Hyatt Hotels & Resorts' Sunjae Sharma talks about their growth plans in India

Thirty-five years and 30 hotels later, Sunjae Sharma, VP–India Operations, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts talks about his ambitious plans for the group, dealing with high attrition rates and the trends of the future.

Hyatt, Hyatt group, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Interview, Hospitality, Design, Business, Infrastructure

Which are the big growth markets for Hyatt in India?

Hyatt’s journey in India began in 1983, with the launch of Hyatt Regency Delhi. From being one of the first international hospitality chains to establish operations in India over 35 years ago, the brand has exemplified how [hotels can] adopt the best of local culture, even while maintaining international hospitality standards.

Over the years, we have observed a paradigm shift in the way people travel, the cities they travel to, and the reasons they are travelling for. Our growth has been in sync with this dynamic shift. Most of our eight brands in India have a multi-brand presence across several cities. From travel to business and leisure, these cities have driven our expansion plans. Markets such as Bangalore and Kochi are also key to our expansion plans.

People are increasingly travelling to Tier II/III cities for business, leisure and religious reasons. Even if these are smaller cities, travellers want the same standard of hospitality they are used to in larger ones.

For over three decades, we have focused on brand-led experiences with innovation at the core of our growth strategy. India holds a significant place in Hyatt’s global pipeline, third only to the US and China.

We look forward to partnering with owners who want personal, flexible relationships, and [desire] to stand out in a slightly overcrowded market. Our loyalty program, World of Hyatt, is a strategic initiative that drives the relevance of our connection to our customers—leading to greater engagement and resulting in a larger overlap between what we do and what they need. This works as a ‘sticky factor’ and drives greater share of the wallet, so that we’re a more relevant and integral part of our guests’ lives.

Beautifully designed spaces offer interesting images for the social media.

We believe that destinations and hotels have a symbiotic relationship. For us, growth and development are as much about developing talent and creating job opportunities, as it is about expanding our presence in the market and foraying into new destinations. We understand that millennials prioritise rich experiences and exploration of the unknown—and we are focusing on them more than ever. Our Hyatt Centric brand, [which has in its portfolio] Hyatt Centric MG Road Bangalore and the recently opened Hyatt Centric Candolim Goa, and our lifestyle rewards program, Hyatt Dinning Club, are examples of our commitment towards millennial travellers. Leisure travel within the country is growing immensely and we see a huge potential in the resorts market.

What hospitality formats are you looking for in Tier II markets?
Expansion in the Tier II markets have been the key aspect of Hyatt’s strategy over the past few years. State capitals across economically advanced and/or progressive states offer immense potential for expansion. Other cities that are economic engines are also on our expansion agenda. We are currently present across various Tier II markets such as Goa, Hyderabad, Pune, Ludhiana, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Bangalore, Raipur, Hampi and Rameswaram.

While domestic business travel has increased, we are also witnessing a fillip in leisure travel. Concepts such as staycations and weekend getaways are getting more popular. Hyatt Place, as a brand, offers a stylish, comfortable and value-driven stay option for business travellers and families, and is relevant across a wide spectrum of markets. We are also excited about the prospects of the Hyatt Regency brand in the more affluent Tier II markets, as [it offers] facilities for business, premium weddings, conferences and social events.

Ultimately, it is about the right brand-fit and market opportunity. For us, 2018 was a milestone year. We opened Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty in April, a 264-room waterfront urban resort is the third Grand Hyatt-branded hotel in India and the first Hyatt property in Kerala. We also launched our seventh brand in Bangalore. Hyatt Centric MG Road Bangalore, which opened in May 2018 and offers 143 contemporary rooms for guests.

How would you analyse Teir II markets in terms of infrastructure, business opportunities and challenges?
We are looking at state capitals or other key cities that are of prime commercial importance for states that are economically advanced. Before thinking about development in a new city, it becomes imperative for us to analyse its domestic and international connectivity, the infrastructure that it has to offer, and the urban planning within the city or town. We are careful in our due diligence and ensure that we understand the lay of the land in detail.

