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Accidental tourism advocate

By: - Assistant Business Editor / @CNarismaINQ
/ 05:20 AM November 10, 2019

When the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 1990s, most businesses took a beating—some suffered profit cuts or losses while others just couldn’t take the blows and went under.

But to some, the crisis presented opportunities that they, themselves, did not immediately recognize.

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As the property market stood still and sales went south, then 33-year-old Jeffrey Ng—president of the family’s real estate company (Cathay Land Inc.)—decided to convert half of the 35-story Astoria Plaza, a residential condominium property in Ortigas, into a full-service apartment hotel.

Little did he know that this decision, intended to just keep Astoria Plaza afloat during the crisis, would lead him into the hospitality business, a world that he never dreamt of going into.

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The opening of the mixed-use Astoria Plaza in 2001 marked the beginning of what is now a thriving homegrown boutique hotels chain, Astoria Hotels & Resorts (AHR).

It currently has six hotels and resorts in its portfolio—The Astoria Plaza, Astoria Greenbelt, Astoria Palawan, Astoria Bohol, Astoria Boracay and Astoria Current also in Boracay, and two to three more at different stages of development.

While running the Cathay group’s businesses, which also include the 50-year-old or so iron and steel manufacturing firm Cathay Metal Corp., Ng also leads AHR.

As chief executive officer, he takes care of the big picture while his wife, Vivian, runs the day-to-day affairs of the hotels and resorts as the company’s chief operating officer, aided by  professional managers and two of the couple’s three children (the third is still in school).

Ng’s entry into the hotel business was never planned, the opportunity just presented itself at the height of the financial crisis.

“We had no experience in the hospitality industry but our team worked hard and concentrated on providing the best service experience to our guests, so Astoria Plaza did well from the start,” he says.

It didn’t take long for Astoria Plaza to grow its clientele and develop a loyal following. It was these people who prodded Ng to explore other areas, particularly Boracay, for expansion and he gave in. In 2010, AHR opened its first beachfront resort-hotel, the 170-room Astoria Boracay in Station 1.

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The years that followed saw the more rapid expansion of the Astoria brand. Inspired by the turnout at Astoria Boracay, Ng focused on beachfront properties and put up Astoria Bohol, Astoria Palawan (Puerto Princesa) and another resort in Boracay (Station 3). Astoria Greenbelt in Makati is so far the only pure hotel in the group, catering mainly to business travelers.

AHR is currently building another 250-room hotel in Baclayon, Bohol. In the pipeline are resorts in Siargao in Surigao del Norte as well as in El Nido and Coron, both in Palawan.

Ng focuses on the Visayas as he believes in the tourism potential of the region “because of its allure to international and domestic travelers, whether tour groups or FITs (free independent travelers) or the MICE (meetings, incentive travels, conventions and exhibitions) market.”

Along with its aggressive expansion, AHR continues enhancing its offerings while preserving its innovative business approach.

Unique themes

Unlike most hotels that offer identical designs and facilities across all their properties, AHR sees to it that each property is unique in construction, design and offerings.

“No two of our properties are alike and we strive hard to make sure that our guests are immersed in a different Astoria experience with each Astoria hotel or resort they are visiting,” Ng says, adding that each property has a unique theme that reflects the characteristics of the host area and community.

Astoria Plaza, for instance, uses a modern corporate design and offers spacious service apartment-type suites fit to be the guests’ home away from home.

Astoria Boracay along the famed white Boracay beach boasts of a relaxed and clean design, offering guests a sense of world-class luxury and relaxation but is close enough to the island’s entertainment hub.

The five-hectare Astoria Palawan in Puerto Princesa highlights ecotourism, sustainability and the biodiversity of the area. It features large villas with tropical designs that reflect the area’s vast sea resources, mangroves and reefs. It has its own water park and offers outdoor activities, making it perfect for families and big groups. It has a convention center for the MICE market.

A boutique resort, Astoria Bohol is so far the most unique and exclusive among the AHR properties. “Out of respect for its rich history, we made sure its design demonstrated a strong connection to traditional Filipino heritage,” he says.

Astoria Current’s vibrant and ultramodern design elements draw the millennials to the brand. It offers various aqua sports promoting an active lifestyle.

“The resort exudes an energetic vibe that magnifies the total Boracay Island experience,” Ng says.

Astoria hotels and resorts also feature food and products distinct to the places they are in.

All these have earned for AHR brand recognition in the global hospitality arena. The two Astoria properties in Boracay and Astoria Palawan have earned top rankings in the 2019 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards. Astoria Current got a mark of 9.2 out of 10 from the hotels.com global hospitality site.

The Astoria hotels cater to seasoned local and international travelers, mainly from China, Korea, the United States and Europe.

Lifestyle change

“I knew nothing about running a hotel and it really took me some time to get used to it,” he says.

But when Ng did, he made sure he gave it his best shot.

“This path has led me not only to a thriving business but also to a lifestyle change,” Ng says.

Saying he had always been a city person, Ng says the hotel business opened his eyes to the beauty of the countryside, the beaches and everything there. It also got him involved not only in taking care of nature and the environment but also of the people in the communities where AHR operates.

Astoria Palawan in Puerto Princesa is a shining example of what Ng and AHR stand for—getting the community and a profitable venture together in achieving sustainable tourism.

Astoria Palawan from the start showed its respect to the community and the environment by adapting to the natural layout of the five-hectare mango orchard it occupies when it was constructing the resort. It used the latest sustainable technology such as desalination plant and solar panels for its energy needs.

The Astoria team is deeply involved in projects that benefit the local economy and community. It provides food donations to and holds livelihood projects for the Batak Tribe. It helped rehabilitate the raft used for the Maoyon River cruise attraction near the hotel. It reached out to the Port Barton fisherfolk and committed to purchase their daily catch at fair prices.

It holds a Sikap Pinoy event yearly where educators, motivational speakers and financial management experts train and teach community members livelihood skills.

Similar programs and activities are done in the other host communities.

“I look forward to these activities when I can interact with members of the community and truly feel that I have an impact on society,” Ng says.

AHR also put up the Astoria Culinary and Hospitality Institute (ACHI) to train local students on how to provide the best service in every aspect of the industry.

“We also set aside funds from the Astoria Group to grant scholarships to deserving ACHI students. Educating a new generation of hoteliers is our way of giving back to the community and fostering multiple generations of long-term employees,” he says.

Private time

Ng is an economics graduate of the University of the Philippines and is president of the UP School of Economics Alumni Association. He wears just too many hats in business and has too many things to take care of. But despite these, Ng always finds time to keep himself fit and spend time with the family, having dinner with them or bringing them on vacations.

Ng de-stresses by reading nonfiction books, especially biographies. “And whenever life throws challenges and curve balls, I just watch inspirational movies and videos to keep me grounded,” he says.

“I also enjoy swimming and getting some sun. It’s a great way to de-stress and allow my mind some quiet time to mull over potential solutions to whatever challenges I am facing,” Ng says.

Asked what so far was the biggest challenge he had faced as a hotelier, he said it was the six-month closure of Boracay last year when he had to close his two Boracay resorts. He recounts how, with the company’s no-layoff policy, AHR had to ensure that its people in Boracay got temporary postings in its other properties.

But again, just like during the financial crisis of the 1990s, Ng found a way to turn this adversity into another opportunity and made use of the break to rehabilitate, expand and further improve the Boracay resorts and train their people.

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