Adapt or Perish

Adapt or Perish

H.G. Wells famously wrote, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

This quote (Adapt or Perish) very tastefully summarizes evolution itself. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus never ceases to adapt, but then, neither must we.

Flux is always unsettling, and most find it undesirable. However, inaction could mean death. The international business world abounds with faux pas made by business leaders, leading to the demise, or de-growth of their business.

  • Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer, actually invented the first digital camera back in 1975. The leaders of Kodak failed to see digital photography as a disruptive technology. They were comfortable with their achievements in the film market and thus missed the digital revolution after starting it. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
  • Once worth $125 billion, Yahoo eventually sold to Verizon for less than $5 billion. Yahoo, in 2002 almost had a deal to buy Google, but the CEO of Yahoo refused to go through with it. And in 2006 Yahoo had a deal to buy Facebook, but when Yahoo lowered their offer, Mark Zuckerberg backed out. If Yahoo had taken a few additional risks, we would all be yahooing right now instead of googling.
  • Xerox was the first to invent the PC, and their product – the Xerox Alto, released in 1973, was way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the management thought going digital would be too expensive and they never bothered to exploit the opportunities they had. They were convinced that the future of Xerox was in copy machines. Xerox failed to understand that one cannot perpetually make money on the same technology.

We have interesting corporate gaffes within India too.

  • For those of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Onida was the go-to brand when it came to home-grown electronic appliances. However, the company failed to adapt post-liberalization. A combination of internal issues within the owning family, failed advertising, new entrants in the industry, an ageing customer base, and poor after-sales service led to its downfall.
  • Tata Nano was a revolutionary innovation; but it was an idea, which failed to align with a changing India, burgeoning with an aspirational lower middle-class population. Being marketed as the ‘Cheapest Car of the Nation’ backfired. The makers positioned it as a cheap vehicle which, in India, translates to low quality. In a country where emotions play such a vital role in everything, this disconnect spelled doom for the Nano before it even hit the roads.
  • The downfall of Kingfisher airlines from being India’s most premium airline, was due to its refusal to adapt to the vortex of business forces, coupled with egoistic decision-making by its flamboyant owner. Acquiring the loss of Air Deccan, the sudden launch into the international arena, the change in segments giving rise to competition, along with external dynamics like the rising cost of aviation fuel, and the company’s inability to follow the ‘adapt or perish’ lessons on adopting cost-saving initiatives for survival led to its demise.

The need to ‘adapt or perish’ in the context of Indian hospitality, is accentuated through umpteen examples of businesses perishing due to in-flexibility, a fixed mindset, and resistance to change.

Some promoters have realised the essentiality of instituting a professional team, distinct from the family, running the show. The particularly applies to investor-led hotel companies, who insist on a professional approach and team, to increase their returns in as short a time as possible.

Alas, there are many who believe that ‘papa knows best.’ These owners refuse to delegate decision-making to their ‘Papier-mâché’ board. Today’s market is abuzz with news of one of India’s 5-star family-run hotel chain prospecting for suitable buyers for its prime properties. While Covid-19 has already broken the back of several small hotels which have given up the ghost, and are scouring buyers; a professionally managed larger hotel chain should certainly have had a better chance at survival. If only they had evolved from a feudal approach to a professional mindset!

Mövenpick Hotels entered India over a decade ago, with ambitious plans to grow in several destinations pan-India, once they would consolidate their flagship hotel in Bangalore. While Mövenpick Bangalore opened in 2011, the company’s vision perished over the next few years. Kicking the India-bucket, they exiting in just over six years. The reason? They failed to give India its due as a fathoming hotel market with a growing expertise and potential for quality. While Mövenpick Hotels are an established Swiss hotel chain, they failed to adapt to the Indian market. Their apparent detachment and relative indifference for their pilot project in this country were the reasons the owners eventually dispensed with their services.

Adapting does not necessarily mean going along with concurrent success stories. Adapting may also necessitate going against the grain, whilst incorporating a protracted vision of the market.

Ninety years ago, Ellsworth Statler, father of the modern American hotel industry, was quoted as saying “There are three things that make a hotel famous – location, location, location.” Yet, Capt. C.P. Krishnan Nair selected sites for the first 3 hotels of his hotel group – The Leela group (Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore) totally against the grain of ‘location, location, location.’

