Managing on simple common sense
The country’s first green hotel, Cocoon, was rife with glitches when it opened in Quezon City. There was a function for 200 guests at the ballroom and the food came late. Important details were missing such as the cake cutter. Since the elevator wasn’t functioning yet, the guests took the stairs to the venue. Some of the guestrooms didn’t get hot water. The next day, the celebrator and organizer spoke with the hotel owner, Regina Vinzon, and the hotel consultant, Anna Maria Rodriguez Convocar. The guest asked what was the management’s hiring process.
Convocar explained that she filtered them from Job Street. In job interviews, she would make the applicants perform. The brave ones would shed their inhibitions and sing or rap no matter how off-key it was. The process was one way of determining their capacity for following Convocar’s directions and their trust in her. It was also a way of discovering their natural smiles.
Convocar held her breath, expecting complaints about rough edges in hotel operations during the opening. On the contrary, the client was pleased with the attentive service. She said her guests were impressed that the Cocoon’s staff escorted them from the time they alighted their cars to their rooms to the ballroom on the top floor.
Convocar excitedly relayed the guests’ comments to the staff. Everybody was euphoric but the housekeeper who kept a stoic face. “It’s just 212 Degrees,” she declared.
“212 Degrees-The Extra Edge” is a book by Sam Parker and Mac Anderson and a motivational video that talks about that extra one degree that changes heat into steam. In turn, the steam can propel a locomotor. It’s an image for the added edge that results in performance excellence.
“The staff took the 212 Degrees to heart. When I explain the mission and vision of the hotel, I always teach this,” says Convocar. “What is being asked from them is one degree more—when it matters. When you get a call from a guest saying that the air conditioning is too cold, you come to the room in less than two minutes. You teach the guest how to use the remote control for the room temperature. Then you come back with an extra blanket in case guest still feels cold. Medio OA (over acting), but it’s sincere.”
Convocar’s philosophy is that sincere, personal touch is more convincing in winning repeat guests than the product itself. It is working. In Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice for 2014, Cocoon boutique hotel has been rating No. 1 for Quezon City hotels and No. 3 for Luzon hotels. Its success lies in not about being the best in hardware but in how to make guests feel at home.
Don’t all hotels educate their staff on warm and friendly service? “They tend to teach high falluting concepts, “she replies. Convocar’s concepts stem from common sense.
She favors handling boutique hotels because a smaller staff is easier to handle rather than a large property with a sizeable hierarchy.
One of the first things she had to hurdle was hiring raw talents, the owner’s mandate. The management favors graduates from schools such as Polytechnic University of the
Philippines, presumably, because they weren’t spoiled by comforts. Thus, they would have the right work ethics for service.
“The people of Cocoon don’t have model looks. They come in different shapes and sizes,” adds Convocar.
She also creates a warm energy among the staffers which, in turn, fuels them as it extends to the guests.
“My head of guest services was insecure. In the interview, she hid her teeth. I made her face the mirror and asked her to smile. She was conscious because they were crooked. I told her she had a beautiful smile. If you read the traveler reviews, there’s a lot about Daphe (Daphane Diaz), a graduate of PUP,” explains Convocar.
The advantage to teaching fresh graduates is that there were no bad habits or negative attitudes that had to be unlearned.
Convocar also insists that there is dignity in every task including cleaning the bathroom. “Some people may not be fulfilled about cleaning the toilet. That is why we hire people who need the job very much. ”
Her spirited personality and hands-on supervision has made training very dynamic. She cites two former hotel employees with poor attendance records but turned out to be Cocoon’s top performers. “They weren’t inspired in their previous jobs. They felt they weren’t getting support. These were big properties with many bosses. We are not like that in Cocoon. One can’t afford to be a failure if given proper guidance,” she says.
The staffers are also motivated to dream big. “When we hire, it’s for them to know that they can be a future hotel manager. I challenge them to cross train. If you have been in the same position for two years, ask for another position or you’ll get stuck there. The pioneers of this hotel are learning other things. They are taught how to achieve their goals. Young people aren’t always sure of what they want. When they see there is a future or a path to promotion, they do cross training. Sometimes the housekeeping does front office work and vice-versa. It can be done as long as their heart is in service,” she says.
