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'Travel, Tourism sector Pinning Hopes on Vaccine Passports': Kavinder Singh

Kavinder Singh, MD & CEO, Mahindra Holidays & Resorts India, tells Ashish Sinha of BW Businessworld says the travel and tourism sector in pinning hopes on vaccine passports and how the Club Mahindra ‘Safe Stay’ programme helped members travel safely. Excerpts:

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Mahindra Holidays & Resorts India, a part of Leisure and Hospitality sector of the Mahindra Group, offers quality family holidays primarily through vacation ownership memberships. Kavinder Singh, MD & CEO, Mahindra Holidays & Resorts India tells Ashish Sinha of BW Businessworld says the travel and tourism sector in pinning hopes on vaccine passports and how the Club Mahindra ‘Safe Stay’ programme helped members travel safely. Excerpts:   

How has the 2nd wave of Covid impacted the tourism industry and specifically you? 
The second wave, given the resurgence in COVID-19 cases, will impact the tourism sector, and we will have to just wait and see how the travel situation unfolds. However, what keeps me hopeful are the lessons we have learnt and the practices we have picked up during the first wave of COVID-19. In a year impacted by the pandemic, we have emerged stronger due to our unique and resilient business model. We have carefully developed and implemented the Club Mahindra ‘Safe Stay’ programme for our resorts, with the focus on safety protocols and best-in-class hygiene measures, which go far beyond compliance levels. This programme is an expression of our commitment to the health and safety of our members and staff. Furthermore, we have implemented strict SOPs, which are regularly upgraded to ensure the highest hygiene and disinfection standards at all touchpoints in our resorts. All these factors have helped us build our members' confidence and boost domestic travel. Eighty percent of our resorts are located at drivable distances from cities, thereby making it convenient for members to safely travel in their vehicles. 

The tourism sector had recovered partially during Feb/March. How much dent is this second wave expected to bring? 
The process of unlocking began in June, last year. People started taking holidays with their friends and family and chose Club Mahindra for our elevated safety and hygiene standards. Our members were opting for destinations at drivable distances in the safety of their vehicles. We have witnessed occupancy of up to 100% in many of the resorts including Mahabaleshwar, Corbett, Mussoorie, Kandaghat, Naldehra, and Goa. We at Club Mahindra witnessed 85% occupancy in the fourth quarter – close to pre-pandemic levels – and strong occupancy of 72% for the overall year. However, with many states in India strengthening localised lockdown rules, the hospitality and tourism sector is facing a repeat of 2020, at least for the time being. 

What is your outlook for FY 22? 
As a part of our growth and expansion strategy, we plan to add close to 1500+ rooms in the next 3-4 years. The company is looking for acquisition of resorts in the right locations, and at the right prices. Further, the company is exploring parts of western and eastern India, particularly, as it sees potential to create new destinations and introduce unique experiences. We are open to opportunities in the north and south as well – markets where the company is already well-entrenched. We will continue to focus on international markets as well. We have 10 international resorts – in Dubai, Bangkok, Phuket, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, etc. We are looking for new resorts at short-haul destinations in South East Asia. There will be a strong focus on increasing our member base; creating marquee resorts at unexplored destinations; engaging members; driving operational efficiency; and maximising the lifetime value of our members. 

How are you revisiting your strategies and initiatives to battle the on-going and unanticipated situation? 
At Club Mahindra, we continue to focus on enhancing customer safety; introducing new outdoor experiences; and launching new resorts. Our resorts have obtained the highest level of certification in safety and hygiene standards from ‘Bureau Veritas’ – the global leader in testing and inspection. Our ‘Travel with Confidence’ initiative ensured that our members took hassle-free, well-deserved holidays, to relax and rejuvenate through a range of measures including COVID-19 Insurance, Travel Insurance, COVID Testing, and Car Sanitation services. Most importantly, our resorts are spread across mountains, deserts, forests, golf courses, beaches, and backwaters, ensuring an unparalleled holiday experience. Eighty percent of our resorts are at drivable distances and offer wonderful experiences like a mini water-theme park with a lazy river, water sports, wildlife exploration, trekking & camping, and much more, only a few hours away from the cities.

Are you still in-sync with your growth and expansion plan? Please share more details on your plans. 
As travellers are looking at trusted brands like Club Mahindra as their ‘Holiday Experience Partner’, we plan to open new resorts across the country to Make Every Moment Magical for our members and guests. Over the next 3-4 years, we will take our room count to 5500+ through acquisition, green field development in our own land banks, expansion at our existing resorts and taking resorts on long term lease. Our growth plans continue to remain on track. 

Will holidaying change forever? What are the trends that you foresee? 
The COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions in the travel and hospitality industry due to the global lockdown and restrictions. However, with some ease in travel restrictions, there has been a gradual increase in demand for travel. There is a surge in domestic tourism and people are opting for offbeat, non-congested tourist destinations. Leisure destinations will lead the recovery. There is also a visible increase in the duration of an average stay by our members and guests. There are many couples who check-in to celebrate their special occasions. They spend quality time together while enjoying our curated F&B experiences at the resorts. 

We have also seen our members and guests preferring to spend time outside their rooms and enjoying our outdoor experiences. They are engaging in activities like birdwatching, cycling tours, trekking, etc. We also saw a rise in trend like workcations and staycations as soon as the country began to ease the lockdown restrictions. 

What has been impact on bookings/occupancy? 
Despite COVID-19 related challenges, we have delivered a strong fourth-quarter performance as demonstrated by all operational and financial metrics such as occupancy, resort income, member additions, operating margins, and profit growth. Our early focus on safety and hygiene measures inspired trust amongst our members to visit our spacious resorts. We at Club Mahindra witnessed 85% occupancy in the fourth quarter, close to pre-pandemic levels, and strong occupancies of 72% for the year. However, in the upcoming months, the tourism sector in India is staring at a crisis again given the resurgence in the COVID-19 cases, which has led to air travel and hotel bookings cancellations as several states in India have imposed partial lockdowns or curfew-like restrictions. We will have to monitor how the situation unfolds. 

When do you see the recovery happening? 
The travel and tourism sector is pinning its hopes on vaccine passports, which will help countries open borders to those who have been vaccinated. Vaccine passports will help the travel and tourism industry not only in India but internationally, too. While the government has highlighted the importance of digitalising and transforming the tourism offerings in India, a vaccine certificate will facilitate the movement of travellers and revive the tourism sector. Vaccination certificates could inspire confidence and ease of travel, and boost domestic and international tourism, with several countries considering opening up tourism for vaccinated travellers. 

Does mass vaccination bring a hope for tourism sector? Will it help build confidence in people to travel again? 
Yes, definitely mass vaccination would inspire confidence, lead to ease of travel, and boost domestic and international tourism. The arrival of vaccines is a great relief; those vaccinated will be able to travel more confidently and this would lead to a rise in travel and tourism.

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