Reflecting on how the hotel sector has sustained itself during the past two or so years, TAL & TSL Area Director and General Manager of Taj Samudra Pankaj Sampat ack­nowledged that “it has been extremely difficult for the hospitality business – especially for the hotel sector.”

He added: “Sustaining business has been really tough with the country being shut for a good 18 months from March 2020 till September 2021.

“With no inbound tourists, we survived based on multiple efforts targeting local residents – for example, vacation packages such as ‘staycations’ and home delivery services of food were curated. These are the kinds of initiatives that many hotels took on to sustain themselves and survive,” he noted.

Speaking about staff shortages, Sampat said: “Hotels tried their best to retain employees; however, there were a lot of workers who quit their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic particularly due to the service charge – which accounts for a substantial proportion of their salaries – reducing to almost zero.”

He also revealed that “skilled workers were headhunted by competitors. Therefore, with the recent increase in tourist arrivals, the shortage of skilled professionals is felt across business operations,” adding that “the government did not provide any financial assistance to the hotel sector.”

Sampat explained that “we were only given the option of reducing salaries up to 50 percent as part of the national tripartite agreement.”

“We did not want to burden our employees with harsh pay cuts, and resorted to reductions ranging between five and 10 percent, [which were] applicable for only a short period of time – three months for associates and nine months for executives,” he disclosed.

Referring to the different categories of travellers, Sampat elaborated: “As Area Director, I oversee three hotels – the Vivanta Airport Garden Hotel, where we mainly serve airline crew members; the Taj Bentota, a resort in the south of Sri Lanka that’s patronised primarily by leisure travellers; and the city hotel Taj Samudra, which focusses on events such as conferences and weddings.”

“From tourism driven by meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) to leisure travellers, I believe all segments should be focussed on them as there is significant potential in every market segment,” he added.

On the subject of vaccine passports, he doesn’t think they will be implemented uniformly across the globe: “Each country – especially in Europe and the US – has a different outlook towards the pandemic. As of now, the UK does not require travellers to carry a negative PCR test to enter the country nor to quarantine – COVID-19 is being treated like the common flu, which defeats the purpose of vaccination passports.”

Commenting on hotel operations in the medium term, Sampat deliberated: “I think there are two aspects to consider, the first being nontraditional revenue streams. Many hotels have done a fabulous job of delivering food and beverages to households, and providing laundry services and home catering.”

The General Manager of Taj Samudra continued: “The second aspect is about how we manage our expenditure. Streamlining and removing excess costs is of utmost importance especially during these challenging times.”

Finally, airing his views on the impact of the Port City and various new mixed developments on existing international hotels, Sampat opined: “I do think there will be a lot of added capacity to the city of Colombo once the Port City is in full operation, eventually leading to greater supply than demand.”

“This situation will lead to price competition; and it will not bode too well particularly for the older hotels in Sri Lanka, as they’ll be under excessive pressure to drop their prices to attract customers – unless of course, there’s a large convention city or theme park that could drive up the demand for accommodation facilities,” Sampat asserted.