Russell Cool is the area general manager for ONYX Hospitality Group in Sri Lanka.
A Gold Coast native, he’s worked around the world in numerous F&B management roles, including stints in London, Melbourne, Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong.
Cool took up his first general manager role at the tender age of 28. He spent eight years with Langham Hotels before working for Stamford Hotels back home in Australia. In 2017, he moved to Sri Lanka to adopt his current role with ONYX Hospitality Group.
2019 was an undeniably tough year for Cool, his team, and Sri Lanka in general, as the country was rocked by a series of suicide bombings in churches, hotels, and private residences on Easter Sunday. In total, 259 people were killed by nine bombers, with over 500 sustaining injuries.
“It was very possibly the toughest period of my entire professional career,” Cool told Hotel Magazine. “I was mid-flight when the attacks occurred, and landing that afternoon the airport was eerily empty. However, it was another story outside the airport.
“All the passengers had been evacuated from the airport terminal with little explanation – there were a lot of frightened people on the curbside, many of whom had come to the airport to try and get a flight out.”
Since the bombings, Sri Lanka has implemented wide reforms in national security legislation, and as such many changes have occurred in the security protocols employed by hotels.
“The biggest change I have seen is that this incident has banded the population together, as these attacks were against civilians,” said Cool.
“Considering the civil war that ended over 10 years ago, the bombings resonated across the population, as the Sri Lankan people are very friendly and engaging. Many felt it was an attack against them personally for no reason.”
Eight months on, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has been slow to recover, but Cool is confident the future looks bright.
“Today we are seeing visitor arrivals slowly return. Foreign governments have lifted their travel advisories and airlines are starting to reinstate their normal flight routes,” Cool explained.
With modern travellers increasingly seeking ‘local’ experiences, Cool argued that the democratisation and improved accessibility of global travel will lead to increased opportunities for grassroots tourism operators.
He also highlighted sustainability concerns and emerging technologies like AI and augmented reality as amongst the most pressing topics in the industry.
“I believe we will see a more focused approach from tourism as a whole with eco-travel and sustainable tourism ventures enticing and attracting more guests,” Cool said.
Despite the wounds remaining fresh in the collective conscience of Sri Lanka, the country is striving to move forward, and Cool spoke nobly of the morsels of meaning to be found in the tragedy.
“The highlight of the whole experience, if I can call it that, was the overwhelming support our ONYX family here received,” he said.
“Everything that happened has strengthened our resolve as a team, and it was so heartwarming to see all the levels of the organisation band together to get through these tough times, with many personal sacrifices made for the good of everyone.”