Azeem Shah, General Manager of Renaissance Dhaka Gulshan Hotel on his come back venture, the new normal and how the hospitality industry can regain the trust to steer forward the business
What brought you back to Bangladesh?
I am a Bangladeshi “Jamai” now, there cannot be a bigger reason for returning to this country! Interestingly, my wife is from Dhaka but currently resides in Australia and I am working here. We got married after I left my job at The Westin Dhaka.
I’ve always loved Bangladesh and my time during employment at The Westin was exciting. That was the golden period for the hospitality business as it reached the pinnacle of the industry over a short period of time.
One of the biggest motivations to come back and join here is the fact that it is completely a new product. Renaissance is the first truly Marriott brand. I previously worked for Starwood which was one of the largest companies that owned, operated, franchised and managed hotels, resorts, spas, residences, and vacation ownership properties. After Marriot had acquired Starwood, they also took over the brands that were previously part of Starwood. However, Marriot has come into the market with their brand (Renaissance). It is a lifestyle brand so it doesn’t mean I have to be in a suit day and night, it’s more about exploring, being innovative. It emphasises on the ability to be able to blend in with the culture. Therefore, it is an exciting brand to introduce to Bangladesh.
I’ve always been an advocate for Bangladesh even though I had not been here for the last seven years. I’ve sort of started to mentally psych the people that I work with and there are few taglines that I’m planning to use. One of them is “Hotel that will change Dhaka forever” and the second one is “Simply the Best”.
We need to put ourselves out in the market. I believe, in aggregate, the industry has been keeping a very low profile in Bangladesh. On top of that, the pandemic has put a stop on the existing communications that the industry was maintaining. I like to look at the current situation in a positive way, the pandemic has given an equal opportunity for a fresh start.
Most businesses are psyched about the negative impact of the pandemic on the business. How do you plan to move forward?
Most people are talking about the negatives, however, there are also a lot of positives to look at too. A lot of entities in our industry are offering home delivery food.
The greatest thing that’s happening now is that everyone is not travelling now, so they’re all bringing home delivery food, but I feel that we are not ready yet. I still think it’s not safe because of the mode of delivery or the partners involved in the delivery. They do not seem to be following the same strict conditions of operations of being safe. A lot of things can go wrong in this scenario. It may have a bigger negative impact so it’s better to consolidate your position and offer what you can offer it to the best. We are targeting a higher market segment. Renaissance is open to entrepreneurs but I want to attract the artists of Bangladesh because we have a venue that can be used to showcase their creativity. I would encourage short filmmakers to come here regularly for networking and supporting each other. If you are a jazz musician, we have a beautiful jazz lounge upstairs. So this can be a platform for people to come here to showcase their skills.
I also want to be supporting the vintage car and motorbike club. Provide them with the opportunity to make Renaissance central to their activities.
And there’s no way I’m discounting anybody from coming here, there is something for everyone here and that’s how it should be.
Thankfully, I have very supportive owners. Doctor Iqbal and his sons were closely involved with the project. As owners, they’re very forthright and supportive of how the brand should be, no expense has been spared in creating a truly premium international standard hotel experience.
Can you please share the details about your idea of the “New Buffet”?
I am currently trying to convince the owners to start a buffet following the hygiene and social distancing regulations. We will downsize the current guest capacity to half (from 60 to 30) and they will not have access to the food, our servers will bring it to them. So the guests will not roam around the place, so it will be safer and much more hygienic.
From your international experience, how can the industry gain back trust and confidence and attract people back to their hotels?
The industry needs to win back their confidence by displaying their safety practices. Marriott International implements Project We care, the project is not only for guests but associates as well. We care will be the new normal for everyone who works here. Every business has to evolve and adapt to the new normal, it is pivotal for their survival.
We have to evolve with the change in market demand and give people what they need. Otherwise, you will not survive in the market.
Currently, it is the buyers’ market. We have an oversupply of rooms available for guests in Dhaka. During my previous tenure, there were a few branded hotels in Dhaka ensuring significant demand throughout the year. Things have changed drastically, there is a lot more competition in the market so you have to be on your toes to make sure you are sought after among the guests.
