Teatime ending at Faletti’s
* Looming sale of a city institution viewed as sad and inevitable
By Kirran Syed
LAHORE: Almost every day for the last 12 years, about as long as Faletti’s Hotel has been on a list to be privatised, Tariq Zafar Sheikh has been coming to the hotel’s attached restaurant for early afternoon tea.
With privatisation looming, Mr Sheikh’s teatime at Faletti’s is likely to end. Shortly after noon every day, Mr Sheikh, 60, comes into the restaurant attached to Faletti’s Hotel and goes straight to his regular table by the back wall, takes off his coat and puts his cigarette case and lighter on the table.
He then says hello to the waiters, who he knows by name, and goes to wash his hands. He only sits at the table for a few minutes before the waiter brings out tea, specially prepared for Mr Sheikh.
The tea is made from loose grounds, not bags, because the waiters know Mr Sheikh likes it strong. A glass of cool water and two teacups are placed on the table. One cup is empty and the other is filled with hot water to keep it warm until Mr Sheikh pours his tea.
Mr Sheikh is one of a handful of regular customers who have been coming to the restaurant attached to Faletti’s Hotel for years. Some come for the tea and food, but most come for the sense of peace, quiet and history the hotel complex offers.
During its heyday, Faletti’s was the only quality hotel in Lahore. Everyone of renown who happened to be passing through the city stayed at Faletti’s. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah stayed in room 18 of block 2, American actress Ava Gardner stayed in room 55 of block 5, poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal stayed in rooms 45 and 46 of block 4 and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stayed in room 64 of block 5.
“When you sit here, there’s memories,” said Mr Sheikh, trying to explain what makes him leave his Model Town home every day for tea at Faletti’s. “There’s an attachment to a place” because of the atmosphere and history it offers, he said.
But within months, Faletti’s Hotel is likely to be sold and privatised. While hotel officials say the property will remain one unit, it is yet to be determined whether it will remain a hotel, become a shopping plaza or a combination.
Prospective buyers who have submitted Rs 30 million in earnest money will be invited to submit sealed bids for Faletti’s on a date yet to be decided during the third week of February, according to a Privatisation Commission official. Sixteen parties who submitted expressions of interest attended the second pre-bid conference on January 19.
It will be a two-part bidding process. In the first round, interested parties will submit sealed bids for the hotel. The bids will be opened during the February meeting. The three highest bidders will then participate in the second round of auction-style bidding. The opening bid during the second round will be the highest bid offered during the first round.
This is the third, and PTDC officials hope last, attempt to privatise the Lahore landmark that opened in 1880. In 2002, the highest bid received for the hotel was Rs 360 million, which the Privatisation Commission rejected as too low, according to hotel officials. They said the hotel’s sale had almost gone through in 1998 for Rs 590 million, but the buyer pulled out because of disputes with the Privatisation Commission.
The property is owned by Associated Hotels of Pakistan, Limited (AHP), but is operated and managed by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), which leased it from AHP. PTDC holds 86.8 percent of the shares in AHP and private shareholders, who include the rulers of Swat and Kalat, hold the remaining 13.2 percent, according to hotel officials.
When the property is sold, about one third of the hotel’s approximately 90 employees, the ones who are permanent, will receive a “golden handshake”, meaning forced retirement with monetary compensation. All daily wage employees will be let go without compensation.
Raja Muhammad Shafique, the general secretary of the 43-member hotel employees union and a permanent employee who has been with the hotel for 18 years, said it will hurt when the hotel is sold. “It’s simple. If someone is connected to something that ends, it hurts.”
Although he will receive compensation, he knows it will not be enough to survive on for the rest of his life. Having spent his youth and energy on the hotel, he is haunted by the question of who will hire him in his old age.
“When someone loses a job, there is pain and problems,” he said. The problems will be worse for daily wage workers, he said. “Some people only had a few years (with the hotel). Those people’s chances of getting another job are limited.”
Mr Shafique said Faletti’s is the most profitable of the 32 hotels and motels under PTCD’s control and should not be sold this way. Admitting that he cannot do anything to encourage or stall the sale, he still expressed confusion about why a profitable hotel was being sold.
But newer chain hotels are attracting customers now and the city has developed away from the Mall. While Faletti’s proximity to tourist attractions like the botanical gardens, zoo, Anarkali Bazaar, museum and Al-Hamra theatre complex remains, it is no longer the best or most central hotel in the city.
Faletti’s Hotel complex has visibly declined. Only 32 of the hotel’s 71 rooms are still being used, said hotel officials. Since discussions on privatising Faletti’s began around 1992, maintenance has been reduced to a minimum or “just running expenditures”, as one hotel official put it.
Mr Sheikh agreed that the quality and service that was once Faletti’s trademark has declined. But he said he did not understand why the government is choosing to privatise a Lahore landmark rather than improve the hotel’s profitability.
“It was shocking news for me that this historical place was being sold,” he said, attributing the decline in quality to mismanagement. “If you sell everything, what will the government give the new generation?”
Calling Faletti’s Hotel’s upcoming sale “sad”, he said “at (my) age, people are so attached to old things that when they finish, a person thinks my end is near too because my old friends are ending”.