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LONDON-BERUWALA-AMBALANGODA-MATARA – Part 42

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum

chandij@sympatico.ca

Returning Home

My special Management Observer/Trainee program in London (UK) with then the largest hotel chain in the world – Trust House Forte (THF), ended on a high note in September 1979. Mr. Geoffrey Pye, Director of Personnel for THF London Hotels and Mr. Bejaramo, Catering Manager of the 900-room Cumberland Hotel conducted two exit interviews with me. They both were very pleased with my work, as well as with the observations I had made at the Cumberland and the Regent Palace Hotel where I was a Guest Observer.

My associate from John Keells Group, Ranjith Dharmaratnam and I returned to Frankfurt to catch our charter flights arranged by Neckermann Reisen’s Kurt D. Wehner. I knew Kurt well having hosted him at the hotel I was managing – Hotel Swanee when he was touring Sri Lanka a few months ago. He reciprocated my hospitality in Frankfurt.

As a global traveller, my father had said to the family, “There is no place better than home”, every time he returned from a long, overseas trip. However, after returning from my first overseas trip to Thailand, West Germany and the United Kingdom, I did not share that view. “I feel that I can easily adapt myself to live anywhere in the world, and I would like to travel around the world and be a global gypsy”, I told my parents. “Well Chandana, it looks like you have been bitten by the travel bug. Here, look at this new publication by the largest airline in the world. Pan Am also owns the InterContinental hotel chain, where you had a part-time job a few years ago”, my father encouraged my new interest.

In the late 1970s most of the vehicles used in Sri Lanka were re-conditioned, old cars shipped from Europe and Japan. While in the UK, I bought my first car – a 1975 Ford Corolla with a vinyl top. It cost me only £350. After shipping it to Sri Lanka, I managed to get a very special licence number (11 SRI 1111). As I had the hotel manager’s car and a driver, I really did not need my own car. Therefore, I sold it to one of my uncles – M. D. Seneviratne, and made a good profit. My younger cousins thought that the car was cool and groovy!

Sharing my Learning

I was eager to apply some of the new management practices I learnt in London to the small operation I was heading in Sri Lanka. I quickly shared all relevant best practices I learnt in London and various materials I collected with my team. In settling back as a local hotelier, I introduced concepts such as longer orientations for new employees, printed training material, exit interviews for employees leaving and commenced pre-planning Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations with my team three months in advance. The usual practice in Sri Lankan hotels at that time was to begin planning the festive, seasonal events in December.

We commenced the 1979/1980 tourist season with a bang. We pre-planned a calendar of events for each month in consultation with tour leaders, returning guests and long stay guests. We recruited some very promising students of Ceylon Hotel School as our interns for the season. All of them, in a few years’ time, became highly successful hoteliers.

Before my overseas trip, I had attended a three-week long program “Techniques of Administration for Hotel Management” in Colombo, with 50 other Sri Lankan hotel managers. It was organized by the umbrella body for hotel industry in Sri Lanka – Ceylon Tourist Hotels Association. It was conducted by two professors (Hal Records and James Root) from the Cornell University, USA, which was famous for hotel administration programs. It was very similar to their well-known summer management program conducted in Ithaca, New York every year. Although academically, it was a good program, I learnt much more practical and implementable aspects of hotel management with THF in London.

Overbooking with Ken Bala

It was the usual practice to overbook hotels by around 15% leaving room for cancellations. The new Managing Director of Walkers Tours, Mr. Ken Balendra (popularly referred as “Ken Bala”) asked me if I was in agreement. “Sure, let’s do it, but during the peak months, overbooking by 15% may be a challenge as the rate of cancellations usually went down from Christmas until the end of winter in Europe”, I cautioned him. Mr. Ken Balendra who was a very charismatic, energetic and optimistic person said, “Let’s go with the 15%.”

Hotel Swanee had only 52 bedrooms and by mid-December our occupancy went up to 115% with us requiring 60 rooms to accommodate tourists who were on their way from the airport. I quickly called Mr. Balendra. He was very busy, and said, “Chandana, you are our guy in Beruwala, and I trust that you will handle it well. All the best!” I immediately summoned my team to have a quick, stand-up brainstorming session. We had no time to waste and literally had to think on our feet. Our young team came with some “outlandish” suggestions and I promptly approved them and delegated the actions. In crisis management, the teams must think “outside the box”.

By the time the guests arrived at the hotel, we had moved most of the executives to the supervisory staff quarters. We also moved two of our executives to the executive quarters of neighbouring hotels to share rooms with their executives. Those hotels had not experienced overbooking challenges. Fortunately, we had excellent relationships with all of the competitor hotels in the area. Hotel Swanee executive rooms were converted to guest rooms within an hour but these rooms were smaller and below the usual standard of guest bedrooms. To avoid receiving complaints, we carefully chose those guests (friendly, repeat guests and younger couples) who were to be downgraded! We compensated them with complimentary fruit baskets, wine, chocolates, Christmas cake as well as free tickets to beach parties and lobster buffets.

