Kevin Wallace, General Manager of InterContinental Dhaka, talks about shifting consumer preferences, challenges that are unique to Bangladesh and why the country is set to become a prime business destination in the region
Intercontinental was actually the first international 5-star hotel to operate in Bangladesh – tell us a little bit about this hotel’s rich history here which dates back to 1961.
Interestingly, this hotel was founded as one of the Pan American World Airways hotels – back in those days, people couldn’t really sleep on planes and as a result suitable accommodations needed to be established along the airline routes for the passengers. Pan Am’s diversification into the hotel business quickly gave birth to InterContinental Hotels Corporation (IGH) in the 1946 and by the 1960’s it became the first international hotel brand to establish itself in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This particular hotel was built in 1961, like many others at the time, to support the Pan American Airways flight routes and as such, InterContinental became the first international luxury hotel brand to operate in what eventually became Bangladesh. Most of the original structure still stands today, despite all the changes and renovations over the years.
With its rich history in Bangladesh, this building has witnessed some of the most iconic moments in the country’s legacy. Over the decades, InterContinental has hosted numerous famous personalities who have visited this part of the world – in fact we just put up a Hall of Fame displaying our well known guests ranging from heads of states to actors, actresses, diplomats from all over the world. We actually have a lot more photos than we can accommodate on our walls!
InterContinental is still the number one hotel in Dhaka in terms of the luxury, the service, the food, the experience, the ambience – there’s no question about it! If you come here during the middle of the day, it’s a great place to relax. And at night, there is so much going on. You can have a buffet, lounge anywhere you want or even attend a wedding. Our property is large enough to accommodate about a thousand people while maintaining all the safety protocols mandated by IHG.
You have been in the hotel business for over 30 years, so you have probably seen it all already. Yet these are unprecedented times, especially for the hospitality business. How are you dealing with the fall in demand?
Mainly, we have strategized to focus increasingly more on the local market. As these days only a limited number of people are travelling to this country and staying with us as guests, one of the things we have done is improve our restaurant offerings to fill in the gap in demand. Bangladesh has seen astonishing economic growth over the past decade which in turn produced a large affluent segment of the population who had gotten quite used to traveling outside the country. With the onset of the pandemic they have become confined within the borders of the country. So since the pandemic began and travel restrictions were enforced, we began to focus on the local market. We’ve created ways for them to come here and enjoy what they are missing while travelling overseas. And so far, the response so far has been outstanding. Soon after I joined, I decided to renovate the swimming pool area, now AQUA DECK, the poolside restaurant, is probably the hottest venue in Dhaka. Every night, we arrange musical entertainment there and even though it’s outdoors, people love it.
Previously, there was no music or a beautiful backdrop, therefore there was no special reason for people to just lounge about the poolside and spend money. As a result, this transformation has worked wonders and believe it or not, in terms of revenue, AQUA DECK has become our second biggest operation. Moreover, we are also offering attractive holiday packages where you can book a room for about BDT 7500 and get food credits of the same amount. In theory, you get free food for the stay, so those itching to travel abroad can satiate their appetite somewhat with a weekend stay at the hotel.
We’ve also expanded slightly on the segments we used to cater to in the sense that we’re now opening up to more upper-middle-income populations as well. These days we also have a younger crowd who come here regularly who have a specific spending pattern. As a result, we have made a few changes to our segmentation which has brought us more patrons and subsequently, a future because it is younger people like yourself who are really the future of the market.
Most importantly, what has really helped us during these trying times is that we’ve had a lot of support from our owners, which is effectively the government, but our direct owner is a company called Bangladesh Services Limited. They have been very supportive of all the things that we’re doing here, especially in terms of expanding and growing the business, which has been crucial.
By now you probably know the Asian market like the back of your hand. What is your opinion about the Bangladeshi market like in general for the luxury hotel industry? Is it any different from its neighbours?
On the surface, you would think that as Bangladesh is a smaller market it’s going to be tough, but when you dig into it, it’s just like any other market – the potential is there, you have to approach it in the right manner. The product design has to be slightly different, the way you market and sell it has to be appealing for your target audience. So in reality, the trick is in how you understand and present your product to the market more than anything else. If you fail to do that, you’ll pitch it the wrong way and you won’t get the business at the end of the day.
When I joined InterContinental at the beginning of this year, I began to realise that some things here were pitched without much thought. So I tweaked a few things here and there to resonate with the demands of the local market and make it a little more attractive for them. This country has a big foodie culture and they seem to love taking their friends and families out to dinner. So I made some changes in the menus and the approach in service, and offered a wider variety of food. It has worked quite well and we have seen the number of guests increase as more people are now bringing over their family and friends. I also think that there is a misconception that people here won’t be keen on spending a lot, but I found that to be completely untrue. It is also a common perception here in Bangladesh that guests prefer not to sit outside during summer in this region. On the contrary, what I learned while working in the Middle East is that a lot of people, even in really hot climates, actually prefer the outdoor arrangement.
So, to accommodate that, we provided fans and offered chilled drinks in this lovely outdoor setting next to the pool and so far the response has been overwhelming. It seems that even though al fresco dining has not been a popular practice in Dhaka, we are quickly changing that perception. Customers usually have varying preferences, some people like to sit outside and some are comfortable indoors – we offer attractive settings for both options. Another thing that is very important in this market is word of mouth, and social media platforms play a pivotal role in enhancing customer engagement here, as a result having a lot of Instagrammable settings within the premises has also increased the popularity of the hotel.
So you see, the market is not very different – the same things that you find in other markets are present here too. Initially, after coming here, I found it very challenging to put everything together, getting the supply chain in order and making it work, but in the end the hard work paid off. The service ethic here is praiseworthy and I think Bangladeshis are very good at providing service to guests in a very respectful way. All in all, the experience has been unique.
Given the current situation, where do you see this industry in the next five years? In your opinion, what are the key factors that can influence the growth of this sector in Bangladesh?
Well, I think there is immense potential here. While it is still a small market, there is a lot of room to grow. Bangladesh’s geographical location is ideal for an international MICE business hub, so the country has the potential to become a very competitive meeting centre in this region. A lot of the Indian companies have stopped having meetings in India and opted to shift them to Sri Lanka because it was more cost effective. So why not come to Dhaka? Other locations in East Asia like Bangkok and Singapore have gotten more expensive over time. Instead, international meetings would also be quite feasible here because your costs are low.
Most importantly, what has really helped us during these trying times is that we’ve had a lot of support from our owners, which is effectively the government, but our direct owner is a company called Bangladesh Services Limited.
I don’t think Bangladesh has yet reached the level of business travel that it will possibly see over the next decade. Currently, we do host a lot of MICE and meetings here, but it’s still mostly domestic. If the industry plays its cards right, Dhaka can become a very popular hub for international MICE events which will have a huge positive impact. Concurrently, as Bangladesh famously has many waterways crisscrossing across the country, another prospective area to develop in the tourism industry is river cruising. I think there is a huge potential in this market for boat cruise experiences that take guests to tour nearby villages for a day trip and bring them back to end the night with a luxurious dinner at the hotel.
The mass international tourism, however, is yet to grow properly because Bangladesh does still have a bit of an unfavourable reputation. People tend to think that it’s an unsafe place and there isnt much to do here, however that really is not the case. I have been around various places here and can confidently say Bangladesh is generally a very safe country. It is also a unique travel destination – you’ll see stuff here that you won’t see in other places. More than monuments and landmarks, the real essence of the country is in the way people live and go about with their lives here.