‘Our hotels are ethnic on the outside and contemporary on the inside’

 

Byram Avari in his office at Beach Luxury Hotel, Karachi

Published in Slogan (September 2010)

Byram D Avari, Chairman, Avari Group of Companies, provides insights into his dynamic hospitality business in this exclusive interview with Ayesha Hoda.

Please share with us the success story of Avari Group.

My father started the Avari Group of Companies in 1944 with 100,000 rupees only. He made a profit of 100,000 in the first year and decided to stay in this industry. He built Beach Luxury which became the first hotel to be opened in the country after Partition.

My father also eventually bought a hotel in an open auction in Lahore which he made into Park Luxury and then into Avari, which is there today. And then we built the Avari Towers in Karachi. We also expanded and managed two hotels in Dubai, and one in Toronto (which was closed down).

Now we also have a boutique hotel in Islamabad, Avari Xpress, which was opened recently.

What is the positioning of your hotels and how are they different from other prominent hotels in Pakistan?

We have positioned Beach Luxury as a three-star hotel. Avari Towers and Avari Lahore are absolutely five-star in terms of international standards and six-star in terms of Pakistani standards. There is no other hotel that can match these two properties here. Our business proves that we are the best.

In Dubai, we have positioned our hotels to be four-star. They are five star properties but we don’t want to have a conflict with the sheikhs who own all the five-star hotels. Xpress is also five-star property.

Considering the size of Pakistan’s population, especially its urban centres, we do not have enough hotels in the country. Why is it so?

Actually I think there are enough hotels in the country to meet the present needs. What is required now is more three-star hotels like Xpress with five-star comfort. We are going to develop such hotels in Sialkot, Multan, Rahimyar Khan, Faisalabad, Larkana, Hyderabad and Sukkur.

Do hotels always have to be expensive? Can’t we offer more affordable hotels?

No. I gave you the example of Xpress – it has five-star quality but low construction costs so low cost. We only charge between Rs 5,000-6,000.

We cut on our construction costs by not having bath tubs, swimming pools or banquet halls. There is just one restaurant and split air conditioning units are used.

How have you tackled the challenges posed by the economic recession?

We became lean and mean four months before the nuclear blast because I had the feeling that something was going wrong. We could face the economic downturn because we were already prepared. For instance, we had amalgamated positions like that of cashier and the front desk. We outsource our gardening, transport, laundry, security, etc., that is, a number of our facilities. With outsourcing you don’t have to pay the overheads which you would otherwise. Plus we economize in other ways, like insisting on Economy class for a four-hour trip. And my sons and I also travel Economy because a leader leads the pack.

What about the security concerns in Pakistan with reference to the hospitality and tourism business?

We have had to make a lot of security efforts and invest in this area, but security is never enough. There is only so much you can do.

Security hasn’t affected occupancy so much but it has affected profitability because there is a lot of cost involved in implementing such huge security measures.

What are the current trends and critical success factors in the hotel management and hospitality industry?

Our hotels are ethnic on the outside and contemporary on the inside. We closed the hotel in Karachi for three years and renovated it fully. It is like any hotel in Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong. We have got wooden floors, glass bathrooms, free Wi-Fi (even in the swimming pool) and all the luxuries you can think of. These facilities make our hotels exceptional.

We are also building a hotel in Islamabad which will be the first six-star hotel in Pakistan. Every room is a sitting room and bedroom put together (a suite), of the topmost quality. We plan to open it by December next year.

What is the future of the hospitality business in Pakistan?

Tremendous. You see, we think of tourists only as people visiting the country for leisure purposes, which is not very frequent these days. But we need to think of developing architectural, medical, educational and other kinds of tourism. That will give a boost to the hospitality business.

How is the Dubai market different from Pakistan?

Dubai is an international market. It was a seller’s market earlier; you couldn’t get rooms. But because of the economic recession, it has become a buyer’s market. Dubai played host to the world but it doesn’t do so any more. So it has become more about killing competition.

At one time, Pakistan was much more competitive but now Dubai is really a killer.

What are your future plans for your hotel chains?

