Following 40 years of continuous senior management employment in human resources and hotel management in public and private sectors, Sunil Dissanayake retired recently, stepping down from his position as Director/General Manager of The Kingsbury.
Best described as a human resource management and development specialist, Dissanayake’s career path comprises
two distinct sectors – hospitality
management and HR management,
and he has excelled in both.
In this interview with the Daily FT, he traces his journey, recalls memorable events and shares his thoughts on tourism, hospitality and HR in relation to how Sri Lanka can tilt the balance in its favour and address challenges as it positions itself as a tourism hub, drawing on his extensive experience.
Following are excerpts:
Q: You retired end August 2014, stepping down from your last position as Director/General Manager at The Kingsbury, bringing to a close a hospitality and HR career spanning 40 years. Could you outline your career path?
My career is divided into two paths – hoteliering and HR management. Out of a span of 40 years, where I have been in senior management, 17 years have been in the hotel industry and 23 in HR. I am fortunate to not have been out of employment a single day throughout this 40-year career. I have worked in about 10 organisations and I was headhunted for six of them.
I graduated from the Ceylon Hotel School, which is now the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, in 1974 and my first job was as a management trainee at Blue Oceanic Beach Hotel, Negombo.
How I obtained that job was, after I graduated I was at home for about three weeks without a job. All my batch mates had found employment and only I was unemployed. One evening my father asked me, ‘Why are you with a long face?’ so I told him all my batch mates were employed and I was the only one at home. Then he said, ‘I have a good friend; tomorrow when I go to office I will talk to him and let you know,’ but he didn’t tell me who it was. The next day he said, ‘George Ondaatje, who owns several hotels, wants to see you.’
My father took me to Ondaatje’s office; he was MD of Mercantile Investments then and currently the Chairman. He started Nilaveli Beach Hotel Trincomalee and I think he was associated business-wise with Herbert Cooray. He had invited Cooray to his office at the Iceland Building and after interviewing me, they said I could join Blue Oceanic the next day.
My key focus then was joining the Ceylon Hotels Corporation, which was the prime hotel employer at that time. My aim was to join them and in December 1974, after three months with Blue Oceanic, I was selected again as a management trainee and posted to Lihiniya Surf Hotel, Bentota.
When the BMICH was opened in mid-1975, the CHC got the contract to handle the catering there. I was transferred on the completion of my management trainee-ship as Assistant Catering Manager at the BMICH. This was a very challenging role, because the conference centre had just opened and several international conferences were being held.
Towards the end of 1975, I was transferred as Assistant Manager to Hotel Seruwa in Polonnaruwa, which is now The Lake Hotel, owned by CHC. That was one of the best hotels in the Cultural Triangle at the time. I was there for one year and based on my performance, I was promoted as a Manager to Hotel Dehigama in Kandy. That was my career path initially in the hotel industry.
From being a hotel manager in Kandy, I moved to becoming a Senior Lecturer at the Ceylon Hotel School; then I moved to John Keells Group as Training and Personnel Manager for their Hotels Division; and then to the Galadari Meridian for its opening as a Training Manager. Then came the turning point, where I went abroad to the Ramada Hotel in Dubai as a Training Manager. After Ramada, my career as a hotelier ended for that time.
I was headhunted whilst I was at the Ramada Dubai and I shifted to Citibank in Dubai as Training and Communications Manager and there I had the opportunity of specialising in HR management. It was called Citibank Gulf, headquartered in Dubai with eight branches, and I was responsible for training and communications. One year later, when my boss was migrating, I was promoted as Head of HR. That is how my shift to HR came about.
I was with Citibank for four years and Ramada for two, after which I returned to Sri Lanka in 1994 and joined Carson Cumberbatch as General Manager – Human Resources, where I was later appointed to the Board. While there, I was headhunted by Emirates Airlines for SriLankan Airlines, which I joined as Head of HR. I was there for seven years, during which we had to transform the airline from being a public sector organisation into a dynamic private sector entity. A challenge that we faced was the terrorist strike in 2001, where we lost half the fleet and as a result had to downsize the airline by 1,000 people, which was successfully handled.
