From Chef to GM leading reopening of The Park Chennai post lockdown – my journey with Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels

By Rajesh Radhakrishnan

The Park Chennai hopes to resume operations soon in June. How to ‘Re-imagine, Reset, Restart’ was the task given to leadership teams as soon as we went into lockdown. ‘Anything but Ordinary’ ideas, new hygiene protocols for the post Covid scenario, guest engagement and cost efficiencies have been dwelled upon in very innovative ways. As an institution, the hotel is working relentlessly to re-engineering layouts and re imagining our way of service and operations. We have a comprehensive plan of how we will restart the business and not only sustain, but thrive and emerge successful.

We expect that it will be a gradual increase in foot falls. There will be restrictions in terms of physical distancing of tables, which will restrict the number of guests we are able to accommodate. The menus and offerings are being planned accordingly. Buffets are not going to be available for quite some time. There are set menus that have been curated by our Chefs so that guests could dine in the safety and privacy of their rooms. There is an attractive food delivery menu available online and this would cater to many of our patrons who may not be able to return immediately.

The grand celebrations of The Park Hotels turning 50 years young moved to Chennai, the second city to honour this momentous milestone in all glory

To successfully resume the business and restart keeping in mind the various unprecedented challenges of the industry, it is vital for us to plan and optimise the operation, remap the business model and focus on our positioning.  To begin with the focus is going to be on the domestic travellers and tourists. It is expected that International travellers may start arriving only at a later stage. Our marketing activities are going to be guided by this factor.

Technology is the need of the hour. There will be a lot more use of it in the industry right from the shift of technology based sanitisation procedures, e-check in and check out formats, e-payments.  The human contact points, unlike in the pre-covid era, is going to be minimal.  Hotels need to be prepared with the new way of dealing with all customer touch points and make it quick and seamless. There will be elevated focus on guest and employee wellbeing going forward. I believe that travellers will display preferences for Hotels that effectively communicate their standards of hygiene and safety. To stay ahead of the game, it is imperative that we constantly stay updated, reinvent our facilities and offerings according to the needs of our guests.

There is a collective desire to return to the ‘normal’ after this pandemic. As there is no cure in sight for the virus for now, restrictive measures to curb this collective tendency is in our hands to some extent. The ‘new normal’ has several definitions and hence the situation demands a radical shift in our everyday lives – in the way we dine, meet people, socialise and work. 

The clanking of champagne glasses was missing at our 18th Anniversary celebrations earlier in May but not the effervescence of enthusiasm and spirit. DJ Donna played a fabulous set and was joined by 10,000 plus Park fans from across the world. And so were the other live sets streamed from the Lobby and Porch of the hotel by our talented bunch of DJs, Eric Paul, Karty and Akash.

Working with THE Park Hotels has taught me to constantly evolve and explore the path less taken. ‘Anything But Ordinary’ and ‘Leadership through ‘differentiation’ is in our DNA and we strive to make it a part of whatever we do. In the current situation it is all the more important for us to think out of the box. 

The assurance of safety will be a key differentiator for our hotels and we expect that this will help us maintain the leadership position. The key concern for any traveller in the near future is going to be health and safety. The Park Hotels has launched a comprehensive Hygiene & Safety program called S.H.I.E.L.D, which is one of the best in the hotel industry. This program is an upgrade over our existing ISO 22000 protocols, which we work with the International Certification body, Intertek. There are also inputs from our Hygiene partner Diversey in order to achieve clinical levels of cleanliness. We have also been able to achieve the ‘Best Safety’ badge from our Food delivery partners like Swiggy. This is based on the detailed protocols that has been put in place to ensure safe food preparation and delivery.

Our hotels are uniquely located to benefit from the initial travel demand. As things open up, THE Park Hotels will also offer great value for guests in pricing as well as the whole package of offerings in terms of cuisine quality, safe entertainment zones and wellness.  Curated Room packages that we intend offering with inclusions that appeal to those living in cities- for staycation and day-cation packages etc. will be another attractive reason for which we expect guests will start using our hotel.

The teams are also being trained on a regular basis on the stringent measures being taken on all facets of the business operations in order for each of them to completely familiarize themselves before the business resumes. There are new signages or visual cues being printed for social distancing, placements of touchless sanitiser dispensers and various other things in order to reiterate the safety measures that guests would need to adhere to at the Hotel.

Italian culinary prodigy, Chef Antonio Carluccio, Chef Willi from New Zealand and I

My personal journey with The Park started 18 years ago too. I joined The Park Chennai as second in command of the Kitchens which was then helmed by Chef Willi from New Zealand. I later moved on to more senior roles as Executive Chef, Area Director and Regional Director before taking over as the General Manager in 2015.  In mainstream 5 Star Hotels, it is still quite rare for an Executive Chef to assume a business head role. I am fortunate to have been mentored by Ms. Paul and Mr. Dewan for 18 years now.  In hindsight, I was being prepared for this role by Ms Paul and Mr Dewan much before. Multiple strategy meetings and Leadership summits that I was fortunate to attend have been a great learning opportunity.

At Cornell University in 2011

Being able to learn Hotel Operations Management from Cornell, the mecca for Hospitality education, is a dream come true, which was made possible for me by The Park way back in 2011. This was well before I took on the role of a business head. At each stage, Ms Paul and Mr Dewan have imparted us with cutting edge knowledge and skills.

