MONICA SURI – General Manager, Le Meridien, Kochi
Liquor policy affects MICE business in Kerala
As Marriott and Starwood Hotels & Resorts merge to become the strongest lodging loyalty programme in the world, Monica Suri, the General Manager of Le Meridien, Kochi, shares her opinion about the future of the Indian hotel industry, the shifting trends, Kerala’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of being a major MICE destination and the role of social media in the context of building brand identity.
You must have answered this before; what inspired you to join the hospitality industry, so if you could tell us what still keeps you excited?
The reason to join the hospitality industry was my passion for travelling. Moreover, I have always loved to interact with people. What can be a better industry than ours where we work day-in and day out with people and give them a reason to be happy? So, it is both my passion towards people and my personal love for travelling that still inspires me to be in this industry.
Would you like to describe your journey so far?
Actually, when I started in the hotel industry, I did not have a destination in mind. I was new and had no idea about how the industry works. And, unknowingly, I would say that I entered a field which is not considered as a ‘woman’s domain’, which was food and beverage services. I started with the Taj Hotels and as I spent time at my job, I gradually understood the challenges in the industry. Like most Indian women, I opted for a family in the next few years and made a comeback after six years. That’s when I joined Starwood Hotels and I would say that the ten years of my journey with Starwood Hotels is possibly the best comeback that I could imagine for myself. I am glad the company took the risk and provided me the platform that enables me today to sit here and talk to you about my journey.
What has been the most difficult challenge in your decade-long journey with Starwood Hotels & Resorts?
The challenges and their merits differ from person to person. Sometimes the challenges come out of locations, sometimes they come out of the brand you are associated with. My journey with Starwood, however, has been quite smooth to say the least with no major challenge that I can think of right now. Now, when I talk about the current location, there have been two challenges here in Kerala that I can point out. Firstly, it is the connectivity with the rest of the world and even domestic connectivity is not as good. Secondly, the liquor policy laid down by the Government of Kerala seems to be a major challenge.
Could you elaborate on the liquor policy and how it retards tourism growth in the region?
Surely, we are a MICE destination and we have people coming from all over the world for business and sometimes to celebrate. The liquor policy of ‘10 pm closure’ does impact our bookings. We have clients, who would finish their conferences or meetings late in the evening and would deny stopping their parties at 10 pm. We have seen cancellations of business because of this. I think, the countries around Kerala are taking advantage of this and we are seeing a lot of clientele moving out of Kerala, primarily because of the liquor policy.
So, I wish the government employs a more flexible schedule so that we can gain not only as a hotel but as a state as well.
What are your reactions on the major Marriott-Starwood merger?
Talking about the Marriott-Starwood merger, I would say this was a historic move in the entire hotel industry not only in India, but worldwide. Two great hospitality companies coming together to form the biggest and the most efficient company is great news. This merger is going to change the dynamics of the whole industry. We are now a company with 5,700 hotels and more than one million rooms. So, you can say that one out of 15 rooms belong to the company. It brings a lot of opportunities for associates and guests as well. We now offer the best loyalty programme in the world; three reward programmes merging to become one. It’s a pretty win-win situation for everyone and we are looking forward to it.
How would you put Kerala as a potential destination for the avid European travellers?
Kerala has a lot of potential for the European market because of its serene nature. Whether it is the beaches, the forests or the backwaters, Kerala offers a host of pristine locations for the European travellers. A lot of Europeans are also travelling for wellness nowadays and Kerala remains the top choice. We get people of all ages coming from Germany, France and Italy and they love the state for what it offers as a wellness tourism destination.
The southern parts of Kerala are well known, although, the northern parts still remain undiscovered. Once we have a better connectivity, I am sure the wellness tourism products of northern Kerala will be an instant hit in the European market.
Is there a change that you expect in the immediate future of Starwood Hotels & Resorts ?
We are now 30 brands in the world after the historic merger. If you see this city, Kochi, we are not just the one Starwood Hotel as a Le Meridian but we also have three Marriott hotels in the city. We are expecting to enjoy an edge over all the other brands in the hospitality sector very soon.
What are your thoughts on the changing consumer habits in your industry – do social media impact your strategies?
As the concurrent digital mediums are making the world a smaller place, social media is fast becoming a very important medium of connection, bridging the gap between us and our customers. However, for a company like us, it is also quite scary. A wrong comment or a negative feedback can impact our image and reputation big time. So, as a company we are dedicatedly looking at customer feedbacks and try to react to them as fast as possible.
I also believe that digital media is an important place to reach our potential buyers. Today, internet is the first source of information for any product bought online or offline. So, a good presence on the social platforms remains a perpetual choice for us at Starwood.