GM: Elton Hurtis at Weligama Marriott

When Marriott International, the global hotel chain whose brands include The Ritz Carlton, Westin and Sheraton, decided to open a property in sleepy Weligama, more than a few eyebrows were raised. General Manager Elton Hurtis was tasked with not only opening the chain’s first hotel in Sri Lanka, but with reversing perceptions of the ‘eyesore on the beach’, and turning little-known Weligama into a destination to be reckoned with. One year on, high occupancy rates and loyal repeat guests are testimony to the framework Marriott established, but Elton made his own…

Congratulations on Marriott’s one-year anniversary! How has it been so far?

It’s been quite a ride. To be honest, we didn’t even realise how fast a year breezed past us. Every new hotel has its ups and downs, and we’ve had our fair share. But among the hotels I’ve opened, I would rate it among the top 3, maybe even 2, in terms of performance and how well it has been accepted.

Building a hotel in an unknown destination is risky. Sri Lanka as a country is extremely popular, but Weligama is unknown. People in our largest source markets of India, China, and Western & Eastern Europe did not even know how to spell Weligama, and now, it’s a destination.

Credit is due to the hotel and its sales capabilities for marketing and pricing it correctly. Strategies that were originally on paper actually started working for us. From the operating point of view, the front office and F&B team helped in terms of making sure that the services offered were world class.

How important was it to have a clear target audience and marketing strategy?

When we decide to build a hotel in a particular country or destination, we send out a feasibility team five or six years before the opening. They go there and study the market. They talk to future competitors, and gather details. We also employ consulting firms who give data about arrivals in the country and average daily rates in the vicinity. Then comes a serious study on the cost. This is like a 20,000-feet overview of what is going to happen in five or six years.

Once the hotel or the owner comes in, they have to be very particular. We tie bonds with people who are serious and appreciate the fact that they can’t deviate from certain guidelines. Then comes the stage of opening the hotel, which is where I come in. Seven to eight months before the hotel is scheduled to open, we follow a critical path religiously. If you follow this, you know when to hire, when to buy equipment, where to buy the linen from and whom to connect with. It’s all there, and all you have to do is follow it.


Tides cafe at Marriott Weligama

As well as a welcoming coffee space for guests, the Tides Lounge is also used to host small team meetings in a relaxed setting.

How do you find people to bring into the organization who are the right fit?

A business is built to make a profit. Money doesn’t come out of thin air, so when you make money, you have to be prudent on how you spend it. You have to align your priorities. What we really did right was hiring right at the beginning.

Marriott is a 91-year-old company. As far as recruiting is concerned, our company has got it right from day one because of something we believe in, the foremost of our five core values: take care of your resources, your resources will take care of customers and your customers will keep coming back.

You need to hire right, train well and focus on retention. It’s more than a dream, you sell a career path. Yes, we have lost people to competition, because they are highly skilled. I don’t want to become merely a training ground, but if I have someone leaving, I have about five or six people willing to jump at that open position.

You need to hire right, train well and focus on retention

How would you describe your management style?

I’m proud to say that everything that happens in this hotel is always a collective decision.

I follow this example from an emperor named Akbar. He was an emperor of India and during his reign a lot of peace prevailed because he was just. Whenever he held a court for his public, Akbar always had his ministers present. He never took a decision without consulting them. So all decisions, whether easy or difficult, were taken in collaboration; and that’s something I do here as well.

Just this morning we had a leadership meeting and we had to take several difficult decisions. But it was easy because we took it together as a group. Everyone has a buy-in, there’s no ‘my way or the highway’. If there are rules getting flouted, then we have a serious chat. Otherwise, most of our decisions are taken collectively and collaboratively.

When things are going really well, you need to look out the window and down to find the people who are responsible for that greatness. When things go wrong, that window needs to convert into a mirror, and you need to look at yourself and ask what could I have done better or done to prevent it from happening again.

What impact has a big international hotel opening had on the local community?

We as a company realized that when we build a hotel in any place, we displace a few things and make  certain changes to people’s routines. Sometimes its negative, like traffic and noise pollution, but it could be good things as well, like people’s businesses beginning to flourish and real estate rates going up. To this end, Marriott has something called ‘Spirit to Serve’. We believe in giving back to the society and to the environment. My human resources team has a schedule every month where we’ve adopted certain NGOs. For example, there’s one where we’ve taught children to make baby turtles out of fabric, and now we are going to sell them, and all of the money will go to them.

Internally, we have ‘Take Care’, which ensures that all our associates are happy and content. We help them financially, by inviting banks to educate them on investment ideas and not taking too many loans. Intellectually, I’ve given all associates a personal development plan (PDP) and every one of them is supposed to read a book and do a session, similar to a TED Talk. The last part is the spiritual aspect. We encourage people to get into yoga, follow a fitness routine, or do at least 45-50km a week to remain healthy.

In early 2018 Mirissa received a lot of bad press due to violent incidents concerning tourists. Have you felt any impact on the business here?

It has definitely impacted Mirissa in a big way, which is a well-known international destination. We can’t tell the impact at the moment until the season kicks in, but we have geared ourselves well. Let me just say that we have put plans in place to combat it, if there is a need.

What is Marriott Weligama going to be like in another five years?

It’s going to be the best hotel in Sri Lanka, and Weligama is going to be the topmost destination.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4