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‘IT IS POSSIBLE FOR BANGLADESH TO REPLICATE THE MODELS OF LEADING TOURISM COUNTRIES TO GET THE SAME SUCCESS’

Md Al-Amin, in many ways, is exactly how one might expect the director of sales and marketing of an international hotel chain to be like: likeably smart and elegantly charismatic. ‘PR and event specialist’ Sanjida Islam seated the Fintech team on the 23rd floor of The Westin, inside the spectacular Prego restaurant, fashioning stunning décor and gorgeously glassy amber stone floor. The place couldn’t have been more fitting for interviewing a top executive of a luxury hotel. As an immaculately dressed Mr Al-Amin strode in, he immediately initiated the conversation.

During the interview he talked about the past and present state of the hospitality industry, the key challenges the sector faces, it’s potential for growing, the unfortunate social stigma regarding career in a hotel that exists in our society and many more pertinent topics.

Here is the full interview:

FINTECH: Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work in this industry?

MAA: I started in this industry in 2008. I had started my career at Grameenphone in 2005 and joined Hotel Sonargaon in 2008. I worked there for two years. From 2010 I’m with The Westin. So, throughout this I’ve been in sales, basically. Sales, relationship management, that’s my strength. In 2014 I had left the hotel industry for one and a half year, before coming back into it. The reason I came back is because of my passion for this sector. I had a very good thing going on for me, had a great job out of the country, but I still decided to come back. This industry attracts me.

You get a lot of exposure; every day you get to know new people. I enjoy this and I have a natural inclination towards this kind of work. That’s why I’m in this industry and I want to motivate people to come into this industry, because this industry is going to grow in for the next 5/10 years. Just like we saw that the telecom industry started to grow in the early 2000s, after that we saw the banking industry growing. If you look at Bangladesh, we have more than 50 local banks. The pay scale and everything is very good there. When a strong industry like that offers the young freshers that kind of incentives people get motivated to join. That is how an industry booms. And obviously government had taken a lot of initiatives to improve those industries. So, now we request the government, to focus on this industry and to market this industry, specially through our education sector. The reason is that for the next five years there will be 10 to 15 new international hotels. International hotel chains are going to come here. That means we need a lot of new people, skilled man power. For the most part we cannot be dependent on foreigners.

As of today, maybe we think that the GM position, which is the CEO position for a hotel, should be given to a foreigner. But you know, go to any other Asian country and you will see that they probably think about this in a different way. But we were also not prepared, we didn’t have enough manpower to take on that role. However, slowly we are going there. In the next two or three years, I’m sure, a lot of our contemporaries – different hotels – will be prepared to take that leading position. Then I think it’s the government’s duty to ensure if a Bangladeshi national deserves that kinds of positons, they should get it. In many countries you see a lot of restrictions for the foreigners coming in to work in the CEO position, and that is kind of discouraged. So, this is how the local people feel motivated and they actually achieve that position. I think the way our industry is going; people are getting skilled day by day. Obviously, we need more focus, and more intensive training is required in this industry. In five-year time we will be in a very good shape. We will have Bangladeshi GMs and may be senior positions people from Bangladesh.

FINTECH: So, you are saying that the industry will grow inevitably. Could you compare this to the past? Why growth is possible now and why it wasn’t before?

MAA: Yes, see, if you look at the history of hotel industry in Bangladesh, before the liberation war Sheraton came here. Actually, Sheraton came to Bangladesh before it went to India even. India got their first international hotel in 1985, whereas, we got one in 1968, somewhere around that time. Sonargaon started their operation in 1981. And after that there was a big gap until, I think, 2005. Within that 24 years we didn’t have any international hotel. Then Bangladesh Army took an initiative and they did Radisson. And Westin Dhaka was the first local investment for an international hotel. It was a very risky proposition, and the owning company of this hotel, personally Mr Noor Ali, who is a legendary business personality in Bangladesh; he took the initiative, took a big risk and invested a lot of money in this hotel.

So, this is the first ever international hotel under a private organisation and it became very successful. It also motivated so many people. You see in Gulshan not only international hotels, but local boutique hotels. So, people started investing in hotels and they found good ROI in the sector. I think day by day the GDP and the economy of Bangladesh is growing. So, people are coming, people are investing and a lot of things are happening. And I think in the last seven or eight years the government has been stable. That gives assurance to the foreign investors that they can come to Bangladesh. So, when investment increases travelling increases too and that means there will be more demand in the industry. If the demand is there, then I’m sure a lot of supply will come by default.

However, in the Dhaka market we are a hundred percent reliant on corporate travelers. We don’t have leisure segment much. That’s one segment which we can improve on. But it will only improve when the city has something to offer for a leisure traveler. Because we don’t have entertainment, we don’t have proper infrastructure for transport, and you know, even for sightseeing. There has to be a proper system for you to promote something to the foreigners. If those things are in shape, then the industry will grow even more. I think around 10 to 15 international hotels are in the pipeline, so, things are going in a good direction.

