Luxury is a holistic experience, says hotelier Nayar

Ashwini Nayar
Saiful Islam

A city's upscale hotels are a symbol of its ubiquitous urbanity. There is much more to the hotel industry than just business excellence and service stands. The nitty-gritty details of inter-personal relations and dexterous maintenance are niche strengths of the hospitality industry. The general manager of Dhaka's Hotel Intercontinental Ashwini Nayar talks to Sheikh Saifur Rahman about the industry, the hotel, himself and more.

Service is the most important aspect of being a hotelier. When guests, pleased with the excellence and standard of service, are effusive in praise and appreciation, those are the moments that matter. When a guest is pleased with the service and comes back again to stay at the hotel, then all the hard work and tireless hours feel well worth it.  Ashwini Nayar, general manager of Dhaka's Hotel Intercontinental, shared his feelings as a hotelier.

"I always try to acknowledge any individual's ideas, work or service that has contributed to the success of the establishment. This serves as an inspiration to the others. Actually, it is the sum of all these individual  touches that make the establishment proud," said Ashwini Nayar.

This hotelier extraordinaire goes on to speak about the commitment to bring a smile to the face of the customer and the guest. This is the key to success.

Ashwini Nayar
Saiful Islam

Not everyone has the same attitude and mentality and so there are the occasional negative rebuffs. That's when the lessons in the hotel business and long years of experience come in handy, he feels. He said that counselling is an important part of training, and building up a mindset to face any sort of negativity from the customer is vital in the hospitality industry.

You can't expect that the demands of the guests will always be logical, he explains. And there are isolated incidents of dissatisfaction. In such cases, he says, the entire matter comes under intense scrutiny and all possible is done to improve the quality of service. At the end of the day, this service is all about being pleasant and sincere to the guests and customers. A smile on the guest's face is what matters. Then again, Nayar adds bluntly, there are times when we must be able to say a firm 'no'.

The hotel business has changed with the times. In the past hotel hierarchy, the seniors would maintain a distance with the junior staff. There was a sort of master and serf relationship. He laughs, explaining that in those days, meeting the general manager was reward for a junior's service, or a dismissal from service! But those days are long gone. The officious culture of luxury hotels have relaxed significantly.

Ashwini Nayar
Saiful Islam

He was quick to add, this does mean there is any compromise in order and discipline. In the hotel culture, there must be perfection at every level. Time just flies, so we have mutual respect and cordiality, but never relax when it comes to work.

In a leadership position of the international hotel business, Nayar has adapted globalisation to his work in the true sense of the word. He says that in today's globalised world, communication skills means establishing effective interaction with anyone anywhere in the world. And in the hotel business, this is indispensable.

He says one must be open-minded and accept people of all cultures. The local experience of a guest must be international. And that is 'glocal', meaning global+local,

Hotel Intercontinental

Nayar says that in the course of his career, he had learnt to adapt with the rapidly changing world. He explained this with the metaphor of how flowing water ushers in the flourishing of a civilisation, while stagnant water merely breeds mosquitoes.

This is the first time that Nayar has taken up a position in a nationalised establishment. He said, there are certainly some differences because the government's investment is involved. But when it comes to work, there is not much of a difference with a privately owned company. He said, even private companies nowadays pay a lot of attention of welfare oriented sustainable business. That is the demand of the day. Investors want to have some achievements to be proud of and Ashwini Nayar strongly supports such focus.

Coming to the topic of Hotel Intercontinental Dhaka, he says it is steeped in history. The hotel is witness to momentous events before the independence of Bangladesh and during the liberation war. Established 57 years ago, the hotel has a special place in the country's journey. And Nayar is determined to take it to the top.

To Nayar, this is not just a luxury hotel, but an institution. And that is why he has taken initiative to bring out a coffee table book on the history of the hotel. Experts in different fields are involved in this effort.

Given its standard of service, infrastructure and facilities, this is not only one of the best hotels in the country, but can be placed on par with any top hotel of the world.

Ashwini Nayar
Saiful Islam

Bangladesh is gradually becoming Nayar's second home. He had been involved in the construction of yet another five star hotel in this city. That was back in 2013-17. But he left before the hotel has opened. This time he has come after a five-year gap. He has taken over responsibility of running Hotel Intercontinental in 2022. He is happy to be back.

Humble as he is, Ashwini Nayar is a formidable leader and that is what puts him among the creme in this profession. Nayar sees leadership somewhat differently. Free thinking and transparency is his mainstay. Every time someone new joins, he ensures a special welcome. He says this consolidates the team spirit. And the establishment goes a step nearer to its goal. And when it comes to leadership, Nayar is totally uncompromising in two areas -- integrity and ethics.

Ashwini Nayar
Saiful Islam

He says he builds up the team accordingly and lets them grow. He makes no discrimination and accepts no compromises in this regard. Whether is it gender or race, he upholds equality as the institutional culture of an upscale hotel.

In course of the conversation, he spoke on how he entered the hospitality industry. He laughed, saying he had no specific aim of joining this career. After studying history and English in college, he went on to study commercial law and then hotel management. He even has a degree in art. After this multifaceted education, he felt a strong pill towards the hotel business. And now it seems this was meant to be. He says with firm conviction, the more he immerses himself in this world, the deeper he goes, he feels all this is in his very blood.

He then ruminates on the personalities and incidents that made a mark on his life. He recalls, CP Krishnan Nayar of Leela Hotel. He says this man was one of the first to raise awareness about the sustainability factor. And Ashwini Nayar adapted this from him.

