General Manager Sama-Sama Hotels KLIA

Managing three of Malaysia Airports’ hotels under the Sama- Sama brand is no tall order for Sundralingam Kulendra, known for the passion he pours into his work. Having graduated with a Master’s Degree in Hotel Management and worked overseas for 12 years, he returned to Malaysia in 1996 and there has been no turning back. The 56-year-old GM also lectures and is actively involved with other tertiary institutions, certifying potential newbies into the hospitality field.

Having been involved with Malaysia Airports’ hotel properties since February 2011, please share with us your career highlights with the group.
I was privileged in 2012 to be part of the rebranding of its flagship Sama-Sama Hotel KL International Airport (KLIA), formerly Pan Pacific Hotel, which is sited adjacent to KLIA. This was followed by its 442-room refurbishment the subsequent year. 2013 also saw my involvement in the rebranding exercise of Malaysia Airport’s airside transit hotel, Sama-Sama Express KLIA. Another highlight for me was the launching of Sama- Sama Express klia2 in 2014. The Airport Fast Track Service launched in 2016 was also memorable for me.

You were promoted to your current role in March 2018. How is it like managing Malaysia Airports’ three hotels of different categories, especially during the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic?
Going forward through this most challenging time, one of our strategies we adopted is to think out-of-the-box, be it managing the hotels’ operational expenses or exploring business opportunities. We targeted the oil and gas industries and those from the embassies or High Commission offices.

Amidst taking care of our staff’s healthcare and guests’ welfare with sanitisation and other safety measures that abide by the government’s standard operating procedures, our primary goal during the Covid-19 crisis is to maintain our guests’ experience with quality standard of service.

With most of the countries’ borders still closed, we explored ways to encourage locals to stay at our hotels. Besides working closely with our senior management team in handling the hotels’ cost and expenses, I was also mindful of maintaining its profits and earnings before interest, taxes, and amortisation.

How many hotel staff do you oversee and what are the challenges?
I am in charge of a total of 370 hotel staff. Operating now with a minimum workforce, we managed to achieve average occupancy of 60% compared to 80% before the pandemic. Our priorities are to maintain the current local staff while reducing the foreign contractual workforce. At the same time, we encourage multiskills and cross-department teamwork among our staff.

Malaysia Airports’ five-star Sama-Sama Hotel KLIA has been undergoing renovation since December 2019. What is its progress to-date? Is it on track to complete it with the targeted 10 to 12 months?
The first phase, which took less than 10 months, has since been completed. The renovation included the hotel’s ballrooms and functions rooms on level 1, Equator, a new private dining and event venue as well as the Palmz lobby lounge.

Phase two was delayed due to the Conditional Movement Control Order but work has since resumed. It is scheduled to complete by first quarter of 2021. The hotel’s all-day dining restaurant Degrees will be rebranded into an all-day-dining hub called Continents. Other affected hotel areas include the functions rooms on level 2, lobby, reception, concierge and washrooms.

Phase three will cover the new staircase on level 1, guest-lift cars or elevators and walkway to the sky bridge linking the KLIA’s Main Terminal Building. There will also be more washrooms available at the hotel.

What are some of the new technological innovations being introduced as part of its renovation?
We will have two large LED screens measuring 10 ft by 20 ft each at our new Gateway Ballrooms while our hotel rooms will have a new door locking system. We will also have an energy saving INNcontrol system for room temperature control using movement sensors connected to our front office. Other new systems involve our point of sales, fire alarm and building management.

Sama-Sama Hotel KLIA’s Staycation package launched during Covid-19 was a resounding success. Can you share the package’s uniqueness and will it be offered again in the near future?
It is targeted as a short retreat for families with activities organised in a clean and safe environment. The staycation package will be back in 2021 with more exciting stay, dining and recreational activities in the hotel as well as excursion activities at KLIA working with Malaysia Airports and its aviation-related partners. Our aim is also to promote KLIA as a tourism destination.

How do you view the current hotel service standards in Malaysia? Is there room for improvement? If yes, in what areas?
At Sama-Sama Hotels, we provide staff opportunities to grow through cross exposure between departments and going for training and development programmes to sharpen their skills, including in management areas. Apart from these educational opportunities, they are also encouraged to share their ideas.

The life of a hotelier means 24 hours on call. How then do you balance your work and family life? Away from work, how do you unwind?
I am grateful for my family’s understanding and their full support of my career path in hospitality. At home, I am the handyman and love tinkering with my equipment besides tending the organic garden with my wife. I also take time to meet up with old schoolmates to share the good old times of growing up together.

What is your wish list for 2021?
Hopefully, with most of the countries’ borders gradually reopening, we will benefit from
the business opportunities arising, especially for cross-border tourism. With the Covid-19 vaccines available in the near future, I look forward to a new chapter with the newly refurbished Sama-Sama Hotel KLIA as a preferred choice for international transit passengers. I also wish my hospitality industry colleagues and friends who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic will have the chance to return to work soon.

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