FINTECH: The leisure tourists obviously are intricately connected to the growth of the industry. But as you mentioned there is nothing on offer for a foreigner in the Dhaka city. This segment is quite stagnant, as you also mention. But isn’t it very unlikely that Dhaka will change in any significant way in the foreseeable future? Can you really expect that sort of change?

MAA: Actually, it requires a proper planning. It has to come from the government. And if the government initiates a proper planning then that will motivate the business people to invest. And if they make, say, a 20-year plan; if you have a vision, you know, like Bangladesh has the 2021 vision, something like that, if you have that kind of a plan, you could replicate some countries that have been very successful. Obviously, we are a Muslim country and there are certain things that we will not be able to do. But at the same time we have examples of a lot of Muslim countries that have been successful in tourism. So, we can actually replicate those models.

I think security is a very important issue. You have to ensure security and you have to market security and put the message out there that “yes, we are safe for travel”. If you look at Cox’s Bazar, you will see that 99 percent are local travelers, you will never see any kind of big foreigner movement there. It is stopping international chains to invest there. The Cox’s Bazar beach is fantastic. If you compare it to, let’s say Bangkok, you will see the contrast. I think we are losing a lot of potential revenue.

FINTECH: Speaking of Bangkok, Thailand generates two percent of its GDP from tourism, which is really something. Essentially, this can’t happen without initiatives from the government. The case in point being the Thai government’s tourism ministry practically steer the whole tourism industry and moves it forward . Have you seen any promising move toward that kind of models?

MAA: You see, I think now the government is kind of focusing. Bangkok has a different concept of promoting their tourism. We don’t have to do that exactly. We have other things we could promote. For example, many of the islands. If you go to Bali, they have only destination based tourism. We can promote something like that. I think the decision making people should also understand that. Because, from within the private sector you can only say these things and complain. Some people might actually take initiatives, but if it is a consolidated initiative from the government and public then it can create a better impact. So, they should focus, they should understand that these are the possibilities where you could earn money, where you could generate revenue. May be our tourism will not contribute maximum to the GDP, but we have other industries like RMG. Let that be like this, but whatever we have within our capacity, maybe we can utilize that.

FINTECH: Some growth will happen naturally, as you said. Where that growth will be?

MAA: These are like only corporate driven things. If you look at us, or any international hotel in Dhaka, 95 percent of our guests are corporate. They come here for business. That means their trip is short. They don’t really spend money. The money goes to few people. Let’s say you go to a destination where you have a beach. You’ll spend money at a local restaurant, maybe for a tourist guide, maybe for a rickshaw ride, you know. Now, it is stagnant. They come to a hotel, maybe they have a meeting and then they go back. I mean, there are opportunities and we are not exploiting that.

FINTECH: You talked about the need for human resources, skilled man power. Do we have that resource and will we be able to meet the demand for the industry to grow?

MAA: If you ask me now, we don’t have that. We don’t have proper education for tourism. People are coming to this industry not by choice but because of the prevailing situation. They are not getting job elsewhere and coming here because of that. They learn during their work in the industry, and maybe after five years they will start to give output. Whereas, if they had studied for four years they would have been productive from the first day.

FINTECH: Which brings us to the social stigma question. The service and hospitality industry is not seen as a desirable career choice. It’s not “proper job”. We know that exists. Do you think this is going to change?

MAA: I’m sure this will change. The more people will be educated; they will change their perception about this profession. So, still I think a graduate might feel bad about serving food to a guest. But the same person going for study overseas, he is doing that and he is happy. The social nature overseas probably contributes to that.

However, the perception will change when good universities will offer proper education for this industry. Let’s say a student coming out of a good university, having spent a good amount of money, will have certain expectations. When he will sit for an interview with a hotel he will ask for better money. And when the hotel will see that they are getting a better quality worker and think why not give him a better salary. Maybe that can create a better benchmark for salary.

We are an international hotel, so we do a lot of orientation for our new associates. We try to train them to a certain level before we send them to deliver service to our customers. I’m not sure about the local hotels what they are doing. I mean, that’s why you see service variation from hotel to hotel, not all hotel ensures similar level of service.

FINTECH: Yes, there is a lack of uniformity…

MAA: No uniformity at all. You will find good service in some hotels and maybe in others you will be shocked. I think we need to develop that kind of benchmark. I think the system of our education has to change for that.

FINTECH: So, ultimately without adequate scope for standardized vocational training for this industry there will be a lack of essential workforce. And awareness in the market will also not happen without existence of professional degrees.

MAA: True. Our owner company started a hospitality school. They provide six-months training, diploma course etc. But that is a private initiative. We need a few more of that kind. Government has an institution, NSTU. But how many people can come out of that one institute? We need to consider these things. And we need to ensure, when graduates come out of those universities they can deliver proper service. They have to know what they need to know.

