World yet to discover Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

World yet to discover Sri Lanka

Alan Watts. Pic: Ranjith Asanka
Alan Watts. Pic: Ranjith Asanka

With a fast-changing city skyline, and expressway infrastructure in the pipeline, Hilton’s President for Asia Pacific, Alan Watts believes the future for Sri Lanka’s tourism and leisure industry remains unstoppable. Passionate about hotels and hospitality, Watts started out as a breakfast waiter at a hotel in Christchurch in New Zealand, and is a strong believer in the hospitality sector’s potential to build careers from scratch. During an interview with Sunday Observer, while visiting Colombo last week, the Hilton President for Asia Pacific discussed Hilton projects in the pipeline, Sri Lanka’s swift recovery after the devastating terror attacks in April and why the world continues to believe in what remains a largely undiscovered destination

Following are excerpts:

Q: Have you travelled much during your visit to Sri Lanka?

I went up to Yala and then to Weerawila, where we have two properties in the pipeline. One is a DoubleTree by Hilton and the other is a Hilton. The Hilton hotel is in Yala and is in the safari business. Both properties should certainly be open by August high season, next year.

Q: So, as far as Hilton is concerned, even after the Easter attacks, there was no holding back, no skipping a beat?

A: In the short term, tourism, of course, takes a dip. The world has become a more challenging place, but tourism is almost always more resilient. Business travel almost doesn’t skip a beat and is the fastest to come back. Leisure travel usually takes a dip and recovers depending on the size of the incident. Travellers have become more resilient. Generally people are more robust.

From a Hilton perspective, the brand always stands for safety and security. We are present in 114 countries and territories around the world, with a century of experience. That has seen us operate through good times as well as more difficult ones, always with a positive and determinied spirit, with a commitment for the long term.

The pleasing thing about Sri Lanka is that everything is proceeding as normal. In Colombo, some of our competitors are opening fantastic new properties. We’ve got the strongest pipeline we’ve ever had in Sri Lanka. All of the owners and institutions I have met continue to be bullish on tourism.

Q: The recovery seems to have been pretty quick. Do you think that is because Sri Lankan tourism survived a 26 year civil war, and that has somehow made the industry much more resilient and quick to adapt to changing security landscapes?

A: Sri Lankans themselves are more resilient, because they have been used to trading through challenging circumstances. The Government has been very resilient, so that’s given a level of confidence.

The Government has done a great job in immediate recovery and also in publicising that recovery. All major news channels reported on the incident. Perpetrators were caught within a week. That’s very different from other incidents in other parts of the world, where you feel that, without a perpetrator being caught, the situation is unsolved.

Look at the Christchurch incident, as a parallel. It was a singular incident, solved in public consciousness almost immediately. Tourism was not affected.

In Sri Lanka, by this time next year, you would hope the situation would be normal. The infrastructure building here is a positive sign for tourism.

This includes the expressway to the Hambantota port and the number of new hotels. The market’s already recovered in just a matter of months. My flight from Singapore was an indication.

It was a full flight. Some on the team did a safari in Yala. They were surrounded by jeeps and international travelers. And it is still low season. The future appears to be bright.

Q: What is Sri Lanka’s greatest tourism potential, in your view?

A: A game changer for this industry is being able to use the Hambantota expressway to get from the airport to a leisure destination in a matter of hours. Same with the central expressway and Kandy.

Another is the ability for this market to do short stays from short haul Asian destinations, as all Asian countries continue to have economic growth and mobilisation outwards and wages continue to increase. A lot of tourism demand in this region is driven by short stays, as seen in Singapore.

APAC has seventeen general public holidays in a year. There’s the possibility of up to 17 long weekends where people would do a three-day stay. Unfortunately, until the infrastructure is done, Sri Lanka is still a more than three day stay. You can’t get to Colombo, Kandy and Weerawila and be back in three days. That infrastructure is about a year and a half away.

Q: Hilton is celebrating a hundred years. Could you tell us what the major milestones have been and what the brand’s contributions have been to the hospitality industry?

A: We’ve got 100 years of trading. This means we are part of a very exclusive club. Hilton is in an even rarer club as it is doing today exactly what it set out to do. If you think of companies that have turned 100, some have kept the nostalgia with their old names, but they are not really doing anything they initially set out to do.

Conrad Hilton set out to spread peace through travel. To spread the light and warmth of hospitality. One of his early words were “we are a hospitality company first and foremost” not a business. We are not an airline company, we are not in the transport business – we remain a hospitality company. He believed in peace through travel. He believed that the world needed people to travel, that people needed to see different parts of the world, and that having an appreciation for your fellow man could solve the world’s issues.

Hilton General Managers are to spread the light of hospitality and help international customers understand local destinations and vice versa.

There is a book written about “the Hilton Effect” which is the impact that Hilton has had on the industry. Often in markets, we were the first international brand, becoming a conduit for international travelers to understand destinations.

The hotel also had an impact when it opened in a new destination which didn’t exist before. To think of a hotel in an isolated location like Yala and Weerawila is a good example. You end up being the major employer in a small village, you also become a surrogate school and a place of education. You are teaching everything from hygiene to confidence to social and academic skills. You are also giving back to the community by paying taxes and providing employment.

Hotels are about community relationships, whether it is through partnerships with schools, partnerships with disabled children or disabled adults or learning partnerships, Hilton makes sure that it’s a company for good.

