In conversation with Dheeshana Amarasekera
The world is making an attempt at rebirth. Following Covid-19 and the various other crises that have plagued not only Sri Lanka but many other parts of the world (crises that still continue to varying degrees), the effects of these experiences have transformed your average ‘traveller’.
As a country that depends heavily on tourism, the topic of rethinking Sri Lanka’s tourism strategies to meet the needs of the new traveller has been an important point of discussion amongst industry people and also the many stakeholders of the Lankan tourism industry, especially as of late. As with all issues, there are many approaches to this. This week, The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down for a chat with The Theva Residency Hotel Managing Director Dheeshana Amarasekera on the power of intimate heritage experiences and how Sri Lankan family homes turned hotels can cater to this new segment of travel experiences.
The rise of a new traveller
Dheeshana, or simply Dhee, is the Managing Director of The Theva Residency Hotel, a home turned heritage hotel on the slopes of Hanthana near Kandy, catering to the kinds of experiences that a new and very different type of tourist is looking for.
Dhee shared with Brunch how the needs of travellers had changed: “The global population has undergone an emotional change. They have been living in isolation, they have maybe lost someone they loved and are grieving or have not seen their loved ones for a long time. What they are looking to do is to connect.” She added that we were now looking at a very different type of tourist and we must therefore cater to those newly-formed needs and market ourselves in such a way that addressed these needs.
Travellers now are more likely to be looking for emotional experiences and to reunite with people they have not been able to spend time with. Dhee highlighted that since they were now travelling with additional emotional baggage, they may be looking for a softer touch and a sense of belonging when it came to their getaway. “When you travel to a home away from home, you can feel that sense of belonging more than when you are in a bigger hotel. A larger property can be overwhelming, especially when you have been in isolation; it can re-evoke that feeling of being alone,” she said.
This is where the issue of big-name heritage hotels versus the much smaller, more intimate experience of family homes as hotels comes into play, with Dhee noting that considering the state of mind people were in, perhaps Sri Lanka should be looking into the latter in order to strengthen those smaller, more intimate ventures.
Fulfilling the need to connect
With properties like Theva, which is more intimate and has less than 15 rooms, the ambience is one that is comforting and cosy.
“Staff are able to connect with their guests. Often we see that guests want to feel connected, to have conversations and I think we are able to give that experience as a smaller and more intimate property,” Dhee explained.
“It is natural to look for connection when you are coming from having been disconnected and isolated for a long time. The world as a whole has been largely alone so it is ideal when you can simply go to a beautiful place, maybe even book the whole place for the entire family or a large group of loved ones and enjoy an intimate vacation.”
Fewer guests also means that such properties are able to give these guests their complete attention, where they can share more meaningful and detailed conversations with one another, forming lasting bonds. Many conversations with staff at intimate properties involve guests inquiring about the community where the hotel is situated, to learn more about the locals and their way of life.
“They also want to know how they can support and help these communities,” Dhee said, noting that often when The Theva Residency shared information about activities that could help and uplift local communities, guests went out of their way to lend a hand in any way they could. The need to connect creates travellers looking for more meaningful experiences and these are well served by intimate properties which are part of their local communities in a different way to big-name heritage hotels.
Sharing an example, Dhee said: “I am a long-term partner of the Children’s Empowerment Centre in Kandy where we do a lot of work for the women and children of the Hanthana tea estates. We try to create opportunities for our guests to get engaged in community-based events because that also adds to this feeling of belonging and connection that so many are now searching for.”
Community-first is the future of travel
Sharing her thoughts on the future of travel, Dhee stressed that when we talked about restructuring, readjusting, rethinking travel and any of the buzzwords related to tourism, “We cannot go back to the old ways of doing things”.
She said: “It is no longer about the hotel room and its amenities; anyone can provide a room. It’s about the warm feeling a place and a good welcome can evoke. What matters is the spirit of the place; we must be compassionate and we must also be very patient with our guests. We can’t adopt these cut-and-dry check in/check out mechanical ways of doing things.” She also added that hospitality now meant a lot more than a destination and lodging.
“When it comes to hospitality, we must always look internally first,” Dhee said, adding that we must uplift the local communities surrounding the tourist spots so that those areas were well looked after and provided the welcoming energy which drew in guests. This will happen naturally if all properties, large and small, look at cultivating their environments in the correct manner by always putting the community first. Creating this environment is something that also needs to be addressed at smaller levels of Government, perhaps in various Grama Niladhari areas. On a provincial basis, there can be committees appointed to provide for the needs of the community in a way that is mutually beneficial for both the hospitality partner and the locals.
“I always say community comes first. If the people of Hanthana did not like me and my property, then I cannot succeed. Then those vibrations will not be right and I really do believe you must first respect the community and we must get them involved in the work we do,” Dhee said.
Going digital and opportunities for youth
Finally, Dhee noted that when strategising for Sri Lanka’s tourism, one thing that was lacking and was vitally necessary was the involvement of youth, pointing out that travel bloggers – independently doing incredible things in their own capacity to promote tourism – should be brought on board create an attractive communication package to show the world what Sri Lanka had to offer across the board.
She noted that we must invest in accurate market research so that we could communicate relevant information to the related audience. She also added that an investment should be made to bring in major names, big-time celebrities, and personalities who could endorse Sri Lanka to the world. “People listen to their own people and if we can bring someone like Shah Rukh Khan who can tell all of India that Sri Lanka is safe and ready for travel, or just anyone else of that calibre, it would be a worthwhile investment,” she said.