FINTECH: If you have the chance to say something to an aspiring student, who may have never considered this sector and didn’t think he can have a career in it, what you are going to say to that student?

MAA: I think I will only motivate him to join this industry. This is one of the industries that will open a window internationally for people working in it. I mean, like we are a brand of Marriott, which has over 10 thousand hotels around the globe. I am an employee of Marriott and I have the opportunity to apply for any international position and if I’m eligible I will be considered. I don’t know how many companies in Bangladesh can offer that. I’m sure there are some, but not many.

That’s one, and another is that the pay is good here and when you have a lot of international hotels it will be even better. For women, I think, this industry needs a lot more involvement of women. Right now the ratio is not satisfactory, it’s probably at 15 percent. Whereas, as a brand we would ideally want more than 40 percent. Women should consider it as an attractive profession and they should know that this is a safe environment. There, I think the social perception needs to change. Also if government motivates people and market this industry then people will be coming into it, and good quality people will be interested. And then we can set a benchmark and compete globally. If you look at our neighboring country India, they have been able to set a benchmark. Their people are in very senior positions at international brands, in regions and even at global head offices. If they could reach there, then why not us? We speak similar languages, look similar, so, why not? We need that approach. I believe we will have that kind of people eventually coming in the industry and breaking away from the shackle.

FINTECH: What options Bangladeshi youth or students have academically to prepare themselves for this industry?

MAA: When we recruit someone we don’t look at their CGPA. May be we look for a minimum, but we hardly require 4 out of 4 CGPAs. But what we do want is a positive mindset, that’s number one. And also, you have to be open to learning a few stuff. Because, in the hotel industry many things are technical issues. There has to be hands-on training, you can’t learn this theoretically. You have to do it. So, those things are there.

One very important thing is that they need to develop their communications skill. That’s mandatory. I would say that’s the top priority. I would recommend people to learn a third language. It could be Arabic; it could be Chinses. They can determine and focus. Think about which are the countries that will probably lead the world in the next five years. For instance, if you ask me now, I would say that people should learn Chinese, because they are a growing economy. We have an advantage in Bangladesh, we are able to speak Hindi. Arabic is important when they need operational people in the Middle East or Gulf countries. A third language will be always helpful. English you have to learn, that a given. So, that’s two things I think is important. Other than that basic grooming standard is important. I don’t think any of our universities deals with that. I think universities should have a particular focus in this area. In the hospitality industry beauty has a value, to be honest. You have to presentable. Perception matters. When we have new recruits we have in house training for them.

FINTECH: As person in a leadership position, do you have any principles that you live by?

MAA: I’m very positive. I don’t feel negatively about anything. I think that’s one of my best strengths. I see opportunities in everything. And in the hotel industry you need to work a little hard, you cannot be smart always.

You can fast-track your career. Let’s say, some people can reach a certain position in 20 years. You can actually reach there in 10 years. Maybe giving double the effort is the way. You have to figure that out. A lot of people in our hotel have done it. My CEO isn’t the oldest person at this hotel, and I’m not the oldest person in my team either. I think these are my principles.

FINTECH: Could you specifically address the challenges in the industry at this moment?

MAA: At this moment, the spending is really high. Raw materials are very expensive. There are some permission and regulatory issues are still inflexible. I think on those matters we need government support.

FINTECH: You said that The Westin was able to get a very quick ROI. Has that situation changed?

MAA: No, I think we are still the leading hotel in the city. But obviously now we have more competition. But we appreciate that and we adapt. The more hotels you will have in the city the rate will be get lower. But in many occasions The Westin, as an international hotel have to keep our standards and can’t compromise there. That’s why our cost of goods is always high. We use a lot of imported materials and goods, and the government has high duty on those, starting from liquor or other important things. I often face questions from guests, like: ‘In the US a can of coke is one dollar, why it is five dollars here?’ Bangladesh being a poor country it should be even cheaper. We have to answer those questions.

I think these are the things where the government can be a little flexible. Or maybe, since this is growing industry, the government could introduce some sort of incentives for the investors. Perhaps, the duty structure can be changed. So, they are more interested to invest. For instance, when you buy furniture from overseas, there will be 300 or 400 percent duty at times. Something can be done there.

FINTECH: What kinds of technology you use on a daily basis?

MAA: I’m of course very much dependent on a lot of technologies, as you have to be now. Starting from my email, my digital platforms, hotel Facebook, we are depending on technology for pretty much every second of every day. Technology is something we cannot do without. Two years down the line there may not be a single facet in sales and marketing that can be done without a digital platform. It makes things easier, brings down expenses and the reach is far greater.

FINTECH: Thanks very much for speaking to us.

MAA: My pleasure.

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