Face2Face with PUNYA WEERASINGHE
by Tilak S. Fernando in London

Born in down South of Sri Lanka, Punya Weerasinghe, a son of a local school Head Master in Matara was privileged to come to Colombo to study at Nalanda College. After the University entrance examination, he had to make a vital decision whether to graduate from University or pursue on a dream he had since his early childhood - to manage a Five Star hotel. Having decided on the latter, he began his life in Colombo by joining the very first Five Star Hotel (Oberoi) in Sri Lanka as a restaurant cashier. With his intellectual vigour, at lightning speed, he mastered the IBM programme in hotel training and rose up to the position of Computer Systems Supervisor to familiarise himself with the knitty gritty of Five Star Hotel operations.

Still having his aim in life as a backdrop, he went in search of a new environment to widen his knowledge and ended up in America. In Colorado he picked up a different kind of experience by working at Wendy's Fast Food chain. Practically everyone who has associated and worked with Punya has always had out-and-out attention for him. That may be the reason that after six months of service at Wendy's, he became a Manager, and within nine months he was chosen as the Best Employee of Year in The State of Colorado. Two years later Punya returned to Sri Lanka and joined the Galadari five star hotels in Colombo.

Subsequently he moved to London and worked at Marriott Hotel, Marble Arch and widened his experience further in a British environment. Having undergone a full spectrum of the Marriott Hotel training scheme he was ready to spread his tentacles far and wide to achieve his childhood dream, which was now waving at him from the horizon. In the glare of publicity and expansive warmth of success he remained a shadowy figure behind his Manager's position at Ashburn Hotel in Kensington until very recently he joined the Splendid Hotel Group. Currently he is attached to the Splendid Hotels Group and stationed at Central House Hotel in Victoria as the General Manager.

In addition, Punya has set up his own company, Serendib UK Ltd, through which he has launched a massive e-com hotel booking facility to London from his own website lasthotel.com. Sixty percent of hotel bookings in the West today are handled by e-commerce and very soon e booking will be the order of the day. Punya acknowledges the fact that Sri Lankan tourist industry is comparatively behind e-commerce technology and warns that sitting complacently and assuming that 'we are alright Jack' attitude will not help the country to attract tourists but instead we have to move with the tide without waiting till the horse is bolted! He is in the process of launching a massive boost to Sri Lanka hotel industry by having an e-commerce site call holidayinsrilanka.com to book hotels through the Internet.

As a visionary and a man of experience he is now collating details of over 600 hotels in Sri Lanka to be inputted into his own Website and promises all travellers to Sri Lanka will benefit soon from cheap, easy and quality of service he is going to offer, aimed at eliminating the middle man. Sri Lanka is rated currently as the 7th tourist family holiday attraction in the world scene and Punya Weersinghe is determined to give the Sri Lankan Government the benefit of more foreign exchange and Sri Lankan hotel industry extra business. Following are excerpts of a Face2Face interview had with Punya Weerasinghe.

Q. Looking at your curriculum vitae I must say it has been a remarkable achievement for you so far Punya?

A. Well Tilak, it was a difficult decision at the beginning when I was at cross roads, whether to go for a university degree or take a risk and stick to my guns and my own conviction. Having decided on the latter, I was determined to fulfil my childhood ambition.

Q When you say you received your basic training with IBM at Oberoi, how do you mean?

A. Basic training in a five star hotel involves training in all the areas such as Front Office, Back Office, House Keeping, and Accounts etc., which are all incorporated into computers these days. I had to go through the whole mill.

Q. How was your working experience in the USA?

A. It was quite different, wide and varied, from a Sri Lankan Five Star hotel. It certainly was a bonus and added further to my hotel experience. I have an indelible memory in Colorado.

Q. What would be that?

A. I was selected as the Best Employee of the State of Colorado in the USA within a period of 9 months of my service there.

Q. Why did you pack up and go back to Sri Lanka?

A. Well, after one year of service I went back home and got married to Rasika but unfortunately I had to leave her at home and go back to the States. Obtaining a Green Card (work permit) would have taken years, so instead of getting her down to USA, I returned to Sri Lanka and joined the Galadari hotel and later came to the UK with my wife.

Q I suppose you did not have any problem in finding a job in your field in London.

A. It was a stroke of fortune that I got a job straightway at Marriott's hotel in Marble Arch. After 6 months of working there, I became the Night Manager at Marriott's Hotel.

Q. How about Ashbourn Hotel in West Kensington?

A. Yes, I managed Ashbourn Hotel for nearly 8 years and only very recently moved to Splendid Hotel Group where I am working as the General Manager now based at Central House Hotel in Victoria. In addition I promote Internet Marketing for Splendid Hotel Group separately.

