Following his recent appointment as co-head of the Middle East, India, Indian Ocean, Europe and the Americas (MEIA) at Shangri-la Group, Kapil Aggarwal spoke to HN about the international hotel chain’s development and growth prospects for the region.
How did you emerge from Covid-19 and have been the greatest lessons you have learned as a luxury hotel chain?
Although there are clear signs of recovery in some markets, including the UAE, I am not sure we are out of the woods just yet. Emerging from the Covid-19 era is still an ongoing process globally, and we need to continue working together across borders with our communities and with local governments. Cooperation, collective spirit, great social responsibility and implementation of preventive measures is what will ensure we overcome the pandemic in the long run.
From a business perspective, established processes and standard ways of working were quickly challenged. Leaders had to shift to survival mode and adapt quickly to the changing realities, reprioritizing things and addressing immediate needs without losing focus on long-term visions. Immediate priorities for us were safeguarding jobs, guest safety, which triggered the launch of Shangri-La Cares commitment — the chain’s global safety program — and preserving cash for the owners. Clear communication across all levels of the organization (the owners included), investments in technology and digital infrastructure to stay connected, as well as multiple tools and processes developed by our hotels and functional teams ensured that we could react with speed and remain agile.
From a personal point of view, we were also committed to offering moral support to our colleagues, making sure they were taking care of their mental health and wellbeing by helping them through several virtual learning sessions.
These learnings are certainly bearing fruit, as we come out of this stronger, wiser and more consumer-centric than ever before.
Do you believe that the MENA region was more resilient during the pandemic than other areas?
In any crisis, being prepared, having a clear strategy, communicating it and jumping into action is essential. In the case of MENA, some markets were more resilient than others.The UAE, in particular, has set new benchmarks in the fight against the pandemic and confronted the challenges head on from the very start. The focus on rapid vaccination and testing for residents, taking necessary hygiene and safety precautions and having world-class medical facilities have all played a crucial role in keeping things under control and positioning the UAE as a leader in the global recovery. Domestic consumption, revival of international tourism and the government’s efforts to attract large events/groups have all contributed toward quicker recovery.
Do you think demand for luxury accommodation will shift after Covid-19?
Most industries across the globe are experiencing the surge of accelerated and new trends. Hospitality is no exception, and we are likely witnessing an era that will influence customer behavior permanently.
As people look to travel, hygiene will become an important currency. Technology will help to give guests the option of limiting human contact through mobile check-in, digital menus and more. Digital acceleration will continue. The “global nomad” was born embracing the fact that we can work from just about anywhere. “Love for local” will also stay, as consumers have formed a new respect for their neighborhoods as a result of lockdowns.
This brings me to the “travel for good” trend. Travelers will be more committed to seeking eco-friendly properties and companies with sustainable business practices.
And lastly, there is “wellness,” a trend that we were already witnessing in recent years but now has a renewed focus as health becomes the new wealth.
One thing that won’t change is the fact that consumers will appreciate human connection and the warmth of our heartfelt service more than ever.
As for demand, I believe it will shift upward. The desire for more unique, memorable, exclusive and private holidays — all key to a luxury hotel offering — will only increase. Many special occasions have been missed throughout the pandemic, from significant birthdays to weddings. We are seeing increased demand from travelers who have been saving up during the pandemic and now want to travel and spend on well-deserved celebrations.
Which MENA markets interest you most and why?
We are keen to develop new markets such as Saudi Arabia, which we will enter later on in the year with the opening of the stunning Shangri-La Jeddah. The kingdom is going through an incredible, transformational journey as part of its 2030 vision, and we are excited about being part of it. The hotel, situated on Jeddah’s waterfront, is the next dining hot spot in the city and will offer 235 guest rooms, suites and residences. We are sure it will help us gain further traction and broaden our brand awareness in the region.