Leading hotels are taking all precautions but the unusual service the staff has been pressed into puts them at the forefront of COVID fight.
A bus drove through the gates of Park Inn by Radisson Amritsar with a convoy of cars.
The guests stepped out of the bus and formed a single file.
A strict distance between them revealed the unusual circumstances of their arrival.
Not in the company of family and friends, the 29 individuals were instead led by a team of doctors and police personnel.
The doorman was absent and so were the bellboys.
An unmanned elevator was reserved for the guests – a mix of Indian and international tourists who were believed to be at a medium-to-high risk of being infected.
The elevator opened into a temporary quarantine facility at the top floor of the hotel where a staff member in personal protective equipment (PPE) greeted them.
The guests picked up their respective keycards and went into their rooms for a 14-day period of isolation.
In the throes of a raging pandemic, distance is polite and the rules of five-star hospitality have been re-written.
The new check-in routine was sans the usual markers of good hospitality: courteous smiles, welcome drinks, holding doors and elevators open, and ferrying the luggage to the rooms.
The staff was not just abstaining from doing everything that hotel management courses and months of training had drilled into them, but they were also suddenly in a job that was akin to working on the frontline during a pandemic.
“We got a call from the SDM (sub-district magistrate) followed by a written notification on WhatsApp. And in the next one hour, the SDM along with a team of police medical staff were at the hotel for a recce,” said Jitender Sohal, general manager, Park Inn by Radisson Amritsar.
The hotel had been training its staff according to the World Health Organization guidelines.
The team briefed them further and the guests arrived the same night.
“We spoke to a few staff members to get some volunteers,” said Sohal.
The hotel staff is a mix of locals and migrants.
A few of them, unable to head to their hometowns, were already staying at the hotel.
Three people each in the kitchen and housekeeping, and two in the engineering department were put on the job.
“The directive was clear. We were asked to provide basic room service in disposable containers, and directed to have no contact with the guests. We didn’t need many people,” said Sohal.
“We also wanted to expose the least number of staff members.”
One of the housekeeping staff who was trained to do the daily room service in a hazmat suit – delivering food, collecting and disposing waste and fumigating the facility – is 19-year-old Hridaymalla Sarania.
Not something one expects from their first job in a hotel.
“I was worried in the beginning about how this coronavirus is spreading, but we have been taking all precautions,” said Sarania.
His family lives in a village in Assam’s Baksa district and Sarania has not been home since he moved to Amritsar six months ago.
Two weeks is a long time in isolation and many special requests were made by the guests, especially during the festival of Navratri in the last week of March.
“Some of the guests were fasting, so they asked for things like special namkeen and cookies, and fruits in all meals that we had to get from outside,” said Sarani.
Cigarette runs were also made on request.
Hotels insist that they are taking all necessary precautions – PPE, hazmat suits, sanitation and deep cleaning routines – but the unusual service that the staff has been pressed into puts them at the forefront of a mammoth fight.
Six staff members of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in South Mumbai, which was providing free stay for doctors, tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.
The remaining staff was quarantined in the hotel.
A senior staff member of the hotel died of the infection last week.
The unprecedented circumstances naturally had Sarani’s family worried.
“I talk to them every day. They used to worry earlier with all the news, but now they know that I am safe and support my decision to do this job,” he said.
Park Inn by Radisson, which is close to the airport in Amritsar, is among the many hotels that have been ordered to provide rooms for quarantine use by the government.
While it is giving people a choice of a quarantine facility apart from the government ones, it puts the industry, which has been among the worst hit from a complete halt on travel, in a precarious spot.
Hotels are tasked with preparing their facilities to accommodate quarantined guests at a short notice, training their staff to adapt to a new manual of safety and hygiene and ensuring that the other guests, such as travellers stuck in the city indefinitely, are also not affected by highly contagious virus.
“The consideration has never been commercial,” said Zubin Saxena, managing director and vice- president, operations, South Asia, Radisson Hotel Group, which operates 94 hotels in the country.
“It’s not that the hotels are running empty and this (quarantine facilities) is creating a new business demand. It’s always been about being able to do something for society.”
While many properties under the Radisson Hotel Group have been employing their underutilised kitchens to provide meals to the poor, the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust is preparing and distributing meals to hospitals in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru.
Oyo Group, which operates more than 18,000 hotels in the country and employs over 10,000 people, has volunteered to turn its properties into pay-per-use quarantine facilities in partnership with Apollo Hospitals.
“We are offering sanitized beds and facilities in certain COVID-19 exclusive hotels in the proximity of Apollo Hospitals in six cities,” said Rohit Kapoor, chief executive officer, Oyo Hotels & Homes, India and South Asia. Many stranded foreign travellers are also staying at Oyo properties across the country.
Manish Kumar Singh, 22, from Samastipur in Bihar has been working at an Oyo Hotel in Kandivali, Mumbai, for the past two years.
He says last month he encountered a guest who was coughing constantly.
“We realised this could be a symptom and he could be affected by COVID-19, so we asked him about his travel history, checked his temperature, and gave him a mask,” said Singh.
The guest was moved to an isolated floor and a doctor was called in.
“My family back home was worried initially, but my managers helped them understand that we have been trained for the job. I feel like I am doing my moral duty,” he said.
The occupancy rates of branded and organised hotels are down by about 65 per cent, according to a recent report by global real estate consultant JLL.
The cash flow has almost dried up.
The sector that generates a yearly revenue of Rs 38,000 crore in India is staring at a monumental loss.
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimates that 20 million people in the hospitality and tourism industry could lose their jobs if the recovery stretches beyond October 2020.
Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel company, has begun furloughing thousands of employees, many of whom could be laid off.
Oyo, too, has furloughed an undisclosed number of employees in the US but has assured that its employees in India are safe.
“Every hotel room directly or indirectly provides employment to 16 people and feeds their families,” said Saxena of the Radisson Hotel Group.
“There have been no layoffs across our network and our commitment is to protect employment, especially of our front line staff.”
More hotels are being turned into quarantine centres every day as cases in India near 20,000 with 592 reported deaths.
The courteous smiles of the staff may go unseen behind their hazmat suits, but they are doing their bit and beyond.