Suphajee Suthumpun, CEO of Dusit International, was in Nepal to mark the beginning of Dusit Hospitality in Nepal, inaugurating Dusit Princess Kathmandu and Dusit Thani Dhulikhel Resort. Tamish Giri of New Business Age caught up with Suthumpun, who was joined by Tenzin Zoepa Lama and Dorje Lama, owners of Dusit Princess Kathmandu at the inauguration. Excerpts:
You have entered Nepal with two projects, Dusit Princess and Dusit Thani Resort, at once. Don't you think it is risky?
Nepal is viewed as one of the top destinations in the world. Before the Covid pandemic, Nepal, specifically Kathmandu, was ranked 5th among the most visited destinations globally. Also, the tourism industry here has an ambitious plan. Nepal Tourism Board is saying about one million travellers are visiting the country this year. This timing seems opportune, and Nepal in itself has so many things to offer, not only natural and cultural. The country boasts of hills, mountains, snow-capped peaks, and a diverse array of cultures and rituals. I think it offers something that people are looking for post-COVID. Observing global travel trends, it's evident that tourists are keen on authentic local experiences, and I believe that Nepal has precisely that to offer.
Competition is very high among hotels in Nepal. What is your marketing strategy for Nepal?
During the COVID pandemic, we had to pause and figure out how to strengthen ourselves to offer unique experiences to our customers. Consequently, we evolved our graciousness, shifting our focus beyond mere services. In gracious service, we emphasised warm respect, personalization, thoughtfulness, and care. However, over time, we realised that the world had changed, and new trends emerged, particularly in the areas of wellbeing, sustainability, and locality.
During the Covid period, we dedicated ourselves to training and added three new pillars on top of the existing service pillars, making a total of four. This is our approach as we enter the post-Covid market, seeking to create more unique experiences for our guests and customers. Allow me to elaborate further. When we talk about wellness, it starts with food. We provide a variety of cuisines, incorporating wellness elements. However, our service extends beyond food; it includes spa facilities and various wellness programs to ensure our guests experience the best in relaxation and rejuvenation.
For sustainability, Nepal, as a country, places significant focus on this aspect. We have integrated sustainability elements into our work processes and trained our staff accordingly. We take pride in connecting with and supporting the local community, ensuring that our guests can truly experience the essence of Nepal.
Before even opening our hotels, I sent a team to explore the country, including Kathmandu and our upcoming location in Dhulikhel. This exploration involved collaborating with local and international press, such as National Geographic, TTA (Travel Malaysia Asia), a leading publisher from Thailand, and The Cloud. Through this endeavour, we aim to draw attention to the beauty and offerings of Nepal, not just within our hotels, but also in the local environment. We draw the attention of people to come to the country. I think this is what differentiates us from the other providers.
Besides hospitality, Dusit International has also invested in food manufacturing, property development and hospitality education in Thailand. Is the company investing in similar sectors in Nepal as well?
We are actively engaged in exploring new opportunities with our partners. We recently discussed expanding our non-room revenue, particularly in the food business. Since starting this business unit in 2018, we have made considerable progress and are on track to target a specific group by 2024. Our concept and mission for this group are to support our own first. For instance, in Nepal, it can be challenging to find the right ingredients for Thai cuisine. To address this, we are bringing this standard for these hotels as well. We are also looking into potential delivery opportunities in Nepal, similar to what we have successfully implemented in Thailand, to boost our revenue and support our partners.
Education is another area of interest for us. The travel industry is currently facing a labour shortage globally, and Nepal shares some similarities with Thailand in terms of hospitality. We believe that bringing our educational teams here could help support and uplift the skill level of local Nepali people in hospitality. This, in turn, would enable us to export skilled professionals to countries where there is a shortage of labour.
As for property development, we do not yet have sufficient market data to determine if there are opportunities here. Nevertheless, we are open to exploring this area further. While we are in the country, our focus lies in hotels and hospitality, and we are dedicated to these sectors. Additionally, we are bringing our food offerings to Nepal and exploring the potential for education initiatives. Our commitment extends to maximising opportunities in all areas, including food, education, and potentially property development if suitable opportunities arise.
Are the hotels completely owned by Nepali parties or your company has also invested in the projects?
