It is easy to understand why Congressman Weslie T. Gatchalian has much confidence in local tourism. The figures, after all, are on his side.
The waves of tourists rolling toward Philippine shores have become greater than ever. The numbers hit around 3.5 million in 2010 and since then, they have been growing at a nearly consistent pace. Just this year, data from the Department of Tourism revealed that the months of January to May saw international tourist arrivals reaching 2,061,135; this is a 2.4 percent growth year-on-year. And this came just after figures reached around 4.6 million in 2014.
For the local hospitality industry, this may be a challenge. But according to Gatchalian, who speaks on behalf of Waterfront Hotels and Casinos, it is one that his company is more than willing to face.
In recent years, the iconic hotel chain has launched a number of expansions and renovations. All these are meant to see its properties fit in meeting the various demands of the country’s ever-increasing tourists. Manila Pavilion, for one, is in the midst of renovating all 500 of its rooms. The company in May also launched its own mobile app for the convenience of its patrons.
Gatchalian himself stood at the frontline of change. Recently, he led the facelift of Waterfront Cebu City Hotel and Casino’s lobby. And with the help of architects from Steven Leach Jr.+ Associates Inc., he managed to breathe new life into the long-standing institution. These days, Gatchalian keeps himself busy with numerous prospects concerning Waterfront and beyond. But he does have time to talk about the future and the promise it holds.
Based on your experiences with the company, what would you say are the key elements of the Waterfront Hotels and Casinos brand?
The strength of Waterfront is that it’s located in the three main islands of the Philippines. Basically, we’ve targeted the major cities, which is Manila, Cebu and Davao, and we became a major institution in these cities. As you notice, we haven’t really gone into the other provinces mainly because we know that the main businesses are in the key cities.
Another strength of Waterfront, aside from obviously the rooms, service and the 16 years of experience, is that we’re quite very strong in our conventions and events. These are the added amenities. Not only with the rooms, the major revenue come also from having the convention and events facilities especially in Cebu. We have the largest convention facility [nationwide] next to CCP and PICC. Also, three out of our five hotels have casinos for added highlights and numerous F&B outlets.
We’re very proud to be an all-Filipino managed, owned and operated hotel chain in the country. We’ve been approached many times by international hotel chains, but we never signed up to anything. It’s mainly because we know the strength of the Filipino people.
I think, right now in the Philippines, we are the largest Filipino owned and managed hotel chains totaling 2,500 rooms.
And in terms of gaming, how does Waterfront fare nowadays?
Our gaming business is presently managed by Pagcor Casino Filipino.
Right now, among the Pagcor Casinos, Manila Pavilion and the casino in Waterfront Cebu, if I’m not mistaken, are in the top five revenue-making casinos of Pagcor. In terms of areas, we are, right now, the largest tenant for Casino Filipino. The one in Cebu is already the biggest in Cebu. The one here in Manila is among the biggest as well. It has already gone to expand to three floors. So, right now, Waterfront is the biggest partner of Casino Filipino when it comes to casino operations.
What is the current direction of the company?
Obviously, the vision right now of Waterfront is to further expand our products. Just recently, the group has acquired a 500-room hotel which, as of now, has never been divulged in the market. It’s a new project coming in. It’s a 6,000 square meter property. It’s a big property in the Manila area.
As you well know, we also have the boutique concept, the G hotel. The G concept is very special. It’s very exclusive. It’s very cozy. The whole hotel is all-suite. There are no regular rooms. This is the concept we want to expand also in other provinces, especially those smaller provinces. We cannot leave the small provinces out, mainly because we already made studies that show that this market segment is also growing. So for a small boutique hotel, we’ll be using the G hotel concept.
And, of course, going back to the operation, we continue to push the services we have inside the hotel, the amenities we have. We recently finished the renovation of 250 rooms in Manila Pavilion. These are composed of deluxe, deluxe premiere, executive suite, ambassador floor, ambassador suite, and we now have two brand-new presidential suites. Just this June, we started construction and demolition of the next 250 rooms. So by the end of the year, all 500 rooms of the Manila Pavilion hotel will be brand-new.
In Cebu, we have finished the new lobby. The lobby of Waterfront has been well-known already because, number one, it is the largest lobby in the whole of the Philippines, spanning up to 3,000 square meters.
You also had a hand in the renovation before, right?
Yes. I was the one who personally handled the project of renovating the lobby together with Steven Leach Jr. + Associates Inc. It’s about time that we had something new, so we renovated everything, putting in Egyptian marbles, putting in the latest technology and, of course, pieces by National Artists, like Eduardo Castrillo who has done some of the sculptures there, and we’ve got some famous, different and local artists from Manila to do our artworks. It’s a grand lobby that we did. Also, we’ve made improvements on the technological side of the operation. Just to inform you, we’re one of the hotel chains in the Philippines who have their own call center. We operate 24/7. We have our own reservation line. We have our own toll-free numbers as well from Europe, US and other countries like Japan. We’ve also been very strong in the online travel agents like Agoda, Expedia. We’ve been winning awards, becoming one of the best clients of the online travel agencies.
