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Luxury Voices Part 3: Malik’s Vision for Resplendent Ceylon

Malik and Joanne speak about Resplendent Ceylon’s remarkable run last year, receiving numerous awards and being recognised by prestigious publications. Malik also explains the importance of guest feedback and talks about his vision for Resplendent Ceylon.

Joanne Tang:

Talking about awards and recognitions, Resplendent Ceylon resorts did remarkably well and placed three, five and eight in Asia in the Conde Nast Traveller Readers Choice Awards. More than 700,000 readers submitted responses, rating their travel experiences across the globe to determine the winners. Congratulations on this accomplishment and recognition. Thus, an independently owned hotel collection needs to work harder for the same recognition. First as a well-established international hotel group with existing infrastructure.

Malik Fernando:

Yes, compared to the international brands, for independent hotels like us, our communications are not as strong, neither is brand awareness. Therefore, it is a greater challenge. However, independents, like Resplendent Ceylon and many others, can surprise and delight with our non-standardized approach. With a big brand people kind of know what to expect, whether it’s the design or whether it’s the whole service philosophy, but independents have that opportunity to surprise. In our case, the three resorts, although they have a common thread of superlative services, they’re all very different in how they make you feel and the locality. 

I think ongoing guest feedback is critical to get this kind of recognition and taking immediate corrective action. I do visit the resorts quite often because I keep my finger on the pulse. We focus on not your conventional guest feedback, which might be 15 or 20%, but we get almost 80 or 90% of feedback with net promoter scores, between 95 and 99, which is pretty unprecedented.

There’s a very sort of active, fierce competition, amongst the resorts in this scoring. There’s cheering going on because there’s a lot of visibility in terms of the guest scores. We put it out on our Slack channels, so every resort knows how the other one’s doing and they cheer each other on or collectively we’ll sort of hang our heads in shame and fix the problem as soon as possible.

I like to interact very closely with our guests as a follow-up, for the points they raise for corrective action or improvement, and I crave feedback because those improvements are generally very easy to do. Most of the feedback that we get is like an ongoing mystery shopper who’s there day in, day out. Therefore, I think responsiveness to feedback, taking corrective action and having a dialogue with guests is so much easier in a small resort because you have fewer numbers of guests is much harder for a huge hotel chain. So, I think that’s really how independents can score on these criteria, which are very useful for marketing.

Joanne Tang:

Yes, ongoing guest feedback is the opportunity to further improve. And yes, I remember that there is a small guest survey after each day of the property and guests will get a personal note from you after submitting this survey. I remember that.

Malik Fernando:

And I do honestly look at every one of them. Even after the personal note, once I digest the feedback, I’ll write again and I’ll say can you clarify what you meant by this? This is what in turn builds that loyalty and the connection with the guests and that then obviously go and vote for us.

Joanne Tang:

That’s right. And talking about my stay, I’ve stayed with my family in all three Resplendent Ceylon properties, experiencing Tea, Sea and Safari. The whole trip was amazing from the properties’ design, overall experiences, activities, culinary and service. And because the three experiences were so diverse, it seemed that we had three holidays in one trip. Can you share with us how you as an independent hotel and also an accidental hotelier yet accomplish this and how do you constantly improve yourself?

Malik Fernando:

If I had a grand plan and I said, I’m going to open three hotels and this is my brand standard and hired consultants and all that, I really wouldn’t have been able to create this organic, original distinctiveness that guests love. I think it’s the fact that I never set out to create a brand. I look at Resplendent Ceylon not as a brand, but as a collection, similar to Relais & Chateaux. You’ve got three resorts currently, which are all distinctive and all have a unique sense of place. Many of our guests didn’t realize it was the same owner, which was intentional. 

When we started Wild Coast, I remember the architects asking for our brand standard, and said I have nothing,  give me your ideas! And, we came up with this amazing concept. The fact that we are looking at creating this collection, each a little in this Relais & Chateaux style, is what makes every resort delightful. Everyone’s got a favourite, but at the same time, they love them all.

In the cultural triangle, we’re designing in this 14-acre ancient forest alongside massive 200/300-year-old trees with really broad 10-foot trunks. Lek Bunnag, who’s the same architect who built Cape Weligama, has designed a beautiful, elevated structure that overlooks the bund onto a private lake and a mountain, with an amazing pool at treetop height. Now that is not comparable to any of the other Resplendent Ceylon resorts or any other hotel in the world. So, the point is that each resort is designed as if it is the only one that we are building. That’s what delivers on this delight, as well as the whole service and the staffing that I’m very fortunate to have.

Sri Lankans are genuinely warm. We want to showcase our country. There is nothing fake about it and I think I’m fortunate at Resplendent that we nurture that kind of approach and the individuality. I have got a good crew allied with the uniqueness of the resorts, so that’s what delights guests and makes them feel, as you did, Joanne, at the end of your visit.

