Belfast Telegraph

'I gave up engineering degree for life of travel'

By Audrey Watson

He only planned to stay for a year, but Mukesh Sharma (51) has now been working in the travel industry for more than three decades. As well as business, he has made his mark on the cultural life of Northern Ireland as co-founder of the annual Belfast Mela Festival, a celebration of Indian culture and food.

But back in 1982, Mr Sharma, who is from Jordanstown, was on a path far removed from the world of travel and business.

He was an engineering student at the University of Ulster, when he took a year out to help his father set up a travel company.

"That one year never ended," he says. "I was born in England and our family moved to Northern Ireland in 1968, after my father, Braham Sharma, bought a shirt factory called Dumroo Manufacturing Company.

"The job required him to travel constantly and he saw an opportunity for a travel business.

"The business - Thriftway Travel - began in 1982 and we opened our first office on Great Victoria Street in Belfast in 1984."

Mr Sharma is now managing director of Selective Travel Management, Northern Ireland's largest independent travel management company.

Away from the business, father-of-two Mukesh, who has been married to psychology teacher Alpana for 17 years, enjoys another role - that of an accomplished musician.

"I have two daughters, Aanika (15) and Anoushka (13), but they are showing absolutely no inclination to work in the travel industry," he says.

"They do enjoy the perks of nice holidays though.

"I've always had a passion for Indian classical and world music and play the traditional Indian Tabla drum and harmonium whenever I get the time.

"It's a great release from the world of business and I enjoy it very much."

With a client base extending across the whole of the UK and Ireland, Selective are market leaders in providing business travel for a range of industry sectors. "Selective started in 1974 operating in the business and leisure areas," says Mr Sharma.

"Since then, local businesses Thriftway, McNeill Rigby, Menary Travel and Corporate Travel, have been brought together through acquisition and mergers, under the Selective Travel Management banner."

The company has just opened its new headquarters at Murray's Exchange in Belfast.

Last month, Selective won a major share of a three-year £100m contract to provide travel services for members of the Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium in England.

It will involve the provision and management of travel and accommodation arrangements for the universities right around the globe and will bring in around £20m in additional turnover for the company.

"I don't consider myself just a travel agent, I'm a businessperson and am absolutely committed to the economy in Northern Ireland," says Mr Sharma.

"This new contract means that we will create more jobs.

"Selective Travel currently employs 80 staff and we plan to increase that number over the next few months.

"As a company, we put a lot of emphasis on training and later this year will be launching our own training academy for people who wish to enter the travel industry.

"We aim to provide basic training on how the industry works and offer work placements.

"There is a shortage of trained travel staff in Northern Ireland, so the academy will not only help us, it will also be of benefit industry-wide."

Another thing Mr Sharma feels would benefit the travel trade here is the scrapping of Air Passenger Duty (APD). The traveller tax has already been abolished in the Republic but remains in Northern Ireland, a £13 levy on passengers on short haul flights out of Northern Ireland. There is no longer APD on long-haul flights, however.

"APD is a real challenge," he says. "I am involved with a number of industry colleagues in lobbying for its removal.

"When you talk to airlines who are evaluating Northern Ireland as a base, they argue that the Republic of Ireland is a better option because the lack of APD means they can offer cheaper fares and therefore more passengers will be encouraged to use their airline.

"There also needs to be an effort to encourage more direct flights into Northern Ireland airports. There is a lack of connectivity to and from the province.

"This isn't good for the local economy. If people are flying in and out of the Republic, even if they then travel on to the north, car hire and possibly overnight hotel stays are purchased in the Republic and Northern Ireland loses out on that revenue.

"Removing APD will not just make air travel more convenient and cheaper, it will also make Northern Ireland a more viable destination for people from all over the world to come in to.

"Plus the economic viability of running and sustaining a business, or starting a new business here, will be improved substantially," he adds.

Mr Sharma admits that the rise of the internet when it comes to booking flights and other travel arrangements has had an impact on Selective - albeit a slight one.

"We have noticed a bit of a drop in the leisure travel sector, but the corporate market is very stable," he says.

"Companies might have maybe 20-30 people travelling every day of the week, and to manage that they would almost need to set up their own travel agency," he says.

"There is a huge amount of comfort for a managing director, whose staff are travelling, in knowing there is a company that is going to get them the best price and if there is a problem somewhere in the world, or an issue with a volcano or bad weather, experienced people on hand to manage the situation.

"If there is an emergency, or a major issue somewhere in the world where our clients have employees, we are available 24/7 to provide help and support."

Mr Sharma is a former chairman and current board member of ethnic arts group ArtsEkta. Under his leadership, ArtsEkta launched the first Belfast Mela Festival in 2007, to showcase and celebrate Northern Ireland's cultural diversity.

He is also on the board of Moving on Music, a not-for-profit organisation promoting jazz, folk, roots, traditional, classical and other music in Northern Ireland.

"Music and dance are very powerful in breaking down barriers," says Mr Sharma.

"ArtsEkta does a lot of work in Northern Ireland promoting cultural understanding and bonding through music, dance and the arts.

"I have performed at the Mela and also in schools across Northern Ireland.

"At the moment, because work is so busy, I can't devote as much time as I would like to music, but promoting cultural understanding through the arts is very important to me and I hope to do more in the future.

"I'm often asked if I experienced racism when I was growing up during the 1970s and 1980s, but I didn't.

"I was very lucky."

This time it’s personal...

Q Do you prefer the town or country - and why?

A I prefer to live in the country, but with easy access to town. The country has fresh air, calmer and more relaxed pace and often a greater community spirit among neighbours. I love having our business headquarters in the heart of Belfast, however.

Q How has the world of travel changed in the last 20 years?  

A Everything has changed. The most obvious game changers of all have, of course, been the arrival of the internet and the emergence and continual growth of low-cost airlines globally. Less obvious to the public, have been changes to legislation and governance in the UK relating to financial protection and also the continual merger of airlines, tour operators and travel companies.

Q What factor has most influenced the changes to how travel is today?

A Technology, technology, technology. From costing a journey, right up to boarding an aircraft, ship, train, or even checking in to a hotel, technology has played a major part.

Q Have you any career advice for anyone setting out in your field?

A Learn quick, don't be afraid of technology and remember my favourite quote: "A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider to our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so."

Q What was the last book you read, and what was it like?

A The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. The mystery, cryptology and plot just got thicker and thicker.

Q What was your last holiday, and what will your next one be?

A Last holiday was on the Celebrity Equinox cruise ship: some really great ports in Italy, Greece and Turkey. Next one is yet to be decided, but Dubai, Cape Town and San Diego are in the running.

Q When you go on holiday, is it hard for you to have an uncritical frame of mind?

A I'm constantly comparing service levels, attitudes and perceptions in my mind, but I never let it affect the holiday mood and mode.

Q NI is on a constant drive to improve its tourism offering.  Are there any tricks that the NI tourism industry is missing out on?

A We have come a long way from where we were 15 years ago. Of course, there's always room for improvement. We must strive to improve and increase air connectivity and I think there is a need for better rail links, a single impressive airport, increased funding for more arts, music and dance events, to name a few priorities.

Q What is your favourite band/album or your favourite piece of music, and why?

A I enjoy the classical music of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. They've all been accompanied by my all-time favourite Tabla (Indian drum) player Ustad Zakhir Hussain.

Belfast Telegraph