt portfolio – like the Unbound Collection, Hyatt House, Hyatt Ziva, etc, –to follow suit soon?
“To cater to the growing traveller mindsets that are searching for a distinct breadth of experiences, we definitely see an opportunity to introduce our Indian guests to Hyatt Centric and The Unbound Collection by Hyatt, in the coming years.
Last year, the company also launched Hyatt Place in Candolim, Goa and in 2017, it launched Hyatt Place Rameswaram and Hyatt Place Hyderabad. Does this mean that Hyatt Place is the most significant brand in its portfolio?
Straub replied that as the company expands, Hyatt Place is a large part of its growth strategy in India. “The brand is gaining popularity here as it offers comfortable and cost-effective options for business travellers and families. After the success of the recently launched Hyatt Place Rameswaram, our two Hyatt Place hotels in the pipeline are Hyatt Place
Hyderabad and Hyatt Place Bengaluru. The Hyatt Regency and Grand Hyatt brands will also see expansion in the market.”
He has his eyes set on doubling the company’s inventory by 2025. And he is aware that he cannot adopt a cookie-cutter approach to achieve this, since India is a large market with varied clientele, preferences and budgets.
“We are aligning our growth to leverage the new demand in domestic travel and expect to expand into several new markets in India. We have ramped up our efforts to increase Hyatt’s footprint in tier II and III destinations as these cities and towns have great potential and are underserved,” Straub explained.
TACKLING CHALLENGES HEAD-ON
Running a hotel in India comes with its challenges. However, according to Straub, the biggest is the increase in operating costs, especially electricity bills. “Some hotels were built over 15 years ago, and in those days, energy efficiency was not a focal point. However, our hotels are now built with a focus on sustainability and we continue to move towards being eco-friendly. Our oldest hotel in India, Hyatt Regency Delhi (it was opened in 1983), was recently awarded the LEED Platinum certification by Green Business Certification Inc,” he said.
The other challenge is generating a return for the owner or developer, as financing hotels is an expensive and difficult proposition. And difficult that is universal for any business in the country is securing licenses, which is still unpredictable and getting the necessary approvals to open and operate a hotel.
According to him, Indian hoteliers need the government’s support in streamlining this process, especially now that the focus is on ‘Make in India’ and the country has become tourism-friendly with initiatives like visa-on-arrivals.
Fortunately, as Indians increasingly acquire a strong wanderlust, business is flourishing. The domestic traveller has quickly outnumbered the international traveller at Hyatt hotels across the country. “According to the 2nd Tourism Satellite Account of India report, the number of domestic tourist visits to all states/union territories has increased to 161.4 crore in 2016, up from 143.2 crore in 2015, registering a growth of 12.7%. Although individual hotels will have differences in the percentages of domestic travellers versus international travellers, we are quite confident that our hotels in India will gain maximum traction from the domestic traveller,” Straub happily pointed out.
Keeping this in perspective, Hyatt has started aligning its growth to capitalise on this development and has started targeting into segments to attract the domestic traveller. For instance, Hyatt Amritsar and Hyatt Place Rameswaram, will cater to spiritual tourists, while the Hyatt Regency McLeodganj in the Himalayas will offer visitors to the Dalai Lama’s retreat a serene and untouched setting.
Hyatt Amritsar also has enhanced spaces for dramatic weddings which appeal to the local community. Hyatt Regency Kolkata, Grand Hyatt Goa and Hyatt Regency Gurgaon are strategically focused on the Indian wedding market, which brings in room nights and F&B revenue from the domestic market.
“Our strategy is to try and go wherever our guests travel. Indian travellers are constantly evolving, seeking newer experiences and offerings as part of their travel aspirations. Keeping in line with this development, we are aiming to bring back humanity into travel by building unique experiences for the high-end traveller in our hotels and beyond,” Straub said.
By listening to guests’s requirements, he is taking the long-term view and creating a generous heritage for Hyatt – one that is even more substantial than the one that the brand already enjoyed before he took charge of its Indian operations.
After all, things in business can be fleeting, but as long as one has the ear firmly to the ground, you can pick up the whiff of a trend well before anyone else becomes aware about it. And that is what separate a true hotelier from just another hospitality professional!