Q. You seem put a lot of emphasis on e-commerce. I see you are executing quite a busy task by being the Internet Marketing Manager for the Splendid Hotel Group?

A. Tilak, today about 65% of hotel bookings are done on the Internet. It is convenient, straightforward and economical for the client. Internet booking charges are cheaper than the normal booking as well. I cover about 100 hotels based in London on my e-booking programme.

Q. Tell me about your new project on e-commerce with Sri Lanka.

A. I want to introduce Internet Booking to Sri Lankan hotels in a more professional way than it is done now. I have done all the groundwork and have 600 hotels in Sri Lanka to be inputted into my Website. This will be done, as an independent venture, from my own company Serendib UK Ltd, and bookings through holidayinsrilanka.com web site.

Q. When are you going to put this into operation?

A. I have been doing it on a smaller scale for the past 2 years now but the major launch will be within the next six months.

Q. Aren't some Sri Lankan hotels on the Internet already?

A. From a Sri Lankan hoteliers point of view they are either too complacent with the bookings they get from third parties or do not pay much heed to direct Internet bookings. You see, just by having your hotel listed in a Sri Lankan Website alone is not adequate, but you need to make use of the search engines like Goggles, Yahoo, MSN etc., rather than totally depending on Tour Operators or Agents.

Q. What is the potential in e-commerce bookings to Sri Lanka in your mind?

A. In London my Internet bookings are around 60% and I don't think Sri Lankan hotels get even 2% out of Internet booking right now! By the same token let me tell you that by the year 2005 about 80% of all holiday bookings are going to be e-bookings. Sri Lanka is still in the 7th attractive venue for family holidays despite all our internal problems. If we do not pull our socks together and do something, then undoubtedly Sri Lanka is going to miss out on many things, starting from the traffic flows to the revenue in foreign exchange.

Q. What are the advantages to a traveller from an e booking?

A. Basically it's a simple operation from the comfort of your home computer. There are no phone calls to make, no need to go after agents to obtain information and in my system there are no booking fees, or cancellation fees to the client as the client will be directly connected to an appropriate hotel after sifting through his/her exact requirements.

Q. How does one do a booking, say from your Holiday Web page holidayinsrilanka.com?

A. Quite simple, all that is required is a Credit Card number at the beginning. That does not mean you are committed to use that Credit Card when you go there. Payment can be either from the same Credit Card, by Cash or whatever, out of your own choice.

Q. Do the rates vary from an Internet Booking to a Normal Booking?

A. Of course yes. Internet dealings are directly between the client and the hotel. For this purpose they have a special reduced rate for obvious reasons and the middleman or the Tour Operator is eliminated in this process.

Q. You, in your own shy way, have been helping the Sri Lankan community a lot, including giving employment to many Sri Lankans, irrespective of their ethnic background. Can you think of any one or two special incidents that have remained in your memory?

A. Yes, when I was the Night Manger at Marriott hotel in Marble Arch I received a frantic telephone call from Mr. B.S.Perera, one of the officials who accompanied the Sri Lanka Cricket Team to London after winning the World Cup. They were staying in a small hotel, as the team could not afford at that time heavy hotel charges. I managed to get them down to Marriott immediately and kept them for two consecutive weeks and at the end organised a banquet for the team and their friends all with the compliments of Marriott with my influence. Not only that, the normal rate during that time was 225 per night whereas I charged them only at 65 per room per night!

Q. You are a very patriotic and a generous man I must admit. You have helped the Sri Lankan Cinema also in some respect haven't you?

A. True (smiling). When I was the Manager at Ashbourn Hotel I offered the full use of the hotel, free of charge, for filming purposes - Teledramas such as, Hemanthaye Vasanthayak and Pusparagaa, which was screened on Sri Lankan ITN very recently. This was done purely because of the friendship I had with my good friend Anura Hegoda.

Q. Didn't you appear in them as well?

A. In Hemantheye Wasanthayak and Pushpa Ragaga both Rasika and I were dragged into it, because the Producers and the Director's thought we fitted into the chosen parts. I don't know whether they could not find any better artistes! (Laughter)

Q. Listening to your life history, half of which cannot be accommodated here due to restricted column availability, can I say that Punya, London life has transformed you from a Matara Head Master's son into one of the most pursing professionals who has not forgotten the basic values and traditions of Sri Lankan culture and values in helping your fellow country men?

A. Thank you Tilak for your compliment. Basically I have helped my fellow Sri Lankans whenever they were in need of help, either by fixing a job or in any other capacity within my reach. In a way I am very happy that I have been able to help my own country people. When we are in a different country if we do not help each other who else would?