Capt. Nair, a feisty hotelier, knew how to roll with the punches. While choosing locations for new properties in Mumbai and Bangalore, he was able to foresee that an emerging India needed luxury hotels closer to the airport. In the case of Goa, he foresaw the need for a pristine location in the south, far from the madding crowd of the then internationally branded, North Goa hippy culture. In all three locations, their hotels had a first mover’s advantage, as there were no luxury brands there. By going against the grain, until the competition eventually came up several years later, the group had a chance to milk revenues in a relatively monopolistic micro-market, and consolidate.

Today’s environment has spurred the industry to innovate. Who knows – the new mantra for successful hotels will probably change from ‘location, location, location’ to ‘innovate, innovate, innovate’!

An example of this is ‘Bungalow Stays,’ where due to the pandemic-induced social distancing, travellers now prefer exclusive stays in spaces enhanced by space and natural surroundings. The bane of the hotel industry – Airbnb, and it’s like, have more of an edge in today’s environment. The hotel industry can no longer claim that such disruptors do not affect them. After years of denial, the hotel industry is now onboarding this segment… ‘Adapt or perish’ is being taken more seriously, and large international chains like Marriott, Hyatt, & Accor have already begun dabbling in extended stay hotels, short-term rental markets, and private residence rentals.

It is for the hotel industry to take the bait and innovate. Today, one is seeing smaller uber-luxury hotels, with single-digit keys mushrooming up, to adapt to customer needs, accelerated by the pandemic. The ‘One Key Hotel service’ of Postcard Hotels allows one to book out any of their Goa hotels, to holiday in complete privacy with friends and family. One Key – and the entire hotel is yours. So why just book a room? Book the entire hotel, is their clarion call.

IHCL (Taj group of hotels) has emerged from its chrysalis over the past two decades. The turnaround, scripted by its recent and present leadership has converted what was once a traditionally run organization to a progressive hospitality outfit. Recently crowned the world’s strongest hotel brand by ‘Brand Finance,’ they have ventured into new age spaces with in-depth market study backed by its 115-year-old legacy. The company is creating experiences for guests through their newer brands like SeleQtions, amã Stays & Trails, Food trucks being launched in various cities, Qmin – their signature food delivery platform, etc.

Evolve Back Resorts recently ran an ingenious one-time, and time-bound coupon sale. Proffering up to 25% discount on its regular tariff, customers could redeem their purchase till Mar 2023, and even ask for the money back if they were unable to travel. This mopped up within a short period, a substantial chunk of their annual revenue, and more importantly, revived their cash flow. Such a model sits at the intersection of customer loyalty, revenue, and cash flow – guaranteeing business for as long as a customer is locked in – making the benefits of the model obvious.

A newer reference in the hotel trade for ‘Adapt or Perish,’  lies in Sustainability – the next big word in the industry. We will see more organizations looking to sustain the Environment, Communities, and Economy, aka – Planet, People, and Profit.

Hyatt’s ‘Environmental Sustainability Strategy’ and ‘Hyatt Thrive,’ along with Accor’s ‘Planet 21’ program are a testimony to efforts being made in this direction.

Changing regional dynamics and consumer behaviour in different cultures can make it tricky for even the biggest businesses to understand and adapt to. In that sense, the pandemic has been a unifier. If one is willing to keep customer’s needs and expectations at the apex, the rest ain’t rocket science!

This article has appeared in ET HOSPITALITY WORLD.COM Jul 2021

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The Catspaw Chronicles

Over a century ago, children’s author Aesop relates a fable of the monkey, the cat, and the chestnuts.

Once upon a time a Cat and a Monkey lived as pets in the same house. They were great friends and were constantly in all sorts of mischief together. What they seemed to think of more than anything else was to get something to eat, and it did not matter much to them how they got it.

One day they were sitting by the fire, watching some chestnuts roasting on the hearth. How to get them was the question.

“I would gladly get them,” said the cunning Monkey, “but you are much more skillful at such things than I am. Pull them out and I’ll divide them between us.”

