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KHEM RAJ LAKAI
Founder CEO
Global Academy of Tourism and Hospitality Education
One reason why hotel management education in this part of the world does not have many takers is because many think it has lost the old-world charm about it. The romance and glamour that was associated with the profession has been replaced by sheer commerce, making the job of hotel staff look menial and not worth it. “But, in top tourist destinations around the world, a well-groomed hotel management graduate is still much sought-after and the profession full of vigor and vitality. Name, fame and money simply follow you then,” says Khem Raj Lakai, founder and CEO of Global Academy of Tourism and Hospitality Education, also known as GATE College. Lakai has studied hospitality management in Switzerland and worked with top hotels and resorts around the world.

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Articulate and sauve Lakai speaks with passion about the industry, its problems and the road ahead. He has made his way into one among mainstream entrepreneurs who have spent considerable time abroad – studying, exploring and finally making a mark, money and the grade. Back home, he is lending strength to the hospitality sector by mentoring new breed of hospitality professionals who are confident, skilled, sophisticated and raring to go. He is teaching and training average Nepali students how to shun mediocrity, bet big and give the famed Nepali hospitality a new touch of professionalism.
“You expect your needs anticipated when you meet a seasoned hotelier. You may also expect a touch of sophistication in the manner your needs are fulfilled. Delivery of services with marked sophistication has been a critical area in the hospitality sector that can make or break a brand despite everything else right in place,” says Lakai, sitting in his office surrounded by verdant greenery. On a second look, the entire campus would look resting on a cliff edge that overlooks a big stretch of human settlements downhill. Great Kathmandu topography, one must admit.
Young guns like Lakai who are armed with international education and right exposure are bringing about the much-needed change in the way hotel management education is seen and imparted in this part of the globe. And, the profession is back in focus and is being considered both chic and money-minting.
Talking to Lakai is extremely refreshing. Lakai’s beginning has not been far from modest. He topped his batch of trainees at Kathmandu’s Soaltee Oberoi, as it was known then, and got his first job with the five-star hotel right away. Towards the end of 1998, he signed up with Swiss School of Tourism and Hospitality for a degree in hospitality management and left for Switzerland. Holding the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left in his first lessons in Switzerland brought smiles on his face. He used the opportunity to experience, learn and imbibe the fine nuances of Swiss hospitality that sets it apart and makes it a standard-bearer for the hospitality industry across the world.
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Lakai, who is still in his 30s relentlessly travelled from one country to another, chasing his dreams. By now when he is settled with his hotel management college in Kathmandu sailing in calm waters, he has travelled to 57 countries. Last, he was in Australia to learn how vocational module functions in that country. “It’s very important to equip each individual with a reality of today and skills that go beyond managing livelihood,” he says. One of the Australian institutes will send 10 students to his college for vocational training under cultural exchange programme. These students will starts classes from October 3.
In a sense, Lakai was lucky to have worked out his goals early in life and had the wherewithal to pursue them. But, he certainly deserves kudos for his imagination that knew no boundaries, his motivation that kept him going even during difficult times when he was going through the grind of setting up a world class educational facility and his perseverance that actually changed the world around him. In the past years when he was globe-trotting restlessly to find inspiration and models for the development of his own country so that he can come back for good and lead a decent life, he became a global citizen -- not ready to accept what is not up to the standard and ready to accept every human being regardless of nationality or religion.
He reminisces with a touch of nostalgia his experiences of serving world leaders at World Economic Forum at Davos and hosting from the Royals, Hollywood celebrities to Formula race team during his stint at world famous Panorama resort in Zurich. Though it has been a decade since he left Swiss School, his demeanor still reflects his Swiss association– a definite plus for him in this part of the world where hospitality culture is still in infancy. He travelled within Switzerland from length to breadth and explored entire Europe by the time he completed his Hospitality Degree in Switzerland.
