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‘At OYO, we believe in the philosophy that when there is a storm at sea, the fishermen repair their nets’

As one of the first ten OYOpreneurs, Harshit Vyas, SVP & COO, India & SA, Franchise Business, OYO Hotels & Homes has demonstrated a clear ability to collaborate with central business leaders and drive outsized outcomes on the ground right from OYO Secure penetration to improvement in guest experiences. During the entire lockdown period, Harshit ensured that all on-ground teams were motivated and meaningfully engaged. In this interview, he speaks about how they are coping in a year full of challenges and about the strategies implemented to recover faster from the COVID-19 crisis and make the company move forward as one team.

– Prashant Nayak

What has been the biggest challenge for OYO in navigating COVID-19 to date?

Earlier this year, COVID-19 disrupted industries worldwide, with the tourism and hospitality industries being one of the worst affected. The hospitality industry, as we know it, is a high-touch one, full of greetings, gestures, and human connections. And that was the biggest challenge for the industry at large – to provide safe experiences in a high-touch environment and thereby, build trust among our partners and consumers. At OYO, we believe in the philosophy that, when there is a storm at sea, the fishermen repair their nets. And we’re doing exactly that.

What is OYO most focused on right now?

Our focus is to evolve from a ‘resilient OYO’ to a ‘resurgent OYO’ by focussing on enabling our partners, employees, and consumers with the necessary technology and adjustments required to not only overcome the impact of the pandemic but also build a promising future for the years to come. To achieve this, all our efforts are focused on listening to our partners and consumers, understanding their worries and concerns, their aspirations. With insights stemming from our conversations with our stakeholders, we’ve rolled out tech-enabled improvements across several areas – whether it is in a product, addressing partner and customer needs, OTA operations, refund systems, research on partner and customer decisions, dashboards, follow-ups, among others.

When it comes to partner-centric initiatives, we are ensuring increased engagement through virtual platforms like regular webinars and training sessions, waivers to ensure the availability of working capital, among others. On the consumer front, we launched several exercises to speak with our consumers, including ‘Project Hello’, wherein the leadership including myself picked up the phone on our consumers and spoke to them without any agenda. We heard them out and understood that safety is their topmost priority. To ensure consumer, partner as well as employee safety, we implemented several new SOPs and initiatives at the beginning itself, including OYO’s Sanitised Stays in partnership with Unilever to ensure a higher standard of safety and hygiene.

On the tech front, we are strengthening our interventions for both partners and customers by launching tools such as YO! Chatbot, OREO, Digital on boarding of assets, digital payments through OYO Secure, among others.

What actions are you taking now to ensure that you are ready to get leisure and business travellers back?

As we move forward, with states opening up their borders to welcome tourists once again, we started seeing positive signs of travel coming back across domestic destinations in the past couple of months.  This is a testament to India’s rising consumer confidence when it comes to moving beyond the pandemic, of course with safety as the biggest priority. To put things in perspective, across India, between April 2020 and September 2020, we’ve observed an uptick in bookings across Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Kolkata. On the other hand, Jaipur, Kochi, Vishakhapatnam, Agra, and Goa were OYO’s most frequented leisure destinations since April 2020. Among leisure cities, we’ve also observed that some cities such as Shimla, Manali, Munnar, Ooty and Gangtok that didn’t enjoy high demand compared to other tourist hotspots during pre-COVID days are now increasingly showing positive signs of rising bookings since September 2020.

Considering that travel is coming back slowly, when we spoke to our consumers at a deeper level, we understood that there was awareness about Sanitised Stays, however, 81 per cent of consumers said they would opt for rooms that have been sanitised before their own eyes as opposed to opting for an unused room that has been sanitised before. This is what will give them peace of mind. And that was it. We rolled out the ‘Sanitised Before Your Eyes’ initiative with Sonu Sood, who is not just our brand ambassador but has been and still is an OYO hotel owner for some time now. This was a brand trust exercise that walks the talk by disinfecting the room in front of a guest’s eyes. It aims to reassure the customer of all the precautionary measures we are taking so that they can enjoy their stay without worrying about anything else. During this period, we leveraged technology to help us offer meaningful solutions to our consumers in the new normal. Therefore, we launched Contactless Check-ins to eliminate processes that could be digitised and Yo!Chatbot, our real-time 24*7 chat assistant in order to nudge the customer to adopt self-serve product features rather than call for queries.

While there’s a surge in demand for travel across the country, through our consumer survey, we observed that 80 per cent of users are searching for sanitised stays, while 46 per cent of users were seeking regulation related information while planning their next travel. Keeping this in mind, we launched a one-stop solution for all travel-related assistance on the OYO app in India, including COVID-19 testing with leading ICMR approved pathology labs, visibility to state-wise guidelines, among others. This includes partnerships with Dr. Lal Path Labs, SRL Diagnostics, 1mg, and Indus Health Plus. This helps us become a part of the consumer journey right from the very beginning when they think about travelling.

We also understood that 56 percent of consumers would travel via private vehicles to nearby locations, with family or friends, preferably between the duration of 1-3 days. Understanding this, we rolled out our Road Trippin campaign with Rocky & Mayur in an effort to inspire travellers to travel safely and with precautions.

How is OYO dealing with communicating with the workforce and key stakeholders?

We believe in being proactive and communicating authentic and transparent information with our stakeholders, internally and externally. We are constantly in touch with our employees, asset partners and consumers through e-mailers, virtual meetings, calls, among others.

On the partner side, during the COVID period, we have extended all the possible support to them so they can sustain through this pandemic. During this period, we have actively engaged with owners through multiple webinars which were attended by thousands of our asset partners. This has helped us bridge the gap in communication and bring alignment to a number of areas. To support our partners during this period, we also lessened the burden of payments and waived off for the month of March onwards, including value-added service charges, ensured demand generation through various initiatives, weekly payments, and reconciliation settlements, and helped thousands of partners manage working capital requirements, etc,

When it comes to employees, the COVID crisis and the resulting ‘new normal’ has made it imperative for us to introspect and take steps to ensure healthy work-life integration. We’ve moved to a ‘hybrid workplace model’ for the foreseeable future, which is helping the company operate in full capacity across the country, without compromising the health and safety of its employees. To boost employee morale, we are also organising several engagement initiatives for our employees such as virtual family days, rewards, among others.

We have also moved to a 5-day work week and implemented a ‘weekend curfew’ to ensure work-life balance. To promote upskilling and e-learning, we launched OYOVersity, our Learning Management System for employees which includes lessons on leadership, how to boost productivity while working remotely among other topics. Last but not the least, to support employee’s mental well-being during these challenging times, we have Employee Well-being & Assistance Program (EWAP) that provides consultation services to employees where they can confidentially avail professional support to improve their emotional well being. EWAP benefits include unlimited phone counselling, access to an 8-week online ‘Behavioural Therapy’ program among others.