Everything associated with this family-owned business is distinctive, and it all derives from the top, with Merrill J. Fernando, a man long devoted to his native Sri Lanka and with a profound passion for philanthropy, who founded Dilmah in the late 1980s as an ethical tea company. (Resplendent Ceylon is the hospitality arm of Dilmah.) Merrill developed Dilmah tea as a single-origin brand where the tea is planted, picked, processed and packed at the source. And where profits are fairly shared with the workers. This is quite unlike what Merrill had observed first-hand as a British tea taster long before developing Dilmah -- a brand named for Malik and Dilhan, his two sons -- where companies would blend fine Ceylon teas with inferior products, reducing the cost while branding it as Ceylon tea, and keeping all profits for themselves.
The family’s love and commitment to ethical tea, Sri Lanka, its people and the environment is paramount. And this is evident in their three hotel properties -- all part of the Relais & Chateaux portfolio -- that allow guests to be immersed in this emerald isle’s myriad treasures:
- At Ceylon Tea Trails, once neglected, colonial-era tea estate managers’ homes were transformed into five exquisite individual bungalows, each with a butler, house attendant and chef, set among the bucolic tea fields.
- Cape Weligamais spread across a headland that overlooks the Indian Ocean on the southwest coast. The undulating property is blanketed with colorful flower gardens and dotted with villas that are snuggled in the foliage.
- Set on an undeveloped coast of sand dunes, golden beaches and clusters of boulders, and adjacent to Yala National Park that’s famed for endangered leopards, herds of elephants and other creatures, Wild Coast Tented Lodge could be thought of as an eco-glamping experience. The accommodations, sparkling white spaceship-like cocoons, speckle a rustic landscape where teak decks look out over watering holes that attract anything from wild boar to grey langur monkeys.
I recently spoke with Malik, Managing Director of Resplendent Ceylon, Ltd., about his family’s passion with giving back, how they strive to be a responsible role model, and how the company successfully branched out into hospitality.
1- Why do you call yourself an “accidental hotelier?”
Once I graduated from Babson College near Boston, I immediately returned to Sri Lanka and joined the family business, which is mainly tea. When I call myself an “accidental hotelier,” it’s because I quite chanced upon that opportunity. Every time I went up to the tea plantations in the hill country, with its verdant scenery and old bungalows, I always knew I wanted to do something with these bungalows. Once we had the ceasefire in Sri Lanka in 2001, we had a lot of customers writing to us saying they would like to visit our tea estates, and they also wanted some guidance in terms of visiting Sri Lanka. (We were happy to do that.) After all, people visiting Sri Lanka only knew the country through Dilmah, which exported teas to 100 countries and where my father would include a letter with each box of tea. (We were probably the most active Sri Lankan presence in people’s homes around the world.) We realized that we could upgrade these bungalows and have a high standard of service and food, and essentially harken back to the times of old. That’s what I mean by “accidental hotelier;” I stumbled into that area from the main family business of tea. And, from there on, we expanded.
2- Why did you become involved with the hotel collection as opposed to focusing in on another aspect of the family business?
I was exposed to all aspects of the family business as was my brother, Dilhan: tea growing, branding and exporting. When he and I both came back to Sri Lanka at the same time -- he had attended a university in the UK -- we ended up doing pretty much everything in the family business. But when we started the Tea Trails project, I grew to like that side of the business. I’ve traveled a fair deal and I knew what I liked. I always had an affinity for staying at boutique, unbranded properties. So, I essentially built hotels that I would like to stay at. It was a passion first, and a business second. I’m still involved with tea, but I progressively became more involved as the portfolio grew. I’m pretty hands on.
3- How did your father go from producing and selling tea to hospitality?
It was a group of us -- myself and a couple of friends -- that came to him with the idea. At that time, we had already been investing in other people’s hotels, so I said to him, “Why don’t we do our own and go in our own direction?” I think he thought it was quite crazy at first.
We knew what our customers wanted. And we had a track record of innovation and branding. My father supported that. But I don’t think he ever expected it be what it’s become now: delighting guests and creating products that are quite unique in Sri Lanka. Once he saw how successful Tea Trails was, he supported me with subsequent projects. He said that, like with tea, tourism has a local value added of almost 100%.
4- Why is philanthropy key to the business model, and key for your family?
