Interview by Krizette Chu
Portrait by Noel Pabalate
The golden standard in the hotel industry is a Forbes’ Five Star rating. In the digital era where fly-by-night companies regularly dish out a 5-Star rating for anyone willing to pay for an award, the highly fastidious hospitality industry—and their in-the-know clients—rely only on a couple of award-giving bodies for credible review. The ultimate barometer of success, as any hotelier worth his three-piece suit knows, is a Forbes’ Five Star. It is considered the most difficult stamp of approval to get.
To snag one, for example, a hotel’s staff must meet criteria such as greeting arriving guests curbside within 60 seconds and offering tasting samples to drinkers ordering wine by the glass.
Incognito reviewers pose as guests and try hotel restaurants not just once, but many times, to check for consistency. They come back repeatedly, checking if the staff has remembered if the guest has an allergy to nuts or wants to be reminded of the schedule of the news, or if the hotel remembers the particular newspaper you asked for the last time you stayed.
Were there fresh flowers in the room? Petit fours as gifts from the chef? Is there a unique pattern on the duvet? Did the housekeeper notice that you kept the temperature at a comfortable 21 degrees, and upon your return to the room, can expect to find it the same exact temperature?
For 60 years, Forbes skipped the Philippines. It was not until in October 2016 that Marco Polo Manila became the first hotel in the country after a long drought to get the award from Forbes. A feat—considering it was only three years old when Forbes gave it the highly coveted award, and that it was under the leadership of general manager Frank Reichenbach, who has only been at the hotel for two years.
Manila Bulletin Lifestyle sits down with an iconic GM (he also won, in the same year, the award for the ultra prestigious BMW’s Hotelier Awards General Manager of the Year).
In the two years you’ve been here, the hotel got the Forbes’ Five Star rating, and you also have the BMW Awards BEST GM. What’s your secret?
Never give up. There will always be setbacks along the way. It is tough out there in the market, but you have to be one step ahead, ahead in the game. Motivate yourself and your team to deliver excellence. A lot of competition, that’s the challenge, but giving discounts, all those promotions, doing what everybody else is doing, I’d call that giving up. That’s just joining the crowd. I’d call that giving up. Don’t look for the easy way out. You have to find other ways to wow the market, to attract the clients. For me, that would be finding the differentiation, and better ways to deliver the kind of service that gives us an edge.
What are you proudest of?
I was here for only a year when we trained to get a Forbes’ star. We checked and improved things, tried to deliver to meet the standard. The last time Forbes was here in the country to give an award, it was in the ’70s, so we wanted to do that. It was really a team effort.
What’s the most important quality you look for in your people?
Attitude. Work ethics. The desire to serve. The desire to go the extra mile without being overpowering or interfering.
Skills can be instilled, and we can teach some technical stuff, but the desire and the good attitude should really already be there.
You were in the academe too when you were a director of a hospitality school. What’s the most important thing you tell your students?
They need to plan for themselves, know where they want to go, and find mentors who’ll help them. Find people who will honestly and support you because they believe in you. That’s very important.
Who was your mentor?
Very early in my career, when I was an assistant F&B manager, the general manager of Peninsula Hong Kong became my mentor. He always told me, ‘Look at your customer. The better you know your customer, the better you personalize your service, the more you wow.’ It is only when you truly know who your customer is can you truly anticipate their needs.
He taught me to go for ideas, seek innovation, find better and different ways. Don’t follow the frame, don’t just take over from somebody. He taught me how to give everything my best shot. Even the way you write a letter, it’s a very valid concern. You can’t have a cookie cutter reply or note to everybody.
What would you say would your leadership style is?
I really listen, and I really try to find out what motivates my people. I try to find out how best I can get them on board to achieve the same goals. The most important thing as a leader is to get your staff on board, motivate them, so you are all aligned in delivering the same results. And I’m around a lot. I don’t call people to my office, I go to their office. When you go to them, you get a feel of what’s happening in their departments. You are caught up in the action.
In terms of branding and recall, what do you want top of mind when people mention the hotel?
A good measure of one’s reputation is on social media because there, you can be judged immediately. They give you honest feedback. And we love so far that people think well of us.
Things are fairly similar in the luxury segment, we are all cooking the same broth, so what we need to do is to differentiate ourselves with certain touches. For me, that’s about really delivering the extra mile. And not just that, but constantly delivering in that level. Consistency is key. You have to have your team ready to do that.
How do you deal with the changing trends in travel?
We need to be in touch, we need to be there. AirBnB has become a direct competitor for us, but also with us a businessman doesn’t have to worry about security, who to return the key to, and how to get his laundry down.
Social media is a great tool that you can make us of. The results show instantaneously.. We’re very good with hits, followers, and time spent on the web. But while we make use of all these gadgets, we should never forget to make use of face-to-face interaction and personal touch.
Please tell us a little about yourself. What brought you to this industry?
I wanted to be a photographer. But I grew up in Gstaad, and it’s a great tourism destination with luxury resorts. We had kings and queens and sheiks, it was the perfect ski destination at 1,100 ft. We had this hotel that looked like Cinderella’s castle, called Palace Gstaad. I worked there, I did reception work and apprenticeship in the kitchen.
My mom is from Lyon, best food in the world for sure. So, it was really just the path for me. The owner of the hotel in Lausanne where I worked sat on the board of directors of Ecole Hôtelière de Lausann, and he helped get me in.
You’ve traveled all over the world, and handled properties from the Peninsula to Moevenpick’s flagship in Istanbul to even luxury clinics. What makes this posting at Marco Polo Ortigas different from the other ones?
It is never easier for me. There’s no such thing as an easy assignment. It is enjoyable because it’s a new property, only three years old. It also has a very good hardware, luxury touches, the owner put in a lot of money to make it this beautiful.
It’s nice to work with a Filipino team.
You were here in Manila three decades ago when you worked with the then-Ramada Hotel. How has the market changed?
There are definitely more local customers. Thirty years ago, there were very little staycations. Staycations in Manila are a fairly new concept. It was a different market. What worked then won’t necessarily work now. You can’t compare Manila to other countries.
They’ve got infrastructure, a lot of international airlines, big airports, but here it’s still quite limited. That only means there is more room to grow.
How are you topping the Forbes achievement?
Try for another five star rating again. We have benefited greatly from it and it helps us to continue to train for that high level. It’s just a different compass. We want to keep innovating, provide more IT solutions, create more customer friendly approaches, have more innovation in food and beverage, and improve our market share.
What do you love best about your job?
It’s working with this team. The 24/7 demands of the job. The ability to get instant feedback when you can see the guests and approach them. I don’t know of any other job that allows you this access that we have. Not everybody can work in a hotel. We are a special breed.