With 19 years of experience in Pakistan’s hospitality industry, Luqman Ali Afzal is the first recipient of the Pride of Performance award as an entrepreneur. But, he said, a lot still needs to be done for the profession to flourish. Dawn caught up with Mr Afzal in Islamabad to talk to him about the hospitality sector.
Q: How did you get into the hospitality industry?
A: I was a BSc student at [the Lahore University of Management Sciences]. The university had a small convenient store on the premises, launched as a pilot project for students only on ‘entrepreneurship’ and it was not doing well.
So I borrowed Rs315,000 from my father and bought the shares. I contacted big and famous eateries around Lums to provide me products and charged a 20pc net on the price. In no time, the store was offering biryani, roll parathas, burgers, pizzas, coffee, shakes, you name it. Within a few months the store started to operate 24 hours, getting fresh supplies every four hours from the eateries and delivering to hostels. Whatever was left was replaced.
This experience laid the foundation for my career post graduation. I learnt that hospitality industry is all about consumer behaviour and consumer needs, as one needs to give what other people want and to do that right, one needs to understand clients’ or customers’ psyche. That is the first step. Catering to 1,200 students at Lums every day from different backgrounds and different cities like Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and even rural areas, I got hands-on experience. To this day I owe my success to that little convenient store at the university.
Q: Your claim to fame is Monal Restaurant in Pir Sohawa? How did that come about?
A: The bid for Monal Restaurant opened in early 2006 and I wanted to participate. My father was reluctant about the proposal. He said there was no water or gas, no sewerage system, load shedding and a different city altogether, the idea didn’t click with him. But I was persistent; my intuition said it would work.
Once I won the bid, the [Capital Development Authority] had a grey structure ready so while they finished the building, I arranged the logistics to launch. There were a lot of teething problems but the main issue was getting the clients to the venue once it opened. Islamabad in those days used to sleep early and it was difficult to find people in the market or traffic on the roads after 8pm.
If anyone wanted to dine out late, the Marriott Hotel was the only option. So with a team of 300 staff members Monal Restaurant opened up in August in 2006. I had to request the [inspector general of police Islamabad] to remove the barricades at the Pir Sohawa entry point as only locals were allowed to travel to the hills after 6pm and in return he also provided me a two-member security squad to accompany guests to their destination.
Q: Why doesn’t Pakistan have good hospitality schools?
A: The answer is mindset. Till today, this cultural barrier exists and even educated well-to-do families do not send their children to study hotel or restaurant management abroad.
This profession is looked down upon. A chef at a high end restaurant, earning more than a banker, is still called a cook, and a manager a waiter. In other countries it is a booming industry. There are hundreds of universities, teaching schools, short courses and degrees offered in this profession because there is a demand, whereas in Pakistan we are nowhere near that bar.
Q: Hospitality is directly related to tourism. Do you see potential in that regard?
A: There is no doubt that Pakistan has a lot of potential in tourism but in order to attract tourists, we need to set our house in order. For example, leave alone a foreign tourist, even if a local tourist wants to travel from Islamabad to Hunza, will he find a decent clean toilets on this long journey, will there be a nice restaurant where a family can eat or a workshop where he can fix his car if the breaks fail? So the answer is, unless and until we have basic infrastructure in place, the volume of tourists will not increase and neither will the demand for human resources in the service industry.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2019