Hyatt recently bought over Two Roads Portfolio. What value does this add to your portfolio?
Both Hyatt and Two Roads believe in delivering distinct experiences to discerning travellers. With Alila, Destination, Joie de Vivre, Thompson by Hyatt, and tommie by Hyatt added to our lifestyle and wellbeing offerings worldwide, we now have 19 premier brands. With this acquisition, we have forayed into 23 new markets and have added 74 operating hotels to our global presence. Hyatt is establishing a new dedicated lifestyle division to combine the operations of Two Roads’ and Hyatt’s lifestyle brands. We will be adding Alila Diwa Goa and Alila Fort Bishangarh to our India portfolio this year. Two Roads’ brands are expected to join the World of Hyatt loyalty program soon, providing a whole new world of hospitality experiences for our members by allowing them to earn and redeem points across more leisure-focused stay options.

The design is marked by floor-to-ceiling glass walls framing the scenic backwaters of the Vembanad Lake.

Why did it take a while for Hyatt to expand its footprint in India?
When Hyatt started its India operations, domestic brands dominated the Indian market. Over the last 35 years we’ve had a distinct and differential strategy from other players and have grown with a specific intent. We want to be in destinations our guests are travelling to, and are mindful of our expansion into new markets. Our endeavour is to be ‘the preferred hospitality brand’ and not just a brand with the most number of hotels.
Since 2005, we have grown tremendously and added over 25 hotels to our portfolio.

Two of the biggest challenges that hoteliers face are asset management and high attrition rates. How is the Hyatt Group dealing with that?
From the very beginning in India, we have maintained an asset-light strategy. Our growth in the market is fuelled by management contracts. Only recently have we begun to adopt a selective franchising model with some of our most credible third-party operators.

Attracting the right talent and retaining them are big challenges. The hospitality industry specifically has been viewed as a difficult place to work in, because of long work hours and schedules that match a business which operates 24/7. At Hyatt, our culture encourages a familial environment and we’ve designed the workplace experience to help our colleagues be their best selves.

This has determined our practices—from recruitment and selection to on-boarding, development and career management, and even work-life balance. Fostering a culture of care where colleagues can feel a sense of belonging is key to retaining them. Leadership development is also a critical factor in fostering retention—leaders are trained to create a culture of care and inclusion, and act as coaches to their teams. They should be ‘learning leaders’ who understand that learning never ends—both individually and with their teams.

‘The Good Taste Series’ is a great example of how we keep our colleagues motivated. The global culinary competition celebrates Hyatt’s culinary talent. It provides employees a positive competitive platform, where like-minded colleagues come together to produce innovative dishes. Through this series, participants receive the opportunity to showcase their talent, flair and artistic skills in a light-hearted environment—even as they get noticed across Hyatt globally.

We have taken bold decisions to enhance the work experience of our colleagues, including a five-day work week (8 days off in a month), work rosters published a minimum of seven days in advance so that colleagues can plan their schedules and have a better work-life balance, adherence to working hours so they leave on time, and a ‘Global Family Assistance Policy’ which includes paternity leave.

How tech-ready are the Hyatt hotels? How have you used technology to transform guest experience?
At Hyatt, we understand that in this one-touch era, technology is ever-changing and so is consumer behaviour. We view technology as an opportunity to scale care.

With our investments in technology, we endeavour to make big differences for our colleagues, guests, meeting planners and owners. Freebird, Hyatt’s friction-free Internet authentication allows for a one-time central authentication, making future internet usage at any Hyatt property a seamless event. We are constantly adding digital platforms to our offerings, whether it is making bookings through our direct channels such as the website or our World of Hyatt application that enables people to make bookings instantly over their phone. We use GEM and Colleague Advantage for our Colleagues, Event Concierge app and Hyatt Planner Portal for Planners, and Mobile PAW for our Owners.

While modernisation and technological advancement is going to be a continued journey, human touch is very important to us.