Armed with a Swiss degree and four-year stay in Switzerland, unflinching love for the hospitality sector, Lakai had no dearth of job offers from top hotels around the world. From 2001 to 2006, he worked in different capacities in different countries. He learnt German language while staying in Switzerland and French in Canada. While working as a freelance consultant in the Middle-East, he came across many Nepali workers who despite being hard-working, honest and ready to take challenges were languishing in low-paid menial jobs, which were also physically extremely harsh. Lakai had everything that he wished for – international education, well-paying job and a great career away from the clutter and cacophony of Nepal, which was going through one of its worst times in the form of internal strife and insurgency. He thought if these workers could be trained, for example, in bakery or coffee making, they could easily find better livelihood, which would not be as harsh as working for low wages in foreign lands. His idea gradually firmed up. He decided to stop working and earning for others and headed home.
Lakai was still very young but was beaming with confidence. He set up his dream project – a hotel management school aiming to meet the highest standards in its category. He and his team put in a handsome Rs 25 million in the project. Till then, hotel management education in Nepal was still out of focus and lacked glamour. Thanks to his education and exposure, he was cut out for the job and Kathmandu’s very first brand-conscious hotel management school began its classes in January 2008. Today, it runs a Swiss accredited bachelor’s programme in hospitality management apart from short-term vocational training in related fields. GATE enrolls over 350 students a year.
An experiment with needy students
“With our corporate guarantee, we convinced Sanima Bank to finance the cost of education for 60 students who were enrolled in vocational training of short-term duration. Out of them, 52 completed their respective programmes, got jobs and paid back their loans. You cannot sell the thirst but you can surely quench the thirst. Later on, the Swiss agency Helvetas partnered with GATE Vocational to provide scholarship to needy ones and we have been able to make significant difference for over 500 needy youth from all over the nation, regardless of their ethnicity and background. This is perhaps one of the best examples how vocational education can change the life of average youth through training and gainful employment.”

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Nepali Food
“Nepali food is an untapped potential. We haven’t been able to institutionalize. There is immense potential with ethnic food. There are more than 100 ethnic tribes in the country, each with distinct food and culinary traditions. There is a great scope for Ethnic Food Chain in the country. Similarly, food from the mountain can be another theme under which we can package exotic food traditions from the mountains. We need to cultivate a sense of pride among our people about what we have instead of running after what others have to offer. We cannot always expect to be famous for our regular Daal – Bhaat without any innovation and research. I have travelled from Birgunj to Mustang and Ilaam to Mahendranagar in search of authentic ethnic and mountain food, culture and people. I still think one day we will be able to institutionalize those exotic foods from various cultures and geographies and make them available to common people as well as foreign guests and tourists.”
Nepali Hospitality
“People are gradually forgetting the roots. Tourists are attracted to what is indigenous to Nepal and not to see western stereotypes in Nepal. We must be mindful to retain our heritage, culture, and nature. Our own identity as smiling faces of Nepal must not fade away. In the name of politics, we must be careful that we don’t hurt the tourists. The global tourism scenario has been changing of late. China, our neighbor in the north, was a forbidden place for tourists, but now it is one of the leading tourism economies and there are many other competitive destinations around the world. Therefore, Nepal must not miss the opportunity to improvise the level and standard of its hospitality industry urgently.
“We have the Mt Everest, the highest mountain in the world, we have some of the greatest trek routes on earth, and genuine hospitality runs in our blood. All we need now is to focus and learn more on customer services and the maintenance of the existing facilities, grooming of the employees to meet the global competition. If we use our wisdom and have a serving heart that is true to our original Nepali traditions, we will reach our potentials. We most modernize to offer more comfort but we must also preserve our uniqueness.”
Challenge is strength
“Lot of people are immigrating for work and studies and in the process we are losing a lot of capital and workforce, which is so much necessary for the country to make progress. Despite tourism being the main industry, we haven’t been able to capitalize on it. There is a serious lack of suitably qualified people in the country.”
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