Hygienic stay with warmth during Covid times

Lemon Tree Hotels are well known for their warmth and despite of COVID it was no different as I experienced 4 Lemon Tree hotels in a fortnight across Mumbai and Pune says Chandragupta Amritkar.

It was after almost five years that I was covering a Lemon Tree (LT) hotel. It used to be one of my favourite brands, mainly thanks to my dear friend and a hospitality visionary Rahul Pandit (currently MD & CEO at Hamstede Living but was then President and ED, Director on the Board with the group).

Co-ordinating with Mahesh Aiyer, Senior VP Operations and Development, Lemon Tree Hotels and Akriti Arora, Head of Marketing and Public Relations, I decided to do a staycation experience of the LT properties in Mumbai as well as Pune.

Lemon Tree Premier-Mumbai

The sanitized vehicle with a clear plastic separation between the seats next and behind the chauffeur picked us up from home. Since we had already emailed our details including our ID documents, the digital check in was done. A friendly welcome with a twinkle in the eyes of the staff can easily make ones day and that’s what we received as we were led by the team to our Studio Suite.

The hotel being brand new (completed just a year before COVID struck) is beautifully designed with chic interiors and spacious corridors. With 303 rooms and suites it has one of the largest inventory in the group. Being close to the airport the LT location is an advantage to both International and domestic travelers. Located in a business district its ideal for the corporate and business travelers too as MIDC, SEEPZ, BKC are close by.

On entering my room which was a Studio Suite (quite spacious) I was impressed by the attractive amenity placed in the room exactly showcasing my profession with a chocolate diary, mike and a recorder. While there was no clear separation between the living room and bedroom, it had two TVs on a single platform one facing the living room and the other facing the bed. My room which faced the city as well as the pool provided a great view.

Hotel Manager, Abhiram Menon took me for a show round. I was informed that there are 5 room categories - Deluxe Room, Executive Room, Premier Room, Studio Suite and Executive Suite. For the F&B the hotel has Citrus Café, a multi-cuisine coffee shop with a show kitchen that offers all day dining (though currently due to COVID it’s open only for breakfast). In spite of COVID the breakfast spread was quite impressive. Many guests who had come on staycation with their families came to the restaurant for breakfast. A couple who owned a small hotel in Goa, found LT Mumbai quite relaxing and savored the variety and quality of food.

Apart from Citrus Café LT has slounge, a recreation bar with a pool table and Republic of Noodles, LTs celebrated pan-Asian restaurant with food from Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar. Though both were closed.

The hotel also offers over 3000 +sq.ft. meeting space with large conference rooms and a business center. The hotel also has a spa and a well-equipped fitness center as well as a tempting swimming pool. Considering covid restrictions all these were not operational.

What did I miss?

If you have been a regular guest to LT hotels you must have enjoyed the table mats with jokes at the Citrus café restaurant as well as across the corridors, a mural of funny faces in the lobby and one-liners+ baby t-shirts (which fortunately still exist). At the café the jokes and cartoons kept the guests busy as they awaited their order. Missed also the ponytail on the head of employees - tied back by a band with a yellow colour.

"This company cares for its employees and in turn the employees care for it and give their best"

With 84 hotels (including Keys brand) and 8,300 rooms spread across 51 destinations (including Dubai and Thimphu in Bhutan) Lemon Tree Hotels has been expanding rapidly. One of the major reasons for its success has been the team. As I moved around the 4 hotels, I found most of the senior employees having worked with LT for 10+ years. One such ardent employee of the group who has been for 16 years is Narotam Singh, Area Director – West, Lemon Tree Hotels Limited under whose purview comes 15 hotels spread across 4 states. In a freewheeling interview with Chandragupta Amritkar, Narotam talks with passion about the group.

COVID truly has hit hospitality industry badly. How did you manage through these difficult times?

Our first step was to revise all our SOPs and focus on the new cleanliness and hygiene standards. For this we went in partnership with Diversey creating a ‘Rest Assured’ initiative. In addition to our own repertoire of processes and procedures, they provided us with US EPA approved safe chemicals, operating checklists, training support, videos and support materials. This gave confidence to our team members and in turn our guests.

We also created a bubble in the hotel. We had our staff staying here and blocked a floor for them, thus reducing the risk for our employees as well as guests. Even during lockdown we were able to generate business - shipping companies, oil companies as well as ICT companies.

There were lot of layoffs in the industry. What was the scenario at LT hotels?

Our management was very clear – No layoffs. In March 2020 we started salary cuts – while the top team opted for 100% cut, Management level took 66%, GM and AGM level 50%. The lower staff saw no cut. You were asking how LT is able to retain its staff. This is the reason - This company cares for its employees and in turn the employees care for it and give their best.

Have staycations started to pick up?

Yes. That’s a good sign as traffic is returning. We have got some great all inclusive packages and guests can look at some excellent pricing through our website. Our F&B has been always strong and our staycation guests appreciate it. They have the option of having it in the restaurant or in room.

Your group has expanded globally?