What are the innovations implemented, whether in guest service, front office, or F&B services, across hotels of the Hyatt group?
Empathy, ideations, prototyping are now common terms in the vocabulary of our associates and leaders, and design thinking is a core component of our day-to-day operations.

At Andaz Delhi, innovation is visible in the F&B offerings and the experiences we are creating. Venues such as Hong Kong Club and AnnaMaya are great examples of the effective application of design thinking and innovation at the conceptualisation and delivery stages. Progressive lifestyle uniforms, electric cars, modern design studios for events, raising awareness and mindful eating at AnnaMaya, a magnificent variety of bespoke gin infusions in Juniper Bar, photo walks and Delhi Hero experiences to bring to life ‘401 Reasons To Fall In Love With Delhi’, recruiting through videos and at creative locations, are all just a few examples of innovations at Andaz Delhi.

AnnaMaya is a modern European Food Hall in India, and is inspired by the colours and flavours of India. Alongside the unique food, interesting artisanal produce is available for sale. The menu is designed around consciously-sourced ingredients from local artisans who directly or indirectly contribute towards the well-being of society. The Hong Kong Club offers perfectly prepared dim sums, tasting menus and signature small plates inspired by Hong Kong-Cantonese flavours.
The newly opened Colony Clubhouse & Grill at Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty is a re-imagined old-world grill that promotes sustainable seafood practices. Its culinary philosophy is fuelled by ancient cooking methods of cooking over open fires, smoking grills and burning embers.

At Grand Hyatt Mumbai, we are changing the concept and service delivery with the introduction of Guest Experience Managers. This has taken customer service and engagement to an extremely personal level. New concepts such as the Grand Brunch have catapulted our F&B offerings to an all-new height.

Hyatt Regency Delhi was the first hotel to promote authentic cuisine with ethnic chefs, as well as import produce from the country of the cuisine’s origin. The hotel introduced Italian and Japanese cuisine to India and was a social gathering hub with the Polo Bar and Lounge, La Piazza and TK’s. China Kitchen and its sister, China House in Mumbai, are both award-winning Chinese restaurants that have carved a name for themselves for serving the authentic Sichuan cuisine in India. The award-winning The Flying Elephant at Park Hyatt Chennai offers a unique dining experience with its spread of Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, North Indian, Italian and Western cuisines. Hyatt Regency Delhi also continues to be an innovator in other aspects. Google Dobbie is our virtual Concierge that is seeing trial runs in a few suites at the hotel. We will be formally introducing it soon.

The freedom to try prototypes and ideas allows our teams to be creative and not fear the judgement of their peers. This unfettered way of working is the bedrock of innovation and creativity that can be seen across our hotels.

Is the hospitality industry ready to rationalise the aggressive undercutting that brings down ADRs?
This is a very dynamic phenomenon. For any given market, the rates in the industry are largely defined by the cumulative effect of various factors such as supply and demand, the specific time period in consideration, and what is happening in and around the market in that timeframe. It is a market-driven scenario and a ‘one-size-fits-all strategy’ doesn’t apply here. We believe it is a demand and supply cycle.

At Hyatt, all our premier brands are at the high-end of their respective segments, and this provides tremendous opportunity for us considering the evolving industry. There are industry dos and don’ts and there are price points that each hotel can work within. It is important to constantly improve and innovate our products and service delivery.

How does the Hyatt Dinning Club differ from other loyalty programmes?
At Hyatt, we understand that guests value holistic experiences which move beyond the hotel and standard dining rewards programs, with incentives not just limited to restaurants and spa treatments. The incentives could include anything—from watching a movie with their loved ones, enjoying the thrill of para-mounting, taking a micro-flight over the city, or going on an adventurous one-day trek.

Developed and curated in India, ‘The Hyatt Dining Club’ is a simple and smart lifestyle rewards program. Its simplicity is reflected in its structure—there are no tiers or points, and one annual fee provides benefits and discounts at all Hyatt hotels across India.

