Jean-Louis Ripoche: One needs to adapt quickly rather than wait for things to improveThe general manager of Kathmandu Marriott Hotel on the challenges of running a luxury hotel in the midst of a pandemic and the future of the hotel industry in Nepal.
Like almost every other industry in the country, the hotel industry too has had to confront an unprecedented challenge brought forth by the pandemic. The months of lockdown and a blanket ban on foreign tourists has hit the industry hard, particularly the high-end hotel segment, which relies heavily on foreign travellers. While the lockdown has now been eased and travel restrictions on trekkers and mountaineers lifted, the industry is cautiously optimistic about the future.
The Post’s Tsering Ngodup Lama had an email interview with Jean-Louis Ripoche, a veteran hotelier and currently the general manager of Kathmandu Marriott Hotel, to learn about the challenges of running a luxury hotel in the midst of a pandemic, and the future of the industry. Excerpts:
This year has been one of the most challenging years for Nepal’s hotel industry. How well do you think the industry was prepared for a crisis like this?
I don’t think anyone in this world could have predicted the Covid trials of 2020. These are unprecedented times, and it took the world and the hospitality industry time to wrap their head around with. However, the ability to successfully navigate through challenging times comes with experience and by looking at the bigger picture.
We, Kathmandu Marriott Hotel, are an agile team of hundreds of highly motivated associates. We adapted very quickly to set new standards and guidelines to deliver a safe and hygienic environment for our guests while maintaining one of our mottos that is to take care and be there for everyone.
How has the pandemic impacted Kathmandu Marriott Hotel?
Well, the major hit was definitely with our occupancy. With no international tourism, our occupancy plunged and we are yet to recover from that. But one of the most critical decisions we made was to never close our hotel doors at any point. It was important for us that we remain open to serve our guests with added safety procedures from the beginning. And although times were really dark, and at moments, it was like being the last singing band in a sinking ship, we survived those times and reformed ourselves by generating enough cash flow through local tourism support and business.
In a world gripped with a pandemic, emphasis on safety and hygiene has become the need of the hour for the hotel industry. What are the measures Kathmandu Marriott Hotel has taken to ensure safety and hygiene?
With our ‘Marriott Commitment to Clean Program’ we are committed to providing our customers with a safe environment that aligns with expert protocols. We also have in-house and external experts in food and water safety, hygiene and infection prevention, and hotel operations. Our Marriott Cleanliness Council is redefining our cleaning and safety standards, and we actively continue to monitor and evolve our solutions to ensure a continued focus on the health and safety of our guests and associates.
With revenue from room occupancy at record low, how’s Marriott focusing on its food and beverage operations to bring in revenue?
We have focused very strongly on our restaurants to minimise our losses. During the lockdown, we started a new safe food delivery programme ‘Marriott on Wheels’ to provide hygienic and delicious food right at our guest’s doorstep.
We are also coming up with better and unique food dishes so that our guests always have something new to try. At the same time, we continue to explore various serving packaging methods to ensure the strictest level of safety and hygiene.
In a bid to generate revenue, many hotels in the country are offering discounts and slashing rates. What do you think of the move?
Given the current economic scenario, hotels have had to amend their rates and pricing, and this is the need of the hour. We have also adapted our rates based on consumers’ disposable income so that people can enjoy our services without burning a hole in their pockets or worrying about it during the time they are with us.
The situation won’t remain like this forever, and when the economy gets better and things return to normalcy and Nepal reopens for international tourism, hotels can go back to their 2019 rates.
What do you think have been the most crucial lessons that you have learnt as a hotelier during the pandemic, and what do you think are the lessons Nepal’s hotel industry have to learn from the pandemic?
The industry has been made aware of the importance of domestic tourism and the role it can play in supporting the industry. The country also has to find ways of opening up air travel for international tourists to come to Nepal and experience the country.
One of the most important takeaways from the whole experience is that the world and the environment is ever changing and one needs to learn to adapt quickly rather than sitting back and waiting for things to improve. In difficult times such as now, it’s so important for hoteliers to not panic and to stay focused and be creative in finding ways to make revenue while protecting our associates, guests, and each other.
How optimistic are you about 2021, and why?
We expect 2021 to be a slow recovery period. We are not expecting to gain any momentum until the second quarter, and hopefully by the end of 2021, the situation will be better or at least similar to 2019.
The international market is currently going through the second lockdown phase and possibly will go through more waves of Covid-19 cases. Until that subsides, we don’t expect much movement, and international tourist movement in Nepal too will remain low.
Globally, major companies are focused on saving money by moving their workshops and meetings online. However, when it comes to social events, people continue to get married, celebrate various personal milestones with their families, and here in Kathmandu, our hotel intends to serve as a premium safe space for every occasion.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)