United World sits down with Mr. Aziz Boolani, CEO of Serena Hotels Pakistan, talking about Pakistan, challenges of the tourism sector, and much more.
Recently Pakistan has been named the ‘next success story’ by Forbes, similar to Colombia’s reformation in the 90’s. Just two years after the first historic democratic transition of power, Pakistan continues on a journey of a much overdue transformation. How would you evaluate Pakistan’s growing pains over the last two years? And how do you see the next three years developing for further growth and development?
Let me begin by saying that I have always been optimistic about Pakistan’s potential for growth as I believe this country is blessed with rich resources including but not limited to the sea, the mountains, historical buildings, a rich culture and talented artisans and musicians. A large portion of the Pakistani population are young adults below the age of 35 who are imbued with energy, hence we have to look inward for change instead of reaching out to outsiders. This will strengthen our human resource capability for taking the country to a higher platform.
Economically, we are on the path to progress. The recent drop in oil prices has also helped the country’s economy. Pakistan’s reserves continue to improve and the stock market’s performance has been exceptional. Our macroeconomic indicators are on the right track.
There is still a need to concentrate on the education and health sectors, which are root causes for poverty in the country. I hope the years to come see these sectors benefitting from the government’s focused approach. Private organisations also have to take the responsibility in supporting health and education under their Corporate Social Responsibility Programmes.
The process of growth will always be hindered by minor setbacks particularly when you are fighting on many fronts. Pakistan has great potential for growth in all major sectors: manufacturing, service, tourism and hospitality. However, progress has been hindered by the negative perception of Pakistan portrayed by the international media. Historically, countries are greatly affected by the narratives assigned to them by the media. Luckily, Pakistan has succeeded, to some extent, in fighting this narrative. The government and the people of Pakistan are working closely with international organizations, the media, particularly journalists to highlight the country’s achievements. The concerted effort is slowly becoming a movement that will benefit the country in the years to come.
What are the main challenges faced by your industry?
Our industry’s main challenge, in view of security challenges across the region, has been the safety and security of guests and staff. Addressing this challenge is important, particularly from our guests’ perspective so that they remain comfortable while staying at the hotel.
Serena Hotels continues to make progress due to the large, talented pool of our human resource bank. We channel a major part of our energies in training and development because we feel that it positively effects our institution and, indirectly, our country. We train people and after a while of working with the Hotels, they are offered employment in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is a challenge at the institutional level, but at a macro level, we understand that our training enables our colleagues to procure a skillset that helps them improve their earning capacity and their living conditions. The trainings, development and mentorship programs thus create a positive effect on our communities. Even though we face this challenge of turnover; we are determined to continue to train the new workforce.
We want to know about your new projects. You mentioned your new hotel in Lahore. Could you tell us little bit more about it and the company´s future plans?
Lahore Serena Hotel and Business Complex is under construction and is expected to start operations in mid 2017. The Hotel will have 235 rooms with six food and beverage outlets, meeting rooms, banquet and conference halls, a state of the art Health Club and Spa, retail area and a dedicated Business Complex attending to the need for quality office spaces. We are also looking at the possibility of expanding to cities like Karachi, Multan, Peshawar, Chitral and the Gilgit Baltistan region with the aim of creating a tourism circuit. Pakistan has much to offer in terms of culture, heritage, hospitality and above all, scenic views and nature.
We would also like to know your point of view as an experienced businessman in Pakistan. There are many business opportunities here, and especially in the tourism and hospitality sector. Which areas do you foresee having the best investment opportunities for foreign players?
Tourism has been one of the major drivers of economy in most developed countries. Pakistan has the potential to nurture its economy through tourism by providing enabling conditions to investors, particularly when it comes to tourism infrastructure development projects. Foreign investors have the opportunity of investing in quality hotel projects in the main and secondary cities of Pakistan. Their presence and investment will encourage local and international tourists to visit the cities, creating fallout benefits for the government and the people of Pakistan.
News headlines about Pakistan gloss over the progress this country is making on the security front, the increased political stability, and incremental progress on the economic front. In spite of this progress Pakistan still continues to be seen as a country in turmoil, which is far from the realities on the ground. How do Serena´s services define and support Pakistan’s brand worldwide and to what extent do you feel as an ambassador for the country abroad?
Serena Hotels’ global philosophy has been to respect and promote local culture and heritage while working with the people and the government, wherever we are located.
In Pakistan, we also project and promote the rich culture and heritage through the Hotels’ interior design elements without compromising on international standards. The reflection of culture and heritage is also part of our operating standards and we firmly believe in promoting the right image of Pakistan to international travellers. If you look around any corner of any area of our Hotels in Pakistan, they depict Pakistan’s artistic and historical heritage. The motifs we use in our textiles, carpets, wood carvings, the inlaid marble in the lobby and rooms, the hand painted ceilings, furniture, even the staff uniforms all reflect local traditions. We use indigenous materials which support the local economy. These values of Serena Hotels make us distinct from other hotel chains. Serena Hotels across the globe mirror this philosophy that supports and transmits local cultures and values.
In addition to this, we have also launched various Diplomacy Initiatives to promote the softer image of Pakistan amongst the international community. We initiated the formation of the Adventure Diplomacy Group (ADG) that included the ambassadors of the USA, the Argentine Republic, Indonesia, Russia and Nepal. The intent was to promote and support the young mountaineer, Samina Ali Baig in her quest to summit 7 peaks in 7 continents. With the combined efforts of all the ADG members, Samina became the first Pakistani woman and the youngest Muslim to accomplish this task. Later on, she was recognised by the government of Pakistan and was conferred with the Pride of Performance Award by the President of Pakistan.
The SerenArts Program, under the umbrella of our Cultural Diplomacy Initiative promotes talented young artisans by connecting them to the right audiences. The Satrang Art Gallery, as part of this Initiative, regularly features a mix of traditional and contemporary artists that are going on to break new ground on the artistic front. An interesting aspect of this gallery is that the art is not hidden behind closed doors and is very much a part of the Hotel lobby.
Under the Cultural Diplomacy Initiative, we also collaborate with Foreign Missions to host renowned world musicians and performing troupes. The aim is to provide entertainment to local residents while simultaneously generating revenue from sale of tickets to donate to charitable organizations working with the humanitarian, health and education sectors to effect positive change in Pakistan. These events also serve the dual purpose of helping bridge cultural gaps between communities.
Our Sports Diplomacy Initiative encourages people from various segments of society including the Corporate sector, NGO’s, Government functionaries and diplomats to participate in annually organised invitational tournaments for golf, tennis, squash, polo and cricket. The tournaments allow community members to engage with each other in an informal setting, while promoting the universal language of Sports. We are humbled by the overwhelming and whole hearted participation by the local communities and expatriates living in Pakistan.
These Initiatives are basically part of our Corporate Social Responsibility efforts and they serve the function of working toward the betterment of our society while promoting the true image of our country. My team and I are determined to continue our work for the development of our society in general, and Pakistan’s image in particular.