During the Christmas week, the overbooking situation got worse. I released the Front Office Manager from his duties and sent him on a one-week island round trip with the excess guests, with complimentary excursions to well-known tourist sites around the island. Once again, we chose the guests for this option carefully. Tyrone Quin, our witty and creative Front Office Manager thoroughly enjoyed this adventure. “Boss, in my next career move, I would like to become a Tourist Guide, as I found it to be a lot of fun and lucrative!” Tyrone told me jokingly when he returned after one of those special trips.

Most Successful Tourist Season

Hotel Swanee New Year’s Eve dinner dance was a big success and it did not end until 6:00 am. In consultation with the European tour leaders, repeat guests, winners of “Swanee Best Guest/s weekly competitions” and long stay guests, we made an unprecedented decision to honour our hard-working employees. Around 12:45 am, after the guests had enjoyed their first dance session of the New Year with live music and in the midst of a fireworks display, we requested the guests to leave the dance floor.

We then invited all of the staff in their uniforms to come to the dance floor and dance with the managers and supervisors. We played some of their favourite songs chosen by the union. This act was an amazing success. Guests surrounded the dance floor and cheered the dancing employees, in full approval of our appreciation of the full team. Everybody loved it. Among other progressive gestures we had made to the employees over the months, this gesture was the icing on the cake.

Unlike many other hotels in Sri Lanka, we never had any union challenges at Hotel Swanee. Managers, supervisors and staff all worked in unison like one big, happy family. 1979/1980 was the most profitable tourist season of Hotel Swanee, since its opening in 1974.

In the middle of the tourist season, as previously planned, I married my fiancée. She was 19 and I was 26. My father-in-law and the former boss (then a corporate senior executive at John Keells Group), Captain D. A Wickramasinge and his wife Neetha planned a grand wedding with 600 guests at the Hotel Lanka Oberoi. It had many connections to John Keells Group, with the Chairman, Mr. Mark Bostock as the attesting witness, my boss, Bobby Adams (Director Operations – Hotels) as the best-man, a week’s honeymoon at the sister hotel – The Village and the homecoming event hosted at Hotel Swanee. My wife soon became an “unpaid” but important member of the Hotel Swanee team, particularly in the areas of guest relations and event hosting.

Manager of three Properties at age 26

By 1980, John Keells was expanding its hospitality business by acquiring some smaller properties with management contracts. Mainly owing to a personal relationship Bobby Adams had with then Prime Minister, R. Premadasa, the group commenced managing the Prime Minister’s official residence – Temple Trees. I released one of the departmental managers from Hotel Swanee – Fazal Izzadeen to become the Manager of Temple Trees. Fazal soon became so popular with the second family of Sri Lanka, he was hardly allowed by the second lady to go home for a weekend break.

The group opened their second hotel in Beruwala, Hotel Bayroo, in the midst of various obstacles created by the village thugs. The group also commenced negotiating to take over the management of Hotel Ceylinco in Colombo. In addition to managing Hotel Swanee, I was asked to take over the Ambalangoda Rest House, to re-organize and improve its standards and to manage it.

I quickly learnt that managing a historic rest house with a deep, loyal following from the local population was a different ball game. Although there were tourists arriving for accommodations, the food and beverage operations depended mainly on the local clientele. One of our regular customers was, in my view, the most promising school Cricketer a decade ago – Anura “Century” Silva. When Anura captained Nalanda College and broke many records by scoring centuries in back-to-back games, I became his ardent fan. Anura was from a wealthy and well-connected family in Ambalangoda. My friendship with him prevented any trouble from the town.

This rest house on a small hill by the sea had a special charm. A natural, sea water pool and a long, front veranda added to the ambiance. I transferred some of our star supervisors and staff from Hotel Swanee to re-open the rest house. We focused on improving the style of management, maintenance, cleanliness, food quality and presentation and customer service. We introduced a Sunday lunch buffet with local specialties and many seafood dishes using the fresh catch from the local fishermen. This buffet became very popular with the locals.

When two leading lawyers from Colombo approached Bobby to convert one of their ancestral mansions to be a boutique hotel, I was given another additional assignment. It was a very nice and over a 100-year-old building on the Beach Road in Matara. As the house had only six bedrooms, John Keells was not interested. Therefore, Bobby and I got involved as Directors of the project with small investments. We opened it as the Beach Lodge in 1980. I continued to operate from Hotel Swanee but went to Ambalangoda and Matara once a week to oversee the operations of these two properties. Managing three small properties concurrently meant that I had to improve my delegative skills.

Bobby was impressed with my ability to multitask. He hinted that he may have to create a new post for me as his deputy at the John Keells corporate office to handle his growing portfolio. I showed interest in such a promotion. We agreed to consider it in the year 1981.



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Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing

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By Usvatte-aratchi

We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.

The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.

As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?

Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.

If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.

When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.

The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.

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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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