Everybody thought it was suicidal to invest Rs 6 crore in hospitality sector in otherwise hostile downtown. Mohammad Raafi talks to the brother duo who helped bust the myth
Three years back when Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, now 36, told his parents that he wants to open a three-star hotel in the heart of downtown, he was laughed at. The first response was, ‘who will stay in downtown given its notoriety as hotbed of pro-freedom protests’.
The investment that Aijaz was looking at was whooping Rs 6 crore, making his dream project even more vulnerable for criticism. Hailing from downtown’s Rainawari area, Aijaz started convincing his parents, friends, relatives and well-wishers for next three months.
“It was one hell of a job to convince everybody that a hotel in downtown is feasible,” recalls Aijaz.
After he was done with the convincing part, Aijaz started construction in the beginning of 2015. In the meanwhile downtown continued to simmer with anti-India protests. By the time Aijaz finished construction of his fifty-bed hotel, there were already more than hundred protests witnessed in Nawhatta chowk, some half-a-kilometre away. “Every protest and shutdown would raise eyebrows from my restless parents and friends,” recalls Aijaz. “But I didn’t stop.”
Instead, Aijaz started researching about new trends in the industry, seeking appointments with known travel agents etc.
Once the construction part was finished, Aijaz was looking at another challenge: how to get hotel Shefaf registered?
“This was the most painful part of my journey. I was continuously moving from one office to another,” recalls Aijaz. “At one point of time, I almost abandoned the idea of starting the hotel as officials didn’t take my project seriously.”
After almost three months of struggle Aijaz finally managed to get hotel Shefaf registered. Aijaz then roped a local designer to give life to the dull walls. The roof of rooms, dining hall, food lounge, and the corridor is entirely made of traditional Khatam-bandh – intricate design using small pieces of wood. Walls are decorated with thematic wallpapers and paint.
Now the challenge was to convince travel agents, both local and outsiders, to visit hotel Shefaf at least once. “Unfortunately none of the agents was interested in sending guests to downtown. They thought it is risky for guests,” recalls Aijaz.
Then, with the help of his younger brother Suhail Ahmad Bhat, 33, Aijaz managed to convince a few travel agents in Srinagar and New Delhi. “We did it on our own by contacting a few friends,” says Aijaz.
Within a span of just three months all fifty rooms in hotel Shefaf were booked. “It was morale booster for us given the lukewarm response from the travel agents initially,” says Suhail.
As the word spread of hotel Shefaf’s success people started showing up at Aijaz’s doorstep for advice. “Local businessmen wanted to know if the success is real,” recalls Suhail. “They probably couldn’t believe that such a huge investment is safe in downtown.”
Since it became functional in November 2015, hotel Shefaf is already among top fifteen hotels in Srinagar according to Trip Advisor website.
The secret of success according to Suhail is quality of rooms, professional service, and competitive pricing.
A double-bedded room comes at a price of between Rs 2500 and 5000. “If you check hotels in Dal Lake area, they are very costly and not even half as good as ours,” says a confident Aijaz. “We have eight executive lounges as well. But they are a bit costly,” adds Suhail.
As a matter of policy Aijaz gives preference to locals from the downtown area while recruiting. “I want to help reduce the unemployment by doing my bit,” says Aijaz.
Both Aijaz and Suhail are happy as hotel is booked till ending May, 2016. “It is an achievement,” says Aijaz.
Aijaz’s success story has already inspired many locals who are keen to replicate the module. “They just ask one thing, ‘is it working for real?’” recalls Aijaz.
Only eyesore is a huge dustbin placed in front of the hotel gate, says Aijaz. “I have asked authorities to relocate it, but nobody is listening.”
Thanks to Aijaz and Suhail downtown is now a “safe” place to invest. Not everybody is fretting.