Mumbai attack dents business travel

MUMBAI, India (AP) John Fesko came to Mumbai to talk with an Indian pharmaceutical company about manufacturing two high blood pressure drugs his Swiss biotech firm is developing. He went home with a bullet in his leg.

“I thought I had glass in my leg,” the American said by phone from Basel, Switzerland, just after his doctor extracted the bullet.

Fesko was one of the lucky ones: He survived the 60-hour rampage by Islamic militants in India’s financial capital, which claimed 171 lives.

He has three new rules to live by: Always carry your passport. Keep at least one credit card on you. Avoid five star hotels in poor countries.

The Nov. 26 to Nov. 29 terror attacks dealt a further blow to India’s business travel industry, which has been suffering from the global economic slowdown for months. Occupancy rates in south Mumbai’s five-star hotels, frequented by business travellers like Fesko, are down by about a third since the siege, according to the Hotel Association of India.

Few predict terror alone will derail business travel to India for the long haul. But as corporate travellers limp back, they are asking tough questions about security, demanding that high-profile hotels prove they have measures in place to deflect violence. Those demands, fuelled by a still-palpable fear, are forcing the city’s top hotels to rethink the delicate balance between security and hospitality.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives, a U.S. nonprofit group, surveyed 134 corporate travel managers after the Mumbai attacks. They found that just 6 percent planned to curtail travel to the region, but 78 percent were reviewing their hotel contracts with a greater emphasis on security. “Companies are going to continue to send people all around the world,” said Susan Gurley, the group’s executive director. Still, “the onus is going to be much more on hotels proving to corporations that their security is up to date.”

Companies are asking the hotels they deal with to coordinate better with police, fire and military authorities, train staff in evacuation techniques, install back-up communication systems in guest rooms, and improve surveillance, she said.

Such aggressive security measures come with both financial and psychological costs.

“People want to feel safe, but they don’t want to feel like they are in an armed camp,” Gurley said.

Luxury hotels across Mumbai have added metal detectors, more stringent bag searches, bomb-sniffing dogs and vehicle searches. Some are considering staff training on what to do in case of a terrorist attack, and the government has posted armed police and soldiers at top hotels in Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata.

Varun Satish, the assistant to the director of security at the Four Seasons hotel in Mumbai, said security officers from corporate clients have descended on the hotel since the attack. “We’ve had a security audit like every second day,” he said.

“Hospitality is going to change,” he said. “Guests ask, ‘Is it going to be like checking in at the airport?'”

“It’s the budget that’s going to go up big time,” he added. “We don’t mind. It’s only going to make things more secure.” Dinesh Chauhan, Asia-Pacific travel manager for Philips Electronics NV, helps oversee a 300 million euro ($404 million) annual travel budget for more than 60,000 employees worldwide.

He said Philips already asks the hotels it deals with to meet certain minimum security requirements — like restricting access for non-guests and ensuring fire safety — but is working to improve things like monitoring staff location.

Philips lifted its ban on travel to Mumbai on Dec. 4, five days after the attacks ended. And it has reopened its Mumbai office, which was closed for two days.

Many other companies also have lifted their travel restrictions and pledged to move ahead with business as usual in India, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.
Priya Paul, president of the Hotel Association of India, said she expects business travel to resume normal levels in January.

“People are giving it a little time to settle down,” she said.

Part of the Oberoi and the new wing of the Taj hotel — both targets of the terrorist attacks — plan to reopen Dec. 21. It’s too early to tell whether loyalty or fear will dominate and how quickly the business community will return to its two favourite haunts.

Pradeep Udhas, a managing director at Greater Pacific Capital Pvt Ltd, a private equity firm, said his firm is considering sending people to more humble lodging than the Taj or Oberoi from now on.

“We have to be judicious and not take undo risks for our people,” he said. “But if we don’t continue with our business, that’s what these terrorists want.”

Fesko, the chief executive of biotech company Renuvia Pharmaceuticals LLC who is back home recuperating in Switzerland, said he would probably return to India and continue talks with Cipla Ltd. — and probably would avoid staying in expensive hotels. But his voice is heavy with hesitation.

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In this Nov. 29, 2008 file photo, an Indian soldier takes cover as the Taj Mahal hotel burns during gun battle between Indian military and militants inside the hotel in Mumbai, India. The Nov. 26-29 terror attacks dealt a further blow to India’s business travel industry, which has been suffering from the global economic slowdown for months. Occupancy rates in south Mumbai’s five-star hotels, frequented by business travellers, are down by about a third since the siege, according to the Hotel Association of India

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