Soaltee Crowne Plaza
Soaltee Crowne Plaza Kathmandu won an international award and also received a national recognition in less than a week in late September. The hotel bagged “Most Preferred Destination for Business Meetings, Leisure & Celebrations” in the 12th Hospitality India & Explore the World Annual International Travel Awards on September 23 and received a Letter of Appreciation from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation for “Highest contribution in Earning Foreign Exchange” on the occasion of the 37th World Tourism Day 2016 on September 27. Meanwhile, the hotel is also celebrating its Golden Jubilee. The pioneering five-star hotel has also been successful in quickly recovering from last year’s earthquake and supply disruptions. In an interview with New Business Age, Upaul Majumdar, General Manager of Soaltee Crowne Plaza Kathmandu the shares his insights into how the hotel helped to sustain itself in a time of crisis, its current position and future expansion plans. Excerpts:
An international award and a national recognition within a week. How do you feel? How significant is this for your hotel?
It definitely feels great to get recognised for your work. We won the 12th Hospitality India& Explore the World Annual International Travel Award for the Most Preferred Destination for Business Meetings, Leisure and Celebrations’. The second honor we got from the Government of Nepal for being the highest forex earning hotel in the last fiscal year. These are great achievements for us that highlight our contribution in promoting the country’s tourism sector. Despite the fact that 2072 BS was a very difficult year, the whole team of Soaltee worked together to get business done. So, from that account I feel overjoyed to get the award and the recognition.
How has Soaltee Hotel’s journey been so far?
Soaltee Crowne Plaza has had a very interesting journey so far. We are celebrating our Golden Jubilee in November. It’s been 50 years of service excellence and reputation in the hospitality business. Last year was the most challenging time in our history. The occupancy dropped down by 25-30 percent. Nevertheless, our efforts were appreciated by our partners and guests during such a difficult time. This has motivated us to do better.
What effect did last year's calamitous events have on the business of Soaltee Crowne Plaza? How did you go about recovering the situation?
The backbone of any service industry or hotel is its employees. So, the biggest challenge for us was to retain the confidence of our staff. For that, we formed a joint committee with the union leaders and discussed the situation and employed short term measures every 15 days. The business was largely down. Our challenge was to deliver top class service to each of our guests without compromising on standards. We were glued to the fact that delivery of services must meet our standards and also kept everything frugal. We changed our ways of working by opening only one restaurant. Nevertheless, all the food was available in the same restaurant for the guests. We had to make a lot of changes like running the laundry during the night times in order to save the generator fuel for daytime use. We set up a firewood kitchen to take care of banquets rather than cancelling those functions. As it was important to do the business correctly, we changed the ways of working which helped us to work economically without compromising on delivery of service. All credit goes to our mangers, executive supervisors and staff who worked together to make this happen.
What other strategies were employed to overcome the challenges?
Indian and Chinese tourists are the major guests in Nepal. Nepal faced a great loss when flights from China stopped flying to Nepal. The situation forced us to move out of our comfort zone and to start looking for business in other markets. The traditional ways of marketing were not effective. So, we took part in various trade fairs. We started working on a three pronged strategy which included participating in various trade expos.
At Soaltee, we could not just wait for the business to come. We worked with some of our partners like Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) to do joint promotions. Our efforts paid off in September last year when NAC started flights to Mumbai and Bangalore, besides Delhi. Making joint sales calls, partnering with airlines with special packages gave us a lot of visibility in the market. We also did several packages for Casino Mahjong to look at the Indian market. We also ran some joint ventures with China Southern Airlines and the Chinese tourist authority. Unfortunately, much of that could not translate into business as in last October the airlines stopped flying. We also tried the Bangladesh market by participating in the Dhaka Trade and Travel Fair.
Besides that, our association with the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) also helped us during the troubled times as Soaltee Crowne Plaza is managed by IGH which has 29 hotels in South-East Asia and a large number of hotels in India. So, we did a lot of road shows, tapped the database of other hotels to get business in Nepal. Our attempt translated into a lot of MICE business (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions). We also did several conferences, exhibitions with Chambers of Commerce and other institutions which helped us during the crisis.
What is the occupancy rate at present?
Currently, the occupancy rate of our hotel is somewhere between 50-60 percent. We expect more growth in the days to come. During the blockade, it was more like ‘hand to mouth management’ where we just had to focus on sustaining the business.
What is the annual turnover? And the business trend of the hotel over the last 5 years?
Our annual turnover was Rs 1.2 billion last year. Business is growing with every passing year. However, it was down by 45-50 percent last year. We hope for a full scale recovery by the end of 2017. We have observed an annual growth of 10-12 per cent in the last five years.
What are your services and facilities for the guests? Are there any new schemes for domestic guests?
We have three specialty cuisine restaurants. We have a garden terrace for all-day dining. Similarly, there is a club lounge. We have probably the largest banqueting facilities in Nepal where we can cater to 2,000-2,500 people at a time. Also, we follow the code of conduct and security from IHG. Our security is managed from London. We have various audits such as risk and safety assessment audits and food safety audits that are conducted twice a year. With 100 per cent surveillance, we have 180 cameras all over the hotel which are monitored 24/7 to ensure the safety and security of our guests. Then we have a Fire Life Safety Programme in place which is tested in a timely manner. Besides that, we have all kinds of professional training and certification programmes. If we don’t meet those standards, we fail. We strictly followed all these standards even during the crisis last year.
While taking about newer schemes, from time to time we have been organising different promotional programmes. We have realized the need for promoting domestic tourism. So we have tied up with hotels in places such as Chitwan and Nagarkot and also with domestic airlines in order to attract domestic tourists.
How is the hotel planning to expand its business?
Soaltee Crowne Plaza always focuses on the long term picture. During the peak of the blockade, we realised that our occupancy is going to be low. So, we started the renovation of one floor and expanded some of our banqueting facilities. We have been continuously improving our services as per our five-year plan. While talking about business expansion plans, we have various plans. We have always been following the winning ways of IHG and will always follow it to move further.
What do you think the government should do to support the hotel industry for a full scale recovery from last year’s events?
Promotion of Nepal as a safe destination is very important in order to welcome foreigners. When the natural disaster hit the country, the whole world came to help us. But now when things are becoming better, we have no news regarding the recovery in the foreign media. For this purpose, we should hire some top people and agencies to do high-end campaigns to make people feel safe to visit Nepal. As the Nepali hotel industry is gradually recovering, we need to have access to low cost funds or there should be some relief in taxation. The government should initiate a realistic dialogue with different tourism sector representative agencies and ask them about their needs.