GM: Rookamanie Fernando at Jetwing

In 2017, resort hotel brand Jetwing unveiled its first city hotel, Jetwing Colombo Seven. At its leadership is Rookamanie Fernando, a pioneering innovator now tasked with growing a new type of city hotel

Rookamanie Fernando sits with coffee at Jetwing Colombo Seven

Rookamanie Fernando joined Jetwing in 1986. She is now the General Manager at Jetwing Colombo Seven – the groups first business focused city hotel

Unaspiringly, Jetwing Group establishing its first Ayurveda spa was an exercise in hesitance and second-guessing.

Spas weren’t the wellness fad they are today. While Ayurveda’s benefits were the stuff of legend, it faced a real image challenge. The overpowering and nauseating odour of the oils, their potential to leave stains on anything they came into contact with, the icky feeling during treatment and all practitioners being old men were some of the challenges.

“At that time, no one understood the benefits of Ayurveda, how to attract a clientele or generate an income,” says Rookamanie Fernando, who pioneered wellness at the Jetwing Group of Hotels, which had a number of small, mid-market hotels in Negombo and elsewhere at the time.

Swaying the board of directors that people on holiday will somehow indulge Ayurveda treatments was difficult. “But I didn’t give up, because I was confident that my idea had great potential.”

The board, which was then led by Jetwing’s Founder Chairman Herbert Cooray, twice turned down the proposal to establish an Ayurveda treatment center at a Jetwing hotel. “He first reasoned that we didn’t understand the product well enough to invest. When the board came around, I was allocated two rooms ‘to do whatever you want’,” Fernando reminisces.

Jetwing’s first Ayurvedic Centre had humble beginnings. But demand for treatments kept growing, resulting in the group establishing the purpose-built, 12-villa resort Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions in Negombo, dedicated to wellness and managed by Fernando herself.

“It was the passion. I made sure every detail was unique, going as far as making sure the food menus included ingredient descriptions with the botanical names and their health benefits,” says Rookamanie Fernando, who is now General Manager of Jetwing Colombo Seven, the group’s first hotel in Colombo.

Located fronting Ward Place, where Jetwing’s founding chairman’s residence once stood, Jetwing Colombo Seven is a 98 room and serviced apartment business hotel. It’s estimated that nearly six percent of visitors to Sri Lanka are travelling for business or official reasons, and Colombo Seven has been designed with them in mind.

To differentiate among city hotels, like Colombo’s longstanding giants Hilton and new contenders such as Shangri-La, Jetwing Colombo Seven offers a design-led, intimate and slightly unconventional setting.

“We studied a business traveller’s psyche and designed our offering by anticipating their requirements.”

FRANGIPANI SPA: Catering to business travelers, the spa off ers a Signature Jet-Lag Therapy treatment to heal the body, mind and soul.

“It’s built for business, but we bring our well-known brand of resort-style luxury to enhance this experience,” quips Rookamanie Fernando during an interview.

A wide flight of stairs leading to Colombo Seven’s lobby disguises the property’s relatively small footprint. Natural light is abundant, but not overpowering. It fills the lobby, and at each floor, foyer gaps in the brickwork lets in light.

The light brown shades of hardwood floors, wooden furniture and timber tables dominate minimalist room decoration. Rooms are equipped with amenities that business travellers will appreciate like an espresso machine and large luxurious bathrooms.

“Our rooms are spacious but minimalistic,” Fernando points out.

MINIMALIST, MODERN DESIGN complements the hotel’s ‘made for leisure, built for business’ positioning.

Colombo Seven achieved 68% occupancy in the first year since opening. Up to August 2018, Colombo Seven’s 72% occupancy compares well with the 76% that Colombo’s hotels were achieving according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.

“We studied a business traveller’s psyche and designed our offering by anticipating their requirements.”

With her new general management role, Fernando’s career has come full circle.

Within the group, she is recognised as the catalyst for Jetwing spas. Having dabbled in studying Ayurveda as a hobby and establishing the first spa, Fernando recognising the wellness potential early was responsible for its subsequent growth.

“Due to my dedication, I was assigned leadership of all Jetwing’s spas, while being general manager at Ayurveda Pavilions,” she says of her early career trajectory. Managing Jetwing Sea, another beach hotel at Negombo, was added to her responsibilities later, and during her tenure, went from a 2-star to a 4-star hotel.

Fernando is now providing leadership to repositioning and rebranding all Jetwing spas as Frangipani. It’s not a superficial exercise, she points out, because every aspect of the available treatments are receiving attention.

At Colombo Seven’s Frangipani Spa, she recommends the Jet-Lag Therapy, a full-body pressure point massage for business travellers.

Fernando points out that Sri Lanka’s Ayurveda heritage can aid positioning it as a wellness destination to compete with spa destinations like Bali eventually. The main deterrents, she says, are the lack of regulations and standards. Currently, there are no distinguished genuine Ayurveda centres, aside from the bogus ones that mislead clients with subpar treatments.

