Thought Leader Interview: Qasim Sharif, Regional Director of Finance for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Middle East, Africa, and Europe

Tell us about yourself, your background and your journey to your current role.

With my Pakistani background, there have never been a lot of figures to look up to in the hospitality industry. So, when I decided to enrol in the Swiss Hotel School in Leysin, it was a surprise for my whole family. But when I started, I knew this was my calling. I started in the kitchen and worked in all the front-of-house departments, and I got the opportunity to work in the accounts department of the old Great Northern Hotel, London Kings Cross. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the 360-degree information I got to see and the interaction with all the other departments in the hotel. that was more than 20 years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What has been your biggest career success?

My career is not synonymous with some meteoric success; instead, its trajectory has been very slow and steady, and had its frustrations. Still, the most significant advantage has been that it has allowed me to work in different environments, both at corporate and hotel levels. This has now unintentionally become my strength, and I have become an all-rounder in hotel finance with knowledge of both sides of the fence.

What has been your biggest career challenge? And how did you overcome this challenge?

In the last 25 years, the hospitality industry has faced three big disasters:

  • 9/11
  • The 2008 Financial Crisis
  • And, most recently Covid-19

In all these crises, I have been in the eye of the storm; these are the most significant challenges I have had to overcome during my career. The most important lesson I learned through all of these was to keep the teams lean in good times to survive the bad times because as a boss, there is nothing worse than breaking the news of redundancy to your team. So, to avoid this, I ensure teams both at the corporate and hotel levels are working at slightly stretched levels, which has allowed us to weather the storms relatively unharmed.

In my region, during the recent example of COVID-19, we did not close any of our managed hotels for a single day with minimal redundancies, which is a testimony to the grit and determination of our team and suitable structure.

What are your current goals in your role as Regional Director of Finance for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Middle East, Africa, and Europe?

I cover a vast area in my current role as Regional Director which has its challenges, but my fundamental goal for any role is to be available to my colleagues 24/7, which doesn’t sound good for a healthy work-life balance but I believe in my position this is the minimum requirement to ensure success.

The biggest challenge the hospitality industry faces is the development of good talent, and the finance department is no exception. My key objective is to have a strong number one in each hotel with a good potential number two available; this will not only allow us to have stability but also prepare talent to fuel our growth in the region by development internally. This is in addition to my quest to have a more diverse finance department in my region, with a broader nationality represented and female representation at every level.

What KPIs do you find most useful in evaluating financial health?

The KPI to evaluate any hotel is Flow-through/Conversion, which gives me a good understanding of how well the GM and FD are coping with the business’s fluctuations. Often, this number tells the story of the performance. But of course, RevPAR and ADR, along with departmental profitability, are also vital for reviewing the business.

How do you evaluate investment opportunities and determine their risk/reward ratio?

Location is key in any hotel investment opportunity, but the size and variety of services available will determine the suitability of any investment opportunity. When we access any new project, we always try to balance the need to grow in a very tough market currently by the vast experience and skill set available at hand in our region.

How do you stay informed about changes in the hospitality industry that could affect the company’s financial performance?

Nowadays, I feel there is an overflow of information, so the main task is to separate the relevant information for the business’s success. I use all the usual channels, like social media platforms, and attend exhibitions and networking events. Still, nothing gives you more knowledge than traveling to hotels and meeting teams, owners, and other stakeholders in person.

What are your top 5 tips for maximising revenue streams in the hotel industry?

  • Aim to have at least 30-40% repeat guests. Guests love nothing more than recognition for their custom.
  • Maximise revenue streams: The hotel business is not just about providing a good night’s sleep but also an experience.
  • Be flexible and agile in the market; I often see hotels pigeonhole themselves into leisure or business hotels, and in this era of “bleisure,” it is essential that hotels target different streams.
  • Use loyalty programs to the best effect by leveraging the data and communicating to and offering tailor-made incentives to guests.
  • Finally, staff turnover should be kept to a minimum because happy, loyal staff converts into good service, which in return converts to higher revenue.

What does a day in your life look like?

Since COVID-19, I have been working remotely, which has had its challenges, but I try to keep a strict routine. I wake up at 5 a.m., take my dog for a walk, get my 20K steps in, and have breakfast with the family before the day kicks off with mostly Zoom meetings or some in-person meetings. In addition, I travel to hotels regularly to do their business reviews, but like any other finance role, the month-end has its own schedule!

What are your goals for the next 5 years?

I would like to see myself in a CFO position within the next five years in a leading hotel group. I will probably be the first CFO of a hotel group from a Pakistani background. This is important because, as I mentioned, I did not have many people to aspire to when I first started in the industry. If I manage to achieve my goal, this will be my legacy.

Editor-In-Chief of Bizpreneur Middle East