We plan to start a big development in Lahore; we will be putting up three towers once the Islamabad hotel is ready. We have got the plans ready but will only start implementing them once the six-star in Islamabad is three quarters of the way.

Abroad, we don’t have the resources to build or buy but we have the ability to manage. My only requirements are: I will not use any name apart from Avari; my parents’ photographs have to be there; and the Pakistan flag has to be there. We are a family-owned company and proud to be Pakistanis.

What qualities and education should a young man or woman have to follow a career in the hospitality business?

Everyone’s impression of a hotel is synonymous with fun and glamour. But after two months of working in the business, people realise there is no glamour and they leave. People need to be aware that this business involves extreme hard work. It is nothing like a nine to five job. You have to give a minimum of twelve hours. Then you have to smile and be genuine and interested in looking after people.

To follow a career in hospitality at the executive level, you need to have international exposure. You need to have education in the hotel business and became a man or woman of the world.

You bagged quite a few gold medals in Enterprise class yachting in the Asian Games? Do you still follow the sport?

Yes I do. My son is in England and goes for one week every month to yacht racing because he is representing Pakistan in the Asian Games in China in October. He is sailing the Olympic class.

My elder son does ocean racing. He goes in big yachts. He did one leg two years ago of the round-the-world race for three months. Last year, he made a trip to the Philippines and Hong Kong. Now he is going on a round-the-island race in England.

My grandson, who is just 16, wins one trophy every month at the yacht club while racing against us. So the whole family is involved.

Does yachting have a future in Pakistan?

Of course it has a future. The present Rear Admiral Sayyid Khawar Ali, Commander Karachi (COMKAR) is doing a great job. He is President of the Pakistan Yachting Federation. He is taking great interest in the sport and trying to develop it at all levels. He should be commended for what he is trying to do.

You were active in politics at one time? Why did you leave it?

From1982, starting from General Zia ul Haq’s Majlis-e-Shura, I have been in politics. I retired in 1994 because I decided it is politics of vindictiveness. It’s no place for a sane person to be in. But I am still the elected Chairman of the Parsi community since 1989. I have been there for 21 years and I am on a number of trusts. I do a lot of community work which gives me more strength and satisfaction.

How would you describe Pakistan’s current political scenario?

Very fragile. The trouble about Pakistan’s political scenario is that there is no tolerance. Nobody wants to work together for the good of the country.

However, right now, our economic problems are very severe which can lead to more political problems. Due to unemployment, people have moved to sub-poverty levels and this has created a law and order situation. Only if the government generates more jobs can the situation improve.

Of Stupas, Tea and Beaches

Published in SouthAsia (November 2007)
Sri Lanka is a delightful fusion of the ancient and the modern, of peacefulness and energy, of the oriental and the western; alive with countless experiences, writes Ayesha Hoda

Call it Taprobane (Greek), Serendib (Arabic), Ceilao (Portuguese), Ceylon (English) or Sri Lanka (Sanskrit) – the “resplendent land”. Marco Polo, a fourteenth century trader and explorer, described it as the finest island in the world. The ‘Lanka’ of Ravana (in Ramayana, an Indian epic) is now also described as the “Emerald Isle” and the “Pearl of the Orient” or “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” and as “one of Asia’s best kept secrets.”

This exotic ethnic pearl-shaped island is home to three prominent cultures(Sinhalese, Tamil and the legacy of British colonial rule) and is fast becoming one of the hottest travel destinations in Asia. Unfortunately, tourism has suffered there due to natural calamities; in 2004 because of the devastating tsunami and in 2005, due to the Indonesian earthquake, which wiped out many tourist resorts, along with other areas (around two-thirds of the island’s coastline).

However, the industry (which contributes significantly to the Sri Lankan economy), has been more drastically affected by the violent ethnic conflict, between the Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which started more than two decades back.

Due to recent armed rebellion against the state, tourist arrivals fell by 23.7% in the first seven months of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006 (when there were around half a million tourists). Glorification and hype of horrifying and heart-wrenching incidents by the media has made potential tourists all over the world apprehensive about visiting this otherwise alluring island-country.

