The outlook for tourism took an unforeseen negative turn in 2019, challenging hotel owners and managers. At Aitken Spence Hotels, which is listed but controlled by the diversified holdings company Aitken Spence, the senior leadership team was relatively unruffled according to its youngest director Stasshani Jayawardena. “In moments like the one we faced this year; you appreciate the value of the diversity. They know how to advise and steer the organisation,” points out Jayawardena, referring to the reaction within the group leadership team to the unfortunate attacks in April 2019.
“We are a multi-generational leadership team. The board is also incredibly diverse in experience and expertise, which is a tremendous benefit, especially in a time of crisis like recently,” she adds.
Aitken Spence is a diversified business with its main interests in tourism, strategic investments, shipping & logistics and services sectors. Its growth in the last few decades has been phenomenal. Revenue and profitability have doubled in the previous decade as the group grew both its core business and entered new areas.
As its youngest director and a millennial, Jayawardena brings a perspective that is helping the group adapt to the demands of younger travellers who will soon be the most dominant segment.
Jayawardena is hands-on with the group’s forays into the region. Recently, Aitken Spence launched its first premium Heritance branded hotel in the Maldives, which is also the first LEED Gold certified property in the archipelago. LEED buildings save energy, water, resources, generate less waste and support human health.
Aitken Spence was the first Sri Lankan company to invest in the Maldives and is the largest Sri Lankan investor and foreign hotel operator there. Aitken Spence recently established a destination management company in Myanmar, a breakout South East Asian tourism destination.
However, Jayawardena’s eyes gleam when she discusses the initiatives across the hospitality sector, aiming to encourage more female participation. The poor female workforce participation is a challenge in emerging economies like Sri Lanka due to many reasons.
Across the Aitken Spence group, 40% of the workforce is female. However, at its hotel subsidiary, 10% is female, a share Jayawardena wishes to improve over the next few years.
Keeping in line with the group’s policies to support local employment, around 60% of the workforce is recruited from the surrounding area. “In hotels, we operate in countries that need encouragement for female participation. We’ve given ourselves a few years to improve accommodation and training to encourage more female participation,” she says. A recent step was refurbishing the Heritance Kandalama hotel’s ladies staff accommodation. “We invited the parents and families of female staff for the opening to see for themselves where their daughter, sister or wife will stay. The rule of thumb for quality and comfort was that any member of the team, including myself, should be able to stay in the staff quarters.”
Heritance Kandalama, built 25 years ago, is one of the most iconic hotels in the country. It was ahead of its time in ways that are still difficult for architects and designers to match. The 152-room hotel clings to a cliffside in front of a reservoir it takes its name from. The vegetation and abundant creepers morph the hotel, merging it to its environment.
Jayawardena suggests Aitken Spence’s hotels will embrace the leading-edge design and environmental principles while being sensitive to its setting that Heritance Kandalama pioneered in its strategies for the future. The profile of global travellers and their expectations have transformed in ways that the visionaries of Heritance Kandalama imagined a quarter-century ago. Jayawardena says the group’s hotels strategic drive will continue to focus on improving the guest experience.
As its youngest director and a millennial, Jayawardena brings a perspective that is helping the group adapt to the demands of younger travellers who will soon be the most dominant segment. She talks about the Bleisure (business + leisure) and ‘Buddymoon’ tourism among millennials with familiarity. At Aitken Spence Hotels, a rebranding and design-led refurbishment strategy are underway enhancing its pioneering sustainable ethos combined with culinary adventures informed by this data and evidence. The segment is also exploring new technologies such as artificial intelligence to identify trends and offer the best experience to guests.
Jayawardena joined Aitken Spence nine years ago as a management trainee. Over the years she has worked in several of its units. She was appointed to the Board of Aitken Spence in December 2013 and to the Board of Aitken Spence Hotel Holdings in July 2014. She is also a director of Stassen Group of Companies.