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No Reservations

by Ashima

Sanjog Modgil on finding tremendous success as a hotelier.

Meet the zesty Vice President of Hospitality and Hotels of GP Group of Companies, and find out what motivates him to get out of bed every morning.

By Temur Yusuf

On his beginnings and journey…

My family is originally from Punjab. Our father was in the army, and we moved around a lot, as any army family would. My sister and I kept getting taken out of our schools every three years, so my parents made a conscious decision to send us to boarding school, and we ended up at the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla. After school finished, I was at a crossroads in life. My father wanted me to follow him and join the army. However, I had gone to a public school and was exposed to a different mindset. I wanted to remain open to doing other things. I told him that I will enter the National Defence Academy, proving to him that I was capable of joining, but that I didn’t really want to do it. He was a bit taken back but eventually allowed me to do my own thing.

On my winter trips to Delhi, my friends and I would invariably end up staying at hotels. I remember going to the Taj and Oberoi chains, and thinking “this is the life”. I told my dad that I wanted to try this line of work. One of his friends was the GM of the Taj Palace in Delhi, so I met his son to talk to him and the rest was history. Before I knew it, I had gained my qualifications at the Institute of Hotel Management Mumbai, and was picked as one of the six management trainees for the Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces. After the programme, I was lucky to have started my career at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.

On his early career and experiences…

I considered food and beverage to be the hot trend at the time. So I was very happy to be appointed as Assistant Manager of F&B at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. One of the things I learnt there was that you are only as good as your boss. My boss, who was also my mentor, was a total PR guy. He told me, “You can deal with the paperwork, but being a hotelier is all about how you deal with people. You need to know a person’s name, his wife’s name, where he’s from, what he does, what he eats, what he is allergic to, etc.” That advice is something that has become the cornerstone of my approach towards people.

In 1993, what was then known as the Amari Atrium Bangkok, was being constructed. Somebody I knew from The Oberoi Group had joined the GP Group here, and he told me to come along. After coming here, I was placed as the Assistant Director of F&B.

On his time in Thailand and the challenges faced…

My management style was very rigorous, and I couldn’t exert this style in Thailand, as the working environment is much more laidback. When I first got here, there was no internet and there was a language barrier. I met and got to know a group of businessman and hoteliers, who helped ease the adjustment a bit. They told me to be like a father to my staff, and this advice has really helped me. So instead of being the lone leader ahead of the pack, I started to take my people along with me. I played on the strengths I acquired at the Taj and got to know people inside and outside the hotel. I must say that when you look up, the dots don’t connect, but when you look back, the dots connect behind you. So always look down, not up, to realise where you are in life and that will give you perspective. I was also told to learn Thai, and so I signed up with a teacher for lessons. But two months later, she was speaking Punjabi and I still didn’t know Thai.

At the time, the F&B scene in Thailand was dominated by Italian restaurants. I wanted to learn more and got the opportunity to study at the Ithaca College in New York. I completed my specialisation in F&B there and returned to Bangkok. There was a small group of individuals called the Food and Beverage Association of Thailand (FBAT). It consisted of 10 to 12 F&B managers from hotels, and we didn’t learn much from visiting each other’s restaurants every month or so. When I became President of the FBAT, we wanted to explore the rest of the industry, and so 12 years later, we have expanded to include 2,000 people from across the field.

Once I returned to Bangkok, I was also provided the opportunity to head GP Group’s Hospitality Division as Vice President and was made Director of Amari Atrium Bangkok. The opportunities I have gotten from the Shah family have been massive and I cannot thank them enough.

On his expansion plans and carving a niche in the industry…

The Buddhist circuit of India and Nepal, with towns like Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Shravasti and Lumbini, is a pain point for travellers, due to a lack of hotels and infrastructure. I experienced the trails for myself, and saw the opportunities, as well as the discomforts. We ultimately started our expansion with Bodhgaya, and opened our first hotel there in January 2017, under the Minor Group’s Oaks brand. It would normally take people 10 days to complete the trail, but I believe with this network of hotels, the circuit can be completed in four to five days.

