Rakesh Sarna

Define success and make sure that you have input from various sources into defining success. Then you stay that course.


Rakesh Sarna was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, and had a humble upbringing. His father was in the Indian Foreign Service, so this meant some moving around while growing up. When he found himself in Afghanistan, he got his first taste of the American lifestyle with baseball, hot dogs, and hamburgers. He then went back to India to finish high school.

Rakesh went to Canada to study at Algonquin College in Ottawa, graduating with a diploma in Hospitality Administration. Being hired by Hyatt at age 22 is what started his long career of almost 40 years in hospitality. Rakesh believes he has had more than his fair share of good fortune, and Hyatt taught him everything he knows.

While with Hyatt he held various roles and lived in several different places including the Caribbean, Middle East, Europe, the Pacific, Asia, as well as North America. Rakesh was with Hyatt from 1979 until late 2014, when an opportunity appeared that he could not resist. He went to work with Taj Hotels, a 113-year-old company with a reputation, character and integrity that was widely respected. He was with Taj for 37 months, making meaningful progress.

Rakesh Sarna and his wife live in Miami, where they are going to continue their education. They plan on learning to speak Spanish in addition to continuing their education through courses in subjects including history and foreign policy.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

It came when I was about 16, for all the wrong reasons. My parents would take me to a restaurant in a five star hotel, even though we couldn’t afford a whole meal. I fell in love with the atmosphere and just everything about the place. I decided I wanted to go into the hotel business.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Every day is the same; you go in with a set of things to do, which never get done. A typical day depends on whether I’m the GM or in the corporate office. The GM is going to walk around the hotel, say hello to guests, and have morning briefings. You may go to a number of meetings, looking at marketing plans, HR plans, and financial issues. During lunch you may be back on the floor, and it goes on through dinner.

In the head office, it’s different. You’re really dealing with things that pertain to the future, hoping that your team has enough resources and authority to get their jobs done properly.

How do you bring ideas to life?

It takes a lot of people. I don’t think I have ever personally brought an idea to life. Ideas are brainstormed, some ideas are forced by circumstances be it customer requests or employee needs. You get together with your people to make sure you have a diverse set of opinions. Once you understand what needs to be done, then you strategize with people and make it happen. It can be a long process, takes a lot of patience and understanding. It’s not that easy.

What’s one trend that excites you?

One trend in this industry that excites me is the new technology to improve the experience of guests, as well as the efficiency of our colleagues. The other side of that is that some places may be tempted to use that technology to replace real services. We have come such a long way with tools to provide a great experience to our guests.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I don’t know because no day is identical to the other, it all changes. You really need to define success and make sure that you have input from various sources into defining success. Then you stay that course. If you make a mistake, the worst thing you can do is to not admit it. That takes a lot of focus every day.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I wish I had known more about the value of empathy and mutual respect when I was 22 years old; it didn’t come until my late 40s. Trends in hospitality come and go, empathy is difficult to commit yourself to and do day-in and day-out. I wish I had known more about those two things when I was younger. My advice to future leaders is you can be an expert in anything you want, but if you don’t have a generous amount of empathy and mutual respect for people, you’re not going to succeed.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I’ve had many areas where people have had different thoughts on how something should be handled. Be it hotel design, leadership development, or concepts of different restaurants. There are many things that people have disagreed with me on. Sometimes it prevailed, sometimes it didn’t.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’ve always been sharply focused on two things at the same time, developing colleagues’ and guests’ comfort and security. Those two are on the top of my list every morning, every afternoon, every evening, every day. If you get those two right, the rest will take care of itself. It’s critical that your staff knows that you care for them, you are fair, and your guests know that you sincerely care for them, because you’re not the only hotel company in the world.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

All of the above mentioned as well as email, digital, marketing, advertising campaigns. If you get the word out that you really sincerely care about your guests, you will be turning business away.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

As I said before, everyone has their share of failures and setbacks. To overcome is number one. Don’t cover it up – admit that it’s a failure. Admit that you’re wrong and change it. Burying your head in the sand and being stubborn about it is only going to make things worse.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

It’s different from country to county, city to city. The consumer demands are very different. There’s a hunger for products that have a global brand value in developing countries. The American lifestyle is emulated everywhere. If in India, I would focus on encouraging someone to go into fast food, or a small restaurant. In the US, it would be different.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

My wife and I have a golden retriever, Teddy, and we spend more than that on him, which is the best money we’ve spent.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

iPhone, iPad, those are the only two.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Not a book, but I would encourage everyone to read periodicals that are global in nature. The Economist Magazine, or The Financial Times Newspaper. It’s important to be in tune with current events and understand what’s happening to your world. The world is far bigger than Miami.

What is your favorite quote?

“Always do the right thing. Just do the right thing.” It may not serve your purpose, may go against what you want, but you must do the right thing. The other would be, “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

Key Learnings:

  • Everyone has their share of failures and setbacks
  • You really need to define success and make sure that you have input from various sources into defining success.
  • If you make a mistake, the worst thing you can do is to not admit it.