Bending the Rules: Anantara

At Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle. Hospitality Insider met with those on the front lines of guest service to find out what makes the hotel’s service so special.

“We have a small secret” says Sajith Grero, Front Office Manager, “we’re trying to make this into an all-butler hotel”. An impressive undertaking for a property that has 152 rooms spread around 21-acres of a former coconut plantation, but perhaps not surprising. An unfailingly high standard of service is a hallmark of the Anantara brand, which launched in 2001.

Peace Haven Tangalle opened in December 2015. The first Anantara property in Sri Lanka, it is nestled along the southern coast line with a secluded beach and stunning views from atop a rocky outcrop. Billed as a ‘secret hideaway for travellers with a sense of adventure’, the luxurious resort aims firmly at high-end travellers.

Under the Minor Hotels group, the Anantara brand hails from Thailand. It was brought to Sri Lanka in partnership with Hemas Holdings PLC. They hold 51% of Peace Haven Tangalle, and 8% in the brand’s second Sri Lankan property, Anantara Kalutara Resort, which opened in September 2016.

Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Sajith Grero

Sajith Grero, Front Office Manager at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle

“What I’ve learnt from the brand is to always be authentic and luxurious” says Grero. Guests don’t just want luxury anymore, they want the experience as well. Creating experiences that are unique to the individual hotel location is a signature of the brand. Guests can camp in the desert in Oman, cruise in a long-tail boat in Chiang Rai and experience paddy farming in rural Vietnam. In Peace Haven Tangalle, guests are welcomed by raban players, the dramatic sound vibrating out from the lobby, along the entrance waterway to greet them as they arrive.

The resident naturalist is Anuradha Ediriweera, or Eddie, as he likes to be known. Previously from Ceylon Tea Trails, Eddie developed his passion for nature and conservation from adventures with his university explorers club. With an expert knowledge, he takes guests on nature and bird-watching walks around the property, as well as the ever-popular turtle watching. Long-term turtle research and conservation projects are in place and guests are encouraged to make a $1 per night donation that the hotel will match.

“I think the experiential is a big driver in the industry going forward, because you need to make sure guests create great memories” says Grero. “That’s why we are successful, because we tailor-make aspects and deliver the service in a luxurious way”.

Delivering tailor-made service requires a level of malleability that is not always instinctive in hotel management. At Peace Haven Tangalle, hard and fast rules about how, when, and who and what are replaced with flexibility and personalisation. “Sometimes we bend the rules to make sure the guest is satisfied” says Grero, “we provide heartfelt hospitality” and being free to make decisions is crucial for that.

Chief Concierge’s View

At the front line of hotel guest relations is the role of Chief Concierge. At Peace Haven Tangalle, this is held by industry veteran and holder of Les Clefs d’Or, Duminda Boteju.

Anantara Peace Haven Chief Concierge Dumindu Boteju

Anantara Peace Haven’s Chief Concierge Dumindu Boteju

The career path to becoming a chief concierge is not an easy one. Boteju started out as a bell-boy during the Hilton Colombo’s pre-opening phase in 1987, and remembers the hard work involved, working long hours, and carrying many bags. In recent times, the role has changed significantly with technology opening up a new world of information for the concierge and the guest alike. “I don’t think we can do this job without technology now” he says, “We can only retain so much in our minds!”

He would still recommend “the best profession in the world” as a career, but only for those who are willing to approach it with the right attitude. Sharing his colleagues’ views, he believes working in the hotel industry “has to come from the heart”, but finding the right staff for the roles is becoming increasingly difficult. “Honestly, in the new generation, I don’t see it in them. They think they need a job for the salary and that’s all”.

Boteju’s passion for his role is immediately apparent with his warm smile, open demeanour, and jovial personality. In 2015, he launched the Sri Lankan Concierge Association, which currently has seven members, two from Peace Haven Tangalle. If a concierge is looking to develop their career, they can attend the meetings, be mentored, and eventually be recommended to sit for the Les Clefs d’Or exam.

With staffing shortages reported across the industry, finding and retaining the right staff is a challenge many are facing. When new hotels open, they can look to recruit from the surrounding area, but this comes with a greater demand on up-skilling than hiring experienced staff. 70% of the staff at Peace Haven Tangalle are from the local area. Grero describes how when the hotel launched, the first three months were focussed on teaching many of the new joiners English, rather than industry-specific skills. One of the exercises was to practice reading the paper in English; the first day they are asked to describe the articles in Sinhala, the next day in English. “It was not easy” says Grero, “but if you want somebody to improve, you have to invest time in them”.

Training is key for retention

Once initial staff are recruited, common complaints are employees jump ship for minor increments in salary, or bide their time only until they have enough experience to secure work overseas. What can hotels do to retain the best talent? For Grero, after hiring right, the answer lies in training often and paying correctly.

Anantara Peace Haven Naturalist Anuradha Ediriweera (Eddie)

Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle”s Naturalist Anuradha Ediriweera (Eddie)

Ongoing training is a core part of the front office staff experience at Peace Haven Tangalle, and one the management are proud of. Every day, in the 15-minute briefing, a senior manager or supervisor will perform a role-play dealing with a common situation, such as how to greet a guest or how to handle a guest complaint. At first glance, this may seem repetitive, but with infinite permutations on the way the conversations could go, it’s an effective way of preparing staff for any situation. The investment in training is also important from a moral point of view, engaging staff, and instilling a sense that they’re valued.

One-on-one performance appraisals take place every three months and targets include mentions in a set number of TripAdvisor reviews, something that demands a personalised and memorable relationship be created with guests. If someone is failing to meet their targets, the focus is where their skills lie and whether there may be a different role they’d be better suited to. With 45 people under him, this is a substantial time commitment, but Grero is serious about making it, “if you really believe in something, you have to invest the time in people. When you do, they tend to grow more, become more serious about the job and love it more”.

At the end of the day, employees who are motivated and love their jobs are good for business. They provide a better level of service to guests, which means happier customers, and in return, higher service charge back to the employees. Service charge is a major motivation and “our employees know to work properly because we are not getting easy guests, and they are paying a lot of money”.

The attraction of roles abroad is often tied to the salary package that accompanies it. Here, the presence of international brands like Anantara may have a positive effect on the Sri Lankan industry. If they remunerate at a higher scale, they not only keep talent in the country, but also attract professionals back from overseas. “I think they pay more to ensure you stay here and give your all to your job,” Grero says. “To have a good brand you need to have good people”, he adds, “After all, the people make the brand”.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4