However, the challenge of marketing a pseudoscience with an icky image as an experience for travellers is one that Sri Lanka needs to figure out.

“Wellness tourism is a huge market. We have the resources, but we don’t regulate, we don’t market the destination and we don’t do enough to keep standards high,” she says.

Jetwing, one of Sri Lanka’s largest hotel brands and hospitality real estate owners, is no longer a hesitant innovator as Colombo Seven’s bold position – a combination of luxury, intimacy and design-led resort-like feel – showcases. Its location in Colombo’s geographical center, a former salubrious residential area bearing postcode seven, smacks up market chic.

Meeting spaces and a gym with a view round off the convenience and contemporary luxury of demanding corporate guests.

Rookamanie Fernando completes 34 years at Jetwing and is one of the industry’s few female general managers. She attributes her creativity and hands-on management approach to her career success.

Having entered the industry in an era when cultural obstacles were more pronounced for a female, Fernando feels fortunate that Jetwing’s corporate culture did not itself discriminate.

Fernando is a founding member of a forum of 10 female industry leaders, creating a voice for women and campaigning for equality.

“The issue is legal, the level of regulatory protection for women in the workplace and the awareness gap about what can be done about harassment. I feel that if these issues are addressed, more women will join the industry and enter diverse roles. Currently, most females opt for guest relations roles, but they are capable of doing so much more.”

She feels women have an advantage in the hospitality industry positions due to their keen awareness of aesthetics, soft skills and the ability to multi-task.

At Jetwing Colombo Seven, she has introduced structured mentoring, leadership building, and skills and confidence training for female team members. Simultaneously, she has struck up a partnership with Kinderhilfe, a German not-for-profit organisation, to empower rural women.

“The main issue for women is the lack of proper laws and regulations. If these issues are addressed, more women will be encouraged to join the industry.”

Her advice to young hoteliers is to brandish their self-confidence and knowledge. Being a passionate linguist, Fernando also believes that learning foreign languages gives anyone an advantage in the industry.

“On countless occasions, I’ve been called to translate to German. If it’s an emergency or illness, words cannot describe how delighted guests are when you address them in their own tongue,” she says.

Jetwing Colombo Seven’s location, on land where the late-chairman Herbert Cooray resided, attaches an enormous amount of heritage value. A biographical booklet of Herbert Cooray, the company he built, and its impact on people and the industry is on console tables in some rooms.

“He was a legend and a role model for the entire industry,” Fernando beams.

“Being here, upon the soil he lived, we strive to carry on his values and legacy. I’m very conscious of these values even when I train my staff. I always establish the importance of being genuine and to work from the heart. That is true hospitality.”

Cooray’s children, Hiran and Shiromal, have transformed Jetwing’s hotels and travel business, scaling it and responding to industry challenges for some decades now. Some of Herbert Cooray’s grandchildren are also cutting their teeth in the business.

Rookamanie Fernando attributes hard work, believing in herself and having faith in her capabilities for her own success, besides the good fortune of joining a value-led company early.

“I worked hard at my job and even more to maintain a work-life balance. The hospitality industry has its unique challenges requiring a great deal of commitment. As my chairman (Herbert Cooray’s son Hiran) said last year, I’m not only married to my husband Neil, I have always been married to Jetwing as well.”

“Sri Lanka needs the right infrastructure to support tourism growth. We need to improve the culture, create road discipline and introduce better waste management systems.”

Within a year of opening, Jetwing Colombo Seven was rated 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor, with guests glowingly appreciating the panoramic city views from the rooftop infinity pool, bar and recreation space. The second floor Frangipani Spa is a full-service one, allowing guests to opt for in-room spa treatments too. For meetings, gusts can opt to be driven in one of the hotel’s Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

However, achievements by companies like Jetwing aren’t the norm in the tourism industry, she says.

“Not enough is done to market Sri Lanka as a must-see destination. We need to establish why people should travel to Sri Lanka. This is the ultimate paradise: we have nature, wildlife, beaches and hill country all in one neat package.”

In the last decade, the number of rooms available for visitors has more than doubled.

“But, we need the right infrastructure to support growth; improve culture, road discipline and introduce better waste management systems,” she says of some immediate pain-points.

THE LOBBY AT JETWING COLOMBO 7 is airy and flooded with natural light.

But she agrees there is much that private sector hotels themselves can do to raise the game for Sri Lanka as a holiday destination. A global trend amplified in tourism is a preference for sustainable business practices.

“These are no longer an option or a nice to have, and at Jetwing, we are committed to sustainable initiatives and green practices. Wherever possible, we use solar power and some of our kitchens cook primarily with bio gas generated through food waste. Our efforts have been recognised by local and international bodies, and we have won multiple awards for sustainability.”

Rookamanie Fernando’s vision for Colombo Seven is to be a hip city location for events, to attract the MICE category and top corporate travellers.

“At the core, we will be a business hotel, but our guests will experience the kind of luxury associated with a resort. With all this and more, I have the confidence that Jetwing Colombo Seven will be the most preferred Colombo city hotel,” she says with her trademark smile.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4