Hilton has grown from one asset to almost 6,000 worldwide. This constant momentum of being a pure hospitality company means our business model has been very simple to understand. We haven’t typically grown via acquisition. We haven’t tried to be an online travel agent or an airline. We just try to be a humble hotel company that has the value of treating customers the same way in which we treat our communities. The same way we treat our team members. That simple methodology has seen the company grow organically.

We will be the first internationally branded hotel in Negombo, Yala and Weerawila. We’ll be a major employer and we will teach them, too. We will give people a pathway, not just an income. We have people joining just for the ability to work for a famous brand. We also have people joining us because they don’t have access to education that they dream of.

Hilton’s role within its industry has been to constantly pioneer. Just last year, we launched a Chinese language app. Our Chinese customers can book hotels all over the world in their own language and pay in their own currency. We were the first company to launch a Connected Room that allows you to customise your room, with everything from digital photo frames to room temperature and digital casting of your Netflix account from your phone to the TV in the rooms.

There are international companies that have moved their people into this hotel over the last couple of months because of the reputation that Hilton has for excellence in hotel keeping and also excellence in safety and security. We have seen our hotels being a safe haven. Hilton Colombo is 32 years old and has survived many challenging times.

Q: What is it that makes you so passionate about this industry? Where did you start your career?

A; I worked for the InterContinental Hotels Group for a large part of my career. I started in a frontline position. I was a breakfast waiter in the morning, did bar work in the afternoon and sometimes security work for a bar in Christchurch, which is a tiny hospitality market in a tiny country at the bottom of the world. I am a great example of someone who worked hard and changed roles within the hotel, and, through leading others and providing good customer experience, literally got to see the world.

Through hospitality, I raise my two daughters in Singapore. I’ve lived in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. I have opened hotels in every market within Asia Pacific and I got to trade through a number of different currencies, different cultures and brands. My story would be exactly the same as hundreds and thousands who have worked for this company. Almost every general manager you meet in this business has worked their way up in the way a staff member works, clocking in and clocking out.

This hotel’s general manager, for example, was clearing plates in the morning at some stage. That’s why when the hotel is busy, so is he. This is the only industry where that happens. You’re less likely to see a CEO of a car company on the production line.

Our industry is full of passion and, because it has given so much to people, they readily give back. When I visit properties in the region, and meet general managers, I always like to ask them what their story was and where they were when they started. Most of the time it was in a different part of the planet, and in a frontline position. Often people got their starts making beds in hotels. 

Q: Why does Hilton continue to believe in Sri Lanka? What in your view is the country’s most unique selling point?

A: Hilton continues to believe in Sri Lanka in the same way that the world continues to believe in Sri Lanka. Before the civil war, Sri Lanka was on a similar trajectory as Singapore. You look at this location in the world strategically, from a port perspective and a business perspective, and its ability to be a transition point north and south between the world. Think of the natural resources, the education level, the natural persona of Sri Lankans as a people.

In a world that thinks it has discovered everything, Sri Lanka can prove otherwise. North, South, East, West, Sri Lanka has got everything from Amazon-esque waterways to arid dusty, safari experiences. The world doesn’t yet understand Sri Lanka. To some extent it has been locked away from the world.

We see Sri Lanka as having the same potential that the Chinese see in Sri Lanka, which is why they are building ports, which is why the Japanese are co-building roadways and a brand new light rail.

As soon as the civil wawr was over, it saw a GDP growth of 5.8 percent – that is phenomenal economic growth and upward mobility in a destination that is on the doorstep to all of Asia, the fastest growing economies of the world. Sri Lanka is three to six hours on average away from anywhere in Asia, on the doorstep of half of the world’s population.

People in Asia have the ability to go to Sri Lanka on safari, rather than Africa. Sri Lanka has such a tapestry of things that are undiscovered as yet – tea plantation tours, religious tourism. It’s got so much to offer and it’s only just emerging. There’s no reason to say why the Sri Lankan hotel market won’t grow exponentially. You’re already seeing that, and it’s just early investors. All it needs is time. I can’t see any headwinds on the horizon. I don’t see ongoing lingering concerns about safety. It will take a period of time for recovery.

As a hotelier, my favourite thing in the world is city skylines. Nothing makes me prouder than seeing a Hilton or one of our brand logos floating in a city skyline at night. And here is a city that is building hotels. These towers have come up in the last five years – in the next 15 years, those towers will seem small.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for the industry in the Asia Pacific region?

A: The industry not being a victim of its own success. It has exploded and grown so fast that being able to ensure that we capture the right talent, train and promote the talent fast enough, that we can continue to provide a best in class service experience for our customer is important. It’s an industry that has had unprecedented growth and we are competing for talent all the time.

That’s what keeps me awake at night. In Asia Pacific, we have 315 properties trading today, another 530 under construction. I need to make sure that those 530 hotels are able to provide the same standards that the first 315 managed to do. The industry is booming, and that means that we have to ensure the industry does a better job of attracting talent.

People think working in hospitality as a breakfast waiter or a banquet waiter is relatively low skilled labour and not really a career.The industry has exploded so much that it can be a career. The industry has to do a better job at explaining the opportunity it offers.

That’s what’s really on my mind. Not trade wars and economic cycles. The challenge in Sri Lanka is making sure that we grow Sri Lankan talent and we attract Sri Lankan talent overseas back to the country.

Ten years ago to progress their careers they had to leave, today they can pursue their careers in Sri Lanka.