When my father started the business in the 1960s, he always gave back to families, employees, and children, including school uniforms, school books, and scholarships. There’s a responsibility of businesses, especially when the government isn’t able to meet all the needs of the people. My father came from a low- to middle-class family that lived in a rural area in a small village. From a very young age, his role model was his mother who used to make food on special occasions and invite the whole village. She was in the habit of helping anyone in the village. They didn’t have a lot but they had enough and they shared. When he started his own business, he remained inspired by what he learned from his mother. In the early 2000s, a foundation was formulated so that we could give back in a structured manner. A significant amount of the earnings automatically goes into two entities: The MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation. That money is spent by the trustees in special projects throughout the country. Both of them are the most active private foundations in Sri Lanka.
5- Can you tell me how these two entities show their concern for the community and the environment?
The MJF Charitable Foundation focuses on social justice. (We really got started post-tsunami 2004 when the government was helpless, so we dived in. That was a takeoff point for a lot of the programs we’ve done.) Our Small Entrepreneurship Program has about 2,000 entrepreneurs -- such as watch repairman, cobblers, tailors, beauty salons workers -- who we help with grants, and basic business education, as opposed to giving handouts. We found that one entrepreneur helps 17 in their immediate circle, whether in their family or their community.
We have a program with the prisons. We helped 400 parolees get back on their feet, and reduce ostracization, which happens when they go back to their communities without a job. The relapse rate went from something like 65% to 5%.
We operate 90 daycare facilities in the Tea Country. When the women go out into the fields, they leave their young kids at the center where they are cared for.
Just outside Colombo, there’s a nine-acre center which has the National Cerebral Palsy Center, and the Down’s Syndrome Center. There are about 1,000 children with different needs coming in every day. We have a team of about 50 teachers and volunteers. (We also have programs that work with battered women, and street kids.)
In Weligama, the Foundation funds a community center, which offers free school for kids three to five years old, and, for kids doing their secondary education, there are classes in math, dance, English, and so forth. We train the fishermen’s wives to make handicrafts and other goods that can be sold to hotel guests. Any family within a one-kilometer radius can benefit from that center.
Dilmah Conservation, which focuses on the environment, has a four-pronged approach: sustainability, biodiversity, heritage and communications. We have, for example, a climate research station on our tea plantations. We also got involved in leopard conservation. Just behind our Wild Coast resort is the first national leopard research station, which is a full-time center. It will bring all the research under one roof and then advise the government. In addition, with the department of wildlife, we helped rebuild the elephant transit home, which is an orphanage where there are 100 baby elephants there at one time. (These are baby elephants where the parents were either killed by poachers or hit by trains.) The elephants come into the center from the Udawalawe National Park six times a day for milk and then they go back to the park on their own. (Tourists can see them when the elephants come in every three hours.)
6- Why is the environment important for your brand/business?
Taking care of our immediate environment is critical and a core part of what we do. It comes naturally from what my father has ingrained in us. We’re all affected by climate change, and we can’t just stand by. We have to do what we can to do good. Rather than funding activities by other people, we want to take responsibility for what we do, so we have our own teams working on projects that we nurture.
7- How does Resplendent Ceylon engage with the local community in terms of arts and crafts?
Near the elephant transit home, we have a program where we worked with women who were sugar cane cutters -- a business that had died out here. We had some of these women train with a master potter. Now they are creating some fine pottery. A lot of the ceramic work you see in the rooms and in the public areas of Cape Weligama are created by these women. We also teach the village women to make handicrafts at Mankada Pottery near Udawalawe that we can sell in our gift shop at Cape Weligama or the guests can go there. We’re going to expand the shop to have a gallery where we’ll show artwork done by the local community. All profits would go towards the running of the center. Another thing we’re looking at near Wild Coast is to take on a handicraft village that’s not working effectively, and to uplift it to be attractive to tourists.
8- What role does tea play in each of the three properties?
Tea Trails is located in the high country at around 4,500 feet and it’s all about tea. You have tea pairings, the Tea Experience where guests visit the tea factory, and the bungalows are set among the tea fields -- it’s the epicenter of Ceylon tea. We also have a unique selection of Dilmah teas available at all the resorts, and we offer high tea in the afternoon. We even bring tea and cinnamon into our spa treatments. (Cinnamon is another unique product because 97% of true cinnamon is grown in Sri Lanka.)
