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Passionate Attitude & Characteristic Team Work are way to success; Raja Gopaal Iyer, CEO, UDS Hotels & Resorts
  • March 2019

Mr. Raja Gopaal Iyer, CEO of UDS Hotels & Resorts and celebrity chef is one of the most outstanding, hardcore and flamboyant hospitality professional in India with his innovative ideas, tireless efforts, corporate social responsibility programmes, world record breaking events, and turnaround strategies. 

He won numerous awards including Best Hotel Manager award from Kerala Tourism and World Luxury Travel awards.

 Mr. Iyer talks to Tourism India editorial team about his life, profession, passion and future plans. Here is an excerpt from the interview.

When did you start off your career in the hospitality industry and how did you come to choose this line of work?

 It all started when I passed out from the school in Delhi 1982. My first dream was to get into a Cricket team but later focused into Modelling but my dad disagreed with my choices as he wasn’t fond of the glamorous industry.

 Leaving behind my dreams, I started working for a Charted Accountant as an Accountant in a Fabric exporting company. Once I was invited for a very rich man’s son’s wedding in one of the best 5 star hotels, ITDC Ashok in Delhi, with a Bollywood theme where the actual Bollywood stars like Mr. Rakesh Roshan, Mr. Jithendra etc were present and it made me realize that the hospitality industry also had a glamorous side to it and made me believe in myself to achieve my dream and I decided to apply for the IHMCT PUSA .  I was not so fortunate on paying my college fees as my dad was clear to see that I did it on my own.

 Then as an oath to myself I gave up distractions and leisure in life. Attending classes in the morning, evening at Bhagath Sing College and working in a hotel named Oberoi at night for three years without a break and I moved on with an eye for my goals, setting a clear schedule to achieve my dreams. Being a Tamil Brahmin it was unbearable phase of my life, handling and cooking meat, making me even vomit.  But through step by step I mastered the lessons of cooking, even non-vegetarian. I am confident to cook any dishes under the sky deliciously, but being a man of principle, like my father, I have never consumed a non-vegetarian dish or even alcohol till date.

 “Chala tha hero ban ne magar waiter ban gaye”- “Aimed to become a hero but became a waiter” is exactly the life I went through in the hotel industry at the initial stage.

 Upon completion of my management course facing lots of challenges, I became an assistant manager in Banquet in Taj Palace. My commitment and smart work made me excel and was placed in various Taj properties for about 6 years.

Oberoi and Taj were my thresholds. Oberoi taught me professionalism and Taj taught me how to work in challenging situations. When my friends were still studying and playing cricket I was a step closer to living my dream job.

After 3 years I started feeling the passion for the industry and my dreams evolved and I decided to continue with the hospitality industry. I feel I live and die with it. It was merely an accident that I joined the hospitality industry, but this accident has changed my life.

 Today I am asking my second daughter to join the industry as I have found that she also has the same passion as I have and she will excel. Truly, this is an amazing industry. But any job you choose in the world, you need to have the passion, commit to hardworking, and then excelling the job is an art by itself.

Tell us about your experience in the hospitality industry.

After joining Oberoi and Taj Group Hotels, totally 9 years I took over as General Manager of Kodai International Hotel , Kodai Kanal in Tamil Nadu. Got married and took over a rundown property at  Kottayam in Kerala and developed the property for 2 years and later moved on as a General Manager for Sealord hotels in Kochi and then Sangam Trichy as General Manger. Created another great property in Tanjore and supported them for 2.5 years.

 I had done a project in Guruvayoor called Sopanam Heritage and from there I took over UDS Kovalam with 32 rooms and then worked for it 8 years and handed over the property with 208 rooms and left to start my own venture called Raj Hospitality Management consultants based at Banglore.   5 years I ran a property near Bangalore Bangalore called La Classic Attibele and then took over other few projects in Tamilnadu, Kerala and Gujrath.

 Later I took over as CEO of UDS group of hotels in 2016 again to develop it to a better form; from kovalam to Trivandrum, UDS flight catering, Backwater resort in Alleppy, Hill station project in Wagomorn and then the Catering College and the Convention centre in Trivandrum. During my 36 years of experience I have had a few achievements of mine which I always say we need to think out of the box,

 Tallest sandwich in the world, Tallest Christmas cake in the world.,150 heart shape desserts,

Elephant Wedding, Elephant Buffet, Under water CEO Conference, Blue Ramp for Physically challenged kids, celebrity Chef for 5 years are some of them. I wrote few books on management and cookery.

 I have done My MBA in 2006 and keep doing something different and try out the uniqueness in everything I do. Won many awards for excellence and also a honourable doctorate in Bangalore.

What is the biggest challenge as a CEO for group of a reputed hotels and resorts chain?

 Continuously changing Consumer demands is a big challenge. Understanding the customer need is a key factor in the Hotel industry. We have to be flexible  depending on the trends which  has made customers to be more value oriented than brands oriented.

 Competition within the Hotel industry and alternatives like Airbnb and online consolidators are other major challenges.

 Improper and ineffective marketing effects sales and brand recognition. Even though old marketing practices are still effective to an extent, to achieve a competitive edge, digital platforms are undeniably vital.  Efficient energy management along with social and environmental sustainability are the other major concern of the hotel Industry. Shortage of  trained personnel, lack of expertise and poor customer satisfactions are also will be the challenges in the future.

 What do you like most about the industry?

 It would be better off asking me to define the purpose of life or explain astrophysics, because there is no clear and certain answer to that question. The hospitality industry allows you to develop yourself -professionally and as a person. With time and commitment you learn others due to the variety of colleagues, clients and situations that will put you to the test.

