By Marianne David
Warm, welcoming and exuding good cheer, the Cinnamon Lakeside’s newest General Manager Denis Gruhier perfectly fits into the best qualities the hospitable hotel is well-known for and his affirmation of Sri Lanka’s optimistic post-war outlook for tourism in particular and the country in general is welcoming news indeed.
Having joined the Lakeside just one-and-a-half weeks ago, Gruhier – who hails from France – brings with him a wealth of experience. Prior to joining Lakeside, he was the General Manager of Sunway Hotels in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Gruhier commenced his career in the hospitality field way back in 1973 and has travelled the world over, in following his dream. Having worked in around 15 countries – including his home country France, England, Germany, Puerto Rico and Australia, to name a few – he has full international experience to his credit.
It was during his tenure as GM of Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok that the hotel managed to be classified among the top 10 best business hotels in the world and Gruhier also opened the first Versace hotel in Australia, the Palazzo Versace.
Gruhier’s first visit to Sri Lanka was in May this year, when he arrived for the interview at Cinnamon Lakeside.
Commenting on his immediate impressions of the country, he said: “My impressions were very positive – that’s why I chose the job and to come here because I had a wonderful impression about the people and the country. The first people I met were from the hotel and I was truly enthused to see the kindness and warmth of the people at the Lakeside and in Sri Lanka. It really went a long way in helping me making the decision to accept the job at the Lakeside.”
Seeing the hotel for the first time, he said that he fully understood why it won the ‘Best City Hotel in Sri Lanka’ award: “It’s pretty obvious. It is a beautiful property and one of the best, if not the best location in town. It is next to the lake and still in the middle of the heart of the city, which is impressive.”
Having taken over duties here, his impression of the hotel has not changed in the least and Gruhier is wholeheartedly excited about the hotel’s offerings and promising potential.
Asserting that the hotel is today a wonderful product with great service, he said that what was important was that holding company John Keells was always looking forward, instead of being satisfied with what it had today. “The company has a great vision and always looks long-term. Sri Lanka is a country that is ready to explode. There is so much opportunity here. Over January 2010 to January 2011, arrivals have gone up by 46%, according to the authorities. We also know that there would be some stiffer competition coming in, in terms of hospitality and rooms in the country. What’s good today may not be good enough for tomorrow since top companies will be coming in and we want to prepare Cinnamon Hotels to always stay at the forefront of the deluxe hospitality industry here in Sri Lanka,” he emphasised. Gruhier’s objective is to help Lakeside and JKH group hotels to be able to provide top, five-star international services for its clients.
Sri Lanka’s potential
Touching on Sri Lanka’s potential as a tourism product, the GM noted that while Sri Lanka had been dormant for many years, which was only fair, now all doors were opening. One aspect that he is in agreement with is the Government’s decision to impose a minimum rate.
“I was surprised when I heard that the Government had put in place minimum rates. I found that very, very smart. When stiff competition is coming in, in any city in the world, usually what happens is a price war, which helps nobody. By having minimum rates, we ensure that in the future such a price war will be avoided and we don’t sell the destination at a cheap rate,” he explained.
Gruhier emphasised that the tourism industry in Sri Lanka was enormous and that right now the country did not have to focus on being a niche market. “At present, it’s what we call a 20-80 exercise – 20 per cent effort for 80 per cent results. Europe is interested in coming in… Russia, Middle East, China, Japan, India… it doesn’t matter where you look, you’ve got potential to bring the world to Sri Lanka,” he exclaimed.
“People have been waiting to come to Sri Lanka in good conditions and they can do so now. That’s why John Keells has been very smart in its vision for the future by pushing the development of more hotels. This is the right time to do so. It started in Colombo by purchasing the Cinnamon Lakeside and the Cinnamon Grand and there are more hotels in the pipeline. Again, we want to always be the pioneers and we believe that there is enormous room for growth and we want to be part of it. Still, as I said, it will be all about delivering what the people expect. Our Chairman was quoted in a newspaper saying that Sri Lanka would be wrong to force people to pay 500-600 dollars a room night, but at the same time, as I mentioned, we don’t want to have a price war. It has to be sold at the right price for the right type of service.
Rich product offering
In the case of Sri Lanka, it is not the hotels within that have to compete against each other, he noted, affirming that “our true competition is not the neighbour, but the destination”. “First we have to convince the people to come to Sri Lanka – and it will be easy, believe me, because it is a wonderful country,” he asserted.
Commenting on the country’s product offering to tourists, he said that Sri Lanka’s rich past and future “just begs to be exposed to the world”.
“It has terrific beaches – and different beaches! The beaches on the south west are different from those in the east. You really have a wonderful product and all the basics are there to be successful. It’s up to us to develop the good and promote aspects such as wildlife, culture and eco-tourism in Sri Lanka to make sure that we end up with a sustainable product, instead of just pushing on sun, sea and sand. We must ensure that it is a sustainable industry,” he cautioned.
Noting that Cinnamon Hotels stand for affordable luxury, he said: “What it means is that we want to offer fantastic service, but at value for money – this is what we stand for.”
Gruhier’s arrival is just in time for the completion of the hotel’s refurbishment programme. Touching on what guests can expect in the near future, he said: Inside this hotel, we have already started the big changes. We are in the process of completing our full room renovation, which will be done in a couple of weeks. Basically we are today the newest hotel in town – although the building may be one of the oldest!” “What we want to do in this hotel is further improve the service levels to stay on top of the industry and to be ready for the day when the country develops even further – and not just in tourism. I believe that there is a future in Sri Lanka for businesses and investments as well and that requires hotels which can cater to business people, which we are already known for,” he added.
Here to stay
Gruhier’s appointment at the Lakeside is on a two-year contract, in-line with the laws of the country, but it certainly isn’t his intention to leave at the end of this period. His family – wife Adriana and son Alexandre – is also here with him. Adriana is of Peruvian origin and speaks three languages – English, Spanish and French. Gruhier revealed that she used to be an accountant until she became a mother, upon which she “dedicated her life to the household and our son”. His son Alexandre is 18 and an IT student, who has already commenced studies in Sri Lanka.
As for how they feel about following him around, they seem love it – who wouldn’t? As Gruhier said, they’ve been travelling him with for the last 20 years and enjoy it because “travelling brings a wealth of knowledge, which is invaluable”.
“We see Sri Lanka for us for the long-term because I believe as a professional in a bright future for the country.
I believe in a bright future for Cinnamon Hotels as staying the leaders in the hospitality industry in this country and being able to stand their ground and promote authentic Sri Lankan hospitality – even when the international companies set foot in Sri Lanka,” he added.