In pictures: What it’s like to stay in ITC's largest hotel in India during COVID-19

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While the Centre has allowed re-opening of hotels, the Tamil Nadu government is playing it safe by keeping hotels shut, as an unrelenting spike in COVID-19 cases has besieged Chennai and neighbouring districts. With no reopening date in sight just yet, some hotels have begun revamping operations in the attempt to become bio-bubbles and keep guests safe from the novel coronavirus.

Chennai’s ITC Grand Chola is no different — but for the fact that it has its task cut out given the scale of the revamp. After all, at 600 rooms and 1.5 million square feet, the hotel is ITC’s largest in India.

Although the hotel isn’t exactly in business, CNBC-TV18 was given unfettered, exclusive access to the property for a day, to chronicle what the future of hospitality is like at the ITC Grand Chola, in the new normal.

'Safe' travels

ITC’s chauffeur-driven “safe car” is step#1 of the hospitality experience in the new normal. Armed with a tray bearing a bottle of sanitiser, a box of gloves and a set of masks, my chauffeur greets me before we set off. In what is fast becoming a common innovation, a glass partition separates driver and passengers — social distancing to the tee.

Temperature? Check!

Once my luggage is sent in for a quick round of sanitation, I’m greeted at the entrance by a hotel staffer who checks my temperature. The limit is set at 99 degrees Fahrenheit. I register 97.2, which means I’m all set to proceed. I’m escorted to the lobby, to check in and get started.

Empty hallways a grim economic reminder

Every time I’ve visited the Grand Chola since it first opened in 2012, the hotel’s grand staircase has been a sight to behold. Guests would often stop by to click a selfie or simply admire the palatial architecture inspired by the Chola Dynasty whose capital was located within modern-day Tamil Nadu. But the space bears a forlorn look today, as I’m joined by the hotel’s general manager and ITC Hotels’ area manager for South India, Zubin Songadwala.

It’s bound to be a difficult year for hospitality in Chennai with no outlook on when hotels will be allowed to reopen. It’s a tough year for hospitality, nationwide too. “There are surveys which say that in 2020, the hospitality industry in India can expect at least a 60 to 80 percent de-growth in top-line revenues over the previous year,” says Zubin.

Socially distant check-in

Following floor markings, I make my way to one of the hotel’s surprisingly modest receptions, newly fitted with a transparent acrylic screen, to begin checking in. Making no contact with the receptionist, I sign my check-in forms, drop off the pen and paper in two separate boxes and sanitise my hands. “That pen is only used just once before it is sanitised again,” says Zubin walking me through the formalities. “You drop it yourself into a box, and drop the paper off separately.”

Hotel room 2.0

A reminder of just how pervasive the new normal is, makes its presence felt when I walk into my hotel room, stripped off paraphernalia like magazines, menus and flowers. The aim is to keep the hotel room free of any material that could pose as potential carriers of microbes from outside the hotel’s newly established bio-bubble to within.

QR codes are everything

Menus have now made way for a simple table-top flyer bearing a QR code that lets you scan and view in-room menus, hotel amenities and F&B options. “You’re not going to get a menu anymore, but there are menus going to be available for you on your phone," says Zubin.

The familiar fruit bowl is gone too, replaced with sanitiser and an N95 mask. The mini bar is empty; guests will have to request for their beverages through in-room dining.

Service is changing...

I head to the Grand Chola’s famous Rajendra Hall, named after the Chola king Rajendra I, and decide to pick up a cappuccino before heading in. My barista’s face is near unrecognizable underneath a face shield and an N95 mask, as a gloved hand serves me a disposable to-go cup filled with coffee, from beneath that familiar transparent acrylic screen.

Buffets are changing too

Plates within sanitised paper wrappers, food counters with space between, and more acrylic screens separating waiters and guests make the service what one F&B staffer calls an “armoured buffet”. Spaced out, socially distant chairs are by now a familiar sight at any gathering.

Short eats are placed as single-serving portions in tiny, personalised ceramic bowls. “The layouts of buffets are changing,” says Zubin, “We are also open to going back to serving food on a traditional Thali if guests prefer.” The idea, again, is to offer a more personal, safer approach to F&B service.

Lunch with a side of social distance

We step out of the banquet space to lunch at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Peshawri, for some North-West Frontier cuisine. Like my room, menus here have been replaced with QR code flyers, as newly fitted welcome separators provide each table with some semblance of privacy and social distance. A waiter clad in face-shield, gloves and mask brings my food on an unusually long-serving board.

The hotel’s post-COVID SOPs dictate that service personnel do not come into contact with your food, which leaves me to pick my kebab platters as the serving board keeps the waiter at arm’s length while he stands, bearing my meal.

Takeaways keep kitchen fires burning

Within the kitchen, a team of masked chefs continues to be at work. With restaurants not open to the public by government decree, hotels like the Grand Chola are seeing a trickle of revenues through takeaway and home delivery orders on Swiggy and Zomato. Along with long-stays, takeaway and home deliveries keep the cash flowing. But Zubin admits that it doesn’t account for much. “It (revenues from takeaways and home delivery) wouldn’t be more than 20 to 25 percent of what it would otherwise be,” he says.

Rooms, sanitised and ‘sealed’

With lunch nearly done, I decide to head back to my room to catch up on afternoon work calls. Just before I enter, a seal greets me at the doorway — my room has been sanitised and sealed by the cleaning staff. The seal ensures that my room has been visited once only by cleaning staff, on my request, and that I get final say over access to my room, in the interest of safety and hygiene. I’m told that once I check out, my hotel room is deep-cleansed and stays vacant for 48 hours before the hotel checks another guest in.

‘Knock and drop’

Too lazy to step out for dinner, I decide to opt for in-room dining. Typically, room service is an elaborately plated dish wheeled into your room by a waiter. In the interest of social distancing, ITC Grand Chola’s ‘Knock and drop’ service now lets you order your food, before service personnel leave it in disposable boxes outside your door, ring your bell, and leave. The idea is staggeringly simple: contactless service in takeaway boxes. And that’s how ITC Grand Chola delivered my pizza and a bowl of ramen, in the humblest of square pizza boxes and takeaway cartons.

Before I check out, the nagging question remains: when will all this end? Could the new normal ever go back to being just... normal? “We believe and would like to reach a situation where by Q4 — January, February, March 2021 — we hope to be at least equal to what we were last year,” says Zubin.

Needless to say, the success of that projection rests on the rather difficult prospect of the hotel seeing guests check in, amid possibly reduced international travel. ITC Grand Chola says it is banking on domestic visits as opposed to overseas guests, thanks to “revenge vacations” and increased domestic travel. “Atmanirbhar, then,” I think to myself, as I pick my bags up and check out.

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