HOW TO BUILD A SHANGRI-LA

MANILA, September 22, 2005
 (STAR) By Denise C. Villegas People Asia Magazine - SHANGRI-LA. This almost proverbial utterance, which is readily construed as paradise, provides a great deal for any company that dares to wear such a name. But as a testament to the company that has somehow managed to create a bit of paradise here on earth, Filipinos in particular have come to associate this word with the hotels that are characterized by a certain elegance and the luxury they provide.

A busy shopping mall filled with ripples of people, lined with high-end stores as well as restaurants that somehow manage to look both sleek and cozy, is hardly the first place anyone would think to look. And if you aren't careful, you're likely to miss the unassuming glass panels that serve as the entrance to the office that houses Tomas C. Zita Jr, the man who is both the chairman of the board and the president of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts and Shangri-La Plaza, Philippines.

The same simplicity that marks the entrance seems to spill into the top honcho's office, with its almost minimalist style. A desk that sits in the middle of the room is tellingly covered with just the right amount of clutter necessary when one happens to have such a job. His gentlemanly demeanor becomes completely animated once we sit down to talk about the company he has led since 2001.

When Shangri-La first came here, everybody thought we were crazy. I mean, why build three hotels and a mall in one shot? But the vision of the chairman of the Kuok Group has always been that in those times you take the risk and the rewards will be there. I suppose that's the way you look at it, as a balance between the risk and the rewards." And the rewards have been plentiful indeed. With a current occupancy rate of 70 to 80 percent, the Shangri-La hotels have gained a reputation for being market leaders. In Cebu Shangri-La is at the top of Resort industry and the Makati and Edsa branches are known as the best hotels for businessmen.

The secret to this success? In Tom Zita's mind the answer is simple: people. He starts with the owners, by emphasizing the fact that while they may be very low key, everyone is certain that they do care. This sort of outlook seems to trickle down, as he goes on to say, "It's everybody, not just the management, but everybody, especially the rank and file. When you attend functions and everybody is there, you can feel it. It's not just in the hotels but in the mall too. There is a lot of spirit. We have a lot of programs that develop our employees, so that when it comes to taking care of them, it isn't just a put on. We also always try to dialogue with the employees. We try to include them in the decision-making process by setting goals with each department at the end of the year. Each employee is graded in accordance with how he works towards those goals in the following year."

And what of the people on the other side of the desk, so to speak? According to Zita, their philosophy regarding customer service may stem from a 0166, but it holds true nonetheless. "With any guest, you always want to make them feel like they're the only ones there, which may just be a cliche, but seriously, in the way we do things, we always try to focus on making their stay in any of our hotels enjoyable."

One has to wonder, though, how a company that is so dependent on tourism and the state of international investment deals with all the negative ideas about the Philippines. "First of all, we try to change the perception. Unfortunately, it doesn't help that the local press carps on the negative things that happen in the Philippines. But if we can get people to come to the Philippines and try the hospitality that the Filipinos have through our hotel then that may be a step in changing that perception. This doesn't just apply to our hotel guests, even just friends of Filipinos who come for a visit. Once they get here they gain a completely different feel, they feel safe, they enjoy our hospitality."

Upon discovering that he is an alumnus of both Ateneo and La Salle, we deviate for a moment from the to discussion and prod him to tell us where his loyalties lie during the UAAP season. He laughs, "Whoever gives me the free tickets!"

Those who have worked with him know him as the kind of boss who places a great deal of faith in all of his people. As a CEO who is more of a macro-manager, he readily delegates responsibility to those he feels can do the job best. A colleague even half- jokingly says, "He'll give you enough rope to hang yourself with!"

He will be the first to admit that when he first started out in hotel industry he had zero experience. When he first took on the job as the chairman of the board, the Shangri-La Hotels were already thriving, but his vision led him to feel that certain steps had be taken in order to, as he puts it, "up our game." One of the first changes was to improve the physical condition of the hotels. "We put a lot of money into renovating the hotels. At that time, these hotels had been around for about 10 years and they had had minor renovations in between but to bring it up that extra level we had to put a lot in. This renovation program entailed going back and completely changing the restaurants, the rooms. Not just changing carpets but completely altering the feel and the whole look." With the introduction of information technology and more comfortable working areas in the rooms, these hotels have become marked as an ideal stop for visiting businessmen.

When asked about what he feels his role is as a CEO, he goes straight to the point, "There are several factors that you look at. One would be to improve the value of the company, to improve the lot of the employees since they are the biggest asset that we have, and of course to help the economy, not only to provide jobs, but to uplift it as a whole in a small way, since we are just one of the players."

Development is something that is part and parcel of a business like Shangri-La, and it is something that sits close to the CEO's heart. This becomes obvious as he talks about the twist the hotel is giving the whole coffee experience "We changed our outlook on coffee shops. We started in Hong Kong, where it became more of a theater and we've tried to move that idea across all our top hotels. We've done that in Circles and Tides in Cebu and we are now putting up a coffee shop in Edsa."

These days, Tom Zita finds himself largely excited over two of the corporation's newest developmental projects, one of which is set to be the tallest residential building in Manila. St. Francis Towers, promises to be an impressive structure once it rises to its full height of 60 floors and its two towers have been filled with the planned 1,200 units. The second has to do with the company's venture in Boracay. This new resort promises to provide the luxury that has become the mark of every Shangri-La establishment while offering the guests a haven from all the busy activity that is part of peak season in Boracay. "We are building in a place that is isolated enough to allow for peace and quiet and still give the guests easy access to the best beaches."

As for the longevity of a business like this in economically unstable times, Zita has no worries whatsoever. "I'm sure the hotel business will always survive. The same way the Philippines will always survive."


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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