9- What makes each of the three properties distinctive from the other?
When we started out, I never wanted to create a brand. I wanted to build individual resorts. There is no commonality in design among the three resorts. Rather, the common thread is service. The food is different among the three but the quality is high.
Tea Trails -- our first property -- very much harkens back to the past; it’s spacious, and laid back. It’s unhotel like and it’s the most intimate of the resorts because there’s a max of five rooms in each bungalow. It’s very outdoorsy with the trekking and the mountain biking. Each of the bungalows is unique; you could stay a night in each or trek between them and have a meal. The bungalow allows for a communal atmosphere, but you can also have privacy if you want it. You could sit at a big communal table and have dinner with other guests -- you might meet other like-minded travelers -- or have privacy.
Cape Weligama was our second property. I didn’t want to build unless I had a unique location, and I found it at this 130-foot-high cliff-edge property. (In Sri Lanka, there are very few headlands.) You might say it’s Tea Trails on the beach. We wanted to respect the topography, so we kept the natural contours of the land. And, unlike many Southeast Asian resorts where you might have 30 or 40 villas around a pool, we have a 45-foot pool and a garden shared by two to three villas. (Some of the villas have their own private pools.) That sense of community along with privacy was inspired by Tea Trails.
If you look at Wild Coast, there again, we didn’t have a brand concept. The designers had free reign. We got fishermen from the village to erect those bamboo structures. Because we didn’t have bamboo expertise here, we got some foreign trainers, including one guy from New York, who trained them in the art of bamboo work. (The fishermen were already good with knots.) Now we’ve upskilled them and when they’re not fishing, they can make these small structures that are very sustainable. (We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries from people who want these structures built.)
We built Wild Coast as a game changer -- it’s won a variety of design awards. We showed what can be done in a location without building a huge brick structure. Wild Coast is very light on the environment. We were very careful as to what trees were cleared for the building. We kept it low density with the cocoons, which were essentially hand crafted: hand cut and sewn. We were very lucky with the location: a sunny, pristine beach; at sundowner it’s empty. It’s as much for the animals as it is for the people. All our water is from the ocean. We converted it to potable water. And the ponds (watering holes) come from the grey water and they serve as habitats for wildlife.
10- How do your guests engage with these three properties?
All the properties are different; all are original. If you didn’t know they were part of Resplendent Ceylon, you might think they were three separate properties. We’re part of Relais & Chateaux which we’re very proud of. But, just like how Relais & Chateaux is composed of like-minded members, these three properties share the same level of service and the same ethos, but are individual in terms of their feel. We tell people to take the Resplendent Ceylon Sri Lankan journey -- tea (Tea Trails), sea (Cape Weligama), and safari (Wild Coast Tented Lodge). They will see three distinctive parts of Sri Lanka and three very individual properties. About half our guests stay at all three resorts. Tea Trails can be as active as you’d like it to be: white water rafting, mountain biking, trekking, or you could be a couch potato and relax. For families, there are more attractions at Wild Coast and Cape Weligama: nature at Wild Coast and water sports at Cape Weligama.
11- What are some of your favorite things to do and see in Sri Lanka, and what do you think visitors should not miss?
I very much like traveling by train; it’s a delightful means of transportation. You can start in Kandy and travel to Hatton where the staff at Tea Trails can pick you up, or you can carry on to Nuwara Eliya and Ella. I like the east coast, such as Trincomalee, even though there are not many properties there. It’s very laid back, a flashback to old Ceylon. There’s amazing whale watching, and a lot of history: a former British naval base is located there. And there are stunning beaches. Another thing I like to do is visit the Cultural Triangle and climb Sigiriya rock; it’s a wonderful experience. That area has 2,000-year-old temples and shrines. Also worth visiting is the Knuckles area just north of Kandy that has some wonderful biodiversity. I also like walking around Galle Fort, Asia’s largest remaining fort. The area around Galle -- and the whole southern coast -- is the busiest part of Sri Lanka and a must for the tropical beach life, surfing and whale watching. Visitors should also see one of our national parks, such as one in the Cultural Triangle. On the northern peninsula, Jaffna and other places are a bit of a time warp, it’s not for pampering or luxury. And, a visit to Sri Lanka isn’t complete without seeing the Tea Country. The country’s commerce and economy began in the Tea Country.