Working over forty years in the hospitality industry and having had job experiences in all the continents of the world including Antarctica, Kevin Wallace, General Manager at InterContinental Dhaka loves to compare hospitality industry with the circus with all its pomps, colours and theatrics and enjoys talking about delivering magical experience. Bubbling with energy and full of life, this peripatetic hotelier is keen to create magic in Dhaka’s hospitality industry landscape. Kevin shares his passion for the hospitality industry and how he sees the evolving and transforming Bangladesh market with the Advisory Editor of Colors Ziaul Karim and feature writer Lamyaa Yushra.
Beginning of a journey
When Kevin Wallace began his career in the hospitality industry he had no idea about the industry nor was nurturing any interest in it. He made his start in Australia with Mirage Resorts as a CFO, a company that had resorts in Hawaii, California and Australia.
He says, “I entered the industry directly from business school as a finance person. So, my entry was finance and not really hotels. But when I got into the company, the first company that I worked for, they soon figured out I knew how to negotiate contracts and manage projects. I had a very orderly and logical mind. So, it didn’t take long before they put me in charge of the company.”
He recounts laughingly that the guy behind the first company was a very creative entrepreneurial type of a person but he had no idea about business, how to make things work profitably and how to manage projects efficiently. “And I just had those skills. So, that’s how I got more into the actual running of hotels, it was really through the finance roof.”
He served there for a number of years and before moving to Centara Hotels, a leading hotel group in Thailand. Almost like a nomad, he was moving from one hotel to another including one of the largest Chinese hotel companies in the world Plateno Hotel Group.
Till date, he has worked in over forty different countries. “It’s not until very late in my career, actually, that I am given the assignment of Inter-Continental. I liked the challenge of delivering a luxury product in this market. Not many people understand Bangladesh or Dhaka market very well. Actually, it’s a very sophisticated market.”
It did not take Kevin to realize hospitality was his calling and he wanted to serve the industry with his poise to make things innovative. It’s a business where every moment there is a different challenge, a different surprise, different opportunity. He says, “I think it’s the variety of dealing with the complexity of that which I really enjoy and making people happy.”
The projects that he worked in the early days of his career were mostly in developing countries. In Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and in places that were industrial backwaters. So, tourism was an opportunity for the people to improve their lives. A lot of projects he did were in Irelands where there was nothing! He says with a smile of satisfaction, “Yes, there were jungles and beautiful beaches where we started from scratch. And, of course, there is this other side of the coin which is satisfying customers with unique experiences.”
Going through transformation
The hospitality industry has gone through enormous changes over the years. In the olden days, people were inclined to visit a hotel for its impressive chandelier, chinaware, or tuxedoes. But today it’s all about the experience. He explains, “In the hotel business it’s not just how the hotel looks but the experiences you have in the hotel as a result of the menus, the staffing, could be the lighting, what’s happening by the pool, the music and this is part of something that I call the theatre.”
“Oftentimes in our business, we call it a show business,” Kevin quips and adds, “It’s because people have aspirations. They have dreams and they all pretend this is their special place. So, what we do at InterContinental and other luxury hotels is providing unique experiences which people can own as their own experience. This is what it’s all about and that’s what they pay for, obviously, we have to deliver.”
The man who has filled the chair of GM over fifteen times throughout his career in hotels and luxury cruises, when asked about how he approached his latest stint at the Inter-Continental, he says, “The pandemic made me recalibrate what I was doing. I was a workaholic spending almost 85% of my time on flights to countries for my work! It was then that I realized how little time I have given to my family and how much I miss being at home. Eventually, I decided to take it slow and that it was maybe, time to blow the whistle.”
He admits sheepishly, “Initially, my wife was a little reluctant about the idea for my willingness to work in Dhaka.” But finally, he managed to convince her by saying, “Dhaka is one of the few countries where I haven’t really done anything. So, why not?”
Considering the nature of the job, it doesn’t permit him to settle in one place and he’s always on the move. Boasting an experience of working in all seven continents around the globe the baggage of perception he obtained is quite unlike any. “I have been here a few times; I saw the opportunities in the past and I never connected or clicked with the right opportunity for anybody I worked with to do something here. But I think it’s not a perfect market it’s a high gross market. There is a subset of people here, both visitors and locals who we cater to and do a good job and run a very profitable as well as a very interesting operation. I had no baggage of perception, really. Nothing holds me back here; I approach it like anywhere else. Here’s my bottom line, people ask me a lot of times ‘where I am from? ‘And I’d say, ‘I’m from Dhaka.’ Because if you don’t put your mind that you are here and commit yourself, you are going to have problems. And we lived in so many places, my family, it doesn’t bother us. This is home. So, if you take that approach, you don’t have a baggage.”
He said there are four ways to get to know a place and this he has learned from one of his friends. Then he spoke about the four ways, “First you fly over that place then you travel the waters and then you take a jeep and when you can’t take the jeep you start to walk. So, you get four different views of an area.”
He was quick to point out what makes Dhaka a unique destination from the other countries he was placed at. “I’d say in several ways Dhaka is unique. The biggest thing is the guest experience. Having worked in a lot of places around the world I found the staff here well trained. They are incredibly polite to the guests. The guest experience here is way above average for me. But nobody would expect that and I’m sure I don’t know enough about the other hotels but this hotel has a long legacy. So, I think it’s all about the guest experience and I think that the attitude of people here and its service here is beyond what I expected.”
Tourism potentials of Bangladesh
Bangladesh is eccentric in its own ways. In spite of having all the potential to prosper, tourism in Bangladesh has been developing at a snail’s pace. Kevin seemed quite excited while talking about the tourism potentials of the country, “You know, India did it, Sri Lanka did it. I’m not saying they are all the same but why not Bangladesh? It’s how you package it; it’s how you promote it.”
InterContinental went through some renovations in the past two years and with the globe-trotting hotelier’s entry, things took a steadier turn as he brought in a couple of changes to make InterContinental stand from the rest of the hotels in Dhaka. “I expanded the menus and elevated the concept in the Elements, which is the No.1 rated restaurant in Dhaka. In addition, I took the whole pool area and turned it into an outside barbeque where today people can go out in the evening. It’s a barbeque concept which I think have caught on.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been some downfall in the tourism and hotel business but people are gradually overcoming their fear and stepping out. Hotels have already taken safety measures. In InterContinental, there are some changes and facilities that guests are enjoying. “There’s definitely been a challenge, not only for us but around the world. People aren’t travelling for leisure or business as much as they should. Our occupancies are much below what they should be. We have effectively turned our hotel into a restaurant venue and entertainment venue by offering interesting experiences. We have started with the menus, we started with opening up different areas of the hotel and now we have gone to food festivals. We had our Indian Food Festival in March coinciding with the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During Ramadan, we brought in a Lebanese chef who’s an expert in cooking for iftar and sehri.”
Kevin has been in the country for a few months now with his tenure commencing at the very end of last year but he has great plans for InterContinental and he has high hopes for Bangladesh tourism and hospitality business. He thinks Bangladesh will soon surpass all other tourist attractions in this region. He firmly believes that “A place like Bangladesh if it positions itself correctly then its market will grow faster than any European or American markets.”