Getting the airline back to operating flights on the same day of the attack, where all employees reported to work at 7 p.m. for the night shift was a major achievement, as was downsizing the airline where those who left went out as ambassadors of the company due to the way in which it was handled and the opportunities that were created for them for future employment elsewhere.
When the Emirates contract came to an end, I was invited by HSBC Global Resourcing to join as VP – HR and Development and then I joined Hayleys in 2007, where I worked for the last seven years. On the day I joined, I was appointed to the Group Management Committee as well and I was responsible for human resources, corporate communications and group security. In 2013 May, I was appointed the General Manager at The Kingsbury. I was already on the Board of the hotel.
Q: Could you describe your most memorable experiences in the hospitality industry?
Significant events include the handling of the catering centre at the BMICH during the 1976 Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. When the summit was held in Sri Lanka, about 96 Heads of State were here for the conference and I was handpicked to be the Manager of the Delegates Restaurant at the BMICH, where the Heads of State dined. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike personally selected the team, together with the Ceylon Hotels Corporation Chairman Lloyd Wettasinghe and Nimalasiri Silva, another pioneer in the tourism industry.
Now came the question of staffing. We were told to hire 300 fresh school-leavers and train them within two to three months to be fit enough to work as cooks, room boys and waiters for summit. I was the Restaurant Manager, my colleague Palitha Wijemanne was Bar Manager and then we had Catering Manager Milroy Fernando and Executive Chef Terrence Hopman and we were the core team to manage the catering operation at the BMICH during the summit. The Government acquired the Orient Pearl Hotel in Katunayake and gave it to us, where we stayed for three months, housed all the trainees and trained them. The conference was very well organised and well-handled.
Something that stands out in my memory from the conference is that on the last day it finished at 3 a.m. and Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus walked into the Delegates Dining Room and said ‘we want dinner’. They had been at the conference throughout and we were able to do that. That is something that really stands out in my memory.
Also significant is my time at Hotel Dehigama in Kandy, which was a 20-room hotel that was not doing well and we were able to turn performance around within a year. At the Galadari Meridian, which I joined prior to the opening of the hotel as its sixth employee, we had recruited a significant number of people from the Lanka Oberoi, from the Intercontinental and from other hotels. We had the Oberoi culture, the Intercontinental culture and the other cultures all combined and had to change that mindset into the Meridian culture and that was a challenge we faced successfully.
Talking of The Kingsbury, I joined in May 2013 and I was there for 14 months. The hotel had just opened post refurbishment and was not performing that well. In 1Q 2013, there was a loss of Rs. 105 million. Within the space of 14 months we were able to turn it around and in 1Q 2014, we made a net profit of Rs. 20 million after closing the Rs. 105 million loss. At the end of the last financial year, the profit was Rs. 30 million. These are small numbers but significant because the hotel was just one year old and we were competing with the established five-star hotels. During CHOGM, we had Heads of State staying with us and we didn’t have a single complaint from any guest. That was through sheer supervision and performance.
Q: With Sri Lanka focusing heavily on becoming a tourism hub, what is your advice to stakeholders going forward?
The projected growth in tourism for 2016 is 2.5 million tourists. I think we have a target of 1.5 million arrivals for this year. We have to grow by one million more in two years and we will require 45,000 hotel rooms. As I see it, hotel development is not very well planned. It happened very well in the early ’70s when tourism was planned and launched. There were holiday resort areas that were demarcated and the Tourist Board allowed only a certain number of hotels to be built in each of those locations. Today, hotels are coming up everywhere. That needs to be controlled and properly planned.
I feel local tourism has not been sufficiently taken into consideration. If you look at the statistics, last year there has been movement of two to three million local tourists within the country. This year up to August, there has been about five million. Those are significant numbers. When we talk about hotel occupancies, we really don’t pay significant attention to those numbers, which are sometimes greater than tourist occupancy.
We also need to focus on the growth of the supply chain, for example agriculture and all other hotel supplies, otherwise we might end up in a situation where we might have to import if we don’t plan for local production. Another focus area should be room nights. At the moment the stay is about 8.5 nights; we need to work towards increasing it to 14 nights, which was the average hotel night stay in the early days of tourism. Furthermore, we need to link up with the Maldives. With the countries being so close and with good air connectivity, there should be a concentrated effort to promote Sri Lanka with the Maldives.