The Hyatt Dinning Club was developed and designed around insights gathered during an in-depth research conducted by Kantar IMRB and Coral Research Services Growth. With partners like Xoxoday and PVR Cinemas, the program offers exclusive deals in the entertainment and adventure space. Seamlessly digital and smart, the program has secure online enrolments, with every membership linked to a unique mobile number. PayTm, India’s largest digital payments platform, is the exclusive official payments processor for the program.

How have Hyatt group hotels redefined experiential travel?

AnnaMaya at Andaz Delhi has a European-style Food Hall and a diner that serves food which is seasonal and made with local produce.

We constantly strive to curate offerings that give our guests the opportunity to extend their hospitality experience within and beyond Hyatt.
With the Hyatt Place audience, who look for a seamless and productive trip, it is as simple as [conversation with] a real person who understands their needs. Some want to travel to the local market with our chef and cook a meal with like-minded people at the Park Hyatt Master of Food & Wine event. Others want to discuss the local art scene at an Andaz Salon gathering. Globally, in The Unbound Collection by Hyatt, we are providing unique experiences that we believe people want to share with their friends and family. Our Hyatt Centric-branded hotels are always located in the heart of the city, bringing the best of the outside in, and serving as the perfect launchpad for exploring all the hidden gems and hot spots the destination has to offer.
In 2018, we announced the launch of FIND, a curated unforgettable experiences programme designed to help eligible World of Hyatt members to experience destinations in a locally-relevant way. FIND experiences include bespoke activities related to dining, fitness, adventure and restoration. For instance, while at Andaz Delhi you can learn calligraphy from an expert; at Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty the experience takes you on an adventurous toddy-tapping session.

Over the years, is there anything you have begun doing differently, decisions that are spurred by your learnings about the market?
Our learnings have positively influenced our my day-to-day problem-solving approach, forward thinking and creating differentiators. They fuel my strategic thought process and business perspective. From ‘The Hyatt Dining Club’ to our Hyatt Centric brand, recently launched and catering to the needs of modern millennial-minded travellers who seek exploration and discovery of the destination, or the launch of FIND—everything reflects those learnings. We launched Andaz Delhi in 2016, driven by the philosophy of ‘Arrive a visitor, Depart a local’.

What have the failures been and what have you learnt from them?
I see hurdles as opportunities and not failures. It is a mindset that I encourage, because that keeps us alert and enables us to push the boundaries. I believe that nothing worthwhile comes easy and naysayers are always out in full force. You can dwell on your failures—or learn from them and keep evolving. I tend to lean towards the latter.

What are the measures the government has taken to ensure the growth of the Indian hospitality industry?
Government initiatives and policies have helped the hospitality industry in several ways. With the ease of visa-on-arrival from multiple countries, the influx of international tourists has increased. Initiatives such as smart cities have also opened doors for future growth, which, we feel, can only bolster the tourism and hospitality industry.

What are the current trends in the hospitality industry?
Technology and changing consumer behaviour are the most important factors influencing current hospitality trends. I’m going to break this up across a few separate sub-trends.
It is important for hotels to understand millennial travellers. They are frequent travellers who rely on technology to make their experiences seamless, seek personalised interactions and are spontaneous.
Health and well-being are lifestyle trends. Travellers expect innovative wellness options, ranging from healthy F&B offerings to air purification, spas and yoga spaces within the hotels they travel to. The popularity of social media is not only causing hotels to become more involved in destination promotion and self-promotion, but is also influencing the experiences hotels curate, both inside and outside the property, to create social media-friendly moments.
Travellers look at hotels as home away from home. A personal touch in this era of technology has become even more important. Every hotel has a personality that comes to life through its unique guest interaction protocols and service offerings.
Travellers are more conscious of the impact of their actions on the environment. By implementing energy-conserving techniques such as solar panels, gas-saving magnets, rainwater harvesting, responsibly-sourced toiletries, sensor-based lights and air-conditioning, towel and bed linen reuse policy, hotels are going green.

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