On the eve of 'Operation Searchlight,'—the infamous genocidal attempt of the Pakistani military to wipe out East Pakistani resistance—famous British journalist Simon Dring along with other foreign journalists were confined to the Intercontinental at Shahbagh. The West Pakistani administration wanted to deport him and others to keep their crimes against humanity under the rug. But Simon, then a 26-year-old man, had other ideas.
"He hid in our kitchen where our chefs had helped disguise him in chef's clothing. While the Pakistani army was successful in preventing other foreign journalists from covering the issue, Simon Dring was unstoppable," said Shahidus Sadeque, Director, Marketing and Business Promotions at Intercontinental Dhaka.
"Staying here, he wrote reports about the unspeakable things that were done to our people by the Pakistani military. Moreover, since the University of Dhaka was nearby, he was able to cover the atrocities committed in those areas as well, as in other areas in 1971," he added.
Later, Simon Dring risked his life to report Pakistan's atrocities on 25 March. After the country's independence, Simon went on to found the first Bangladeshi private channel called Ekushey TV. Dring's story, like many others, echo between the tall columns of the Intercontinental, while the longstanding history of this 55-year-old hotel wraps around its walls like timeless tapestry.
The Business Standard team wanted to get a first-hand look at the history and evolution of this prestigious establishment with Shahidus Sadeque, who had many more stories to share.
At present, the Intercontinental is not only reeling back from the effects of the pandemic, but also from an earlier hotel closure.
"It would ideally take more than a few years for any hotel to get going in full swing," said Sadeque, after a major renovation closure, which lasted for four years, starting in 2014. "Unfortunately, just a little more than a year after reopening, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the tourism industry. Since our customer base primarily constituted foreigners, it was an unfair blow for all of us," explained Sadeque.
"So, we customised our marketing strategy to attract the domestic consumers more," he added.
Elements (a restaurant in the Intercontinental) is currently the best restaurant in Dhaka according to Tripadvisor. It has a perfect 5.0 rating.
He also said that the hotel was organising wedding ceremonies, seminars etc in their halls for community programmes while maintaining the health guidelines from WHO and InterContinental Hotels Group.
Currently, the room tariff for different rooms and suites in the Intercontinental range from Tk10,000 for the standard deluxe rooms to Tk 60,000 for the Presidential suites, on average, although they may vary based on season, day and demand. And the local occupancy rate is 25% to 30%, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
History of the Intercontinental
When Intercontinental began its journey, Dhaka (erstwhile Dacca) was the capital of East Pakistan. Much like many other monuments that adorn this grand metropolis, Intercontinental Dacca was built in 1966 at Shahbagh.
Unsurprisingly, many significant historical events took place here. Since it was the only five-star hotel back then, renowned individuals and celebrities chose to stay at this hotel during their visits to Bangladesh.
From the South African legend Nelson Mandela, the world's first female Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka to Marlon Brando-the Godfather himself, the Intercontinental boasts a rather exemplary guest roster. From the Queen of Spain to Shahid Afridi (a regular guest), many remarkable individuals have spent nights under the Intercontinental roof.
But the 11 storied establishment has been more than just a hotel for international figures. Its place in the chronicles of Dhaka's history is well established too.
"Operation Hotel Intercontinental run by the Crack Platoon made this hotel a significant part of our history because that particular guerilla operation made the world aware of the abnormal situation of our country and how the Pakistani army was suppressing the news of the atrocities they had committed," recalled Sadeque.
The hotel management transitions through time
Since its inception, the Hotel Intercontinental has been owned by BSL (Bangladesh Services Limited) and was initially managed by the Inter-Continental Hotel Corporations, USA.
Sadeque shared that the hotel was the brainchild of Pan American Airways. After World War 2, the company realised that the airline crew needed comfortable places to stay in the airline's prime destinations. Consequently, the Intercontinental Hotel's journey began.
Furthermore, it was also built to meet the necessity for a five-star ambient hotel in then Dacca. Before the Intercontinental, the only high-standard hotel in Dhaka was called the Hotel Shahbagh, a three-star hotel with modern facilities. Later it was turned into a hospital, popularly known as the PG hospital, and BSMMU at present.
The 4.5-acre property on which Intercontinental stands was initially a part of Ramna park. The property was always owned by the state but the management has changed over time.
Interestingly, this five-star hotel evolved architecturally as well. Before the grand renovation in 2018, each room measured 20 to 25 square meters, which is far too small for a five-star establishment.
The hotel previously had 272 rooms, but the number was reduced to 220, each with a minimum area of 40 square meters.
"I have been working here for 16 years and I have seen the transition of the hotel from the Sheraton to Ruposhi Bangla and from Ruposhi Bangla to the Intercontinental. Currently, we have 226 rooms and among them, there are 25 suites," said Sadeque.
"From my long experience of working here, I can say we have upgraded ourselves in the right manner, not only from the architectural perspective but also with our services," Sadeque further explained.
Returning to history, from 1966 to 1983 the hotel was managed by the Inter-Continental Hotel group. Later in 1983, the hotel started its journey as Hotel Sheraton Dhaka, which was then managed by Starwood. They managed the hotel till the year 2011, which was the longest time period of management, comparatively.
For the next two years, the BSL managed the hotel by itself and changed the name to 'Ruposhi Bangla', which was chosen by the Prime Minister. Later, the hotel made a deal with the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), who started managing it in full swing from December 2018 as the InterContinental Dhaka.
The architectural evolution of the hotel
The architectural designs of this hotel reflect an Arab influence, which can be recognised through the arcs of its windows. These window designs are still preserved and a part of the hotel's identity.
Initially, it was designed by the world-famous hotel architect William B. Tabler who followed similar designs in each and every hotel he worked on.
The design needed a modern touch with a supreme dose of luxury, to match the standard of the IHG. Thus, a major renovation was underway, bringing noticeable changes to both the exterior and the interior. Notably, the glass dome of the hotel is the most eye-catching of all.
Moreover, you can see the majestic Persian designs with Bangladeshi floral-inspired patterns, here and there, when you walk around any part of the hotel. A minimalist touch with conceptual design is visible in the 'social cafe' as well.
Even around the open-air swimming pool on the second floor, there is a mesmerising reflection of Arabian and 'Deshi'-inspired architecture.
When asked about the person who redesigned the hotel, Sadeque replied that there was no specific architect this time. In fact, multiple firms were involved in the planning and design.
"Some designed the restaurant well and some designed the rooms well, hence we contracted multiple agencies to get the best of everything this time."
It is beyond a foregone conclusion that the Intercontinental has evolved with time. During its inception, it was the pioneer in luxury hotels in Bangladesh. While it holds a special place as a monument of historic significance, the luxury hotel will hopefully keep on innovating to compete with others in this business and to keep itself from becoming a relic of the past.