*Irfan Aziz has a tête-à-tête with GM of InterContinental Dhaka, James P. McDonald

No establishment in Bangladesh’s hospitality sector is as culturally significant as the InterContinental Hotel, Dhaka. Not only was it the first five star hotel to grace the then East Pakistan, it also played an important role during the Liberation War and was a social hub for the elite. After almost a three and a half decade long hiatus, the InterContinental has finally made a much-awaited return. A crucial role was played by General Manager, James P. McDonald, who ensured that no stones were left unturned during the eventual transition of Ruposhi Bangla to the InterContinental.

A quick glance at the man is all it takes for one to understand his knack for perfection. His shoes were as perfectly polished as his shirt was ironed. His coat pin was perfectly aligned with his tie. His posture was firm, speech eloquent and most importantly he listened to whatever I had to say with great attention. You could tell that he was tailored for the hospitality sector.

Please give us a brief account of your journey so far.
I have spent 39 years with the InterContinental Group. I was born into it. My journey has seen me work in 18 different properties across 15 countries. I have spent 25 years in the kitchen before moving to food and beverage management and then general management and eventually projects. Whether it’s new openings or renovations, I have overseen various initiatives. Even here in Bangladesh, I came in ahead of time into an operating hotel, worked with the owners and help them set up project management, designers etc. I helped them close down and oversaw the renovation, repositioning and reopening of InterContinental from Ruposhi Bangla over the past 6 years.

InterContinental has made a much-awaited return but during its absence, but a lot has changed in the hospitality sector. How do you plan on bringing everything to speed and catch up with competitors?
I would like to refer to our return as a new opening and not a renovation. We are here to rejuvenate the hospitality sector. Any newcomer in Dhaka would see us as a brand new hotel. But of course, we also have the history, pedigree and talking point to connect to the local audience. Every corner of the hotel has been enhanced. You’ll find everything here that you can expect from hotels abroad. One thing which we kept in mind while renovating the place is connecting our local patrons. That is why you will find elements of Islamic architecture and Bangladeshi architecture throughout the place. Because when you’re in Dhaka, you would like to feel like you’re in Dhaka, you would want to connect to it. You would need that design element. We have done our homework, we have all the facilities that you would expect from a 5-star hotel, we have the luxurious rooms and considering all these factors, I’d say that we have more than just bridged the gap.

What are some features of the InterContinental that set it apart from the other names in the hospitality sector?
We have the most luxurious design. We have prime plazas, 40m square plus rooms, the biggest selection of services and larger than life convention halls. We are in the upper echelon of five star. We refer to it as the upper upscale of the five star rating. What you’ll find in Paris or London, you will find here in Dhaka.

In your opinion what are the most important qualities a GM in the hospitality sectors must possess? What are the most challenging aspects?
A GM must be passionate and guest-focused. I think these are the two most important traits. They would need to understand the fact that making money is of secondary importance and we cannot afford to cut corners to save money and lower standards. When your role is this diverse, there are always a lot of challenges involved. I guess the most challenging aspect is to get your team’s interest aligned with the best interest of the customer. I really want to be able to help people realise their true potentials and this requires constant motivation. We also believe in innovating ourselves so that we can always stay relevant. For that, we do have to rely on second guessing and intuition from time to time. It’s the feedbacks from our guests that help us introduce more personalised services that can keep us relevant.

What are some market/business trends that you expect to see in 2019?
Obviously technology in the form of social media will influence the market greatly. With social media, you are constantly in the focus. This means you would need to constantly be in your A-game. Another thing you should know is that since it’s election year, there will be a flurry of activities that will see delegations constantly travelling in and out of Bangladesh so the hospitality sector will be booming and we have the shiniest new hotel in town to tend to their needs.

Irfan Aziz is a Sub Editor of ICE Today magazine. He is a pug enthusiast who loves looking at memes, writing and sketching.