11 questions with… Shanitha Fernando, Authenticities

LATTE chats exclusively with the President of Sri Lankan DMC

This week LATTE chats exclusively with the President of Sri Lankan travel company, Authenticities. Shanitha Fernando shares with us the ethos of Authenticities, the four pillars behind the business, and how the company gives back to the community.

How long has Authenticities been in operation and what was your background and experience before starting this company?

This is my 29th year in tourism, and together with my colleagues who joined me to start Authenticities we have a combined 105 years in tourism. I started at the age of 18 in Sri Lanka’s premier conglomerate called Walkers Tours which was a very diverse company having different verticals into business. I was in their tourism sector, starting from the rock bottom and going up to Vice President Sales and Marketing for Europe and the US.

In Sri Lanka for the last 30 years we have gone through ups and downs with the civil war, etc. When the good times returned in 2009 with the end of the civil war, I thought it was time to go out and do something totally different. Hitherto, most businesses in Sri Lanka’s travel industry took a cookie-cutter, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – nobody was taking risks or trying something new.

I created Authenticities in 2013, so this is our sixth year and we now have 47 staff. Our product is hard to replicate – it is purely authentic in nature, culturally relevant, very experiential and emotionally engaging.  It’s about transformational and experiential journeys, incorporating the highlights of Sri Lanka while showing our guests a different side of the country that other clients may not see. The difference is in the in-depth knowledge and experience – we know how to portray Sri Lanka and how to articulate it.

Why was the business established? Was there a void in the market for what you offer as a DMC?

We really saw the potential in transformational journeys. Authenticity is at the core of everything we do at Authenticities. That’s the bedrock.

We have four dimensions: Design, Novelty, Finesse and Goodness. These dimensions have significant implications – each complementing the other – and they also allow us to fulfil our philosophical mission.

Design involves us extensively travelling within Sri Lanka to curate new experiences that would suit discerning travellers; Novelty is new ideas, innovations and curations that we bring into our itineraries; Finesse is how we execute things on the ground, creating experiences that are hard to replicate and Goodness is giving something back to the less fortunate in the societies we do business in.

If I’ve learned something from being in this trade – other than tourism – it’s humility. It’s very important to give something back and share the blessing of success with the less fortunate. Authenticities created our philanthropy initiative CONNECT. Our primary focus is rural education in Sri Lanka. Even though education is free in Sri Lanka, in terms of facilities there are some limitations in the rural parts of the country. We build classrooms, provide desks and chairs, sports equipment, sanitary facilities, toilets – whatever the need may be. We work with five schools every year.

Meetings with the novice monks

How does Authenticities Connects contribute/give back to these community projects? Are you funding projects and can you provide examples?

Rural education is our primary concern; every year between January and March we identify five important projects in rural communities and complete them from April to September.

We are the only company in Sri Lanka that has regional staff – so we have our own staff, in their own region. Outside of our main office in Colombo, we have offices in Jaffna, Cultural Triangle, Kandy and Galle. Through this network, it’s easy for us to identify who deserves what.

So, we not only provide better services on the ground, but we are also better equipped to engage in CSR [corporate social responsibility]. We have been completing these projects since our inception as a company in 2013 and we spent the most money on CSR – $15,000 – this year, following the terrible incident in Sri Lanka over Easter. With the ensuing slump in all businesses, including tourism, we redirected our energies towards supporting our community projects.

CONNECT initiative visit to a school

Cultural immersion and meeting locals are core to your business. How do those local communities directly benefit from tourism?

In Sri Lanka, 95 per cent of other companies in this business are engaged in mainstream tourism. They work with various overseas networks, they get the clientele, book the hotels and provide transport with hardly any tourism dollars trickling back into local communities. It’s purely a business model.

We follow a business model too, of course, but our experiences and transformational journeys focus on rural Sri Lanka. For example, we take our guests to Ritigala to see Angampora (an indigenous martial arts demonstration) – it’s a very rural village. By going there, we are trying to sustain that indigenous martial arts culture. We also visit native Ayurvedic doctors because Western medicine is quickly taking over and native treatments are slowly dwindling. We try to filter those tourism dollars into these things.

Kandyan dancing is another cultural element of Sri Lanka that is very hard to sustain, so we sponsor that academy and we include it in our plans. We are funding it basically – those tourism dollars trickle into this. There is a range of other areas and activities that I can mention where those tourism dollars are trickling down to every level of society.

Martial arts performance

Can you provide two or three examples of authentic experiences that travel advisors will not find with any other DMC?

We have so many but one is we go into rural Sri Lanka’s hermitages where monks meditate from morning until evening. They are mostly in rural areas – very difficult to traverse, either in jungles or mountains – so we go into those rural temples and we do almsgiving for the monks, providing them with lunch. Monks have only two meals a day: an early breakfast with sunrise and another meal around 11:30am. Monks have no kitchens and they don’t cook so it’s the surrounding communities providing alms that sustains them, and this is what we offer to our clients. It’s not a touristic experience, no other tours are around, it’s a totally private experience.

We also meditate with Buddhist monks, going into the original caves in what we call the holy land where Buddhism was introduced in the 3rd century, in 236BC.

Indigenous martial arts is another experience. As is our private Kandyan dance/cultural experience, our clients not only have the opportunity to witness a cultural show but also they can take part, especially families with children who want to learn Kandyan dance forms to traditional drums.