Then, there’s another rule: Inject humor in work. “They know that when I get mad, we will laugh afterwards. I teach them thankfulness. You are tired after a long night, force yourself to smile. As you go out, talk to the tindera with a smile and she will smile back at you. When you smile, naturally, the rest of the day works. I tell them to stand up straight and keep their chin up even if they are tired. There’s more confidence.”
Convocar’s ultimate goal is for the staff to establish rapport with the guests. “Our goal is not just make the guests happy. When they leave, they become our friends. You need to establish connection,” she says.
Housekeeping staffers are encouraged to write a note to the guests. If they see a rosary, they could write a note informing of the guest of the nearest churches and the mass schedules. They also write if they arranged the guest’s clutter of personal toiletries and cosmetics or if they’ve placed a marker on the guest’s bedside book. As a result, guests always praise the housekeeping staff for the personalized touch.
“When you write a note, your action gets noticed by the guest,” she says.
A spin-off of Cocoon is Hive, a 51-room boutique hotel on Scout Tuason Street, which will open this year. This eco-hotel is built with smaller rooms but furnished with the same comfortable beds and will offer more function rooms. The room rates will be more affordable while Cocoon maintains its luxury niche.
“There is a market in Quezon City for staycations alone with many affluent communities here. Government agencies, seminars, NGOs also need venues for seminars. In terms of sales, we have data base for companies that need bigger function rooms. They could not be accommodated in Cocoon due to budget constraints, ” says Convocar.
Unlike the opening of Cocoon hotel, wherein Convocar lectured and extended personalized mentorship, the training for Hive will adopt the buddy system. The seasoned staffers of Cocoon will lend their expertise to the new recruits for Hive.
As a hotel consultant, Convocar consolidates her experiences in the industry. She spent 18 years with the historic Manila Hotel. When it was at its peak, she worked her way up from front office, reservations clerk, sales team, sales supervisor, sales manager, director of sales and marketing. She bravely asked to be relocated to the “back of the house” as director of the purchasing and materials management department.
“I got to learn the gist of operations. I understood that you can’t buy linen without knowing its nature and thread count,” she says. She discovered that the staffers tended to favor suppliers who gave them the cheaper items so that the former could get commissions from them. It became more obvious when the hotel was undergoing renovations.
“They chose one supplier over the other. The bidding process was not in place. I realized that the supplier gives the lowest price because the linen has a lighter weight than the others. The quality of the meat is far inferior to the others. In short, you get the lowest price but the quality is not there.”
In 1998, she opted for early retirement after restoring the integrity of her department. Convocar established a purchasing agency, Materials Providers Inc., which serves as an outsource for hotels. “My concept is that you canvass. When you are ready to buy and know the quality, give them to me and I will beat your prices. It’s a win-win arrangement. Pay me on your savings. It’s a win-win arrangement. We are not suppliers. We link the supplier with the client. The contract is between them. We negotiate,” says Convocar who has helped her clients save millions of pesos while still maintaining quality of their purchases.
Convocar has helped start-up hotels such as Boracay Tropics, Hotel Celeste in Makati, Amorita in Bohol, and Hotel Theodore in Tagaytay. Some hotels such as Boracay Tropics also requested her expertise in sales and marketing and staff training. Although BT was not a beachfront property, the hotel rated No. 3 in Trip Advisor for smooth service. In the late 2000s, Amorita hotel ranked No. 19. Convocar appointed one of her protégés, Rolly Navallo to look after the hotel. In three months, it was ranked No. 1 in Bohol and even had then President Arroyo as a guest.
A tip from a supplier led Convocar to meet Vinzon who was setting up Cocoon hotel which was designed to follow the principles of green architecture. While Convocar was giving her two cent’s worth, Vinzon was making mental notes. Eventually, she asked Convocar to help in pricing, marketing and training. To keep her working for them, Convocar was appointed hotel manager.
Says Convocar, “I am often asked why a small hotel. I am passionate about them. I want to show that Filipino owners can produce world-class projects.”
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