Mumbai: Lubaina Sheerazi’s phenomenal rise to the top is a result of focus and ambition, but also about bringing in the human element. It’s why she has several long-standing clients
I have met Lubaina on many occasions as her organization, Blue Square Consultants (BSC), represents various tourism boards, hospitality giants, DMCs and airlines in the India market. Thailand, Israel, Seychelles, Oman, Jumeirah Group of Hotels, Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Palladium Group of Hotels, Ethiopian Airlines; the list of high profile clients her company manages is a formidable one.
As Chief Operating Officer of BSC, Lubaina Sheerazi has managed to win an enviable group of clients over a short span of eight years since occupying the corner office and taking charge. “What is required is hard work, focus, commitment and certainly an element of luck too,” she says.
A true Mumbaikar at heart, living in Juhu, she studied textile designing and fashion designing. After dabbling as a merchandiser at an export house and working with a senior fashion designer, she tried out some entrepreneurial ventures. Although she was successful and highly regarded in each and every one of these positions, Lubaina realized that this was not her calling. The first major tipping point in her foray into the travel industry was when she excelled at a travel-related course, following which Lubaina held various positions at Galileo, Air Sahara and well-known tour operators.
At Cox & Kings, Lubaina was leading alliances with international tourism boards when the India outbound market was slowly growing. Tourism boards were looking for local companies to help them navigate this promising source market called India. Then came the global financial meltdown of 2008, when the economies of first world countries collapsed. Conversely, India and China showed greater resilience and soon everyone wanted to do business in this part of the world.
Lubaina had plenty of experience working with national tourism organisations; however, to be the representative office of the tourism board itself was a different ball game altogether. But she was never one to say no to a challenge, so when she was offered to lead this new venture, she took on the role without a hitch. As head of business development she started with a two-member team in 2010.
By 2014, she was already the COO, having taken BSC to new heights by adding service verticals and clients, expanding to new markets and growing the team. Today, in addition to its headquarters in Mumbai, Lubaina heads BSC offices in New Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru, and a team of 38 travel professionals.
In 2010, BSC was at the right place at the right time as the India outbound story was exploding for a host of reasons and when traditional source markets crashed during the global financial crisis, tourism boards started looking at opportunities in India and China by making reconnaissance visits, undertaking fact finding missions, commissioning market evaluation reports, etc. BSC became their perfect partner.
Lubaina does not take her position as a market leader lightly. BSC adds verticals each year and keeps looking for ways to improve service standards and offer innovative and effective solutions to their business partners. “We started with a vision to offer comprehensive, integrated, best-in-class marketing services to tourism brands looking at India as a source market and here we are,” she says.
As an affable person, it is not surprising that Lubaina has had many mentors along the way from whom she picked up qualities that have inspired her to do her best.
“Our approach towards appointing the right talent is unconventional, as we do not necessarily refer people based on their experience in the travel & tourism industry alone. What we do look for are integral qualities such as creativity, open-mindedness, being solution-driven and an excellent team player as key criterion.” With her distinctive thought process, Lubaina is adept at managing challenging situations and people from different walks of life. This tactic also makes her proficient in managing diverse expectations not only from her team but clients too, by offering tailored and effective solutions as needed.
How does she balance providing the best marketing advice to a client while running the risk of clients deciding to open their own full-time office in India after learning the ropes? To this Lubaina responds, “We help clients save a lot of cost and time by engaging us for our expertise. Outsourcing is better for them any day. India is a very diverse and complex market. Also there are very few market participants who are capable of offering 360-degree support in marketing, creative services, media planning & buying, public relations, trade enablement and even fewer who treat each client with the same level of professionalism.”
As COO, she leads pitches and client relationships herself. “I do not delegate this piece,” Lubaina admits. Her first client has been a BSC account for eight years now, Lubaina proudly mentions. “Long term relationships have been an outcome of our willingness and passion as a team to go beyond the engagement brief and demonstrate value for our clients.” Not to mention, that inspite of a busy schedule, whether travelling or when in Mumbai, Lubaina makes the time to develop a personal connection with her clients thereby generating goodwill and giving them a strong reason to stay with her.
As India Representative for Ministry of Tourism Oman, Lubaina is the official spokesperson for the tourism board in this market. “I consider it an honour and privilege to be at the receiving end of such trust and confidence,” says Lubaina.
Her leadership style is not hierarchical. “I run a flat organization,” she tells me. “It’s difficult to establish too many levels and still be close to the team. Some of them are young, fresh and less experienced. Some are senior, have been there and done that. But many of them eventually end up doing similar roles as we are a small organization. So it is important to establish equality that transcends designations. I feel respect and dignity are most important. I am proud we have many lifers at BSC.”
Lubaina is hands-on and keeps an open door policy. “I like it that way. Irrespective of where I am, I stay connected. We retain our clients because we offer customised solutions and that is an ongoing learning process. I am a 24×7 mentor for my team.”
I ask her what she would be doing ten years from now. “At this point of time, I enjoy being part of the tourism fraternity. There is a lot to learn and plan about the future of this business especially in the face of market disruptions and technological advancements. Many issues, while not directly related to tourism, are extremely important to understand. I want to spend more time attending and speaking at travel conferences and seminars, interacting with seniors and peers, and of course mentoring my team.”
What keeps her awake? “Nothing really. I just crash, I am so tired by the end of the day. If at all anything, then Netflix! It is the only downtime I get. As I am a late riser, I try to run or jog at the beach after work or meditate and do a few yoga routines. I plan to do it more regularly next year or possibly work out at a gym too. But with non-stop travel schedules things go awry.” Lubaina travels about 15 days a month on an average.
A typical day at BSC is one rollercoaster ride. “We do a lot of things for our clients, even beyond the brief. Although this stretches us to the limit, it is in our DNA and culture to offer superlative service. To cite an example, for Iceland Travel, which is a DMC what we do for them is actually destination marketing. But we cannot deliver what a DMC wants from a business development perspective unless we market the destination. In that sense what we do for them is exactly what we do for the tourism boards we represent.”
Having travelled around the world for work I was hoping she has a favourite holiday destination which is outside India. But she surprises me by saying Ladakh. “It blew my mind away. Ladakh is so spectacular and mesmerizing. Disconnected from the internet, it was six days of total peace and great weather. I want to travel more within India and discover this beautiful country.”
The next five years look exciting for Lubaina and the powerhouse she has created. “There are a lot of opportunities waiting to be tapped within the India market. There are many verticals we can get into such as travel technology companies to MICE segments, servicing convention bureaus or cruise marketing. We can be the game changers or disruptors by bringing more options to the table for our clients to choose from.”