René Seifert

Entrepreneur, Global Citizen, Flat World, Internet, Web 2.0, Innovation, Start-Up

Archive for January, 2010

Wipro Netbooks for Vatsalya: The New Year ahead

Happy New Year to all of you, and all the best for 2010. A quick update from my side on what has happened in the last weeks with our project “Wipro Netbooks for Vatsalya”.

  • The girls are fine, I just went to see them on December 22nd and they were – although in vast majority Hindu – very excited about upcoming Christmas. When I asked what they had learned so far with their new computers, they explained me how to start the machine, change the background colour of the desktop and equally knew who invented the micro-processor and when :-)
  • The computers are all up and running, two of them keep on disconnecting the WiFi-connection. We are in touch with Wipro based on the warranty to get this fixed.
  • Thanks to our network-infrastructure wizard Sumanth, Nokia Siemens Network (NSN) has committed a desktop computer to us, which will replace the current machine acting as the server. We are waiting for NSN to “de-frost” this desktop from its assets.
  • Although we can see initial traction of the girls interacting with the netbooks, we have decided the replace the current teacher and from April have a DAILY 2-hours curriculum. This intention reflects adequately both the importance and the potential that lies in technology-education for children.
  • Hence: If you know any reputable computer school or computer training institution in Bangalore, which would be able to provide a female teacher (against payment) on a daily bases, drop me a mail under rene.seifert [at] gmail.com

The Vatsalya Children’s Home primarily combines housing and school education for the girls whom we have been supporting in the current project. However, the institution runs in addition daily schooling for children from the surrounding slums on its compound. Shashi, the Secretary of Vatsalya, had asked me if I could support her in building a simple roof above the patio where their lessons take place. So far the kids were exposed to the burning sun, which – South India being South India – tends to be pretty hot. So I committed Rs. 15,000 (EUR 220) from our remaining funds which would allow to close the funding requirement and start with the construction work asap.

From our current financials, we therefore stand at a remaining amount of EUR 756.20 , see the overview on Google Docs. As we have the foreseeable cost of paying the teacher for the daily curriculum from April onwards, I propose to “keep the powder dry” and refrain from any new expenditure unless we get clearer visibility on this.

Wish you a phenomenal year ahead, and I will be happy to keep you updated on Vatsalya and “our girls” :-)

Soma Kerala Palace: Miserable Management-Failure

Ever been to a 5-star place which is run by a bunch of amateurs? Then welcome to Soma Kerala Palace in India. It takes 4 minutes and 32 seconds to do a full round on the perimeter of the island on which the resort is located. That might give you an idea of the size of the place which just opened less than two months ago. Check out its website, the resort looks really as beautiful as the pictures promise. It took apparently seven years to dry out the swamp, set up a solid foundation on which the existing structure with the buildings could be erected. My highest respect for this sophisticated undertaking, the aesthetics in design as well as the composition of space and architecture. Unfortunately, here my charming remarks on Somatheeram Palace come to an abrupt halt.

Just finished today a 10 Ayurveda treatment which went really well and deserves a separate post in full positive tone. Yet, for the first time, since I can think, I felt stuck in a holiday-place that I don’t like, but sort of “had to” stay because I wanted to finish a project – namely this Ayurveda treatment. Back how it all started: During out „7 Dwarfs-Tour“ two months ago we dropped our friend Maks in Somatheeram (Kovalam). I saw the place, really liked it. Moreover, Maks was so delighted about the experience that I decided to try such an Ayurveda-treatment as well. What can happen better to a company like Somatheeram in the first place to be referred through word-of-mouth? So I wrote for a booking in the same resort, but got to know from its office that it was fully booked over Christmas, yet at the same time there was a new sister-resort which would offer the same sort of treatments – Soma Kerala Palace. Well, so given the – in my perception – powerful brand of Somatheeram which was supposed to stand for a high-quality Ayurveda-experience, I gave it a go.

Arriving on December 22nd, I pretty soon started to see problems. To be balanced and fair for the thrashing which is to start in the next paragraph: The Ayurveda-clinic as a unit is well run by the Chief Physician Dr. R. Sreelatha of Somatheeram with two both phenomenal and warm-hearted therapists Bijo and Shaji. These guys have not just been massaging their arms and hands off, by now they have seen me longer naked than all the girlfriends in my lifetime together ;-) Also the yoga-teacher Varghese Thomas is a true treasure who loves what he does, teaches with great enthusiasm, explains very well and tries to compensate as much as he can the massive shortcomings of the resort. These two were the only consistent daily highlights.

