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15 Jun, 2009

Kuala Lumpur Hotel “Converts” to Sharia Compliance

KUALA LUMPUR – After 15 years of being run by conventional rules of management and hospitality, the De Palma Hotel in Kuala Lumpur has “converted” to Islamic sharia compliance, and business is booming.

The bar is gone. One of the function rooms is now a prayer hall. Prayer mats are available in all rooms, and the meeting packages include a number of features for those who wish to hold their events in line with religious procedures.

Less than a year after launching the conversion last October, occupancy is running at 70%, F&B business is up, and the function rooms are becoming hugely popular among government agencies as well as religious groups.

Datuk Mohd Ilyas Zainul Abdin, managing director of Biztel, the management company of the 220-room De Palma hotel, said the conversion was a logical result of the search for a clear market niche at a time of significant changes in Malaysian social and economic conditions. He predicts that sharia-compliant hotels will become just as important as Islamic banking.

“In uncertain and insecure times, people become more religious,” he said. “In the old days, the people who used to go for the Haj (the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) were mainly retired people in their 60s. Today, many young people are going, too.”

Owned by the local government of Selangor state, the De Palma hotel is located in the suburb of Ampang, about 20 mins by the Light Rail Transit from the city centre. There is a commercial centre, several office buildings and a shopping complex in the vicinity, as well as a large residential population. A military base is not far away.

As his hotel management contract includes stringent performance clauses, prevailing competitive pressures and the ups and downs of frequent external shocks made it imperative for Mr Zainul Abdin to find a business-generating niche.

Now, he says, more than 1,000 people come from around the area for Friday prayers. Although only a small minority of them are rich enough to afford a buffet lunch, he makes available a low-price rice-and-curry dish for the rest.

Groups from different parts of the country heading for Saudi Arabia for religious trips make transit stopovers in the hotel. Government and military offices patronise the function rooms and in the fasting month of Ramadan, the evening break-fast draws in throngs of people in the ballroom.

As occupancies are traditionally low during the fasting period, day-use rooms are offered at half-price for those who want to come in early for a shower and change of attire.

Small MICE events are coming in from neighbouring Singapore and Indonesia. Families feel comfortable about sending their female members to work there. Even the three imams hired full-time to lead the prayers and deliver the Friday sermons are getting some extra income from donations.

Although the mini-bar has been cleared of all the beverages, Mr Zainul Abdin said guests can buy their own alcohol and stock it in the fridge. “What they do behind closed doors is none of my business,” he said, claiming that the profitability on alcohol sales had never actually been that high even before the conversion.

The bar was replaced with a “kopi tiam” outlet where people can come to watch live sports events or play chess or backgammon.

After a 20-year career in the Hilton group, Mr Zainul Abdin said he left because after reaching assistant general manager status at the KL Hilton, “I knew as a local that I was not going to go any further.” Today, he is the head of the Malaysian Association of Hotels, Secretary-General of the ASEAN Tourism Association and a board member of Tourism Malaysia.

The changes at the hotel, many of which are claimed to be a “first” in Malaysia, are being compiled into a proper training manual to be used in the next phase of expansion – franchising it to other hotels in Malaysia and the ASEAN region.

“We have had discussions with other hotel owners and they are interested but they want us to invest, too.” He said the board is considering it, especially now that it can cite the hotel as a successful business model.

Although other Malaysian hotels claim to be sharia-compliant, Mr Zainul Abdin claims his is the only property to ensure maximum compliance with the rules across the entire hotel.

He is certain that as the concept catches on, other hotels will make the same claim, just like those who jump on the “green” or “eco-friendly” bandwagon. Although there will be no way of policing that, “the customer will decide.”

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