When Hishan Singhawansa finished his engineering degree in 2008, there was only one company he applied to. This single-minded vision has worked out well; a decade after joining as a management trainee he is an Executive Vice President at John Keells Group and a board member of John Keells Hotels. As Sector Head – Leisure Resorts for Sri Lanka and the Maldives under John Keells Holdings, (JKH)
Singhawansa is responsible for twelve resort properties and 2,400 employees. He is driving an agenda of ‘digital reinvigoration’ and asset-light expansion to meet the demands of Sri Lanka’s growing tourism industry. Having cut his teeth in the “not so glamorous” Keells supermarkets venture, where he was part of the leadership team that turned the business around from losses to one of the most profitable in the JKH group, he transferred to Hotels in 2017.
In 2018, 2.3 million tourists visited the island and Singhawansa believes 5 million tourist arrivals by 2024 is a “no brainer”.
At the time, JKH’s Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts brand was reasonably stable, delivering good profits but facing increasing pressure from the arrival of international chains like Marriott and Shangri-La. Supply increasing over demand was driving down prices, and the Cinnamon inventory was ageing. The focus shifted to refurbishing and repositioning resorts that had been little-touched since the end of the war. Three resorts are due to reopen in December 2019 after refurbishment.
While it is traditionally a landowner and majority investor, Singhawansa is transitioning JKH into an asset-light model, popular with many international chains, where management rather than ownership is the focus of the business. This has already begun with the company taking a minority share in Cinnamon Red Kandy, due to open in 2021. The brand’s well-established relationship will help it move into management locally and regionally. But having ‘skin in the game’, at least in the short term, may also be needed. Sri Lanka’s tourism potential is obvious. In 2018, 2.3 million tourists visited the island and Singhawansa believes 5 million tourist arrivals by 2024 is a “no brainer”.
He wants to position Cinnamon and JKH at the forefront of leisure in the country and to double the inventory of resorts in five years. Under the new asset-light model, the overall Cinnamon brand’s revenue (including City Hotels) is expected to increase three-fold from current levels.
Singhawansa is tackling the second most significant challenge facing the industry after infrastructure: the capability of labour to meet the demands of 5 million tourists head-on. They are doing this by partnering with regional experts in hospitality capability development to elevate Cinnamon’s learning and development and training machinery. Elevating the perception of hospitality as a line of work and enhancing the position of JKH as an employer brand of choice will drive the company into the future.