GM: Gitanjali Haaland at Ulagalla

Two years ago, Gitanjali returned from a decade overseas to take the helm at Ulagalla, Uga Escapes’s flagship property. After stints in Bhutan and the Maldives with luxury hotel group COMO Hotels & Resorts, she swapped a life of international travel and pre-openings for the quiet Anuradhapura countryside. Her experience of high-end spenders (and their high-end expectations) has fuelled her approach to the guest experience at Ulagalla with tremendous success.

Recently, Ulagalla was named number 10 in Asia for service and number 17 in Asia for Luxury by TripAdvisor’s 2019 Travelers Choice Awards. In both categories, Ulagalla took the top spot for Sri Lanka.

You spent twelve years working overseas in several countries. Do you think having international exposure is important when coming into a senior management position?

Not necessarily. There are a lot of senior managers in Sri Lanka who haven’t worked overseas. But the knowledge and experience you bring back is valuable. Our (Sri Lankan) people are very laid back, but service standards have to be excellent wherever you are. My experience and training with handling very high spenders has groomed me to be who I am today. To understand the urgency when a guest needs something. While we may not be a business hotel, we still have to be on time and meet our guests’ expectations. You can’t have guests waiting 20 minutes for their baggage, no matter what type of hotel you are. I also want the service to be 100% personalised. Guest should feel like they are the only people in this hotel because they get so much attention, but not so much that it’s intrusive.

There is a misconception that working in hospitality is not a suitable job for women. We, however, try as much as possible to change that.

What are the challenges facing the tourism industry in Sri Lanka?

The challenges now are with getting the right manpower. The majority of our guests are not Sri Lankan so the challenge is both to get trained, experienced people, and English-speaking staff. Our staff members get a minimum of six hours of skills training every month. It’s a key KPI that is monitored and the department heads are responsible to ensure it’s met.

We like to hire locally, over 50% of our staff is from the local community. This means sometimes we get people who can’t speak one word of English. We tried for a year to find a suitable English teacher but couldn’t, so we adapted to the challenge by starting English classes in-house. 42 members of staff signed up for lessons and we split them into two groups. The chef teaches one group and I teach the other. We do many role plays relating to daily operations and teach them how to interact with guests. This improves their level of confidence, and reduces chances of guest complaints too.

Everything comes down to confidence. I see in Sri Lanka a mind-set that if something cannot be done, then that’s ok.  But what I am used to is very different. If it cannot be done, then you find a way to do it.  It helps me to drive my team to constantly achieve goals. I don’t easily give up in life and I want my team to have the same ethos. Because everything we achieve, we achieve together as a team.

 

Ulagalla by Uga Escapes TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards

Recognised as a top small hotel, Ulagalla also preformed impressively in the service, luxury and romance categories of TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Awards 2019.

You joined Uga Escapes in Jan 2017 and have been at Ulagalla since April 2017, almost two years. What achievement are you most proud of?

Getting the staff accommodation ready. It needed an upgrade and it was the first thing I changed after joining. For me, looking after my team is key. If I look after my team, they will look after my guests. The accommodation before and after the renovation is like day and night. I have photographs and every time I look at them, I feel proud that I have been able to do that for the staff.

 

What do you think is most important in staff accommodation?

A gym, TV room, and indoor games like table tennis. There are times when the staff come and say they don’t feel like going home anymore because they don’t even have running water. Here, they have been given comfortable rooms and all the facilities and they are being trained to take care of them. They are being trained to make their beds every morning and to keep the common areas clean. The heads of departments check on the staff accommodation once a week, I also go on spot checks every ten days. The staff appreciate the efforts. They feel that there is someone who cares, someone who checks up on them.

We also created a separate block for the female staff in twin sharing rooms. Now it is easier to attract women and the ladies are much happier.

 

As one of the few female GMs in Sri Lanka, what are your views on women and the hospitality industry here?

There is a misconception that working in hospitality is not a suitable job for women. We, however, try as much as possible to change that.

We go and visit village schools and I bring Dilrukshi Kariyawasam, our Junior Front Office Executive with me. She is a role model for the young women. She is from the local area and has worked her way up from a laundry assistant to front office executive. Her career shows young girls that they can get into this industry and progress upward.

I was also recently invited by the Cultural Triangle Hoteliers association to talk to the female staff in their hotels. To share my experiences with them and let them know that it’s how you deal with difficulties that helps you to sustain in the industry. We discussed the problems they faced and how to overcome them. I have been in the industry for over 25 years and I started in Sri Lanka. For me, as a young woman in the industry, it was not an easy path, but if you are strong you can overcome it.

In my team, I have 13 female staff, in guest facing roles, the kitchen, laundry, and the garden. Previously, it was thought that women are not strong enough to work in the garden but we have proved them wrong. A woman can do any job that a man does, you just need to have the proper mind-set.

Ulagalla by Uga Escapes, Sri Lanka, Pool

The pool at Ulagalla by Uga Escapes

The hotel is located in a beautiful rural spot. Does that bring its own challenges?

If you are located in an area like this, it’s very important to have good relations with the community, the local people, and the police.

As an example, at the end of last year, we built 5 new villas and the access road was through a village. When the land owners wanted to sell, we were helpless. By good fortune, I spoke to the gentleman who helped with our coffee machine and he gave me access through his land. If I didn’t have that relationship I would have been totally lost getting the big trucks through the hotel to the site.

Community involvement is very important. We invite the local community to special events, like when we had an all-night pirith chanting, and we encourage them to supply us their crops of organic vegetables to create employment. If the paddy farmers don’t have enough water, we will divert ours to help them, they just need to come and ask.

 

What is your goal for the next two years?

To be the best boutique hotel in Sri Lanka. From a business point of view, we have a target of a minimum 98% rating on trip advisor.

My other target is to make sure my team is happy and well looked after. I want to hear their suggestions and feedback. I have one-on-one meetings and feedback is recorded anonymously and circulated back to the department heads. In return we, the management, review and respond by an agreed date. It’s not a one-way process. We need to put a lot of effort in to get these things done, but we do it because it’s important.

 

Ulagalla by Uga Escapes, Sri Lanka, welcome bell ceremony Sumanaratne

Mr Sumanaratne, one of the first employees at the property, takes guests through a bell ringing ceremony to welcome them to the hotel.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4