Bangkok is overbuilt and oversaturated, and supply categorically exceeds demand. It is sad to see the best brands not get the rates they deserve due to sheer competition. After our contract with Amari Group expired, we chose to rebrand our hotel to AVANI Atrium Bangkok. We are currently going through extensive renovations. The hotel business in big cities is extremely competitive, as you invariably end up constructing a five-star hotel just to make the numbers.

On the hospitality business, disruptions and targeting the right areas…

To run a successful business, you have to see what other people don’t see. In my time, there was no exposure to the internet, and so we used to ask questions and look for the right answers from the right people. Today, people look for questions, as the answers are all out there online.

I always have to remind myself that opportunities are where the pain is. If you identify the pain in people, you can succeed. Uber identified the pain in hailing a taxi – either you had to wait in poor weather, in long lines or cabbies would refuse your fare. Everyone knew there was an issue, but nobody did anything about it until Uber came along to disrupt the status quo. Unfortunately, on the hotel side of things, we are somewhat slow to adapt and tend to dwell on our experiences. The old way was to provide great service, regardless of how cheap or pricey the hotel was. However, service is just not a question the current generation asks anymore. In today’s world, we always have to be on top of our game.

Personally, I think you should only have a business model you can scale. You can’t build an ultra-high-end hotel every two years, as there is simply no such demand. Hoteliers should focus on a US$30 hotel business model. If you can achieve that price point, you can scale and grow.

On AVANI Atrium Bangkok and the challenges of running it…

AVANI Atrium Bangkok is quite a large hotel with 577 rooms. The average size of a hotel in Bangkok is under 300 rooms, so our USP is in the sheer numbers. We are very proud that it is a well-run hotel. The owners are very careful in their handling, maintenance and running of their asset.

With regards to F&B, there is so much variety available in Bangkok’s culinary scene, so it’s important to look through the clutter and find a profitable niche. We chose Benihana, because when I first dined at one of their branches, not a single person was glued to their smartphone. Instead, everyone was watching the chefs cook. This establishment is known as a place for celebration, and they have a very loyal customer base. It’s important for us to remain consistent with the standards of the franchise.

Additionally, TripAdvisor and Facebook have user-generated reviews that can have a huge impact on our industry. Hoteliers need to bring their A game to avoid losing customers. We have to look at touch points differently and try to grow by doing things better.

On Bangkok life and alternate careers…

I was very fortunate to find my life partner here. She is also a hotelier, and has had a huge influence in my life, especially in making sure that I stay settled in Bangkok. I have so much admiration for the city. It has given me a good career, mentors and exposure to the world of hospitality. Every big chain is represented here and my network has allowed me to meet the trendsetters of the industry.

However, I must be honest: my first career choice was to become a commercial pilot! I even went as far as to look at getting my pilot license in India. But it would’ve taken seven years because of the long queue to get in, and that really put me off. Having said that, if you ask me if I would have rather followed a different profession, I don’t think so. To progress in any career, you have to have the right chances, speak to the right mentors and get the right openings. I hadn’t in my wildest dreams imagined living in Thailand, but that is just how my journey went. I don’t know where the future will lead, but I know that the four D’s will always serve me well – desire, determination, discipline and divine intervention.

On his motivations and aspirations…

I follow the Japanese concept of Ikigai, a term that means “a reason for being” — what gets you out of bed every morning. People have different yardsticks for success, but mine is happiness and healthiness. These two things give me my sense of purpose, fueled by my passion for what I do.

I believe in karma. I would like to have the opportunity to help people and give them the chance to grow, just like I was given the chance. On the hotel side, I would like us to expand across South East Asia. There is no set number, and nobody knows what the next challenge will be, but if we do it properly and incorporate the ideas and mindset of the next generation, I’m sure wonderful things will happen.

Originally published in Masala Magazine August-September 2017.

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