Often dubbed as the plain sister of the glamorous Vigan, Laoag City, the capital of Ilocos Norte, is becoming a must-go destination in the North.
The hearty cuisine, the beaches, the historic churches and the artisan crafts are among the attractions.
Likewise, government-owned Plaza del Norte Hotel and Convention Center is making a bid to become the choice for both leisure travelers and the Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) market.
Unlike other Ilocano hotels that are small, mom-and-pop operations, Plaza del Norte is a sprawling four-hectare property that is run by professionals.
Then known as Ilocos Norte Hotel and Convention Center, it opened in March 2010 during the term of Gov. Michael Keon. The local government hired a hotel management company, Paramount, to operate it.
When Imee Marcos became the governor, the name was changed to Plaza del Norte in October 2011. The provincial government terminated the services of Paramount and signed a lease and operation agreement with another management company, 88 Green Inc.
Daniel Jacinto, president of 88 Green Inc., says 88 is a lucky number for him and the company. The green represents the color of their alumnus, La Salle.
Plaza del Norte is 88 Green’s first foray into hotel management. The chair, Rainerio “Bong” Borja, is experienced in managing large-scale customer services. Jacinto has been running the family catering business. Borja challenged Jacinto to make the hotel more attractive to guests.
When 88 Green took over, the hotel lacked public awareness of its existence. Then again, the rooms looked sterile and the public spaces were over decorated.
Jacinto tapped design consultant Albert Avellana to make the place more homey. Instead of gaudy spaces, the rooms and public areas were slowly streamlined to reflect the Ilocano penchant for simplicity.
“We’re modern with a touch of Old World,” says Jacinto.
He cites Plaza del Norte’s come-ons—the proximity to the Laoag International Airport and the accessibility to major destinations such as Palace of the North, Paoay Lake, the Sand Dunes and Sitio Remedios in Currimao.
The hotel offers 96 rooms, four suites, dormitories, a chapel and a convention center with a capacity for 1,200.
The company ventured into the hotel business when Ilocos Norte’s faltering tourism industry was failing. For so long, the province was dependent on the Chinese market for the gaming. The Philippines’ delicate relationship with China, brought about the hostage crisis in 2010 and the territorial disputes, prevented tourists from coming.
The province’s tourism industry had to rethink its market profile. For its part, Plaza del Norte’s sales and marketing offices have been linking up with online and land-based travel agents. To bring in business, it has been aiming for more bookings for seminars and increase in food and beverage sales.
Plaza del Norte has been targeting the locals, the Filipinos from other provinces and balikbayans. To lure the local market, the hotel re-opened Border Bar. Revenues went up by 21 percent after the renovation.
“In Laoag, the bars are full even on a Monday. Filipinos love to go out,” says Jacinto.
Although the bar is away from the city center, it has been dangling offers such as “Buy 1 Take 1 Beer” on Tuesdays, a 25 percent discount on G Nights (G stands for girls and gays) live bands on weekends and raffles on Sundays.
Business is slowly picking up. Some 70 percent of the market comes from government accounts. During summer, corporate accounts contributed to more than 50 percent in revenues. In other months, the local market availed of banquet and residents packages.
During Holy Week last year, the hotel posted full occupancy. In fact, all the hotels in Ilocos Norte’s major destinations were full due to the surge of visitors as an unexpected result of the Governor Marcos’ Paoay Kumakaway (Paoay Waving), a campaign whose goal was to increase the domestic visitors. Although planeloads of Filipinos and balikbayans have been arriving, there were many Westerners hieing off to hit the surfs in Pagudpud, which is an hour’s drive from Plaza del Norte.
Jacinto adds, “In December 2011, there was one wedding and one function. Last December under the new management, sales have slowly been picking up, we had 11 weddings alone.”
Tourists and balikbayan enjoy the Ilocano cuisine in the hotels’ restaurant while the locals go for baby back ribs.
There are plans to woo the Japanese market with Plaza del Norte’s proximity to the golf course and fishing by the lakes.
“The Taiwanese market is interested. They were asking for gaming. We will have a casino at the back but it won’t be noisy,” says Jacinto.
To promote the hotel, it is focusing more on the quality of the product rather than room rates, albeit which is more competitive.