Conversations with Oomar Paurobally

By Jordan Lim and Eu Jun Kai

Oomar Paurobally is the Director of Restaurant and Bars Operations at IHG Hotels & Resorts (IHG) in Southeast Asia and Korea. In this article, he sheds light on his career and educational journey, shares his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry, and provides some invaluable advice for students looking to kick-start their careers, both within and outside the hospitality industry.


My work usually starts with me-time. I try to keep my first half an hour of the day to focus and look at the day ahead, then I’d have between three to four hours of meetings a day. I try not to go more than that and keep some time for some of the strategy work that I’m doing in my role, which has been around the transformation of how we look at the restaurants and bars business.

I consider myself a bit of an accidental hotelier. My first degree was in Law and Management, and among my top 5 or even top 10 career choices, hospitality was not in any of them. It was really by happenstance that one of my professors came to me and told me that the Atlantis in Dubai was looking for somebody to join their project management team.

I grew curious about it and thought it was interesting. I thought, let me take a gap year and if I like it, I like it. If I don’t, I can always go back and continue to pursue my legal studies. I think what opened my mind was that there’s a lot more to the hospitality business than somebody from the outside would see. The hospitality industry might initially seem simplistic in its approach and its offering. Yet, it is a big business — one that requires different functions and know-how. 

I would argue that the hospitality industry is probably one of the oldest in the world. It’s a very resilient industry that has grown in complexity through the years. 25 years ago, there started to be a shift towards revenue management thinking. That is, how do you align your pricing strategy in a way that matches demand? Today, you have newcomers in the industry, such as Airbnb and others who are proposing different methods of offering the same service. This makes for a very versatile and changing work environment that keeps it interesting.

I was like any random person going into hospitality. I didn’t know what to expect. For me, it was about taking a chance. And it was my father who told me a little story about how the train of opportunity comes to one’s platform on different occasions in life and you get a choice to get on the train, or you stay on the platform. The choice is yours. There’s no right or wrong answer. But every time that train of opportunity has come to my platform, I have always jumped in, as it’s part of my nature of exploring. If you don’t explore, you will not know.

I think like any business, there is a part of the work that’s specific to the industry. If you are planning to become a chef, then you would need to understand the technicalities of cooking. Hence, I would say that what you need to learn is close to 70% of what you’re going to contribute. I would also like to think of education as a framework. It gives you confidence in comprehension and allows you to hold unstructured conversations. For example, with some knowledge of accounting, you will be able to understand how the cost of sales and gross profit are derived during meetings regarding the P&L (profit and loss).

The other 30% is applying your skills to be imaginative and to improve processes. The hospitality industry is a highly competitive industry. Thus, you want to be able to think about what’s next continuously. If you don’t do it, somebody else can do it. Here is an example: A hotel manager cannot only think about how to run the operations of the hotel. That individual would also need to know how to run a profitable business. They would need a strong business acumen and a good understanding of technologies as well.

So the more you grow in hospitality, the more your knowledge needs to grow with it. You do not need to be an expert at it, but you need to have enough understanding to constantly question things.

First, the technical skills you require are really dependent on which part of the hospitality industry you are in. I oversee the restaurants and bars currently, and I am required to develop an understanding of different cuisines. This is especially so for Japanese and Chinese cuisine where you have masters in these trades. In addition, technical skills are honed not only through school but also through apprenticeships. You have to physically go into a kitchen where there’s a master and you learn from them.

Beyond technical skills, I would say that soft skills are becoming increasingly pertinent. My worldview is that you can never have enough. The concept of thinking: “I will tick 10 boxes and now I’m ready to go into the workplace” is outdated now. The truth is, most people being born today will work in jobs that do not exist today. Thus, you cannot put an end to what you learn.

There’s a French saying, “Appetite comes with eating”. Once you start working, you will realise where your interests lie. You might realise that I have a passion for human resources while being in hospitality, but your background might not be in it. If that is the case, you might want to consider either the academy route or the vocational route to understand the business of human resources better. There isn’t a list of boxes you have to tick. Continuous learning, in my mind, is a priority.

Yes, it gave me a different perspective vis-a-vis my colleagues who came from a more purist approach to hospitality (i.e. hospitality schools). Coming from a legal background, the way I looked at the business was very different. My business acumen helped me to frame questions and problem statements very differently. So I think education allows you to bring something to the discussion table irrespective of your age — because education is knowledge and knowledge has no age stamp on it. So at a very young age, I was able to contribute to the leadership team meetings and board discussions.

When you are in an industry, it’s very easy to get absorbed by the thinking of the industry. So, for me, I always try to challenge myself to think differently. I was 26, 27 years old when I started to get directorship and regional responsibilities. I would be making decisions, and sometimes in the room, I might not hear contrarian views. Hence, I wanted to get an outside view.

In my mind, surely the challenges that the hospitality industry was going through were challenges that other industries had gone through and found solutions to. That led me to the executive MBA programme of the National University of Singapore. It became an opportunity for me to understand from other industry leaders where businesses were going. I had also chosen NUS as I had really liked the tagline, “Leading from Asia”. I think Asia has a lot to offer in terms of business processes, especially in the service industry, and I wanted to learn more in this respect.

