Eye of the storm

Kimarli Fernando

Kimarli Fernando is the Chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism

Crisis management is a critical part of running an organisation; if and when a crisis occurs, a business must be able to drastically alter course to survive. The outbreak of the global pandemic last year is a classic case of an unprecedented crisis that few would have provided for.

And surely, history will judge leaders for the way in which they navigated the unfolding crisis. As part of the COVID-19 task force for Sri Lanka and her role in Sri Lanka Tourism, Kimarli Fernando has been in the eye of the storm.

“When the COVID-19 task force was set up by the president in January last year, I was invited to join a cross-functional team to manage the tourism end. With 87,000 foreigners stranded in Sri Lanka after the borders shut, Sri Lanka Tourism had the task of coordinating the return of these tourists… It was a formidable challenge,” she recalls.

Her first go-to was to talk to all stakeholders, and employ the strategy of “communication, communication and communication.” Fernando says that “communication is the first imperative in crisis management. By keeping the channels open, we can allay fears, answer queries and calm people down.”

The next task was prioritising what needed to be done to mitigate the impact on the country. Fernando recounts: “Tourists, embassies and hotels had many pain points at the time, and it was our task to provide solutions and information.”

Having watched the public relations disaster that ensued following several airline crashes in other countries in recent years and how poorly they were handled, the key was to be available and accessible to everyone, and not shut down, she says.

Fernando explains: “So there were 24 hour call centres, and doctors appearing on TV twice a day and providing updates. In a crisis, your stakeholders will perhaps even overreact and you have to be prepared to deal with it.”

She stresses that any leader must be approachable and accessible during a crisis: “You need to get in there and get your hands dirty – you cannot delegate your responsibility to others.”

“Another critical step in a crisis is to have a core team with cross-functional experience who are used to working together in a non-hierarchical structure. The task force succeeded because we had the authority to cut through red tape and take appropriate measures as needed,” she states.

The closest crisis of this nature she dealt with was the Year 2000 or Y2K doomsday conspiracy that the global banking system was likely to crash. Fernando quips: “As a banker, I remember that vividly as we were so over-prepared – and finally, nothing happened!”

In a crisis, it is important to follow and learn from other successes and failures.

“We followed what was happening in Singapore, Dubai and Australia to understand what would work for us or not, eventually coming up with detailed guidelines for the entire tourism industry along with the bio-bubble concept, which received international acclaim,” Fernando explains.

She believes the acceleration of digital technology was a welcome impact of the pandemic and has supported recovery: “Everything went online! Sri Lanka Tourism also digitalised many of its activities to minimise disruption.”

Finally, in her view, strong leadership is critical in any crisis: “As a member of the COVID-19 task force, I must mention the formidable leadership provided by the president. Under his leadership, we were very proactive, responded quickly to situations and made speedy yet informed decisions.

“That is why we were able to better manage both the first and the second waves compared to many other countries around the world,” Fernando concludes.