BESIDES being neighbors in the southeastern part of Asia, there’s more that the Philippines and Thailand share in common. And that’s the warmth of their people and hospitable culture that has evolved over time.
"I think both countries have had a long history in terms of hospitality,” says Alex Colin Willats, Dusit Thani Manila general manager.
The Briton hotel veteran, who was previously assigned to the Dusit properties in Bangkok, considers himself lucky for it gives him a chance to experience what Thais and Filipinos could offer.
"They’ve kind of developed their own style of service. I’m glad that I’ve been given the opportunity to work in both countries with different styles,” he enthuses.
During his stint in Thailand a few years back, Willats says he observed the Thais prefer staying closer to their home when it comes to work. Also, they are controlled and traditional, which probably led to the development of a unique style of service that is very much attuned to their culture.
"Certainly, within Dusit, we’re trying to emulate parts of that kind of culture and weave it into our style of hospitality, which I think makes us uniquely Thai,” he explains.
In the Philippines, on the other hand, he says Filipinos, who are known worldwide as travelers and overseas workers, are more up front, outgoing and expansive. He adds that the locals are very friendly and open to ideas.
"I think that also makes service and hospitality easier here. I already see that people react positively to new suggestions, to new ways of doing things. We can harness that and maybe make a positive change and execute them really well, so we’ll be in good shape,” he stresses.
Willats began the year in Manila, fresh from his posting at the Dusit property in Bangkok, where he was stationed since 2010. He brings with him 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry with stints in Europe and Asia.
Willats earned his Hotel Management degree with honors at the South Bank University in the United Kingdom. He then joined the InterContinental Hotels Group in its fast-track Management Program, and was accorded a scholarship at Cranfield University’s School of Management.
In London he held senior positions in several hotels. After that, he moved overseas to leading hotel properties in Bahrain. When he joined Dusit International in 2010, he started as resident manager and was eventually named general manager of the Bangkok property. Early this year he was assigned to Manila to occupy the same position.
"This is my first time spending, working and living here in the Philippines,” he reveals. “So, when I had the opportunity to transfer here, I was very happy to come over. I had a very warm welcome when I got to the hotel. Everyone was very accommodating.”
The Philippines is not a foreign country for Willats since he had traveled here before. When he visited with his family in 1982, he recalls memorable things about Pagsanjan Falls, Jeepneys, which he saw to be synonymous with Manila’s hurried daily life, and the war memorial.
"These are really glimpses of memories that I remember,” he says.
After 30 years, he returned to Manila, not once, but twice, the first being a family vacation, while the second was work-related.
While it took him time to set foot again in the country, he says he never lost touch with this side of the world. Growing up in the Middle East, he was fortunate to be surrounded and make friends with a lot of Filipinos who were based there. He even had an opportunity to work—and rubbed elbows playing basketball and soccer—with them in the hotels he managed in Bahrain.
"I could see them having a good [sense of] community and spirit. Of course, I also learned a little bit about their culture and way of life,” says Willats.
Although armed only with his ideas of the Philippines and personal encounters with Filipinos abroad, it was an easy transition for him to take on the top managerial position of Dusit Thani Manila. Though they really helped a lot, he still did a lot of research beforehand, thanks largely to a Filipino friend in Bangkok, who provided him with information about the country, its history and religion, and the like.
"It also helps that everybody here speaks very good English and that people have a great attitude in general, as well. It’s good to note that there’s a lot of similarities and synergy between the hotel I was running in Bangkok and the hotel here. Both of them are of similar size, age and business makeup. So it’s been a relatively stress-free transition. I already see a great deal of opportunity here,” he adds.
The 40-year-old hotelier is gung ho about leading the Philippine property to renewed successes. Given the improving economic situation in the country, Dusit Thani Manila already started 2013 with a bang. At the start of the year, Willats says occupancy rates in the hotel rose by 25 percent in January as compared to the same period last year. He also expects hotel occupancy to increase during the last two months as compared to a year ago.
"At the moment, business travelers are traveling [and staying in our hotel]. We’ve got good leisure business coming in. And there are also some good groups as well, who are coming to the city [and billeting in our property]. That’s a positive indication of good business,” Willats boasts. He cites very strong patronage from local tourists, as well as foreign visitors coming from Japan and the rest of Asia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy.
Under his new leadership, loyal patrons and guests can expect to see “more variety” and “some fresh and new concepts” at Dusit Thani Manila. Being a part of Makati for the last 37 years, it is time for an image makeover.
"We want to keep things creative. I think we’ve already started to make some significant investment back into the property and we will continue to do that over the next two to three years to really give the hotel a facelift. We want to upgrade and renovate the product because we believe that we can continue to add great value to the hotel and, at the same time, still see the benefits of those people coming in and wanting to stay in the Makati area,” he explains.
So what improvements and renovations are there to look forward to at Dusit Thani Manila?
First is the 17th floor, which houses the Executive Lounge and Club Lounge for suite and club guests. This exclusive floor, which opened last March, boasts of a private dining room, a meditation/relaxation room with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a garden that runs throughout the floor.
Fiesta San Miguel is currently being renovated into an all-day dining restaurant by the end of the year, offering an enhanced layout with various food concepts.
Also to be made over are the 150 club rooms and suites, as well as the ballroom and meeting rooms. The Italian bistro Tosca is being revived with a new Italian chef, a remodeled concept, as well as a new menu. Guests can also look forward to events like dinner dances during the year.
Next year, renovation will focus on the rest of the total 538 rooms. In the pipeline is the conversion of Basix restaurant into a bar-cum-lounge or a contemporary meeting space. Dusit is continually working to provide guests with quality food and beverage service, as well as good promotions.
The hotel management is bullish on its prospects this year and beyond. Willats says they are looking at about an 80-percent increase on their business from last year, which is certainly achievable given the remarkable first-quarter performance.
He also welcomes the expansion plans of Dusit International, both globally and in the Philippines. This year there will be six hotels opening overseas: Abu Dhabi; Hainan, China; Pasadena, California; Guam; Nairobi, Kenya; and New Delhi, India. Also, there are plans to put up seven hotels in China over the next two to three years. Anytime in 2014 the Dusit Khao Yai will open in Thailand. In the Philippines the hotel chain is keen on putting up additional sites nationwide, like Cebu, Davao, Palawan or a second property in Manila.
"Certainly, the business forecast remains good. We are aiming for a very positive year ahead,” he says.
He attributes all the good things now happening in the hotel chain to the men and women behind its astounding success.
"They’ve worked hard and sometimes exerted time and resources beyond their means so as to deliver the Dusit International brand’s promise—experience that enlivens the individual spirit, no matter the journey,’’ he adds.
Under his watch, Willats commits to further improve his work and the management style he has gained from many years of working in the industry. By leading by example and dedicating himself to develop a formidable team, he promises to have a well-rounded management that is open and reachable for everybody, to push their creative suggestions and other inputs for the betterment of the company. This he has already proven with the “Back to the Floor” program he initiated on March 11 involving the executive team, including himself, who played as a chef at least for a day.
"This exercise was extremely well worth the effort. We’ll definitely repeat it at some point in the future. I think we will incorporate some of the department heads to swap jobs, so that they can also go and experience what some of their colleagues go through,” he explains. “This, and other initiatives, shall follow for the betterment of our people and, eventually, our hotel. Because here at Dusit Thani Manila, we love to see the guests coming to us enjoy the kind of service and products we offer.”
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