Joanne Tang:

Yes, the three properties are so different, that the traveller does not know that it’s one collection. They only will know when the host starts to share the guest’s preference and requests that they had at the previous stay. So, I guess the properties communicate with each other, and this is a major wow factor.

Malik Fernando:

Thank you for that feedback, Joanne! As I said, we’ve got about 60% of our guests staying in all three resorts. My target is 75 because we’re not cookie-cutter. So, if you’ve got long haul guests, they’ll come to Sri Lanka because of Resplendent Ceylon. Of course, they travel primarily because of the appeal of the country, but in terms of accommodation options, they would stay within our circuit. They don’t have to look anywhere else. Then, when we open up, Dambulla, that’ll be the fourth circuit. This makes it easier to sell the property because our guests if they’re going to the cultural triangle, will choose to stay with us.

Joanne Tang:

What is your vision for Resplendent Ceylon?

Malik Fernando:

Well, I think in a nutshell, it’s to showcase Sri Lanka as it deserves. It hasn’t been positioned correctly. A lot of people would not connect it with the new luxury that we offer. It may be perceived as a cheap destination in some markets, maybe because we do have a lot of average properties as well, but those are our legacy properties that have been here for a long time. There is a new breed of Sri Lankan tourism and resorts, exemplified by Resplendent Ceylon. My vision for Resplendent is for us to continue to be the best way to see Sri Lanka in the new luxury, to connect with what we do and the interactions we offer our guests with MJF Foundation and Dilmah Conservation. And for Resplendent to be the best way to see all these sub-zones that Sri Lanka offers, which generally you would have to travel a continent to see. That size is pretty tiny, but we offer the world in our mango shaped island.

Joanne Tang:

That’s a beautiful vision, Malik. I look forward to seeing that coming true very soon.

Malik Fernando:

Thank you, Joanne. I’m optimistic, although we are all in a very depressing situation right now. This time next year, I think we look back on this and say, gosh, how unimaginable. Things are looking much better now and that is what I’m looking forward to. And I think Sri Lanka will do very well post-pandemic for the reasons that I mentioned.

Joanne Tang:

Yes, we have to stay optimistic before ending our conversation. I would like to ask you a few more personal questions you can answer quickly, or you can elaborate as much as you like.

 Outside of tea, what’s your favourite drink?

Malik Fernando:

Outside of tea, I love my malt whiskeys. I love discovering different kinds and being surprised. So that’s my short answer. With two cubes of ice, no water!

Joanne Tang:

What’s on your travel bucket list for the next five years?

Malik Fernando:

The buckets got much, much bigger! We had planned a fabulous Tanzania/Kenya program for last year. Every year, a group of eight of us will go somewhere we’ve not been. I’m the travel planner and I plan everything and I’ll tell them, this is where we’re going and they all take it by surprise and they love it. We did South Africa three years ago and then we did Northern Spain, the so-called “Green Spain” away from the south coast and the hurly-burly of tourism. There was wonderful food and drink, beautiful sites along the Atlantic ending up in Galicia. 

Other bucket list trips would be the Trans-Siberian, though I just think it might be too much to chew in terms of time. The Belmont train in Peru, South America is another. South America is very far from Sri Lanka, but that’s something which is very much on my bucket list.

There’s also a small intimate family cruise we had planned to a beautiful Greek Island in August. Also, postponed. The bucket list in the medium term comprises all the postponed trips from 2020. So, there’s not much planning to do!

Joanne Tang:

It doesn’t sound like a bucket of Wishlist anymore. It sounds like a planned schedule for different kinds of trips!

Malik Fernando:

You just got to press go again. It was frustrating. Everything was paid for ready to go, and then this hit, so that’ll keep us busy for the next three or four years.

Joanne Tang:

My last question is tea, sea or safari?

Malik Fernando:

For me, it’s tea. It’s tea because that is where I fell in love with tourism and the guest experiences. With the climate at an elevation of 2000 meters, the tea country in Sri Lanka is beautiful and it’s so accessible, just 25 minutes by a floatplane from the international airport or four hours by road. So, it’s very much tea. I mean, I love the sea, our coast is wonderful and our safari is unmatched. I would say it’s the best safari outside Africa, because of the very high density of leopards, but tea country is very special. Tea is in my genes, it’s Dilmah country!

Joanne Tang:

It was a true pleasure catching up with you. And I look forward to visiting your beautiful properties again very soon and have a cup of tea with you and thank you for being one of our Luxury Voices.

Malik Fernando:

Thank you, Joanne. And see you soon on the other side and thank you for the privilege of having me on the podcast.

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