Tuesday, 16 July 2002  
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100 years in business : GOH turns into a high profit-making venture with dawn of millennium

by Shirajiv Sirimane

The Colonial sort Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) in Fort, which is over 125 years old has turned into a highly profit-making venture since the dawn of the new millennium reviving reminiscences of yesteryears.

The Hotel, which is now 100% owned and managed by the Bank of Ceylon, was running at an unbelievable Rs. 30 million annual loss in the early 1990. "When I took over the hotel in the year 2000, I had a bad surprise at the reception counter," recalled the Director General Manager of the Hotel, Lanil Jayawardane.

"When I inquired as to how many rooms were occupied I was informed that there was only one booking. I was keen to meet this solitary guest and when I asked to who this guest was I was informed that the room booking was for the new Director General Manager, Lanil Jayawardane! And when I questioned as to how many bookings the hotel had for dinner I was told it was for two and that was for me and for the Duty Manager!"

He said that such was the occupancy rate of the hotel, which was never marketed, and the staff was lethargic and simply idling with out work. "I found that there were basic repairs that had to be urgently attended, to make the Hotel more acceptable to the public."

He said that thereafter a massive refurbishment drive was launched at a cost of around Rs. 4 million, which restored the image of the hotel. "The finances for this were raised within the funds of the hotel. The old wooden floors that were perishing way were pursuing replaced with floor tiles while the rooms too were refurbished. We also introduced a Sri Lankan restaurant which is today in high demand from office workers in Fort."

The manager said that last year the hotel had an operational income of Rs. 16 million and a net profit of Rs. 8 million. "I do not know how I did it but I just thought practically and the profits started to come," said Mr. Jayawardane who has over 26 years hotel experience.

He said that last year, one and a half years profit bonus too was paid to the 207 member staff and it would continue this year as well. "We have over 40% occupancy rate today."

He said that today they face stiff competition since they do not have the five star classification. "We cannot have a swimming pool at our hotel but the services we offer is well above the five star hotels and this is why people keep coming back to us."

He said that most of their clientele are repeaters who love the colonial type atmosphere and treasure the old furniture which had been imported from England a century ago."

The hotel which boasts of introducing the first night club, Blue Leopard to the City in the 1960's still introduces new technology to be competitive with the other night clubs in town. The Harbour Bar on their fourth floor, Lotus and Rainbow rooms, their main reception halls, 'Tap Bar' the basement pub, Stallion Lounge and Satin Room along with the Anton Chekov suite and GOH museum are much looked forward to by the visitors.

Chekov, the famous Russian novelist had been a guest of the hotel in 1890 for five days and had started writing the book 'Gusev' from the hotel.

The hotel Personnel Manager J. Dissanayake who has been with the hotel for over 20 years said that the hotel has hosted over 50,000 weddings which may be a record in the local hotel industry.

The Personnel Manager who had taken much care to publish a souvenir magazine in view of their 125th year celebrations said that today the hotel is also being sought by the Maldivian businessmen and the local business community specially to conduct business meetings.

The hotel has a long history spanning over 150 years. The invasion of tea and coffee planters and the existence of the Colombo Port prompted the British authorities to convert the military barracks near the GOH into an army hostel. However with the increasing traffic to the Colombo Port there was a big demand for a good hotel in Colombo.

The task of converting the Army hostel into a 154-room hotel was undertaken by the then Governor Sir Robert Wilmot Horton who hired the famous architect C. E. Willims who had already under taken the contract for the Colombo General Hospital. The estimate to build the hotel was 2007 pounds but is noteworthy that the hotel was constructed within one year under the estimate for only 1868 pounds.

The Grand Hotel was officially opened on November 5, 1875 and the owners were Colombo Hotels Company Ltd.

The GOH began to prosper from the beginning and many wanted shares in the hotel. This prompted the management to sell 500 shares before the opening and later another 500 were also sold on the day of the opening.

The garden of the Hotel was beautifully landscaped with a large garden and illuminated with coloured bulbs in the evening. There had not been a single day where a party was not held in the garden. Even weddings were held in this popular garden.

The hotel went thorough a refurbishment program in 1920 where attached bathrooms were introduced. In 1940 though still under the British management the colonial only tag started to change and locals too were seen dining and even hosting weddings in the hotel.

However in the early 1950's the communal violence and political situation in the country and a series of strikes in the hotel prompted the British Proprietor, Sam De Vos to sell this prime property. The Bank of Ceylon bought the Grand Oriental Hotel in 1954 for Rs. 650,000 subsequently leased it to Managing Director of Ceylon Hotels, M. Ediriweera.

However he was replaced on a court order in 1960 and the hotel had no official management for nearly two years and the employees faced tremendous hardships. In 1963 the Bank of Ceylon with the assistance of the then Minster of Finance T. B. Illangaratne and Minister of Labour D. S. Gunasekera once again took over the management.

However, due to legal constraints the Bank of Ceylon could not use the name GOH and they renamed the hotel as Taprobane Hotel. Sir Richard Aluwihare was appointed the Chairman and the bank spent Rs. 736,036.90 for urgent repairs.

During this period the hotel went through major changes with the bank taking over a section of the hotel. The hotel was reduced to 54 rooms and the garden too disappeared. A part of the hotel including the large dining room was given to the Bank of Ceylon. Architect, Geoffrey Bawa, did the designing of the new hotel.

During this period the name of the Oriental Hotel was restored.

The hotel though making profits is now up for lease and the present administration is looking for a new management company said the General Manager, Mr. Jayawardane. "Due to this we are not undertaking any major refurbishment programs as yet." 




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