Yes currently we have two hotels outside India - Dubai and Thimphu. Also within India we have launched an upscale luxury brand – Aurika in Udaipur. It’s on a hill top giving some enchanting views. You must experience it.

What about your loyalty program?

As with every chain of hotels we also have a complimentary loyalty program - Lemon Tree Smiles. There are three membership tiers - Silver, Gold and Platinum. As a member you always get exclusive offers Depending on the tier you get add on benefits like complimentary room upgrade, early check-in and late check-out, complimentary laundry etc. The points can be redeemed for free room night or even shopping vouchers.

When do you see the industry stabilizing?

In every pandemic life always comes back to normalcy mostly in a couple of years. We are social animals and cannot do social distancing for many years. I think by the end of 2022 we will come back to pre-covid levels.

Lemon Tree Hotels @ Pune

The group has three LT hotels and one Keys hotel in Pune. These hotels are spread across the city covering almost all the prominent zones.

Entering into Pune from Mumbai my first halt was at Lemon Tree Hinjewadi for lunch before proceeding to Lemon Tree Premier, City Center, Pune. It was a good suggestion from the hotel GM Nelson Mantero as we experienced jam on the express way and reached the hotel at around 1pm. Coincidently I landed on the hotels 14th anniversary and saw the team in full strength. Have to again appreciate the foresight of the LT management as this was the first hotel in Hinjewadi (the ICT hub in Pune). Today there are close to 14 branded hotels in Hinjewadi but this still remains popular.

The hotel offers 124 rooms and suites. Being a midscale hotel it’s quite reasonably priced while providing most facilities that an upscale hotel in that area can provide. The hotel is ideally located for IT professionals as most ICT companies including Infosys, Wipro, Persistent Systems etc are within walking distance. For those who come on assignments with ICT companies in Hinjewadi, this hotel is a good option as during peak hour’s traffic can be a nuisance. Infact during initial lockdown they had guests from IT companies staying for 3-4 months. During that time they had blocked a floor for the staff so the COVID risk decreases.

The Citrus Café - a multi-cuisine coffee shop offered a good breakfast spread including north and south Indian dishes and select western preparations. The Chef being from Kolhapur prepared some tasty dishes from that region. They also served the Maharashtrian traditional Vada Pav, Sabudana Vada - and the vada pavs were quite big and filling. The Slounge, the hotels recreation bar, fitness center and well equipped conference halls (Tangerine 1: 698 sq. ft. and Tangerine 2: 219 sq. ft.) were temporarily closed.

Entering into Lemon Tree Premier, City Center, Pune, I was greeted by the hotels EAM Chaitra Dwivedi. The new age contemporary hotel has a stylish atrium lobby with a nice staircase. The lobby is quite spacious with some reading literature. The hotel offers 201 rooms and suites with their vibrant interiors and artwork. The hotel was quite busy and regularly gets bookings from the Army. The hotel vehicle that I experienced followed all the hygiene protocols with a clear separation between the chauffer and guests.

The hotel is just a few minutes from the main railway station. Also key government offices and ICC Convention Centre are close by. Important city landmarks and touristic places are in close proximity.

The LT branded Citrus Café is a multi-cuisine coffee shop offering all day dining menu including Indian, European, Western and pan-Asian preparations. The breakfast spread was good and the deserts section was superb. The hotels Slounge, recreation bar, Republic of Noodles. The hotel is an excellent venue for Banquets & Conference as well as weddings with spacious and grand halls (Tangerine Grand: 4,050 sq. ft. , Pre-function area and Tangerine 1: 2025 sq. ft, Tangerine 2: 2025 sq. ft. and Tangerine 3: 938 sq. ft.). The hotel also has a wellness spa, a well-equipped fitness center and a swimming pool.

I also had an interesting and informative meeting with Himanshu Sachdev, AGM – Pune Region.

The third hotel of LT, Lemon Tree Hotel, Viman Nagar, Pune, is literally on the otherside of the town but only a five-minute drive from Pune International Airport. It is also in proximity to Weikfield IT hub, EON IT Park, Cerebrum IT Park, WTC, Pune. For the shopaholics Punes largest mall - Phoenix Mall is just a km away. The hotel is ideal for those who have an early morning or late night flight or an interconnecting flight.

The hotel GM, Arun Kumar took me for a show round of the 69 rooms property. Though compact in size the Executive Suite in which I stayed was very spacious and so tasty fully done. It even had an extended bar table. The suite has a cozy sitting area attached to the window.

The hotel has Citrus Café, a multi-cuisine coffee shop and Citrus Patio, a beautiful outdoor extension to Citrus Café. Pre COVID times it was a very popular zone for guests as well as residents in that area. Live music used to be played. The hotel has 4 small Conference Rooms (250 sq. ft. to 850 sq. ft.)

At all the LT hotels Sanitiser dispensers were available across public areas as well as next to the lifts on each floor. Social distancing, cleanliness and hygiene norms were strictly followed. I was also informed that all guidelines from WHO and FSSAI (for food and beverage production and service) were being strictly implemented. The physical menus have been replaced with e-menus in order to avoid physical contact.