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Bringing out the Pinoy GM at Seda Hotels

ED KASTLI, vice-president for international sales of the American Hotels and Lodging Educational Institute (AHLEI), takes pride in telling this story of a Filipina room attendant who ended her housekeeping duties each day on a different note. After making a room, she would sit down, pull out a card, and write to her guest. This she did for years, and by the time of her retirement, she had written 7,000 personalized thank-you notes by her count.

Seda BGC Facade

“It’s not rocket science,” Mr. Kastli said. “And honestly, nothing is rocket science in this service. It’s the small touches.”

These “small” touches, however, have not brought the Filipino far ahead in the hospitality industry worldwide. While Filipino hospitality staff have a stellar reputation practically anywhere on the planet, their records have not helped them climb up the ranks in this sector.

In Europe and the Middle East, Filipinos are known to be “very nice,” Mr. Kastli said, adding that we have “wonderful soft skills” and “a genuine smile that need not be taught.” But beyond that, Filipinos are not trained to deliver industry best practices — which is perhaps a common observation among the higher-ups who otherwise clearly recognize potential. Mr. Kastli urges Filipinos in this industry to “be more proactive” and practice “more critical thinking as they do their jobs.”

For his part, Andrea Mastellone, the Italian general manager of Seda, said, “There’s a huge work force of Filipinos in the hotel, and they’re not managers.” The hotel group of AyalaLand Hotels and Resorts Corp. had tapped the services of AHLEI, which held workshops for the Seda staff.

Seda said it became the first hotel brand in Asia to train its staff in the Customer “Gold Service” program aimed at ensuring the consistency of international standards in service among hotel front-liners.

The AHLEI training was also introduced among Seda’s security guards.

The Lodging Security Certification program made the guards part of the hotel’s hospitality service. A truly outstanding officer must remember the guest’s name when opening and closing doors, and be able to make suggestions to weary-looking guests, such as, “Have you tried our spa?”

THE EUROPEAN EXPERIENCE
Mr. Mastellone thought of this idea to supplement what he finds to be the inadequate college-level education offered in the country. While he has seen capable Filipino staff, the obsolete books used in schools and the training in small local hotels (which usually do not abide by international standards) keep Filipinos from being promoted.

“As Europeans, we have been the first. We have always been the best in the industry,” Mr. Mastellone said. The hospitality sector, after all, is an institution in Europe dating centuries.

Mr. Mastellone remembered his stay at Cesar Ritz Colleges in Switzerland, where hoteliers from all over the world “grab students” year after year, knowing they are filling up the hotels with students who are the best. “Then, the Americans came in. Asia was left behind,” he said.

Chinese and Singaporeans have now overtaken Filipinos, thanks to institutions like the Cornell-Nanyang Institute of Hospitality Management.

For Filipinos, education remains a hurdle. “If you want to go and study in the US, it costs as much as a house,” Mr. Mastellone said. For Mr. Mastellone to earn his degree, his former employer had to pitch in about $20,000 to sponsor a general manager’s program in the prestigious School of Hotel Administration of New York’s Cornell University.

“Here, there is not a place [like that school],” Mr. Mastellone noted sadly. But he singled out Enderun, a private nonsectarian undergraduate college as the only “high-end” hospitality school in the country. “But Enderun is for whom?” he asked. “The rich and famous, right?”

Yet Enderun also provides financial aid to 25% of its student population — a remarkable percentage that, as Enderun founder and hotel veteran Jack Tuason emphasizes, is “not charitable service.”

“This is an investment,” Mr. Tuason said in an e-mail. “Investing in talented young adults to equalize the playing field will yield a return for our institution. These graduates will rise to the highest levels and, in return, provide career opportunities to our future graduates.”

Mr. Tuason agrees that part of the reason there are few Filipino GMs is the lack of international caliber hotel programs in the country. But he also cites other factors. One is the recruitment for Management Trainee positions in international hotels, which is corporate-driven — international companies want international leaders to represent them.

‘FILIPINO SUPERSTARS’
For this article, we also e-mailed Sharon Samarista-Beigel, director of communications of Shangri-La Hotel in Dubai at the time of our correspondence. She agrees that education is crucial to success in this, as in any other industry. But otherwise Filipinos are generally doing well in this milieu, she said.

“There are many Filipino superstars in the hospitality industry except they are not general managers. General managers come from food and beverage and room operations background and we are not experts in these areas because of lack of access to better education and exposure,” said the Filipina Ms. Beigel, who has almost two decades in the hotel industry, based in various parts of Asia and the Middle East.

“Filipinos are excellent waiters, restaurant managers, housekeepers, and assistant housekeeping managers, and only a marginal number become a director of food and beverage or a director of rooms,” Ms. Beigel added. “While there are many culinary enthusiasts in the country, we are not able to compete with a European schooled in the best culinary schools in Switzerland or France and having an exposure to fine cuisine and wines while growing up.

“The skills of Filipinos are in sales and marketing, human resources and training, guest relations and concierge. These departments are integral to the success of a hotel. We do not necessarily have to be a general manager to define success in this industry,” she said.

In Manila, GMs are usually sourced from a pool of resident managers from outside the country, as having international experience is a key factor that cannot be taught and can only be gained through exposure.

Appointment of a GM for a large hotel is made among GMs from mid-sized hotels in other locations.

Second, it is generally difficult for Filipinos abroad to climb up the ladder in the hospitality sector, partly due to immigration laws where they are based. And the positions available to them are mostly at the very lowest levels (i.e. housekeeping). Filipinos who take these positions usually aim to just improve their living conditions and perhaps settle abroad. “It is not their priority to hop around seeking promotions to advance their career,” Mr. Tuason said.

And yet for hospitality headhunters like Vic Alcuaz, who has over 30 years of experience in the service industry, the fault also rests in Filipinos themselves. “There are many qualified Filipinos who can rise to the GM post,” he said in a text message. Mr. Alcuaz recently released a book entitled Hospitality Superstars, where he ranked the leading hoteliers. Filipino GMs, he added, are “not united enough to collectively address this decades-old issue.”

Furthermore, there has been no encouragement from the Philippine government — despite an agreement between the Department of Tourism, Department of Labor, and the Bureau of Immigration for hotel owners to appoint a Filipino understudy for the duration of the expatriates’ contracts, which usually cover two years.

“For some expatriate GMs, life is too good in the Philippines to give up,” Mr. Alcuaz said.

Especially so when others in the host country who can really aspire for those positions are limited in expressing their hospitality with a smile and saying “Thank you for staying with us,” in 7,000 personalized ways. — additional reports by R.S.Torre

Story by Pola Esguerra del Monte. (Business World Online)