In addition, I’m always looking to stimulate my mind and found that the University of Oxford had a fantastic program that allowed me to take an academic view on major programmes and how to build complex organizations. And this also shows the transition in my career. When you begin your career, you have more mundane day-to-day jobs. However, as you continue to grow, you begin making more strategic decisions. This changes the type of knowledge that one must arm themselves with. And I don’t think I’ll stop here. I firmly believe in continuous education, and I’m sure that in a few years’ time I will be in another university corridor trying to learn about something else.

I earlier suggested that hospitality is probably one of the oldest jobs in the world, and I believe that even as the world becomes more digital, the need for accommodation will still exist. Even if digitalisation holds onto its intended premise — which is to make life easier for everyone so that we’ll all have more time on our hands — travel will still remain integral. Hence, the notion of the industry will remain.

Now, what has changed is the way travellers interact with the industry. That comes from our experience with digital engagement. Are we making things easy for you? Is it easy to find our hotels? Is it easy to book our hotels? Is it easy for you to communicate your needs so that we can make a bespoke experience for you? I believe that’s where the battle is going to be played.

We are still in the midst of it, but I would say that the priority of hygiene has increased. Going into COVID-19, it was not so hard to raise the game. We had focused on removing instead of adding stuff. For example, we had a lot of amenities in the room that would increase the number of contact points, and thus we reduced them.

Furthermore, what COVID-19 has changed over the long term is the industry’s understanding of its resilience. Is the industry able to sustain economic shocks that come our way? Before COVID-19, there was SARS, and then the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and people would stop travelling. How should we build safeguards with regards to these? Perhaps hotels of the future might be built slightly differently. COVID-19 might open the way for more multipurpose rather than individual purpose hotels, and we might find more retail and residential components integrated to make the asset more resilient to economic troubles.

In hospitality, I must say it is the people that make up our business. By nature of the industry, we work not only in key global cities but also in extremely remote areas, such as the Fiji Islands and French Polynesia. And in these areas, the establishment of a hotel brings about tremendous changes to the local economy. Many jobs will become available for the locals, and there are also opportunities to become suppliers to the hotel. Hence, there was a big element of satisfaction when I saw that I contributed to the prosperity of a location. 

I also enjoy that the hospitality industry allows one to be more playful and innovative than others, so I can try different activities and try to do things differently from competitors. In each of my portfolios, 60 to 70 percent of my work is more business-process related, but there is a 30 odd percent that relates to innovation and creativity. Being able to find that balance keeps you very motivated and engaged.

I think that in every role I’ve done I’ve always tried to work myself out of a job. I was really happy in my very first role in Dubai, I led a project that actually finished ahead of time and below budget, and as a project manager, it was a great milestone to hit. As I went into IHG, it would have to be my work in developing our resorts portfolios. We had fantastic deals like the Intercontinental in the Maldives and Phuket, where I had the opportunity to help win deals and contribute to the operationalization of the properties — those gave me a lot of satisfaction.

Well, it must be that things don’t always go your way, and you have to power through if you really want to get where you want to go. One important lesson I learned was grit, because when I am doing things on the innovative side, not all of my innovations will go through, but you need to be able to grow from that failure. I think it was Churchill who said it and I’m quoting here, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.

I would want to see myself in frontier work for my industry. I am a really curious person by nature, and I would like to be in a role that allows me to look at what’s next. This forces me to learn and understand different dynamics. One cannot be on the frontier if they do not have knowledge of how the digital space works, how engineering works or how different events will shape the future of the industry.

As an individual, I always try to look for what’s next and start that conversation early. I also always try to move once I have gained mastery in a role, and I found that it’s easier to move if you’re performing. I also believe that it is important to be ambitious about doing more. I’ve always kept an ambition to learn more, take up more responsibilities, improve myself and maintain an open conversation about opportunities ahead. This is especially so as opportunities do not come when you want them to – they come at their own pace.

In hindsight, I’ve never thought that I was 100% ready for my career shifts. They happened to become available, and I volunteered to take them up. And in business you have to take responsibility for your career – you have to raise your hand, you have to build the right relationships, and you have to move up – so it’s an individual responsibility. At the same time, it’s also about being in the right organisations that support that type of mobility.

I think being curious is what I would say. The hospitality industry is extremely wide and complex — you could join in one area, but find yourself in another in future. I know people who’ve joined the kitchen and decided to become digital marketers. I also know people who joined as a bellman and later became a Director of Finance. Hence, keeping the notion of curiosity is important, as once you get an understanding of the hospitality space, you can move into different areas of the business. You do not have to worry about lacking technical expertise either. The hospitality prides itself on its generosity and its support for growing its people, and you would find ample opportunities to upgrade yourself here.

For people starting in their careers, it’s the best time to be bold. It’s the best time to explore your potential career because in the worst case you are losing a year or six months, but in your best case, you will be making a career out of it. So, for any industry, not just hospitality, it is important to be curious. Don’t settle, be curious, and be in the industries that you want to explore.