No, we are partners in terms of management. We provide technical services to support the owners throughout the entire process. This support begins from the initial stages when we collaborate on architectural decisions, such as determining the number of rooms, their sizes, and necessary infrastructures. We helped them to ensure that the construction quality meets the standards desired by the owners. Additionally, during the pre-opening phase, our team is dispatched to train the personnel. Our involvement goes beyond just the structural aspects; we also focus on empowering the staff with the right skills and processes to deliver exceptional services.
Where does Dusit International place Nepal on the global map in hospitality?
Nepal is a good entry point for us in South Asia because we do have plans to enter South Asia. We also have plans to get into India eventually. So I will say that it is our privilege to be here.
Back in 2000, Dusit was linked with another hotel but things didn’t work out and Dusit had to back up from that project. Can you assure that the same things won’t repeat this time?
Well, I don't have firsthand knowledge about that day as I joined this in 2016, but I have heard about it. It happened around 23 years ago, which may not seem too long ago, and it's likely that the domestic situation in the country at that time might have been a contributing factor. However, my hope is that the current situation is different, and there is no presence of domestic violence in the country. This is not just for my benefit but for the well-being and peace of all Nepalis. In fact, I wish for a world where such situations do not occur anywhere. Over the years, we have learned how to handle pandemics and unforeseen situations better. If a similar situation arises again, I believe we would be better equipped to deal with it.
Why did it take you so much time to enter Nepal?
Every day, we actively search for opportunities, and we have found the right match lately. When considering a partnership with someone, it is essential to explore possible linkages and shared principles. As you witnessed in the video presented by owner Lama, his father had a visionary plan not just for Nepal and Kathmandu, but for the entire country to become a beacon of hospitality. This aligns perfectly with our group's principles. Our founder, a visionary woman, initiated Dusit 75 years ago with the same goal: to bring gracious hospitality to the world and showcase Thailand to the world. It leaves no doubt that we have found the right partner. Otherwise, we wouldn't be coming here.
What challenges do you see in Nepal?
First, the country has just come back from recovery. Before the Covid pandemic, the number of tourists visiting Nepal was around 1.2 million in 2019. This year, despite the challenges, the Nepal Tourism Board is expecting approximately 1 million visitors, which is almost equivalent to pre-Covid levels. But one million is also not that big. I understand that the country has undergone notable changes since my last visit in 2015. The airport, which was once much smaller, has now expanded, and I've heard about plans to build another international airport. A new international airport in Lumbini has already come into operation which is great because we are going to Kathmandu, Dhulikhel and Lumbini if we can. We are looking for an opportunity. I think it will be an exciting moment for us to be here for Nepali as well.
What Owners Say
On whether he would have welcomed Dusit investment: We would have loved had they invested in the project. But this project is completely owned by our family. Dusit International is on a contract where they looked after the construction. And after the construction, they will take over the management on a 10-year contract.
- Tenzin Zoepa Lama, Chairman, Dusit Princess Kathmandu
What Owners Say
On working with Dusit: We are very excited. The construction started in 2016, and it was supposed to be completed within 4-5 years. Because of the COVID pandemic, the construction was delayed by two years. It is now 2023, so it has been about 8 years since we started construction. We are happy that it is finally completed. And we are leaving our hotel in good hands.
On job creation:
Right now we are employing about 200 people. Our initial plan was to have about 60% women in our workforce. But it was quite difficult. So, we currently have about 25% women in our workforce. We have hired the best talent from Nepal and we hope to hire more in future.
Overall experience with Dusit:
When we were building the structure, we were planning to build the hotel ourselves. But halfway through the construction, we realised that Dusit could be a good partner. That's when tied up with Dusit. So once Dusit came on board, we had to do a lot of changes. We have to make, like what they say, cosmetic renovation, but it was not cosmetic, it was heavy due to regulations. We have to follow the Dusit guidelines. Regarding fire exits, what I have realised about Dusit is that they do not compromise on fire, life and safety. So that is very important. We have to change almost 108 doors. It was very expensive but it is worth it in the end. We learnt a lot from Dusit as we went along. We had to put a fire hooter, sensor, and alarm system in each room. Overall it was a very good experience. We had to put in all the necessary things and everything was followed. Dusit had their technical team coming and checking everything. Everything went very well in the long run. I think we did a good job tying up with Dusit.
- Dorje Lama, Managing Director, Dusit Princess Kathmandu