CEO & Founder, Saira Hospitality
Disrupting the traditional routes to sourcing employees for the hospitality industry through bespoke pop-up hotel schools for local communities, Saira provides sustainable careers to those in need.
Getting to Know You
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
To have been able to inspire, motivate and excite our students in the British Virgin Islands (and beyond) about hospitality and the gift of service. Many of our students were women who had lost their homes, money, but most importantly hope after the hurricanes of 2018. I am honored and immensely proud to have been a part of bringing positivity and hope back into their lives.
What is your most treasured possession?
The wall in my bedroom. It is covered with photos from mine and my fiancé’s travels around the world so far, with space for the journeys we have yet to make.
What is your motto?
If not now, when?
What is your most treasured restaurant or hotel experience?
In terms of experience, it would be a cooking class in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast where you arrive to a handsome chef, with a similar charm and confidence to Anthony Bourdain on a ladder, picking figs from the trees and feeding you in a way that bordered on too flirtatious but passable in Italy. Six hours spent picking vegetables from the farm, learning to cook, and taste and drink beautiful wine as you cook and then sit down to a late lunch followed by limoncello and laughter until the sun sets.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to be able to dance. I took after my father, a philanthropist and definitely a source of inspiration for Saira, a man with a big heart and little rhythm.
What is your favorite brand and why?
I’m loyal to Six Senses where I first learned of barefoot luxury, and how luxury can be defined in so many different ways, such as being able to walk into a room covered in fresh chocolates or brown and white bars and taste without thinking twice. How luxurious it is to step onto a tiny boat at night and make your way in only the moonlight to a candle lit restaurant on the rocks owned by a chef who used to cook the best street food in Bangkok, a restaurant without a menu and dishes that change with availability of fresh produce. Six Senses recognized that guests come to the restaurant to talk, to share, to taste, and not to read a menu or make a decision that would be best made by the chef herself. Or to watch a movie outdoors under the stars and under the Mangroves in a Cinema Paradiso with homemade ice cream and digestifs. I remember the attention to detail that always inspired me, when you would reluctantly have to leave your chaise to use the bathroom, yet the toilet would be placed strategically facing a window looking at the screen, so you could wouldn’t miss a minute. I always remember the breathtaking and peaceful feeling of being alone in one of the villas when the Friday (Butler) would leave after showing you around the room. It always astounded me how Six Senses would use nature as part of its design, strategically thinking how to make the most of the landscape, such as the glass bathtubs and floor panels in the overwater villas at Six Senses Llamu. And finally, while the food is always beautifully prepared, full of flavor yet simple, the restaurants and bars will have no dress codes nor expectations, other than their no shoes policy, “no news, no shoes.”
How do you practice wellness (how do you stay sane)?
All kinds of things - I keep grounded people around me who tell me when I'm losing my mind and help me put things into perspective. I do quick meditations when I feel overwhelmed, sometimes TM, sometimes guided, sometimes a quick three minutes of gratitude in the shower. I box, run, practice yoga... When on project, I'm a big fan of Yoga with Adrienne, online. If all else fails, mescal negronis do the trick.
Down to Business
Where did you get your start in the hospitality industry? What made you choose to pursue it professionally?
Like many of us, I started at the age of 16, working in restaurants and bars and clubs in London and in Europe, as a glass-collector, or a dishwasher and eventually as a decent hostess but a terrible waitress in New York. It was working as a sales agent on Andre Balaz’s building, the William Beaver in the downtown financial district, when I realized I was fascinated with the lifestyle living concept he was developing. His attention to detail was inspiring to me. I realized it was the design of the rooms, bathrooms and outdoor spaces, the interaction with prospective buyers and the restaurants, cocktail bars and overall F&B that excited me. All of the elements of hospitality were enticing, more so than whether or not I made the sale or closed a deal. I began to think more about lifestyle hospitality when a mentor in the industry told me to look up brands he felt would resonate more with me than the typical luxury hotels, brands like Aman & Six Senses, which I had never heard about before. My experience had been in sales and marketing of residential properties so I managed to get my foot in the door of Six Senses through their residential division. I started with Six Senses Private Residences, joining a team of one and softly marketing the luxury villas to the Soneva & Six Senses Enthusiasts, the repeat Six Senses guests. That was the beginning of a big shift in my career.
How do you define emotional intelligence when it comes to hospitality work?
Emotional Intelligence, when it comes to working in hotels, is about recognizing, understanding, expressing and regulating your own emotions and triggers as well as those of your colleagues and of course, the guests. As we tell the students, it sounds more complicated than it is, but it is a key skill to acquire as 70% of any experience is emotional. It’s about using your own intelligence to read the emotions of others, so you can better meet and exceed their needs, which may often be silent needs. It’s about reading body language, recognizing facial expressions and understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy. Our students are taught that higher EI is more important to employers than a higher IQ as EI allows them to resolve conflicts effectively, stay calm under pressure and admit and learn from mistakes.
Explain the name “Saira”? Where did it come from and what does it mean to you?
I decided on the name Saira in 2009 on a beach in Brazil, pondering as one does on holiday on a name for the brand of hotels I wanted to, and still want to, create. Saira is my niece, who turned 12 in New York on November 23, the day of Saira’s graduation in the BVI. Her name resonates as it has meanings such as happiness, bird, traveler and princess amongst others, in different languages including Arabic, Hindi and Hebrew. To me, the most powerful meaning is in Arabic, where it signifies the “becoming” of a person, from one stage of life to another. We want to give our students the tools and knowledge they need to embark on the careers they deserve to have, which ultimately will allow them to live the lifestyles they desire and allow them to climb the ladder to their own versions of success.
When was your “a-ha” moment? When you told yourself, hey this could work and this is something I believe in?
I remember it clearly actually. It was early on in the MMH (Master of Management in Hospitality) program at Cornell University and I was struggling with a way to combine non-profit work with hospitality. I was working in hotel operations in Singapore prior to being accepted and I had taken a weekend trip to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. It was in Phnom Penh that I came across an organization where women were being rescued from the sex-trafficking trade and given the skills to work as housekeepers in luxury hotels instead. To me it was the first time I could combine this passion for hospitality with a passion to help others. The organization lacked any revenue drivers however and I was aware of donor fatigue and cautious about the lack of sustainability for non-profits relying solely on grants and donations. I was on the phone in the first semester when I was talking to my father about this organization and it clicked instantly. I could fulfil my passion for hospitality by creating a lifestyle and luxury brand of Saira hotels where the profits would sustain the Saira Hospitality training schools. I shared this vision with entrepreneurial class at Cornell and fortunately inspired two other undergraduate students to write the business plan with me. They were the ones who confronted me one morning and pointed out that I couldn’t do both a hotel and a school realistically at the same time. I remember being disappointed but realized they were right. The schools had to come first as they fulfil the bigger purpose behind Saira. It was when that business plan won first place in the Cornell Business Plan Competition in 2014, the first time a non-profit had won first place in this competition, that was the moment I knew Saira would work.