We go into rural villages and play cricket with locals. Other companies may do this in a more organised or staged way, but we play in their own backyards just like the locals do. We go with the children and visit local families to learn how to make lanterns or kites and together fly them in their own backyards.

These are all small group activities that can cater to between two and around 14 clients. It’s always a private experience; we don’t even have our own clients go at the same time – our regional staff timetable the bookings that come through the travel advisors so that groups never overlap. We make these connections with local communities through our regional network, with our staff who build good relations with the local people. If there is a specific client wanting a specific thing, we have very fast access to find what they want through our network.

Private meditation sessions with a monk

You’ve recently appointed a local representative in Australia. Are you expecting big things from Australia and why?

Authenticities is very clear on our mission. We are a very cultural company, as can be seen in our key obligations and dimensions.

We see two types of traveller in modern day Sri Lanka and Asia: one is driven by fantasy – they want to stay in the best hotels and have the most luxurious experiences – and the other kind is driven by a return to nature. These are two completely motivations; the ones behind fantasy would crave for announcing their personal brand, they want to do experiences, excursions and food in the shortest amount of time and stay in fantasy hotels. But the other sector, which is distinctly different, want to return to a country or travel to a country to alter their own life path. They want transformational and experiential journeys. They want to return to nature.

We are following the latter, and in doing that we have selected the countries we want to work with which are primarily in Western Europe (France, Italy, Spain, UK), a little bit of Scandinavia, America and Canada and Australia. Essentially, people who love and appreciate culture.

Shanitha Fernando with Kirsty Thomas Thoeun, Authenticities, Sales Business Development Manager and Michael Pound, MTA.

Have you signed any preferred agreements with any Australian luxury travel agency networks or individual agencies?

We are really new. We appointed Kirsty as our Sales & BDM in Australia in April, just a few weeks before the incidents on Easter. We are seeing a lot of interest coming back, speaking to a few tour operators and also luxury travel advisors and home-based consultants. We have met with some of them and will meet with more in the coming days. The response to our presentation and what we do is amazing so I think in the next six months or so we will see huge success.

What would the typical Australian traveller do and see when visiting Sri Lanka, and what would Authenticities suggest as a point of difference?

Sri Lanka is a fascinating country with lush landscapes and deep cultural heritage. It’s a fascinating country because there are myriad discoveries disproportionate to its diminutive size. I can’t think of any other country of our size that has so many attractions: abundance in nature and UNESCO World Heritage sites – we have eight of them – as well as 3,500 years of continuous written history, legendary temples, highlands, mountains and great bird and wildlife. Sri Lanka has 450 bird species out of which 33 are endemic only to Sri Lanka.

We have beautiful coastlines. The only thing I can think of that we don’t have is the desert and the snow. We have beautiful waterfalls, 20 odd thousand lakes. So, we can cater to all kinds of traveller coming out of Australia. Some will come for beach holidays, some for surfing, some for family travel. Sri Lanka is also becoming very popular for incentive and corporate travel, all these corporate companies who once did their incentives in Bali are now looking at Sri Lanka.

The biggest asset in tourism for us is the people of Sri Lanka. They are so welcoming, so smiling – even at midnight you can freely travel on the roads and feel safe. The food is amazing. I can’t give you any negatives, only positives.

 

How do luxury Australian travel advisors and partners benefit by working with Authenticities?

Private Tea Tasting

Our product is very different to others, but our services are outstanding, starting from curating itineraries, the use of language in those itineraries, efficient responses and handling the clients on the ground starting from the airport all the way through to departure. The quality of vehicles that we use – luxury but also a great selection of mid-range vehicles. The services we provide like wifi and amenities on board our vehicles. The help our clients get from our regional offices. Getting priority access to some of the sites which can be very overcrowded.

We even have an app that keeps track of all our clients at all times, providing ongoing and immediate support through WhatsApp.

We may be slightly more expensive than other companies but the quality of our services is there to match.

Visitation to Sri Lanka has bounced back in the second half of 2019 following the terror attacks earlier in the year. Did Authenticities see a softening in the market and now a resurgence?

It’s natural to see a slump when something like this happens, it’s sentiment driven. We had a lot of cancellations and it affected our future bookings. It’s natural that in that period that people who cancelled or were waiting to book will go somewhere else on holiday, so the affected destination will take a beating for around 6-7 months. But come December we are seeing very positive results: a lot of new requests, all the hotels starting from December 20 up to about Easter are recording 65-70% occupancy already which means future bookings are going to be a plus.

And the government has given a lot of incentives for the tourism sector – tax benefits, tax reliefs. The Sri Lankan government exempted 48 countries from the visa fee, so visa is relatively free but still you have to register on a very simple online system. That is up to 31 January next year, visas are free of charge. They will take stock of the results in this period and maybe decide to extend for another 6 months.

For us, that period of time provided breathing space to do our CSR work and travel around the country to find and invest in new experiences. Authenticities did not put off any staff during that time, actually taking on an additional two or three employees, whereas a lot of companies put off up to 20% of their staff.

How important is the travel trade to Authenticities?

We completely depend on the travel trade because we don’t have direct clients. We don’t want to do direct business because we believe in the agent network – tour operators and individual Travel Agencies and home-based travel advisors. We are only B2B (business-to-business) so our only survival depends on the travel industry of Australia. So, it’s very important.

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