Pussy stretched out her paw very carefully, pushed aside some of the cinders, and drew back her paw very quickly. Then she tried it again, this time pulling a chestnut half out of the fire. A third time and she drew out the chestnut. This performance she went through several times, each time singeing her paw severely. As fast as she pulled the chestnuts out of the fire, the Monkey ate them up.

Now the master came in and away scampered the rascals, Pussy Cat with a burnt paw and no chestnuts.

Therein originated the phrase “I was used as a catspaw.”

How often have you been used as a catspaw in your various jobs? As a General Manager, I was given to sign termination letters and file cases against various employees who had rubbed the owner on the wrong side. Sometimes I may not have agreed with the harsh step taken, but job insecurity may frankly have led me to comply – not my proudest moments for sure!

I was used as a catspaw!

We all have our values, our code of ethics, our ways of looking at life… yet moments arrive when we find ourselves being used as a catspaw.

You may relate to situations like these:

  • Your client gets a kick-ass deal out of you, promising you loads of business; only for you to find out later that future business prospects from this company are very low.
  • Your colleague convinces you against your better wishes to go along with their plans or ideas.
  • Your subordinate entices you into approving their leave with flimsy excuses, and you do so to gain their approval.
  • Your boss, or even colleague, gets you to do their work using flattery to keep you motivated…
  • Your boss takes your idea and implements it without giving you due credit.
  • Your superiors may be nice to you only because they need something from you, and not necessarily due to affection or care for you. If you are the front person for your company, oft and on, you could be told to misrepresent a situation, even though it may be against your ethical code.

All of the above may happen, but at a cost to you. Remember how pussy’s catspaw was singed while pulling out chestnuts from the fire for the monkey?

On the flip side, once we are done with admonishing the memories of our ill-users, for using us as a catspaw in the past – let us honestly look into the same past and acknowledge wherever we may have done likewise!

  • Have you ever sweet-talked your team members and cajoled them into putting in extra hours or effort into achieving what you know is your own Key Result Areas, and subsequently not rewarded them for the same? I have seen managers justifying this by saying that since they were never specifically rewarded when they had slogged for their growth, why should their subordinates expect any better?
  • A Salesperson over-promising and under-delivering. Is it possible that in such a situation, the client may feel that he has been used as a catspaw? Remember, the client’s performance rating in their own company is indirectly dependant on the services received from your contracted services. For, if delivery is not up to expectations (inflated by the salesperson at the time of making the sale), it is the booker who gets an earful from his company.
  • Examples abound of first-mover hotels that over-priced themselves due to their monopolistic or locational existence. However, the moment other options are available, the clients tend to move their business away to emerging hotels, as these clients may possibly be seething with indignation (like the proverbial singed cat), for being taken advantage of by the primary hotel in the past.
  • Even servers may use their guests as a catspaw. In a restaurant where the order taker, to fulfil his target, pushes an extensive menu selection, and succeeds in convincing the guest to order the same; the guest may eventually realise he/she has been had!
  • How often have we even used our boss as a catspaw to obtain our needs, regardless of the business need? Examples abound in planning for manning positions, leave planning, salary increments, budgeting, etc. While most owners are wary and discerning, every once in a while, one comes across a kindly owner accepting lower revenue budgets or higher cost budgets from the operator, only to discover that an opportunity to run a tight ship with much better profits, was missed.
  • And how about our treatment of the ubiquitous trainee? In my early days when I trained at Oberoi Hotels, Mumbai, in the IRD department (in-room dining), I was made to do IRD clearances twice in my shift, for the entire 23 floors (700 rooms) by a senior steward, who used to traipse off to the lockers for R&R, whilst I slogged away.

All of us know the phrase: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” If you are diligently following this ethic, chances are that you may not be amongst those who use others as a catspaw. And, in a utopian world, if everyone followed this principle, no one would ever be used as a catspaw!

However, the truth is that this catspaw adage will keep occurring. As a good manager, you need to guard yourself against using others, and conversely, be aware when you are being used. Your action thereafter needs to be based on each circumstance, keeping in mind that while you must certainly avoid using others as a catspaw, you may still be used as a catspaw by your superiors, peers, subordinates, or even your guests.

Awareness is crucial here… thereafter it is left to your emotional intelligence on how to react to the situation.

This article has appeared in ET HOSPITALITY WORLD.COM Jun 2021

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