Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lessons in Hotel Management

R. Panwar looked to be very young, but he was the hotel owner. We had ended up at the SK Hotel’s restaurant in Gangotri because we desired a change in our breakfast fare. His restaurant had a huge menu compared to the typical options we found in most other restaurants throughout Uttarakhand.

That is also where we ran into the owner, a very young-looking man named R. Panwar. He was very customer-oriented. He invited us in and said that he could make anything on the menu. True to his word, he was able to make for us eggless western pancakes (not dosas, he assured us) which he served with ginger tea.

The only other group that morning was a group of three young French-speaking backpackers who were finishing up their breakfast. Panwar’s restaurant doubled as a shop that also sold food for those trekking to the Gomukh glacier.

His inventory included every imaginable brand of soda cans, trail mixes, Barilla pasta, pasta sauces, Iced tea, Red Bull, noodles, Pringles and numerous other East European cookies and biscuits I didn’t recognize. Anyone from the US or from Europe would have been able to find the things they missed from back home. His shop was extremely well-stocked. Gangotri is literally the end of the road, but from everything that was on sale, we could well have been in a big city.

When I asked him how he came to become the owner of this hotel, he narrated his life story.

He said that he had no background in the hotel industry. He had joined the army after school, as a temp. He was hoping to become permanent in the army. He hadn’t liked it there, though the pay and the food was good. An old man in the army, who had seen what happened to those who served in it for too long had advised him to get out before it was too late. Heeding that advice Panwar left his army job.

Since he had learned how to cook in the army, he had started working as a cook in a hotel in Gangotri. He observed, studied the business and talked to the tourists. In a few years, he became the manager. He made friends with tour guides, who steered visitors to his hotel. In time, he borrowed money and slowly worked his way up to owning one hotel.

You have to listen to what the tourists say and look for what they want, he said, imparting his lesson in hotel management. He had paid special attention to what the foreign tourists wanted and had provided that. Business picked up steadily.

“Even though the tourist season is only 6 months, I am able to save 5 to 7 lakh (rupees) each year,” he volunteered proudly. (That is about USD 10,000 to 14,000.)

With the money saved, he had recently opened one more hotel. He got out a map and showed us where it was.
“Why did you build the hotel in Chinyalisaur?” I asked him. It was a town I hadn’t heard of, and it was over 150 kms from Gangotri.
“I considered opening in Uttarkashi. But it already has too many hotels. The Chinyalisaur area is only now being developed. The Government has just opened a GNBV guest house there. I have built one right next to that, hoping that the tourists will come. It’s a really beautiful area.”
“Who runs your new hotel?” I asked him.
He said had appointed a trusted employee as his manager there.

It was getting to be time for us to leave. So I asked him one last question, something that I am always curious about. “How do you ensure that your employee, your new hotel’s manager, doesn’t cheat you and keep some of the money for himself?” I asked because in India we rarely received receipts for many of our hotel stays and I could never be sure who ended up pocketing our money.

That’s when Panwar gave me the Indian Hotel Owner’s version of speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick.
He said that he had full trust in his employee and that these people (he called them paharis – mountain people) were by nature very loyal and honest. They didn’t cheat like the “city people.” But he was also holding on to six months of back pay for his employee. And he had his father or his brother, who stayed near the new hotel do surprise spot checks late at night. They would compare the number of rooms occupied to what the register showed. And if they found even one instance of cheating, then he lost an entire six months of pay. Thus Panwar made sure that cheating a little wasn’t worth the big loss of pay.

We paid up and I wished him the best for his new hotel and left.

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