Also, we’ve launched our mobile app, the Waterfront mobile add. Now you can book online through iPod and Android devices. We’re also very strong on Facebook and the marketing aspect of it. We’ve been very busy lately. We’ve also been revamping our website. We’ll be having a new look on our website. It’ll be much more efficient and much easier to use. It’ll cater to dynamic business people on a rush to find and book a hotel. Also, we designed this website to cater to foreign clients who are just browsing, looking for a hotel to stay in when in the Philippines.
As you mentioned earlier, Waterfront has focused on key cities in the Philippines. In your opinion, what are the important elements to consider in order to be a relevant hotel in a city destination?
Number 1 is the brand name. People come because of the brand. When you say “brand name,” it’s connected to the quality of service that you give, the quality of attention you give to your clients, and the quality of innovation as well that you bring in. You know, the hotel industry is very fast moving. The hotel industry has a lot of new innovations. You have to keep up with the market.
The good thing with Waterfront is that we are constantly updating ourselves whether it’s in the technology, the service, the equipment, or renovation. We’re constantly updating every aspect of the hotel. All of these are connected to the brand name. This is why Waterfront has been here for 16 years and it’s known throughout the Philippines already. Not only in the three major islands but also our partners abroad. These are the qualities that make the brand name strong. And of course with that brand name comes also the image. That’s why we’ve been constantly renovating, updating our facilities, updating our rooms and our F&B outlets, and we’ve been hiring good people to work with us.
Some of the new hires, for example, the manager right now in Waterfront Cebu City, has a long experience in Maldives, China and other countries. He’s a French guy. We asked him to join our group in order to share his experiences as well. In Manila Pavilion, we have a British general manager. Obviously, the whole corporate set up is still managed by Filipinos, even the board of directors, but once in a while, we ask for the contribution of other property managers to share their experience abroad and bring it here to the Philippines.
It’s proudly Filipino but it’s not closed off… Yes. Basically it’s more of the creational aspect where we get foreign property managers.
Speaking of foreign influences,you had some yourself when you studied in London, right?
I graduated from Oxford University, Business Operations Management, and I took my Master’s Degree in London Metropolitan University. So, basically, when I was living in Europe, I had the chance to obviously travel around and see other countries in Europe – Spain, France, Italy – and you get to learn a lot about how they run their hotels.
You know, Europeans have a different standard. They may be advanced in the equipment, they may be advanced in the services, but I still believe that, when you bring it here and you add the kind of customer service Filipinos give, in the end, iba pa rin ang Pilipino [the Filipino way remains unique.]
Did you always know that you were going to be part of this industry?
Well, back then, yes. But obviously the background of the mother company, the majority shareholder of Waterfront, is a diversified company with various investments, so I’ve been trained in the past years since I graduated in 2004 not only in the hospitality business, but also in other investments specifically mergers and acquisitions.
What is it about the hospitality industry that attracts you personally?
In every city, whenever you travel around the globe, which I do once in awhile, setting up a hotel business is quite a norm now especially in developing countries or developing areas. This business is a must right now when you’re developing a big city. All these hotel chains come in handy. Having a luxurious hotel or a very good hotel brings an image into the whole area. I believe that this is a magnet that attracts travelers, businessmen and locals. It creates an image that defines a city and a country. So, having a good hotel chain, having a good Filipino brand, also brings up the name of the country as well. It has that power. It has that influence, but at the same time, it’s a norm. All big cities—New York, London, Paris, Tokyo—all of them have big hotels that they’re very much proud of. It has become a must. This is the reason why our group has invested in the hotel industry.
If you’re not aware, we started only with two hotels—both in Cebu. At that time, we didn’t foresee that this business, that our group, would grow to what it is right now. After that, we purchased another property in Manila which was the old Hilton before. Then we purchased another property in Davao which was the old Insular Hotel. And, from then on, we’ve been continuously growing and expanding.
In your opinion, what makes a good hotel experience?
It starts from the time you enter to the time you check out. For me, the whole process should be a memorable process even if you’re a loyal customer who has been going back and forth to Waterfront or maybe a first time customer, or maybe a foreigner in his (or her) first time in the Philippines, or maybe somebody who is in Manila who is in his or her first time in Davao. The process should be seamless.
For me, it’s not enough that you give someone a nice bed, a place to stay in, or make that person comfortable with cool air-conditioning.
This is what we’re very much proud of—that our department heads keep a close eye on not only loyal customers, or wealthy people or VIPs. We treat everybody the same. I want the non-VIPs to have the same experience so that they’ll keep on coming back. So far, we are very happy because they really keep on coming back.
We get a lot of good comments when they email us, when they give feedback. We get a lot of good comments not only because of one property. And when they give good comments, they move to other [Waterfront] properties as well. That’s the good part.
When they have a good experience in Manila, whenever they have a trip to Cebu, they’ll more likely consider Waterfront. And we’ve maintained the same [quality] throughout our properties. The Waterfront experience that I mentioned is not only in Cebu; we have a very good 500-room hotel there, but it’s also the same in Davao where we only have 180 rooms there. That’s the beauty of Waterfront.