Interview: Akshi in action
Hotelier Express journeys to Kuwait and encounters the formidable tour de force of hotel housekeeping that is Akshi Singh, IHG Kuwait cluster director of housekeeping
Akshi Singh is a woman on the go.
Considering the scope of her responsibilities as cluster director of housekeeping for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) in Kuwait, it is not altogether surprising that this hotelier is perpetually on the move.
“I am looking after a total of three hotels belonging to two different brands, both very distinct and different; one is the Crowne Plaza and the other is the Holiday Inn, both are in the Al Thuraya City complex. Here in Kuwait, our owners actually have two Holiday Inns. The other Holiday Inn [Salmiyah] is about 20 kilometres away and has an executive housekeeper but I overlook them. All in all, I look after a total of 600 rooms,” Singh explains to Hotelier Express, in the midst of a typical hectic day for her in Kuwait.
To paraphrase Einstein’s relativity theory, every action that Singh makes in the hotels falling under her scope results in a direct and immediate reaction. After all, she directly manages more than a hundred staff. If and when the three hotels under her area of responsibility run full house with double occupancy, then Singh and her team directly impact the comfort and satisfaction of 1,200 hotel guests. That’s a bucket load of TripAdvisor reviews.
Singh, a veteran hotel housekeeper from India, takes it all in stride, preferring to focus on how she can best leverage herself to maximise her time and productivity with her team, thereby, exponentially increasing the impact on the guest.
“Your team, your people, are your biggest assets so the ability to manage, train and develop people is key, more than your product. This is the most critical thing for a housekeeper,” she says.
She continues: “How you utilise your team, how you motivate them, how they connect with the guest. This is where housekeepers should really be hands-on because generally what is happening, housekeepers tend to delegate training and not get involved in it because they think they should only focus on equipment-based training. The softer aspects of training, though, are equally important, like how you interact with the guests.”
Speaking of the importance of training, a curious case that Singh found herself championing from the housekeeping perspective was the recent rebranding of the former Crowne Plaza Al Thuraya City into the present-day Holiday Inn Al Thuraya City, a happenstance which occurred simultaneously with the opening of a new-build hotel, the present-day Crowne Plaza Al Thuraya City. Holiday Inn Al Thuraya City had actually opened as one of the first Holiday Inns in the Middle East 30 years ago, operated as a Holiday Inn for about 20 years then rebranded as a Crowne Plaza for the last 10 years before most recently, reverting to Holiday Inn.
If that sounds confusing, imagine what Singh had to go through in dealing with two sets of brand standards and helming training that was so effective that the ultimate result is now a single, unified housekeeping team possessing the operational and service mindset of two wholly different brands.
“Housekeeping is generally involved in most things during an opening, as is engineering, but this was a very unique experience because we had to rebrand one property as well as open another property. So the Crowne Plaza became a Holiday Inn while a new Crowne Plaza was opened,” she says. Singh elaborates that even though the actual physical structure of a guestroom was not affected, all other hardware items had to change, such as televisions, ironing boards, kettles, linens, stationery, amenities, from a Crowne Plaza and be aligned with the brand specs of a Holiday Inn.
Software, she says, was a whole another dimension to deal with and on a certain level, more complicated because it involved another layer of service training and change management to people who were already trained and used to a particular brand standard.
“In terms of service, there is a whale of difference between the two [Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza]”, she says.
Nevertheless, Singh’s training tactics have worked so seamlessly that as a result, she did not even have to hire a single new team member for the rebranded Holiday Inn. In addition, her team is so well-versed with both brand standards that she can fully synergise her manning between two hotel brands and move people where they’re most needed in operations, according to fluctuating hotel occupancy.
“The teams for both properties are now interchangeable. We don’t have a fixed team for a Crowne Plaza and a fixed team for a Holiday Inn. People can rotate; they know the standards. We are able to have lots of flexibility and synergies in our manning structure,” she says.
The ease and familiarity with which her team functions with two types of operations and service standards speaks volumes about Singh’s leadership and the depth of trust and respect that she elicits. Singh herself is very expressive in her appreciation for how her team has overcome their recent challenges together.
“There is a feeling that we are all one,” she enthuses. “There is not a feeling that you are a Crowne Plaza, I am a Holiday Inn. There is nothing like that. There is a team feeling. You know you can do both.”
Singh is able to reap other operational economies of scale as a result of the rebranding and new hotel opening, for instance, merging the laundry and housekeeping coordinating units for two hotels into one centralised facility.
“We have a centralised laundry facility for both hotels. We also have one housekeeping coordinating desk for both,” she says, adding that by assigning odd numbers for Crowne Plaza rooms and even numbers for Holiday Inn rooms, her team members able to easily identify from which property a call is originating.
When newcomers join her team, they are trained in both standards and from the get go, inculcated in their minds that they are a part of both Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza brands, something which Singh advocates in optimising productivity.
“It really is a very useful way to make use of your people, making sure that they are fully occupied and kept busy as well as able to give the optimum to the guest,” she says.
The rebranded hotel, in its third reincarnation and celebrating a return to its original identity as a Holiday Inn, has been extremely well received, according to Singh, who cites guests’ favourable comments from review sites such as TripAdvisor. This indicates the market’s enthusiasm for the new crop of mid-market hotels in the Middle East, Singh says.
“This Holiday Inn contributes towards the changing perception of travellers on mid-market hotels in the region. The travellers’ needs, perceptions and behavior have changed and we have to evolve with that. That’s why there is a surge in the mid-market segment,” she says.
Singh observes that travellers in the region these days, whether on business or leisure, tend to prefer a comfortable and digitally connected room and then go out to explore the local destination. “With the mid-market segment offerings, a person now would rather opt for a mid-market hotel than pay a higher price to stay at a luxury hotel,” she says.
“Reshaping a mid-market hotel into upper scale or luxury is not always desirable these days,” Singh continues, adding that the market is now primed for more hotels like the Holiday Inn.
“In terms of style, comfort, safety, plus with wifi, of course, people are really identifying with this now,” she says.