 Probably the most important matter is that you -literally-take care of people. This is debatable, but my experience tells me it takes empathy and commitment to put another person’s needs and desires ahead of your own-while keeping a smile on your face.

 I am truly excited even today as every day I feel I have opportunity to do better and better and I have been given another day by god to prove my calibre. Sky is the limit to show your talent and you can keep excelling yourself.

 Finally, the reason why I love hospitality so much is simple: its fun -as in enjoyable. All the dynamics, shifting with different responsibilities and the feeling you have when you start training and end up in a managing position, it’s more than satisfactory at the end of the day. And it does not stop with the customer-facing part of the hotel, you have the opportunity to meet and socialize with people representing a wide range of nationalities, in an even wider range of places all around the world.

To what strategies do you attribute to success

 For me the success has been always my dream and I keep seeing the dream every day from last 36 years and may be till my last breath I want to do what others dare to even dreams.

Attitude, Passion, Character, Capacity, Team Work are my attributes.

To determine a person’s attitude, you need to see how he or she deals with adversity. A person with the passion is better than 99 people with interest. The passion brings a level of energy that infects the team and inspires everyone to achieve better results. To help determine people’s capacities, consider: Do they have the skills and training to achieve the goal? I am a team player. I make sure the credit goes to the team and associates who put their best efforts.

A successful entrepreneur knows calculated risks are the cost of doing business. When it comes to human capital, a careful evaluation of prospective partners will minimize your risk, allow you to move forward with confidence, and reap the greatest reward in business: Building new relationships with like-minded, motivated people.

Various soft-skills such as organization, communicating or working in a team; to more technical competences such as serving, revenue management, accounting and facilities management are required for working in a hotel.

 In your opinion, what are the skills required for a professional in the hospitality industry, especially when it comes to your position.

Any individual who aspires to become a CEO, rising from the working ranks to a lower executive position into the highest levels, must have certain key attributes that distinguishes them from other employees. 

You need to be innovative A C.E.O. must ideally be able to anticipate the future and design a set of strategies that effectively combat change and result in profitability in the long terms.

You must be a risk taker A CEO should be able to take risks, although the risks must not jeopardize the survival or the profitability of the company.

You must be  optimistic

The individual must be able to think outside the box and design strategies that can  effectively combat the threats faced by the organization, while inspiring others to keep a positive attitude and work hard to get through bad times.

Ability to take action immediately However a CEO must not be impulsive, and any course of action must be constructed after careful analysis.

Coordination and Communication with the team members and associates

A CEO must be open-minded to the ideas or strategies put forward by staff members rather than focusing on strategies that are designed by him or herself.

 Individuals might sometimes be born with these skills, and be termed as natural leaders that motivate others and lead a team towards success. However, others might be required to develop these skills over a period of time.

What obstacles did you face in trying to achieve your goals of managing the Hotel.

Obstacles are of many but that’s what makes us stronger and helps us move on. Challenges like less business, competitor’s achievements, and lack of quality staff, misleading forecasts and insufficient funds for facility upgrade are some of the many challenges that are quite often. But obstacles are stepping stones to success; it gives us experience, knowledge, strength and better judgement.

 Being a CEO achieving my goals was a tough task as I have to depend on my team and subordinates. Miscommunication and misunderstandings may lead to adverse results. And sometimes the team may lose focus from the goals and I may have to pressurize them even more to achieve the goals.

Is there any memorable incident occurred in your career that you would like to mention

There are plenty and very interesting ones. But the one that I always remember is when I was going through my training in Taj Delhi. My senior Captain used to trouble me as I am a Tamil. How much ever hard I work he was never satisfied and forced me to do even more. It was almost like he enjoyed seeing tears from my eyes.  Running away was my first solution, but then I thought to myself, how far will I run? I stayed and gave it my all regardless of the troubles I had to face. And the day came when I was promoted as an Assistant manager and then  he had to report to me.  But I always made sure that I never treated him the way he treated me or take any revenge, I was always nice to him. One day he approaches me with tears and asked why I was so kind to him after all the torture he had made me go through. I like to leave past where it belongs. I always make sure to take care of the new comers and treat them good so they feel proud to work in the organisation.

 There are many incidents that are personal and professional. I have done the Silver Service to the then president Mr. Gyani Jail Singh. I have provided service to the cricket legends like Mr. Gavaskar and Mr. Vishwanath and Jordan prime minster of 1984 Mr Ahmad Obeidat, Ms. Smitha Patil, an actress who was very close to me. Mr. Kamal Hassan, Mr. Amithab Bachan, Ms. Rekha and many others.  I have also taken care of Shri Karunanidhi and Ms. Jayalalitha. I have always excelled at my work and given the best to my clients and that makes them happy.

A word to aspirants/new entrants in the hospitality industry.

You might not associate hospitality with opportunities to exercise your creativity, but those who excel in the industry know how to add special touches to really wow their customers. Banquet managers dream up memorable events, chefs plan exquisite meals, and front desk agents think outside the box to solve customer issues.

 When you make it to the management ranks, there’s a certain prestige in handing out business cards with Marriott, Serena, or Radisson Hyatt printed across the top. They’re popular brands that most people recognize and often love. Ofcourse I feel proud to put UDS logo in the top as it is also well recognised brand in the travel and hospitality industry.

 If hopping on a plane and exploring a new country excites you, then hospitality could be your calling. International chains will often send employees to other countries for training or transfer them to a hotel in another part of the world.

 For any job you need hard work, passion and willingness to change.