The family business behind Red Deer’s Staybridge Suites/Holiday Inn Express have a special connection to the city, says Shazma Charania.
Her parents, Afzal and Gulzar Rajan, operated their first hotel in the city nearly four decades ago.
“They saw Red Deer as a little pocket of gold — they really did,” Charania said Wednesday.
Since then, the family business, ZS Holdings (named after Shazma and her sister Zainul) has become a $125-million company that owns four hotels in Red Deer and three others in Hinton and Edson.
Premier Jason Kenney was in town Wednesday evening as part of the official grand opening for the Staybridge Suites/Holiday Inn Express, located within sight of Highway 2 on Orr Drive.
Hospitality runs deep in the family. Her grandfather and his brother owned a hotel in Tanzania and Afzal grew to love the business. That didn’t change when he emigrated to Canada in 1972 and moved to Alberta in 1974.
Afzal and Gulzar bought their first motel in Edmonton in 1974, and in 1991, took over a hotel in Edmonton that was under construction. That experience taught them the value of franchising and they established a connection with International Hotel Group, which has hotels under numerous banners, including Regent, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Staybridge.
With decades of experience in Alberta’s hospitality industry, expanding at a time when the province’s economy is slowly recovering from the downturn was just another challenge, said Charania, who is president of ZS Holdings.
“We know the hotel business. This hasn’t been our first boom-bust cycle,” she said.
“We were used to the cyclical Alberta economy. It’s definitely uncertain times and the economy is in recovery period. Nobody really knows when, if, how, it will turn around.
“But I think you really have to focus on Red Deer itself and development in Red Deer. You have to look at what other industries or development is happening, and where can we tap into that.”
Charania said they had done their homework on the market and had the management team and finances to take on a project that saw two 79-room hotels built side by side.
Staybridge rooms, with a kitchen in each, are aimed at longer-stay clients. Holiday Inn Express, which has its own entrance and lobby, caters to shorter stays.
The economy aside, the hospitality industry has faced a lot of other “disruptors” to its business models, including minimum wage changes, Airbnb competition and online travel agencies, she said.
“Every industry has its own disruptors. However, you have to find ways that you will survive.
“It’s tough. I’m not saying it’s roses. It’s a lot of hard work, but we are truly an epitome of a family business.”
For Charania and her family, that means they all have each other to rely on, which is especially useful when times are tough. Sister, Zainul Mawji, is on the company’s board and Charania’s husband, Jamil Charania, is vice-president of business development.
“You lead with that positivity internally and you just go. And your guests feel it.
“We’re in the people business and that passion comes out.”
ZS Holdings has the Holiday Inn and Suites with its Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge in Gasoline Alley and the Holiday Inn Express at 2803 Gaetz Ave., Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge, and two hotels and the Greentree Restaurant in Hinton and another hotel in Edson under the Holiday Inn banner.