Marriot has four brands that are competing against each other. There are also numerous boutique hotels that have their own niche. Again, you need to differentiate how to get business.
My way of getting the business is through relationship building. I think the idea is not to drop the price in this market; if you have a product you’re gonna ask what it’s worth. If I start selling my product at the same price as the lower end of the market, it does not make sense. By doing so, not only you’re discounting what services and facilities you have but you’re also killing the guy at the end because his market is different, he cannot aspire to sell the same room at 400 dollars. This country has all the potential to do the right things but I think we just need to focus and stay on the same game plan if we falter before and the recovery will take much longer.
On a personal note, how soon do you think things will go back to normal in the event a vaccine comes through?
I keep my finger on the pulse. I’m from Perth, the capital of Western Australia–that’s the only state in Australia that is locked to the other states, so people cannot come in. We have now gone to stage four and we’ll go to stage five that means one new case of COVID19. So it (the pandemic) is negligible compared to the rest of the world. It has been achieved because everybody has acted sensibly and acted under what was the requirement (by the government) so now they’ve opened everything internally. People have the option to travel, move around and pubs, hotels restaurants are open. My wife is in the hotel industry there, aa a sales manager for two hotels. Of the hotels she works for, one hotel is 100% occupancy and one is 60%.
Conversely, hotels of the same company in the Eastern states are only at 4-5% occupancy because there are too many cases. The same thing happened here (Dhaka), we have taken things lightly and now we are facing barriers to get back to our normal lives.
I have made it very clear to associates and staff through online discussions that the companies are going to feel the pinch. There is no revenue coming in: the burden is on the owners, so we have to be sensible. That means the burdens are going to come to your family. So, whatever salary you’ll get or bonus you get, don’t spend it. Save it for the rainy day because it all depends on how soon this recovery happens.
We’ve had to say goodbye to nearly half of our team members. Many call it downsizing, I would rather positively call it right-sizing. However, we gave our word that every employee who has been let go will be welcomed back once the business comes back on track. Also, I have partnered up with other organisations in Dhaka where I offer them (partners) the skilled employees we are letting go in case of any vacancy.
But it doesn’t stop us from reinventing ourselves and staying motivated. Motivation is pivotal, we do a lot of online training, we have sessions where we keep reinforcing positivity and exchange ideas. We also have our in-house doctor and numerous “cleaning champions” spread across the hotel.
What is your leadership style or mantra?
My leadership style is empowering people, allowing them the freedom to operate under their instincts. It will allow them to come up with their ideas. On the other hand, if you are constantly dictating, employees will not work from their hearts. In fact, in the Renaissance, I have to constantly nag my employees to go home to their families. There is so much enthusiasm among the employees that they are always keen to go that extra mile to ensure the expected quality and that compliance is maintained indefinitely. I’m very keen to get this hotel launched, but if I start clamping down on everybody, it’s not going to work so my style is to work together.
How would you influence your employees’ mindset?
In one line, “Always praise the guy who was there before you”. Because employees will have loyalty towards their former boss and that person (boss) would have had a specific style of leadership that worked for the organisation. Fortunately for me, we had Jerome Lenhardt who was a GM before me during the pre-opening stage. It is one of the toughest stages when you are opening a hotel- there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of stress and everybody seems to have an opinion.
I have overseen the opening of numerous hotels across the world and fully understand the kind of pressure one has to deal with. My approach starts with winning the hearts of everybody involved, gradually, I start to improvise and bring my style into the process. My style is getting the job done despite how long it takes. Most importantly, I try to ensure my employees get to spend enough time with their families.
If you respect everybody’s family and get to know them, their life becomes easier at work as well. Knowing your employees personally will allow you to understand what kind of stress the person is facing and the person may be late to work.
My mantra is today’s work is today, but you have the freedom to operate in your area. If there is an issue, I get involved and oversee the situation until confidence is restored.