By DOM GALEON
Portrait by MANNY LLANES
We put the heart in everything that we do. —Puneet Dhawan
There’s a new guy in charge of the day-to-day running of Sofitel Philippine Plaza. Earlier in February, Puneet Dhawan arrived in the Philippines to take his new position as general manager of the iconic luxury hotel operated by Accor Hotels. But this isn’t his first time in the country.
“I spent a year here, back in 1994 to 1995, working as an F&B trainee at the Mandarin Oriental Manila,” he says over lunch at the Hidden Room of Sofitel’s Spiral. This was his introduction to the world of hospitality management, not counting the years he spent as a praktikant or as an intern at the Hotel Zurich & La Residence in Switzerland.
“From back in 1994, the hotel industry in the Philippines has developed. The Philippines—Manila—has developed,” Puneet says. “There are a lot of positive changes, and as a result, tourism is growing in the Philippines, overall.”
It was his time in Manila that launched his career as a hotelier. In the two decades that followed, Puneet spent time working in various hotels in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, his home country of India, and then Australia, where his family now resides. Prior to taking the helm of Sofitel Philippine Plaza, he worked in the Middle East office of Accor as vice-president in charge of the economy and midscale brands in the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan—that’s a total of 35 four star and three-star hotels.
Puneet comes back to Manila bringing with him a wealth of experiences. But instead of barging in, so to speak, with the promise of change and improvements, he chooses first to listen. “I think the most important thing, at least from my point of view, is to seek to understand before being understood,” he says.“I think you shouldn’t start with a bias. You should come in with an open mind, try to understand before being understood. You want to put your stamp on to it, of course, but it’s important that you try to really understand first, to learn from the local culture, to learn from what is happening. But there is always a better, more efficient way of doing things. You look at your priorities and, where it is required, you make changes—but not for the sake of just changing something. Sofitel is an iconic property for Manila, if not for the Philippines.”
It is this mindset, coupled with a genuine, palpable concern for people, that makes Puneet a true “heartist”— the Accor brand’s term for its associates. A “heartist” is someone who has his heart for the people, for guests and clients, giving life to the hotel’s day-to-day operations.
“I think it’s always about the people,” Puneet adds. “Whether it’s with your teams, with the guests, or with the owners, it’s a people’s game. It’s all about people skills. It’s not rocket science. It’s a unique industry. It doesn’t really matter whether you went to a Swiss hotel school or got your degree from wherever—it might help you initially but if you don’t have the people skills, it’s very hard to succeed. As a result, a lot of graduates from hospitality schools around the world, there’s a huge turnover because they join the industry for the glamour and all the good things. But there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes, which a lot of people underestimate. Whether you’re at the back or frontend, if you don’t have the people skills, it is going to be really hard to succeed in this industry.”
These marks of a true “heartist,” Puneet adds, is especially evident in the Filipino staff he has worked with all over the world, whether in Singapore or Hong Kong or the Middle East. “The Philippine art of hospitality is recognized worldwide,” he adds. “Filipinos have an authentic smile and their service is really from the heart. This isn’t something that I’m saying just because I am here. No. It is a well-known fact. It’s a smile.”
And it is this brand of hospitality that Puneet is excited about his new role as Sofitel’s general manager. “Sofitel’s French heritage mixed with that authentic Filipino hospitality—it’s just an amazing combination,” he explains. “It’s about harnessing that and bringing things to the next level. You can have the best interiors or the best lobby with the best chandelier, but it’s the ‘software’— the smile—that makes a difference. And I always tell our frontline team this: Either our guests leave happy with a smile or they don’t. It won’t matter if you’re a five-star luxury hotel or not if you don’t get that smile on the face of your guests. In this business, we get judged every time a guest checks in or with every meal. And now that people are well-traveled—they experience hotel services all over the world—it’s no longer just about meeting their expectations. It’s more about anticipating their needs and exceeding their expectations.”