India's largest budget hotel chain is spending on technology instead of discounts

India's largest budget hotel chain is spending on technology instead of discounts
  • Lemon Tree Hotels is putting together a unit that will be led by a chief technology officer.
  • The investment into technology will have three strategic goals, according to CEO Patanjali Keswani.
  • The company is looking to identify struggling hotels in buzzing locations.
Average hotel room rates in India are still 30% below what they were at the end of March 2008, according to Axis Capital. While waiting for an imminent turnaround in the industry, Patanjali Keswani, the founder and chairman of Lemon Tree Hotels is putting together a technology team that will be led by Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

While the CTO is yet to be hired, the goals have been defined. "Technology will not be a support function, but it will be a strategic function and we will share it with Hamstede," Keswani told Business Insider. Hamstede Living, is a joint venture between Lemon Tree Hotels and global private equity major Warburg Pincus, that will offer co-living spaces for young, urban professionals and housing for migrant students in Indian cities. Lemon Tree Hotels will have a 30% stake in Hamstede.

There are three ways in which Keswani aims to use technology to boost his hotel business but this will not include internet of things (IOT). "You don’t need your phone to open your curtains. The mid-market customer does not want it," he said adding that,"I don’t agree with what a lot of these international guys are doing where they are spending a lot of money on what I currently feel are doubtful return on investments. You can have your cell phone doing everything in the room, but as a consumer myself that’s not a real delight. It’s going to cost me Rs 10 lakhs a room, but I am customers are not going to pay me even Rs 2 lakhs a year."

So what is it that Lemon Tree Hotels wants from its CTO.


Find struggling hotels in hotspots

The company has developed an algorithm that will analyse and project traffic in key locations using a combination of data on airline traffic, average room rates, and other such data points that may be a proxy to predict demand for hotel rooms.

The next step is to identify under-performing hotels within a market. "We may not go build a hotel there. But if someone has 55% occupancy in an area where the others have 80% occupancy, then, we move to human side. We can talk to the owner to either lease the hotel or let us manage it for a fee. We think, with our customer base and reach, we can improve your performance at cost and revenue level," he said.

At the end of December 2018, over 30% of Lemon Tree Hotels' rooms were owned by others but managed by the chain in exchange for a fee, according to research by HDFC Securities.

Enhance the loyalty programme

A three-year old loyalty programme has played a big part in helping Lemon Tree Hotels retain customers. "I was astonished in the last five hotels we have taken under management, in three months, 20% of the hotels’ inventory has come from the loyalty programme. It’s an amazing number. Typically, hotels cash break-even (without accounting for interest cost) at 25% occupancy. If you include interest cost, the break-even point is at 40-45% occupancy. If in 3 months, I get 20% (from loyalty programme) which means you are at cash break even in 3 months, that too in a bad year. So, going forward, why would I not leverage this? We are going to invest more capital in our mobile site, in loyalty, and in technology," Keswani explained.

Productivity and cost control

How can technology help hotels save cosrs? "I have a call centre with 150 people who get thousands of calls everyday from customers. 80% of those queries are very, very repetitive and predictable. Therefore, I can put chatbots and reduce the headcount or improve the productivity," Keswani said.

The other leg of the cost control was to implement a management information system (MIS). "We have ensured all our platforms talk to each other through a middleware. How do I get real-time data to control costs, to manage multiple aspects more efficiently? The MIS will help us respond faster," he added.

Here's why hotel room rates in India may double in the next 3 to 4 years