At the Italian Institute of Advanced Culinary Arts

Our Italian cuisine was curated by legendary Italian Chef Antonio Carluccio and Chef Andrea Sporsini from Cordon Bleu Perugia who come over to train the team. I was sent to the Italian Institute of Advanced Culinary Arts to hone my skills further. It’s a delight to receive inputs from Ms. Paul and the global articles that she shares which continues till date.   

I distinctly recall when I joined. Post my stint with the Taj Hotels and an international tenure with Crowne Plaza, I was working with The Royal Meridian in Chennai when I heard about The Park opening its first hotel in the city. I heard that it is quite a ‘different’ kind of hotel as compared to other chains. Someone told me the dinner plates that have been ordered are square shaped, quite unheard of in those times. Dinner plates were meant to be round!  You could even sport a beard or grow your hair as long as it was styled appropriately. Visible tattoos were no taboo. And all this was more than a decade before Virat Kohli and Ranveer Singh made their bold fashion & style statements. This piqued my interest and I came over to The Park Chennai the very next day. The Hotel was obviously in a project stage at that time and hence was directed to the Apeejay Business Centre in Apeejay House Haddows Road as the interviews were being held there. I received the appointment letter a couple of months later and the rest is history!

The Park Chennai’s see-through glass partitioned bathrooms were quite wild for the early 2000s. The Leather Bar and Pasha shook the city, remoulding the entertainment sphere in the otherwise sleepy nightlife scene of Chennai. Wood fired Pizza’s at 601 fired up the culinary scene, while Aura relaxed and rejuvenated Chennai after the happening weekend parties at The Park. Ever since, the hotel has only gone from strength to strength with numerous awards and accolades that we have garnered. Some of the biggest outdoor catering events in Chennai have been catered by The Park including the Defence Expo 2018, which was held in Tamil Nadu for the first time in history. As of today, The Park Chennai has hosted 10 lakh plus room guests and served another 47 lakhs plus Food & Beverage and Spa guests.

Our Chairperson Ms Priya Paul and I

I had a great opportunity to work closely with Ms. Paul as we did the rebranding exercise in 2013. Ms. Paul is a visionary leader and has been always ahead of the times. As we were launching the new The Park, she wanted create an ‘Anything but Ordinary’ food experience to launch the new avatar. She then roped in acclaimed Dutch ‘Eating Designer’ Marije Vogelzang and conceptualised one of its kind and magical food experience called ‘Discovery’ .

Discovery, a unique under the table dining experience at THE Park Chennai curated as part of the ‘Anything But Ordinary’ experiences . A re-imagined a dining experience, inspired by a reminiscent fairytale of our childhood – Alice in Wonderland curated by Dutch ‘Eating Designer’ Marije Vogelzang.

This dining experience was curated and inspired our childhood or to relive a reminiscent fairtytale of our childhood ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The eating concept revolved around plethora of surprise elements that were woven into the experience. The dinner was served in a specially customised Table setup in which guests would dine seated underneath the large tables. There was food hanging under the tables as diners discovered the space. Desserts would magically appear above the tables as guest finish main course and come out from beneath the tables. Working closely with Ms. Paul for each tiny detail was an amazing learning experience.

Another personal experience etched in my memory is about the Chennai floods in December 2015 when the Hotel was flooded overnight, leading to a shut down of the operations and evacuation of all our guests. The basement of the Hotel which housed the Engineering services, Laundry and offices were submerged in 10ft of water. This situation was unique, with no manual that could be followed to deal with such a situation.

Our MD Mr Vijay Dewan and I

Mr Dewan, being one of the exemplary hoteliers in the country, has always pushed us to go beyond the obvious and achieve our best potential. He guides us continuously about various facets of the business, but the guidance he imparted in this particular situation was extraordinary. Our VP- Projects, Mr. Sujeet Singh was at The Park Chennai within 24 hour time to assist us. My initial estimate was that it may take us months to recover. Under Mr. Dewan’s guidance, we started limited operations within a single day! The teams were serving guests at The Leather Bar within next 24 hours. Temporary electricity through an external generator was restored within 72 hours for the hotel. And within a few months’ time we were leading the room occupancies in the city, yet again. This instance of working closely with Mr.  Dewan certainly counts as a very special experience.

Amongst creating many other products and services, I also believe that The Park is an extraordinary factory producing ‘Anything but Ordinary’ leaders across levels and I am proud to be one of them. I have learnt that ‘Leadership through Differentiation’ is not just a ‘Mission statement’ meant for our business, but that it is an integral personal vision statement as well. In a country vast as ours, and an industry as large, it is important that each one of us ‘lead through differentiation’ whether one works as a Concierge, Housekeeper or an F&B associate. During these unprecedented and uncertain times, The Park Chennai as part of the #HeartofHope initiative to provide for the unprivileged, homeless and needy, provided hygienically packaged meals for around 1000 people in and around localities of the Hotel.

 The Park is not just a hotel but an emotion for the people of Chennai.

As we restart post Lockdown, I am certain that the 100 plus years of heritage and experience of the Apeejay Surrendra Group and the Paul family will stand us in good stead. 50 plus years of experience in hospitality will not only help us find our feet quicker than our peers, but also run the fastest! I am optimistic that The Park Hotels will enter an era of unprecedented growth and success the near future!

Rajesh Radhakrishnan is General Manager, The Park Chennai

One thought on “From Chef to GM leading reopening of The Park Chennai post lockdown – my journey with Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels

  1. Chef I also agree with u.whenever I warked with u that is my valuable and favorite, memorable day.Never ever I am not forgate that time.yes chef………

    Liked by 1 person

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