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“Bangalore Sheraton Will Be 3 Years Old And We Are Growing“

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The $5.2-billion Starwood Group has over 39 properties in India and has several other properties in partnership with ITC.  Its marquee brand Sheraton in Bangalore is completing three years.  Its new general manager Saurabh Bakshi has been tracking the growth of the city closely as well as the dip in the economy which is impacting the city. He believes that major brands will survive, but star hotel businesses are going through a blood bath where talent is hard to come by as well as guests who are spoilt for choice. Bakshi  says innovation in the hotel industry, is always done keeping guests in mind. He adds that regardless of technology, the people quotient can never go away in a luxury brand. 

Excerpts from the interview

How have people perceived brand Sheraton in Bangalore?
The brand plays an important role. Starwood has 9 brands and it is necessary for each associate to know what each brand communicates. Remember we need to offer guests self-discovery;  you cannot force them to use the property and its many services. The next innovation in hotels is about not complicating things. Hotels need to catch up to the trends of benchmarking according to needs of guests.   Our parent company has a brand called Aloft, which is for young people, where there is more emphasis on internet connectivity and large TVs in the hotel. It is built specifically for young executives. When these people become senior executives, we believe they will move to brand Sheraton. Things are evolving and we need to keep learning every two years. These days , mobile apps are very popular and our guests are offered the Starwood Preferred Guest app and they can leave all their experiences in that app. Things are dynamic in nature and there are no two ways about it. You need to listen to the guests. We launched a wi-fi service in cars that would save a lot of time for our guests while in transit from the airport.  In the 70-minute drive from the airport, guest can get work done .  The wi-fi was an important step to win the loyalty of guests.  Businessmen want to strike deals and not worry about the checking in to the hotel and then trying to finish work in their room.

What is data telling you about your property?
Fifty per cent of our loyal members understand our brand and their insights are important.  But I cannot ignore data of the other 50 per cent of the guests who are local and also have a say in what they perceive of the brand.  The SPG portal is global and I have all the reports on what guests are thinking about a property that they have enjoyed. There are many things that data tells me; but in the hotel industry you need to recognise regular guests and the quality of the upkeep of the property is instantly recognised by them. So service goes beyond data and technology. I have all the reports on my dashboard. But I would like my associates to be in touch with the guest and not look at what data is saying on the mobile. When the Sheraton came to Bangalore in Malleshwaram, we never knew what the future would be in this locality. However, with the success of the entire Brigade Gateway property, which includes the mall and the World Trade Centre, we have become a landmark in this area. We brought identity to the conservative part of Bangalore and then with the airport connectivity solved this destination has become very upmarket.

Is the new money in Bangalore experiencing luxury or are they still learning?
There is a lot of (what you call) new money in Bangalore. I would not call them new money;  these individuals are called “life enthusiasts” because they want to express themselves and are socially savvy. It is not as if they will sit in the corner and smoke a cigar to say they have arrived. These people want to be engaged and are asking questions about food and about lifestyle. Majority of the guests here understand what the Sheraton stands for. Yes there are people who want spicy food even though that cuisine is not meant to be spicy. But you cannot ignore local tastes and we do listen to them.

Do you see the state of the economy impacting Bangalore? What are your guests saying?
One thing I do is speak to all the corporate guests. Everyone believes that India slowed down for its own policy reasons. But they are still bullish about the country. The economy has dipped but there are corporates that would still love to invest in India. I see that for hotels it is the survival of the fittest.We as a hotel need to keep learning. In one year we will have more guests because Bangalore has so much business to offer. Our hotel will be three years old this May and we are growing. What has changed though is the amount of hard engagement that is happening with corporates these days because of the competition. Sometimes some of our senior associates tail our marketing teams on sales pitches and they come back to me saying marketing is a very hard profession. It is difficult because what we are competing with is discounting rate because of the competition out there. While winning business you do not want to dilute what the brand communicates. There is competition in Bangalore today and we cannot ignore it. The large brands or properties will survive the slowdown in the economy.

How are you measuring your revenues? Do occupancy rates matter?
Today you cannot measure a hotel only on occupancy. It is revenue per square feet for all the services offered in the hotel that is a measure of revenues. The occupancy rate can be 80-90 per cent, but that is not the be all and end all of revenues today. People are yet to loosen their purse strings in Bangalore. Yes it is a global city, but say for example getting a Michelin Star chef is still a long way away. The city is getting ready for such things and such services will soon be in touch with luxury too. Currently it does not make sense because a Michelin star chef would only do a 15 people table and will charge a lot of money. For now we are open to local festivals, say a Goan or a Rajasthani food festival. So I fill my marketing calendar across festivals and business conclaves and exhibitions. If we increase our revenues with our services along with our rooms then we believe we are doing the right things.