Let’s get started, and I know that this is not going to be particularly nice. With my 400,000 miles of annual travelling, I have never seen a place where the gap between the effort to construct a place and the effort to run a place is as huge as the Grand Canyon. To let no doubt about the latter: Somatheeram Palace is awfully run. Management as a function of business is close to non-existent. To define some sort of benchmark for my expectation based on the Somatheeram brand and the price the resort charges (around EUR 160 per night including treatments): Provide a consistent high-quality Ayuveda experience in a relaxing environment. Unfortunately, there is neither anything consistent, nor high-quality nor relaxing.

Let me showcase the series of defaults with a few examples:

  • Somebody’s ceiling is somebody else’s floor: As beautiful as the houses are, they have one major construction flaw which is a purely wooden ceiling. So if you occupy the ground floor you can understand every word spoke above you, with every step up there you feel that an elephant is trampling on you. Not so cool if the family above you decides to get up at 5.50 am.
  • If Somatheeram positions itself as a serious Ayurveda place, then it is not comprehensible to me why it accepts families with hordes of kids where not even their parents are into any Ayurveda-activity whatsoever, but are just paying guests for the resort to fill up empty capacity – often just for a 1 night-stay. On several occasions days, we had some four families with I guess 15 kids in the age between 3 and 15 years. So let’s call the experience “Playground with adjacent Ayurveda”. Contrast that with e.g. the Ayurveda place Jindal in Bangalore which does not allow kids at all – for a good reason. I am really surprised that the management of Somatheeram jeopardizes the brand with such a dilution of its positioning. If you want to host plenty of kids, don’t call your place something with “Somatheeram”, but “Kumar’s Familiy Paradise” or so. Then I will surely not come for Ayurveda  and equally won’t have any reason to complain.
  • Although I had diligently inquired beforehand if there was internet-connectivity, it has been a catastrophic experience. In the first few days, it did not work at all, then just with a USB-modem on the reception-computer which I could use and then not at all again. The so called “internet café” is a joke: two computers stuck in a dark room with a neon lamp which hurts in the eyes, modems, routers, printers, cables on the floor – an entire mess. Also, just for the professionalism of my beloved management: On the computer on the right side, there are plenty of Excel-files with the occupancy-list including name of all guests for all days in November. Openly accessible straight from the desktop …Over the 10 days, the internet worked just over a few hours per day or not at all with an overall uptime of some 3 %. Completely useless, but don’t think anybody cares about fixing it. Somehow this whole “internet-café” as a concept is anyway stuck in the 90s. Where is the problem – like any reasonable hotel does it nowadays – to provide WiFi-internet in each room? I would be willing to pay up to 15 EUR per day for the convenience in case it “just works”.

Sadly, very few things just work at Soma Kerala Palace which according to the saying “the fish stinks from the head” is due to a manager who is friendly by nature, tries his best, but is clearly not up to the job. He is too junior and inexperienced to run a resort of this sophistication. This reflects his selection of staff who is even less up to the job, the absence of team-wide attitude, the absence of cross-department communication, the absence of any visible training, the the absence of defined quality-standards and the absence of continuous benchmarking against those. The result: Random results which fluctuate between OK and terrible. Some more examples:

  • The room-service forgot to replenish the two water bottels, no big deal. I called the house keeping under “16” and asked the gentleman on the other end of the line if he could be so kind and bring those. The not too elaborate response: “Okokok”. Unfortunately, nothing happened. Just the typical retard-answer which is a mix between “I have no clue what you want from me” and “Kiss my ass”.
  • My expectation would have been that there is some integrated Ayurveda experience which streches from the doctor, to the restaurant to the yoga trainer. The fact of the matter is that these three don’t seem to be coordinating anything among them. Result e.g. with the restaurant: It took the two lovely Austrian ladies Christine and Bettina (who have been suffering equally) and me five days to kick the restaurant in some shape in order to come up with some basic (!) hospitality-organization for pre-ordering our dishes. The quality of food, in turn, fluctuates between sometimes delicious and sometimes given our Ayurvedic intentions way too fat, or let’s rather say: No clue about Ayurveda-cooking. There seems to never have taken place any training for the cooks how to prepare proper Ayurvedic food. And when the cook changes and you order the same meal, you are facing a virgin experience on your plate.If this restaurant had to economically survive not as the monopoly on an island, but somewhere in central Kochin and Bangalore, it would – after one week of its operations – entertain exactly zero guests.
  • Then there are serious attitude problems on Somatheeram Palace: One night, we had a heavy thunderstorm so that the floor of our lovely yoga pavilion had become wet. The awesome yoga teacher was around already at 6.30 am, one hour before the class, and kindly asked the guy at the reception if he could have someone dry the floor. This guy, however, decided to sit on his ass and basically think: “What is this yoga guy giving me instructions, me the bog honcho at my desk” and not doing anything about. It was not till I came at 7.30 am and started to shout at him that things would start moving. The biggest problem: I can’t imagine anything which I want to do less than shout at people in general, not to mention during a holiday which was supposed to be entirely aimed at relaxation.
  • The bunch of families mentioned above had populated the swimming pool and left a battlefield of garbage, empty cups and used towels behind them. Bettina went to the pool the next day in the afternoon at 4 pm (!) and realized that nothing of it had been cleaned. As she understandably refused to sit in the midst of trash, she kicked the manager’s butt. What happened next is hyper-typical of the management style: All of a sudden three hectic creatures came running to the spot with panic in their eyes for impromptu-cleaning. No systematic approach to nothing. No processes at all. Instead, the management is improvising its way through the day all the time.
  • Check out this picture, it’s so telling about all I wrote so far and serves as an epitome for all the consistent neglect. This is the lovely water lily pond right in front of the reception (background).Soma Kerala Palace: Garbage everywhereWhat do we see in the right bottom corner? An empty water bottle swimming quietly on the surface, each and every member of the staff passing by several times from the early morning and even after half a day, the crap hadn’t been removed. It eventually did when I told the manager to his surprise that there was an empty bottle floating in front of his nose. Basically, Soma Kerala Palace is littered with trash in bits and pieces all over the place. The staff is, by contrast, quite helpful in creating it: I couldn’t believe my eyes what the waiter opened the plastic seal of the water bottle, just to drop it right on the lawn.
  • The same manager, constantly both apologetic and stressed by nature, really had the audacity to reply to one of the Austrian ladies as an excuse for all the shortcomings: “I have so much to do, I can’t do everything.” Clear proof his overstraining to the job. No wonder he has too much to do as he is sitting 80 % of the time in the reception, checking guests in and our and just doing operational stuff like answering phone calls (which he does well by the way). Effect: Zero exercise of any leadership which would deserve the notion of “running an operation”.

Although there are more examples I could tell, they are getting equally annoying to recount as they are annoying to read. In the essence, it always comes back to the same three issues: no customer-centricity, terrible management and as a result lack of quality. As a guest of Somatheeram I constantly had this feeling of disbelief: “Come on, guys, this is not true! Get a grip on yourself and just do your work properly.”

We heard several times the once more apologetic argument “sorry, we just opened two months ago”, but you can stretch this argument only so far to a finite extent. The preparation for a hospitality-business is NOT finished by building some nice houses on an island, ship a bunch of untrained amateurs in who pretend to run it and have your first guests be you guinea pigs. I would be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt if I saw the remote attempt to improve things beyond the ad-hoc problem fixing in any systematic manner. As things are going on, guests will hear the excuse “sorry, we just opened 3 years ago” in 2012.

If I was the owner of Soma Kerala Palace, I would be extremely worried about the state of my resort. Especially given the time, cost and effort to build Soma Kerala Palace in the first place. It feels like you intend to cook the best dinner in the world, buy the best ingredients, hire the best cooks, prepare everything according to the most delicious recipes. But at serving each and every course, one meter away from the table, the waiter stumbles and spills it all on the carpet. If I was the owner of Somatheeram Palace, I would emergency-parachute my best and most senior people in to take over, put professional practises in place, exchange key-people and kick a lot of asses for the next weeks to come.

But me being me, this is neither my task nor my responsibility. Me being me got enough from Soma Kerala Palace and will for sure never come close to anything where it reads “Somatheeram”. And if asked for advise, I would actively discourage my friends to go there.