In the next few years, tourism can easily become the second largest foreign exchange owner for the country, or even the largest.
Q: What are the main challenges facing tourism and how can they be addressed?
In terms of accessibility, airlines are well-connected to Sri Lanka now. However, there are opportunities to promote Sri Lanka in Scandinavian countries. They were a big producer of tourists to Sri Lanka in the past and down the line we seem to have neglected Scandinavian countries. We also need to focus on promoting Sri Lanka in Australia, which is a good market and has not been approached in a structured manner. Then in the Far East – China is growing, but there are other Far Eastern countries, where we should focus – and the Middle East and India. With all of this, even five million tourists in the next decade or the next five years will not be a great difficulty.
The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority should come up with a structured plan to market Sri Lanka globally as a holiday destination, not just in one or two selected markets. With peace prevailing, I think Sri Lanka is one of the safest places to visit. I don’t think this has been sufficiently advertised. There was a big media campaign saying we have branded London taxis but I was in Central London for two weeks in August and I didn’t see a single Sri Lanka branded taxi during that time.
Q: Are we focusing more on quantity rather than quality and going for high numbers over high spenders?
It is about spending capacity. We are attracting good quality tourists but somehow those who come here, although they may be wealthy, minimise their spending. We need to have promotional campaigns, especially within the hotels and outside, to get them to spend.
Q: Do we have the required human resources for the tourism/hospitality industry?
In terms of human resources, we have a dearth of people but not so much outside Colombo. There is a good catchment area outside Colombo from the localities in which the hotels are situated and the hotels themselves recruit people and train them. However, retaining them is a challenge. You need to study and find out why people move out and then work towards closing the gap to keep them in the industry. Organisations should also strive to retain experience and tacit knowledge by extending the retirement age to 70 years.
City hotels have a different challenge. The main problem is that we don’t provide accommodation even though we provide meals while on duty, whereas hotels outside Colombo provide accommodation. The majority of those who come to city hotels for skill level jobs are not from Colombo. They have to spend part of their earnings on lodging and travel, which is a deterrent. We have to work towards coming up with a dormitory plan or accommodation plan for employees in city hotels. Some city hotels do that already, but not in a big way.
City hotels is also a lucrative market for foreign employment. The high quality hotels overseas prefer to hire people from our five-star hotels here. When they go abroad, there are foreign remittances and some of them gain experience and come back to work here, so there is a gain as well. However, to close this gap for the city hotels, every hotel needs to set up a separate arm similar to a hotel school where they have short three-month courses that are very intense to prepare a fresh person to become a waiter, a receptionist, a room boy or a kitchen help. For cookery it could be six or 12 months.
Those who complete the skills development program can be given a certificate and you can take some on according to the vacancies at the hotel, while the others will have the certificate to their credit and they will be in the market. You can maintain a database and call them back when you have vacancies. This could also be a CSR project done for the community. It will be like a mini hotel school. When we had a similar problem in the ’80s, we did this at the Meridian and it was highly successful.
Q: How can we tilt the balance in favour of Sri Lanka as a tourist hub?
You have to have a network between India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, where you give options with the marketing plan comprising India-Sri Lanka or Sri Lanka-Maldives, so there is a combination. Infrastructure has improved in terms of roads but today’s tourists want to reach their destination as fast as possible so we need to develop more air frequencies to the east coast. We should also promote sports and medical tourism, plus education, which is not tourism but still brings in foreign exchange when people live and study here.
Q: Drawing on your experience, what are the key lessons you can share with executives and managers?
Number one is commitment to what you do with passion, and enjoying the work that you do. Work for an organisation as it is your own organisation; this is what I have done from the first to the last day of my career. At senior levels, we need to practise humility and be adaptable. We should also empathise with others and be sensitive to their views and thoughts. It is also important to develop your emotional intelligence. Be unwavering in your loyalty to the organisation and when you are leaving, go with grace and dignity.
Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Becoming a professional in two significant disciplines, hotel management and HR management, where I think I have excelled in both disciplines, and working in multiple sectors such as services, manufacturing, banking and airlines. I was also presented with the Lifetime Achievement Gold Award for HR.