CP Krishnan Nayar

Ashwini Nayar's career was certainly not a bed of roses. He slogged day and night, making sure to be directly involved in every aspect the industry, not bothering about holidays or days off, rushing to the remotest areas on hotel work. The young Nayar's tireless labour, perseverance and talent were his driving force. He says, "The people of this subcontinent are way ahead of the western world in their creativity." He says he reinvents himself every day in this journey, he engages in a competition with himself.

Coming to his pastimes and hobbies, Nayar said he had a strong penchant for golf and music. He might not be the best golfer, he laughs deprecatingly, but he loves the sport. He also had a hobby of collecting art and artifacts. He is quite a connoisseur when it comes to music. He has a wide collection of vinyl records. He plays the piano. This good looking and fit hotelier plays tennis too. Yoga keeps him fit.

But overall, the vibrancy in his voice when he speaks about his work, shows how committed he is to the profession.

Ashwini's wife Monica is a psychotherapist with a wide experience in the field. Their daughter is a brand communication and brand design expert and son, a lawyer who has just started out on his career. Nayar's mother was an educationist and lives with them.

Nayar went on to talk of his travels and how he soaks in the surroundings of wherever he goes. He imbibes the ambience around him, people's lifestyles, the environment, the ecology, and more.

Luxury is a fundamental concept about these classy hotels, he says, turning back to business. It may seem a complex, but the concept is crystal clear to Nayar. Luxury cannot be bought with money alone, he explains, giving the example of fine dining. The entire experience of fine dining, the ambience, is what it is all about. Luxury is about each ingredient, its origin and such details. It's about exclusivity. Luxury is not a word, it is a holistic experience, he explained.

Ashwini's enthusiasm is driven by his exceptional and progressive mode of thinking. And for him, innovation is the name of the game. He has the proclivity for venturing into unexplored venues. He takes risks, laughing all the way. He exudes self-confidence.

During the Dhaka Art Summit, he hosted over 800 guests of the event, collaborating with Arpon Changma, the young chef who loves to experiment. He works with Kishwar Chowdhury too, the second runner-up of Masterchef Australia. He loves to take up new challenges and enjoys working with persons of the same ilk.

Nayar is in love with Dhaka. But Dhaka is not the end. A general manager of his stature will want to work in any big city of the world. The destinations he has a yearning for include big multiracial cities like Paris, New York, London and places where a single street is dotted with over a dozen starred hotels. But that is not enough.

The world is changing. There are all sorts of changes in the economy. But in the hospitality industry, when it comes to luxury hotels, the demand still overtakes the supply.

Hotels are a vital catalyst in this industry, he says, adding that the success of a hotel reflects the affluence of a city. That is why he looks forward to the unique experience of working in a hotel in such a big city.

Now to the topic of food. What Bangladeshi dish does he enjoy? He didn't hesitate to reply -- alu bhorta, dal, bhat (spicy mashed potato, lentils and steamed rice). It's a complete meal.

There is a general perception that Bangladeshi cuisine lacks variety and is not fit for fine dining. He is proving that wrong. He has worked on this and expresses his determination to take this further ahead.

About the impact of the Covid pandemic, he says that "This was a game changer. We had seen many changes, but speedily adapted. In such hotels, cleanliness is always priority. And now a new word was added, sanitising. But people are back to normal now. That is the biggest relief. But certain post-Covid lifestyles are noticeable, like staycations, workations, spacations, golfcations. People are breaking away from the stress and risks to staying a day at a hotel. That's a staycation. Or they come to stay on work. That's a workcation. Then some come to spend time at the spa -- spacation. These were marketing strategies during the Covid outbreak. After all, no one could go anywhere else. Even overseas, such staycation or spacations were quite effective at the time. Now with normalcy restored, these remain.

Golfcations is absolutely new. We started it, he says. We are collaborating with a world class golfer. He will give lessons. Those who want to learn will come and spend time here. That's a golfcation.

He says, it will take time to overcome the damage done. We must allow time for that.

He has quite a few awards under his belt. He has even won awards for the hotels where he has worked. Last year at Hotel Intercontinental Dhaka received the British Curry Life Award. "No doubt this is a big achievement for the hotel," says Ashwini Nayar, "and since then our guests from Europe, the UK in particular, have increased. Last year the hotel won the World Travel Award. That too is a great honour."

He spoke about arranging the British Curry Festival. It was a wild success. He says, "Other than a British Michelin Star chef, there were other British curry chefs too. Our kitchen was buzzing with activity. Our chefs learnt in the process too. Our guests thoroughly enjoyed our cuisine."

Though born and brought up in Delhi, Ashwini Nayar is a Punjabi. So naturally the topic of India's independence struggle comes to the fore. After all, it was Bengal and Punjab that played a significant role. They made the most sacrifices. Yet they had to be divided. Is there a kindred spirit between the two in that sense?

Yes, says the 'Punjab da puttar', "We people are both fearless and hospitable. We love to eat and to treat. Excitement and emotions run in our blood. And music is a part of our lives."

There can be no end to a conversation with such an erudite man. But all good things must end. We wrap up with what he has in store for his post-retirement years.

Ashwini Nayar
Saiful Islam

He says, "I don't want to think about retirement. There is still so much to learn and I want to go on learning. But even after I retire, I want to remain involved in this world in any manner. I want to give back to the industry, particularly the new generation, what I have learnt along the way."

"I have bought a small plot of land in Noida for the two of us to stay in a haven of peace. But not just alone, we want to extend our hospitality to others. So we certainly will have a golf course on one side. That is what I aspire," he ends with a smile.