Ramada Encore Kiev General Manager Irantha Duwage has two decades of experience in the international hotel sector. In a career that has so far spanned three continents, the hospitality industry expert has worked at some of the world’s leading hotels, including the legendary Raffles in Singapore.
Mr. Duwage first arrived in Ukraine in early 2012 to oversee the development of the Ramada Encore Kiev project, and explains that he was attracted by the chance to manage what remains the country’s largest international hotel complex, with Ukraine’s largest hotel conference facilities.
The Ukrainian hotel industry has been particularly adversely affected by the instability in the country over the past eighteen months. What steps have you taken to respond to these challenges?
We’ve focused our response on a number of areas including increased service quality and value for money for our customers. We’ve also developed long-term partnership options and boosted our cooperation with the local community. Internally, we have sought to empower our team and develop a clear staff awareness programme to make sure employees do not experience the stresses of uncertainty.
The past decade has witnessed a steady increase in the number of international hotel brands entering the Ukrainian market. Which segments of the Ukrainian hotel sector do you think offer the most attractive growth prospects?
The luxury full-service sector in Kyiv is already over-supplied, so I think you have to look towards the budget sector for the next wave of growth. As a result, Ukrainian hotel owners currently have a great opportunity to convert their hotels into international brands in the mid-scale to budget segments. This could help them gain better brand awareness and other marketing advantages.
Ukraine’s geographical location between European and Asian markets makes it a natural choice for international forums and conferences. How can Ukraine promote itself as a venue for such events?
If we accept that Kyiv is the main destination for both tourism and business visitors, then we can conclude that the Ukrainian government and the Kyiv city authorities hold the key to promoting Ukraine. At present, they have not positioned themselves well as an international conference and business forum (MICE) destination. Major efforts are required to transform Ukraine’s fortunes in this segment, but the outcome would have a huge impact on the country’s development. The best way forward is for the Ukrainian hospitality sector and the Kyiv city authorities to work together on a common agenda in order to promote Kyiv as a great MICE destination. International hotel chains, airlines and tour operators need to be involved in this process.
Another key issue is minimizing red tape regarding visa issues. The Ukrainian authorities need to appreciate that in today’s global market, China and India equal Europe in terms of numbers of travellers and money spent. Ukraine is currently way behind the international curve regarding visa processes and border control issues, creating barriers to Ukraine’s development as a MICE destination. Small modifications and innovations to visa policy would likely encourage investors and decision-makers in Europe and Asia to consider Kyiv as a potential destination for conferences.
Most major hotel industry expansion in Ukraine has so far focused on Kyiv. Which other Ukrainian regions do you regard as the most exciting for future hotel industry expansion?
Lviv in west Ukraine is a wonderful city with so much potential for further development of the hospitality sector. Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv also have great urban infrastructure, making them attractive for further growth.
The Ramada Encore Kiev was recently awarded the ‘Property of the Year’ award by the Wyndham Hotel Group. How important is international recognition of this nature for the Ukrainian hotel industry?
I think this kind of recognition is very important. First and foremost, it puts Ukraine in the international spotlight. Secondly, it highlights the increasingly competitive standard of the Ukrainian hospitality sector. A Kyiv hotel won this award ahead of other regional hotels in top destinations like London, Dubai and Istanbul. This will help to debunk outdated stereotypes and myths about old-fashioned service standards and mediocre service delivery in Ukraine.
Based on your knowledge of the international hotel industry, what lessons can Ukrainian hoteliers learn from the experiences of other emerging markets?
There is a lot to learn and there are plenty of useful examples that Ukrainian hoteliers can learn from in the regional neighbourhood. Just ten years ago, few would have believed that Istanbul would be a top conference destination, or that Budapest would be among the leaders in many city break destination rankings. Over the past decade, Istanbul has managed to emerge as the top European MICE destination, claiming market share from other key regional cities in this market. The local hospitality sector and city authorities have worked very hard to brand themselves as an attractive MICE destination, and as a result Istanbul now enjoys strong brand recognition in the business conference segment. Ukraine has huge potential to develop in this direction, but an honest appraisal of the situation and a clear strategy are required. I believe the role of the local authorities will be crucial in this process.
Young Ukrainian hoteliers, meanwhile, can also look to other regional markets in order to learn the importance of a deep understanding of the hospitality business, a willingness to gain experience in entry-level positions, and of taking a creative lead rather than seeking to replicate others.