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2 Aug, 2012

Requiem For Lalit Sheth: Time For Us All To Take a Deeper Look Inwards

Lalit Sheth is the second tour operator whom I personally knew to have committed suicide. In October 1997, another friend, Mr. Piti Sukakul, President and Chairman of Bangkok-based President Travel & Tours, shot himself. Both were the victims in some shape or form of economic and doing-business problems that went out of control.

Lalit was 56, the same age as me. An ambitious businessman, he appears to have become a victim of trying to achieve too much too quickly. In turn, Piti was 68, and a victim of the 1997 Asian economic and financial crash. Like Lalit, he was a major outbound tour operator pursuing the growth potential of what was then called the Asian Tigers, with Thailand in the lead. He had apparently made some bad investments, especially in real estate. He, too, gave no indication of his intentions, just checked into a hotel room, immersed himself in a bathtub and put a bullet in his head.

Like in the case of Lalit, nobody believed that Piti could have done such a thing, or even been capable of it. Clearly, all crises have a deep human impact. Some people kill themselves, others kill others. When external factors can no longer suppress the internal demons,  it’s only a matter of time before the system snaps.

The sense of shock is more acute when the victim is known to us. The tragedy becomes personal, much more worthy of our valuable time than a few seconds in a news broadcast or headline. However, although some degree of soul-searching occurs, it’s usually shallow and parochial.

How often do we spare a thought for the poor farmers who take their lives under much more dire conditions? This year, a drought appears to be looming in parts of India. That, too, will disrupt the best-laid economic development plans, collapse many a business and lead to more human casualties, and not just in travel & tourism.

What about man-made disasters? Have we pondered the consequences of an Israeli-American attack on Iran? How will it affect us and our businesses? How many more suicides could follow? If you are heavily in debt, or heavily exposed to the Gulf market, better start thinking about it. Unless you think it won’t happen.

On paper, travel and tourism would appear to be the economic sector least likely to experience such tragedies. After all, we are supposedly in the business of promoting peace and happiness, health and wellness, meditation and massage, wisdom and traditions. We claim to help people reflect and rejuvenate. But if we ourselves are so highly stressed, our ability to help others lower their stress is limited at best and our claim to be able do so is hypocritical at worst. If our CEOs can’t take it, what about those who are less well-off, indeed far less well-off?

People outside the industry enviously see us jet-setting around and think what lucky chaps we are. We probably are to some extent, but we know it’s only a façade, a mirage. One friend suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Others are alcoholics. Divorce and early deaths are commonplace.

Lalit Sheth’s suicide reflects the deep-rooted presence of systemic ailments and imbalances, of people being pushed beyond normal human carrying capacities. Every day, we face what we call cut-throat competition. In reality, the only throats we are cutting are our own.

There are no safeguards built within the system and no preparations for downturns. We have no contingency plans good enough to cope with the growing number of crises caused by factors outside our control. Think about it. To what extent are we in control of our own destinies – as individuals, companies, communities and countries? No matter what buttons we push, isn’t it true that actual outcomes depend far more on what buttons are pushed by someone far, far away, and over whom we and our governments have no control?

Some rebalancing is becoming imperative. Rather than dismissing them as abnormal flash-in-the-pan events, such tragedies can present opportunities to reflect on their causes, and pursue remedies. We need to review, revise and rethink our business models and goals. Simply chasing growth and profits is not sustainable. Would Lalit want anyone else to face the same fate? I don’t think so.

India and Thailand are the best places to initiate some new thinking that taps into ancient wisdoms and traditions. These we sell to others but seldom practise ourselves. A new wave of restructuring and re-engineering is required, beyond present doing-business methodologies.

Let’s move beyond the mindless pursuit of visitor arrivals, and end bunfights over commissions and average room rates and competitiveness and shareholder value. Let the next industry conference strive to craft a new agenda, new KPIs and measurement criteria. Let’s trash all conventional wisdoms and start afresh, to slow the pace of change, create a less competitive, more sustainable business environment, help us retake control of our destinies, reduce stress factors and raise our happiness/satisfaction indices.

Instead of trying to make our guests and clients happy, we need to first find ways of making ourselves happy and contented. If we can set the benchmarks, other business sectors can follow suit. Deep down, we are all in the same boat. Degrees from Harvard Business School and Cornell are of no help. Money does not buy happiness and debt leads to death.

I pray that Lalit Sheth did not die in vain. I did not know him well, but whatever little I knew, I liked. May God rest his soul in peace and give his family the strength to bear this loss.