Front Office Manager, Amari Havodda Maldives

Are awards meaningful? Yes, when they highlight the efforts of those on the sidelines, especially women hoteliers. Colombo native Shihalini Rajaratnam was recently recognised by the Singapore-based hotelier award platform Stelliers. Shihalini is vivacious, a natural leader who cares about the welfare of all her teammates, not just those in her charge. In our interview, we revisit her experience of winning the award and we trace the path of a one-time Standard Chartered telemarketer who became a leading light of a renowned Asian hospitality brand.

Hotel Insider: Let’s start off with the award you received recently – the Stelliers Front Office Hotelier of the Year South Asia. How did that make you feel? Were you at all prepared for it?

Shihalini Rajaratnam: OK. So, the application for the award started in January this year. I started filling it out and realised I’d reached so many milestones, and that made me feel proud. I sent the application out and heard back from Stelliers somewhere around March. They said I was shortlisted, and I had a Skype interview with them. I was laughing about it and thinking, “Oh, wow, I’m having a Skype interview.” But it really didn’t sink in, you know. Then the Stelliers’ academic director, Hannah Wei, interviewed me on Skype – she was very supportive. They just wanted to see if what they had on paper matched with reality.

Then, around April, I received another email saying I was shortlisted as a finalist for Front Office Hotelier South Asia 2019, and that I was among five other people. I was intimidated though, because the rest of them were from big international brands like Marriot and such.

Hotel Insider: Yeah, that would’ve been pretty daunting.

Shihalini Rajaratnam: [laughs] Yeah, I knew I was good, but I didn’t feel I was that good, you know? But being a finalist was pretty big in itself. So, I decided to attend the ceremony. And when I arrived, it was very elegant, very beautiful and the people were nice and down-to-earth, even these big hoteliers. I was able to network with hoteliers from Singapore, Thailand and India and wine suppliers from Australia, as we all shared the same table.

Then, they started giving out the awards and it was so well organised. Mine was one of the last awards to be handed out. It was right before the last award, which recognised general managers. A friend of mine received an award for HR and it made me really nervous. Then my name was called and displayed on the screen. It felt so good and so surreal. And I actually managed to give a little speech.

For me, it was very special. It was about achieving something for women, the women in hospitality. I was representing them. It was really amazing.

Hotel Insider: Now, let’s talk about you for a bit. You have an interesting educational background – you studied computing, you did science in your A-levels then switched to marketing in college. What was going on back then? Were you testing the waters in different fields before making a decision?

Shihalini Rajaratnam: I was in science because I really wanted to become a doctor. I was an excellent student, but as I was in an international school, I would have had to go abroad to complete my medical training. And I couldn’t afford to do that. I then joined the Standard Chartered head office in Colombo. Not because I wanted to but because my parents greatly encouraged it. [laughs]

Hotel Insider: Ah, OK. That makes much more sense. At Standard Chartered you were a telemarketer for a while.

Shihalini Rajaratnam: Yes, I was only 18 when I joined. And I struggled a lot at the start – I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to do. In time, though, I turned out to be a star performer and even won a TV! It was a huge deal.

Hotel Insider: That’s fantastic. And afterwards, you went back to study, right?

Shihalini Rajaratnam: Yeah, I went to India because I wanted to pursue further studies and I did my bachelor’s degree in business management. But I was working part-time and, later on, full-time at a software company. I was doing marketing again. That’s what I did until 2009.

Hotel Insider: Then you came back home to Sri Lanka.

Shihalini Rajaratnam: Yes, because my parents wanted me back. But the jobs back home didn’t pay as well as those in India. At that time, my brother was in the hotel industry – he was with Atlantis Dubai. He encouraged me to join the hospitality industry. So, I applied to Aitken Spence and came to the Maldives. Back then, I couldn’t make head nor tail of the work I was doing [laughs]. I was with Adaaran and we had a large volume of guests at the resort. It meant long hours.

I have to say, though, that every leader I had, from Standard Chartered to Aitken Spence, was a very good example for me. They’d always encourage me, empower me. Which is why even as a guest relations executive or a front office executive, I was able to run the front office in the absence of front office managers. We had managers come and go at Hudhuranfushi in my six years there. So, sometimes, for months on end, I’d run the show. But that helped me and gave me a lot of ideas.

What I’ve understood is that you really have to focus on the team members. They’re the top priority. You have to raise their standards. Not necessarily those in my department, but every member of our team. I encourage them to study because learning should never stop.

I ask a lot of Indians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis who want to work in the Maldives to learn a language. If you want to work at the front office, you need something extra, like Chinese or German or Japanese.

Hotel Insider: And you speak quite a few languages.

Shihalini Rajaratnam: Only South Asian languages. And for me to get to the next level, I’ll need to pick up one of those languages. At the next level, resort manager, you see mostly Europeans. You have to be European or learn a new language. I feel that acquiring a new language will add value to us [South Asians].

Hotel Insider: OK, getting back to your career. After five years with Aitken Spence, you went with Onyx. You’re still with them. What’s good about the brand? What’s it doing to make you stay?

Shihalini Rajaratnam: They actually showed me what work-life balance was. I get R&R twice a year and annual leave so I’m free to travel. I try to go someplace different every time. That’s needed to keep your mind fresh and open to new ideas. And also, I get to go places with the team, which I really enjoy. The brand gives you the time to do that. And that’s very important, as you need to be well-rested and happy to deliver exceptional service.

Hotel Insider: OK, lastly, we’re seeing more women in the industry now than before, and women in high positions are no longer that rare. What are your thoughts on this?

Shihalini Rajaratnam: Yes, we’re seeing more women in hospitality right now and Amari encourages women hoteliers. What I notice, though, is that we still have a lack of local women in the industry. I think we should create the environment for them, make their communities understand that the resort environment is safe for young women. Also, I think most local women don’t see the industry as a place where they can grow professionally, they lack vision. They might hop from department to department. And then, when another resort offers something slightly higher than what they’re getting, they’ll move on. I have two local girls in my department, and I encourage them to stay and learn as much as they can. Because one day, they will be respected for what they do, and they will be independent people.

Hotel Insider: Thanks a lot, Shihalini. It was a real pleasure.