The Sri Lankan government and its tourism ministry are working hard to revive the industry against the backdrop of the seemingly endless civil war in the country. They have made efforts to ensure safety of the tourists and have taken several initiatives to win their confidence. They are also working in the direction of making the country a Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events (MICE) destination in South Asia.

New luxury hotels have also opened up, adding to the already long list of big names of the world hotel industry present here, such as Hilton and the Taj Hotel Group. Some of the hotels there have received recent coverage in international press, for their incomparable services and unique splendour.

Rich in contrast and colour, Sri Lanka also has tropical forests, lush verdant resorts, evergreen tea plantations, high altitudes with enchanting aerial views and mesmerising, sandy beaches with very blue skies, to boast of.

Visiting the country can provide one with some varied experiences of leisure and pleasure. It provides an opportunity to discover what one is really interested in and choose from the multifarious activities and diverse topography. You can enjoy the heat of the plains, sun bathing, sea bathing and scuba diving at the charming, palm beaches or retreat to the peaceful sanctuary of the hill country.

This 405 km wide island is a treasure chest of ancient cities and ruins, comprising of seven world heritage sites: the truly ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the cave temples of Dambulla, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the royal city of Kandy, the Dutch Fort at Galle and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

Exploring the Cultural Triangle (including Polonnaruwa, Anuradapura and Sigiriya) with its ruined temples that hold amaranthine fascination, remarkable rock paintings and carvings and majestic statues of Buddha that are thousands of years old, can be a delight for a lover of history, culture and archaeology.

You may stumble upon very interesting facts: the sacred city of Anuradapura (the capital of Sri Lanka for ten centuries) is located within a jungle, which hid away monasteries and monuments for ages; the mirror wall in the Sigiriya Rock Fortress has scribbles (a common feature of most historical sites) but these are as old as the 8th century and have been well-preserved.

In contrast to this, the modern, cosmopolitan city of Colombo is the place to be if you happen to be a car freak or an admirer of Dutch-inspired buildings and British Victorian mansions and can even stay at one of the grand, colonial hotels. The city also has a happening nightlife, with numerous nightclubs and discotheques. Food is enjoyable because of the variety of cuisine available at most of the city’s restaurants, cafes and kiosks, proclaiming great culinary skills. Even the traditional food of Sri Lanka may appeal to some tourists, as it has its share of western influences. For tea lovers, it is something to be in a place that is reputed to be one of the best producers of tea in the world; Ceylon tea is served in every nook and corner of the island.

Shopping is also an established form of entertainment especially in Colombo, where the busy markets and bazaars offer traditional handicrafts as well as branded apparel and have entire streets, in some places, specializing in a specific item. A number of things, such as cigarettes, souvenirs, perfumes etc. are available duty-free in the country, up to a certain limit, since the past eighteen years.

Sri Lanka also captures your attention as it is a panorama of the Buddhist culture and has many pilgrims. Apart from the Buddhist temples, there are also a number of mosques, churches and Hindu temples in the region, with their unique architectural styles. Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada, a legendary mountain peak, is a place of pilgrimage for believers of several major faiths as it bears a foot imprint, which is deemed as holy by many. Differing opinions are that either Buddha or Hindu God Shiva or St Thomas or Adam left it, when he was expelled from Eden. For non-believers, it is still well worth experiencing the climb on what is said to be the longest stairway up a mountain, in the world, and provides a breathtaking view of the tropical forest.

To sum up, Sri Lanka offers a peaceful, luxury vacation. Your itinerary depends on taste, hobby and where you are coming from. Travel is also hassle-free. Nationals of most countries are issued a month-long visa upon entry and therefore can plan a holiday at a short notice. The tourist facilities as well as a modern transportation system make travelling easier.

The literacy rate is very high (92%) – the highest in South Asia – and English is spoken at most places so communication is not a problem. The South and South-eastern region of the country, which encompass the most beautiful beaches and towns, are not marred by indigenous terrorism. Sri Lankans are reputed to be a sharp-witted, frank and hospitable people, eager to promote their culture and their country, assimilating it with western cultures and trends.