Hospitality 101

10 min read
26 Aug 2016
10 min read
1648 words
Khem Raj Lakai is on a mission to bridge the gap between the hospitality industry and hospitality education

Tell us something about your childhood.

I had a very modest middle-class upbringing. My father was the first shopkeeper in our village in Dolakha, so you could say my training in socialising and public relations started from an early age. I lost my mother when I was just 11, so I had my share of hardships growing up. However, because Dolakha is a beautiful place, I mostly have fond memories of my childhood.

How did you end up in Kathmandu?

My father firmly believed in educating his children, so he enrolled me in a government school in Dillibazaar, Kathmandu. Adapting to life in the city was challenging, and I got homesick a lot, but the values I grew up with helped me cope with tough times. That’s when I understood that your desire to succeed is the foundation of your success.

What were your father’s aspirations for you?

He wanted me to be educated. My father could barely read or write, and I believe that really bothered him, especially when he went to Kathmandu and couldn’t read the signboards. When I was just six years old, he brought me to Kathmandu, and I remember how ecstatic he was when I read the English signs on the streets. He bragged about it in our village for days and really urged people to send their kids to school.  

Hospitality is not about building chains of hotels with cookie-cutter rooms and an army of staff with automated smiles
What does hospitality mean to you?

Hospitality is basic courtesy. It predates hotels or fancy lodges, and was practised in the olden days when people travelled and sought shelter in villages and small towns. While travelling to get salt and other amenities, locals would offer my father food and shelter—hospitality is ingrained in our culture and society. Nepali culture teaches us to treat our guests as gods and that is the definition I choose to adopt.

How did your journey in the hospitality sector start?

One of our distant relatives worked in Hotel Soaltee Oberoi (currently Soaltee Crowne Plaza), and as a child I visited the place once during Christmas. Everything was shiny and full of lights, and I remember wanting to work there someday. Soaltee was my starting point in the hospitality sector a couple of years later. After two decades, I’m still working with them, but now as a business partner.

How did people react to your career choice?

People laughed at me when I told them that I had chosen to work in a hotel. When I was starting out, the hospitality industry was not considered a glamorous job. However, the moment I was introduced to this sector, I could see myself pursuing it as a career. If you’re passionate about your work, everything will fall into place.

Can you tell us about the challenges you overcame?

I was denied a job at a restaurant in Kantipath because my English was weak. Instead of feeling bad about myself, I chose to get a membership at the British Council and religiously spent three hours a day trying to perfect the language. After a year, I went back to the same restaurant and got hired. Work is important, even if you are a late bloomer.

You worked for Hotel Soaltee Oberoi; walk us through that journey.

I got selected for the food and beverage vocational training programme in Hotel Soaltee Oberoi. I was in the first batch and I topped it. Soaltee then offered me a well-paying job—I started at Rs 300 and moved up to Rs 3,300 per month. In 1993, that was good money. I was doing what I loved and life was comfortable. After two years, I realised that I was not growing anymore and went to Hong Kong. Since I could not work there legally, I returned home. I went through a difficult period after that, but towards the end of 1998, I signed up with the Swiss School of Tourism and Hospitality for a degree in hospitality management and left for Switzerland.

What did you learn from your time in Switzerland?

Switzerland has created a benchmark for the hospitality sector, but 150 years ago, it wasn’t any different from Nepal. During that time, Thomas Cook concluded that Switzerland lacked the potential for tourism—it lacked proper logistics, the food was boring, and the people were rude. I can bet that Cook would have praised Nepal’s landscape, the friendly people and our legendary hospitality. I think that the missing link between the two countries is the seriousness regarding tourism (hospitality) education.

Hospitality is an art as opposed to a business— what’s your take?

Absolutely, hospitality can only be taught and practised with an arts approach. Hospitality is not just about building chains of hotels with cookie-cutter rooms and an army of staff with automated smiles. The art of hospitality is about personal touch, passion, friendship and teamwork. I like Ritz Carlton’s philosophy: ‘ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen’. It’s about mixing the elements of theatre, design and culinary art to cater to a lifestyle.

Do you see that happening in Nepal?

I remember travelling to various cities in China, and all of their hotels looked and felt the same. Every city had amazing history, culture and unique architecture, but somehow this was not reflected in their hotels. I’m afraid that we might be headed in the same direction. Every region in Nepal has its unique charm—from local cuisine to architecture—and we shouldn’t lose that. It’s imperative that we retain and sustain our heritage, culture and natural beauty. We have the landscape, some of the best trekking routes on earth, and genuine hospitality runs in our blood. We need to polish our customer services and tweak some of the existing facilities and focus on bridging the gap between hospitality education and the hospitality industry.  

You decided to drop everything and start GATE College; why take such a risk?

While I was working in the Middle East, I met hundreds of young Nepalis struggling to get work because most of them were untrained. This made me realise that if we could give them the necessary vocational skills, they could find better opportunities, inside or outside Nepal. That’s when I decided to stop working for others and head home. Eventually, we started GATE College in 2007. We train 350 chefs and hoteliers every year under a Swiss-accredited bachelor’s programme in hospitality management.

Has GATE College lived up to your expectations?

My father’s belief in education, and what it did for me, is the driving factor behind starting and running GATE College. Everybody deserves equal educational opportunities regardless of their ethnicity or background. In fact, in the beginning, we sanctioned loans to 60 students. Out of the 60, 52 completed their education and got employment opportunities.

You are very passionate about sanitation programmes; what incited your interest?

I lost my mother to jaundice due to lack of safe drinking water and proper hygiene. I was just 11 years old, and that was a tough phase in my life. In this day and age, nobody should die of hepatitis or jaundice, but there are still hundreds of children and mothers falling victim to it. Keeping this in mind, we published the first edition of the Nepali Hygiene book and distributed it freely. The book was well-received, and now we are in the process of publishing the second edition. We are also producing online courses in food hygiene in English and Nepali. My hope is that every Nepali grows up with a proper education on hygiene and sanitation.

What’s your take on Nepali food?

‘Undiscovered’ is the word best suited to describe Nepali cuisine. Our country has a colourful culture and culinary traditions. It’s time we moved beyond the usual daal-bhat and got more innovative with our traditional food pantry.

What do you think your father would say if he were to see you today?

I’m sure he would be extremely proud of what I’m doing. I am advocating for the need of education by mentoring hospitality professionals. He would also be proud of the fact that despite how much I have travelled, I have not forgotten my roots—to me, the quaint little village in Dholakha is still the most beautiful place on earth.