Raju Bikram Shah is a known name in the hospitality industry with 35 years of experience with some of the industry’s top names. He graduated from Oberoi School of Hotel Management in 1983 specialising in Food and Beverage. He has recently joined the Annapurna Group of Hotels Group as its CEO. In an interview with Business 360, Shah shares his experiences and plans for the hotel group.
Can you share your experience in the hospitality industry of Nepal?
I worked for nine years in Soaltee Crowne Plaza in various positions. I started there as a lobby manager and got promoted to different positions from Sales to Food and Beverage control. When I left I was the Banquet Manager. After that, I joined Himalaya Hotel as the Resident Manager where I brought big changes in my two years there. I started a lot of food and beverages activities like Food Fiesta, Wedding Bells and others. Then I received an offer from Shangri-La to join as the General Manager. Himalaya Hotel’s General Manager was supposed to leave for Australia and I was meant to succeed him but that didn’t happen so I moved to Shangri-La where I worked for nine years. During this time, I did different renovations including the achievement of having 100% occupancy and doing the renovation of the lobby and porch area. I also changed the whole concept of calling it a five-star hotel to a boutique hotel. By turning it into a boutique hotel, I didn’t have any competition, and the hotel also fitted the description as it is a small place and offers personalised service. I received several opportunities to work abroad but I refrained from leaving Nepal because I felt like I have to do something better in Nepal itself. Looking back, I feel I got better opportunities right here, and I did the right thing.
When did you join the Annapurna Group of Hotels? What changes do you have in mind?
I recently joined Hotel Annapurna because of the grandeur it carries. It is also the first five-star hotel in Nepal and has a 50-year old legacy. It’s a bigger platform for me and it offers more challenges than my previous works. My job description here is to take responsibility of all three properties of Annapurna Group: Annapurna Hotel, Fishtail Lodge in Pokhara and the new Jagatpur Jungle Lodge in Chitwan. I will be looking after all three properties. All of these are performing well right now, and I want to bring all the three together in terms of standardisation and quality of service.
Annapurna Group is offering 150 rooms from Hotel Annapurna and 60 rooms in Fishtail Pokhara. We have uniqueness in our locations.Hotel Annapurna is right in the heart of the city with a swank coffee shop and restaurants. Fishtail is right by the lake with the reflection of the mountains… you have to cross the lake to go to the hotel at the other end surrounded by the forest. And the new Jagatpur Lodge is another ideal location for tourists where citing of animals is the best in Jagatpur. Each property is unique in its own way and I say we have a golden triangle of location – Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan. My job is to bring standardisation to all of them, and I feel very lucky to be the CEO right now.
Are there further expansion plans of the Group?
We don’t have any expansion plans at the moment. Expanding at this particular time needs some serious thought. It’s very daunting to bring in tourists and fill up the rooms. Also I don’t believe in quantity. That’s why we just have 17 rooms in Jagatpur. We don’t want to go for quantity. We believe that we should focus on quality of tourism rather than quantity.We have short term and long term projects. At the Hotel Annapurna, for the short term, I will be starting new banquets right away. Everybody is doing massive functions at prime places that could be accessible in less time. We do have a lot of parking space covering 5.5 acres. We have to utilise this space. Long term plans call for a greater understanding and research. I am thinking to start with proper parking, capitalise on the growing market of conferences, weddings and similar functions. There will be a large banquet that can accommodate 3000 people at once, and it can also be divided into smaller spaces depending upon the function. I am also targeting the conference market for the hotel. We want to go upscale but we also have to be reasonable depending upon clients and type of functions. Ours is an older property but there have been timely renovations and it’s doing well. Now we are looking towards further up-scaling the place.
A lot of new hotels from renowned global brands are opening up in Nepal. What’s your strategy in face of this competition?
I really don’t see much competition. We are a strong brand in ourselves. We have our own local branding through Annapurna, Fishtail and now Jagatpur. We are cautious that the supply is exceeding demand, but we are not intimidated. We have our own USPs which is its location, personalised service and traditional approach that has the reflection of Nepali hospitality.
What is your management mantra?
I have a simple strategy and that is I am accessible to anybody. I listen to problems well, and I am very clear in thoughts, whether it would be with my staff or seniors or guests. I take timely decisions. Some of these qualities are inherent in me and some came with experience. If you believe in integrity and honesty, you don’t want to compromise in decision making. I am very strong in it. I am disciplined and I want others to be disciplined to ensure that my guests have the best service possible.
It has been 35 years since I have been involved in hospitality. The most important characteristic for hospitality is a pleasant personality. Along with this, you need to have effective presentation. You also need perseverance because there are many lows, especially in a country like Nepal. You need hope to keep going on. This is what I did in the last 35 years. The other important thing is the determination to overcome challenges. I have not run away from problems, I have tackled them. I am an optimistic person. I also look after data and statistics very carefullyand I believe in sound accounting principles. If you look very deep at figures, you can make better decisions and formulate long term plans.
Your overview of the tourism industry of Nepal…
I hope that someday the government takes tourism very seriously. I don’t mean that they are not serious now, but a lot has to be done. They are aware of the fact that tourism is the breadwinner and it is also a rhetoric I have been hearing for the past 35 years. The major problem is the political turmoil here. We have not been able to formulate long term plans on tourism. When the collaboration between private sector and the government goes in the right direction, we will see another boom in tourism.