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India Today Conclave 2023 : Top executives on their Covid experiences and what they learned from it

India Today Conclave 2023, India Today Conclave, India Today, Spicejet, Puneet Chhatwal, Ajay Bijli
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5 Dariya News

New Delhi , 18 Mar 2023

At the India Today Conclave 2023, Spicejet CEO Ajay Singh, Indian Hotels MD and CEO Puneet Chhatwal and Ajay Bijli, Chairman and Managing Director, PVR, shared their experiences from the Covid-19 period, their learnings and what they did to shield their businesses.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns in India dealt a huge economic blow to contact-heavy businesses across several sectors, including aviation, hospitality and entertainment.

Almost three years after the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown on March 24, 2020, top executives from three well-known companies shed light on the hardships during the period – how they navigated through the initial crisis, the aftershock that lasted for almost two years and how it has impacted their overall business strategy.

At the India Today Conclave 2023, Spicejet CEO Ajay Singh, Indian Hotels MD and CEO Puneet Chhatwal and Ajay Bijli, Chairman and Managing Director, PVR, shared their experiences from the Covid-19 period, their learnings and what they did to shield their businesses.

How Spicejet improvised with cargo shipments

SpiceJet CEO Ajay Singh started off the session, saying how aviation was one of the sectors which was shut down. “One fine day in March, we were just told to stop flying,” he said, recalling the time when the government asked airlines to stop operations during the first nationwide lockdown.

“In aviation, that’s a big problem because we have planes that we have taken on lease and we have to keep paying for them irrespective of what happens,” he said.There were 12,000-13,000 employees at the time, Singh said. “What does it mean to just shut down? What happens to the infrastructure that you’ve got? And how does one pay for it? It was a devastating blow,” he added.

Ajay Singh said the airline’s management had no option but to move quickly. Since no help initially came from the government, the airline decided that if it could not fly passengers, it could look at flying essential cargo like medicines, PPE suits and other equipment needed to tackle the Covid pandemic.

“We have planes, we can’t fly passengers any more, but is there something else we can fly? And we realised that cargo was one of those things we could actually use planes for. Because there were no trucks, no trains, no surface movement of cargo,” he said.

Singh said that the airline just “repurposed” during Covid by flying cargo. It helped the airline sustain and pay salaries. “We didn’t sack a single person from SpiceJet,” he added.

As the airline industry returns to pre-Covid levels, Singh said the period was devastating but taught important lessons, such as the importance of automation and working as a team.

“We are now getting back to pre-covid levels, the market is doing well, demand is strong and yields are high. We learnt a lot during Covid,” he added.

Tale of support, empathy and care

Indian Hotels Company MD and CEO Puneet Chhatwal said the company started community service in order to help frontline workers from March 20, 2020.Chhawal said they also served meals to migrant workers.

 “On a daily basis, we were supplying 60,000-70,000 meals a day and in the end, it added up to six million meals during the Covid period,” he added.“Now all this came because of a belief that when a virus hits both your mind and your business, when human beings are living in fear, then they need empathy and care,” Chhatwal added.

Besides that, Indian Hotels Group hosted 1,20,000 bed nights for frontline workers, and Chhatwal said all this was done through Taj Public Service Welfare Trust.He added home delivery services were started to serve people during the Covid period.

“We started bringing Taj food to people’s homes. We created homestays so that people can have relaxation and holiday in a secluded environment. So that also became a business for us,” the Indian Hotels Company MD and CEO said.

Puneet Chhatwal added that the group’s service during the pandemic resulted in better business growth. “In the last quarter, our profit after tax was higher than any full year profit of the best financial year,” he said.

From being on the brink of bankruptcy to bouncing back

PVR Chairman and Managing Director Ajay Bijli shared how the Covid-19 pandemic shocked the box office. He recalled how 100 million Indians came to the theatres in 2019, but that completely changed in March 2020, when cinemas were shut down.

“We were the first ones to be shut down and the last ones to have opened,” Bijli said, signalling how the sector was one of the hardest hits.“Suddenly, the revenues came to zero and we didn’t have any other avenues. Our is a very simple business. The shutters are up, business is up, shutters are down, business is zero,” he said.

Ajay Bijli underlined some strategies that helped PVR navigate through the crisis. “Since we didn't have any other avenues, cost was the only thing that we could reduce and shore up liquidity. Most of my people took a 50 per cent haircut in their remuneration without me even asking,” he said.

“I was extremely fortunate that all the developers, because our business is all about renting space, they all came forward and gave us rent relief, even without force measures. We were able to raise funds because 18 months is a long period to have zero revenues,” he added.

The PVR MD and Chairman said the company raised funds through a rights issue and QIP. “I was absolutely blown away that we were able to raise the kind of cash that we did to survive 18 months.”

He said the company was completely on the brink of bankruptcy, but survived because of cost savings, being able to raise money and remaining sane.“Never waste a good crisis, so we found an opportunity that only in Covid that we could have done this merger. We did a merger with Inox, basically just to make the balance sheets stronger,” he said.

About India Today Conclave

The India Today Conclave is India’s first and only intelligence exchange that engages every stakeholder to build an agenda for positive change. It dissects every relevant fact, amplifies every sensible voice. 

It’s a leadership conference where the sharpest global minds come together to analyse, debate, inspire, entertain, and, of course, prescribe solutions. For nearly two decades, the India Today Conclave has been a global diagnostic, measuring the pulse of the world, making sense of random developments and predicting the next big thing.

 

Tags: India Today Conclave 2023 , India Today Conclave , India Today , Spicejet , Puneet Chhatwal , Ajay Bijli

 

 

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