GM: Andrew Milhuisen at The Bartizan

Driven by the dream of opening a boutique hotel, Managing Director of The Bartizan, Dr Samararatne and his wife lovingly restored their family vacation property into the hotel, which opened in 2017.

General Manager Andrew Milhuisen enjoys a pot of tea in the hotel’s courtyard

Day-to-day activities at the property are now managed by General Manager Andrew Milhuisen, who joined the hotel in August 2018 and shares the owner’s love for the history of the Galle Fort and the colonial-style hotel.

Did you always want to be a hotelier?

I come from a family of hoteliers. My father was a pioneer in the hospitality industry. My parents used to own St Andrews in Nuwara Eliya (now Jetwing St Andrews) and Blue Lagoon in Negombo (now Jetwing Lagoon). My father built Blue Lagoon in the mid-1960s, and it was one of Geoffrey Bawa’s inaugural hotel projects.

At the time, as a child, it was quite a terrifying prospect to manage my dad’s hotels. I used to dream about being a pilot or a doctor, but hospitality was in my blood. After completing my O/Levels, I went onto hotel school in Switzerland. During study breaks, I worked aboard cruise ships – I had circumnavigated the world several times by the time I was 19!

I attended hotel school with the notion of coming back to manage my father’s hotels; but this was not on the cards. My father had passed away and St Andrew’s was already sold, as well as the Blue Lagoon to the Jetwing Group as the war ended. It was heart-breaking, but there was a sense of freedom. My career was able to take a new turn and I had to start at the very bottom, as the Front Office Manager at Serene Pavilions, Waduwa.

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The hotel was sensitively restored from a family house, in keeping with the properties 300-year history.

How did your career progress from there?

Thereafter, I worked in various properties in Kalpitiya, Colombo, Galle and Weligama as front office manager and operations manager. I’ve always loved history and sharing stories of the properties with guests. That passion is one of the reasons I wanted to work in the Galle Fort at a property like The Bartizan.

How would you describe The Bartizan’s hotel product?

I’ll use words used by our guests themselves – stylish, refined, with the ambiance of Europe. Our courtyard is very similar to the cobbled streets of France. The hotel is 300 years old, with Dutch architecture, and it was refurbished in keeping with its original features – so it’s like a time capsule within the Fort.

It’s a simple operation, a luxury bed and breakfast with an afternoon tea and snack menu. We maintain a very high standard of service and deliver this to each and every guest.

Who is your target market?

The majority of our guests come from the UK, the US and Canada. I was really pleased when we started getting American visitors. I know from working on cruise ships that Americans take care of their citizens very well, so seeing American visitors was a positive sign that Sri Lanka was becoming viewed as stable and safe.

Galle Fort is a historical attraction, so the demographics tend to be slightly older. Most of our guests are under 40 years old, but we do get a sizeable number who are much older (over 60s). The latter tend to come for longer stays of 5 or more days and use the hotel as their base, so they spend a lot of time here.

We don’t do much advertising for the hotel and only recently started working with travel agents. Over 80 percent of our bookings are from online platforms and direct contact.

Why do you love your job?

Working in a hotel is an incredible experience; it’s almost an escape from reality. I spent my early years travelling overseas, working on cruise ships around Europe. For me, meeting an international guest is as enjoyable as travelling to their country myself. When you work in a hotel, you can be a host to the world – that’s why I love it.

the-bartizan-hotel-galle-fort-factsWhat was the best advice given to you in your career?

To simply stay at it.

What is your favourite place to visit in Sri Lanka?

There are so many! The country is so diverse, but if I had to pick one, it would be Weligama. The bay, the vista, the vibe, it’s amazing, it has such a great energy.

I’ve travelled all around this country and have fallen in love with it. I believe everyone in Sri Lanka, and especially if they’re working in the tourism sector, they should visit as many places as possible so they can share that knowledge and experience with visitors to the island.

How do you describe your management style?

My style is example based. We have 12 staff members, including security, and they see me doing everything they do. Everybody here is working towards the same goal: satisfying our guests.

The staff have seen the way I interact with guests, making them feel comfortable, the service style involved, the manners and language used, and they’ve come to their own realisation about how to handle themselves.

When dealing with visitors, you need to give your best, and Sri Lankans are naturally good at this. To be hospitable to a paying guest is not a big shift from our traditional Sri Lankan hospitality. Service is very genuine here.

This is your first role as a general manager. Is it what you expected?

I’m aware that this hotel is very different to others. The Bartizan is not a 700-room property with hundreds of staff. It’s a very small place, but it has everything that I love about hotels. To be the General Manager of The Bartizan, I think, is the best job in the world.

What’s the most difficult part about your job?

Dealing with the government and administration. In this industry, we’re used to using minimum resources to get things done, so we notice when things are not efficient. Even simple administrative tasks like posting a registered mail takes multiple people to process. Once public service becomes more streamlined, we will be able to move a lot faster and provide a much better, more professional service.

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A bedroom at The Bartizan. The hotel has 10 rooms, most with a view over the ramparts to the ocean beyond.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4