MANILA, February 6, 2006 (STAR) By Ching M. Alano - We’ve always loved this hotel by the bay for its breathtaking view of the famed Manila sunset. Here, ambience – lots of it, too – comes at no additional price. It’s the place to reward ourselves with a heartwarming breakfast after a good jog around the CCP complex – bless our grumbling stomachs and aching soles! It’s the place to chill out after catching a play or a concert at the Cultural Center – bless our weary souls!

And now, there’s more to love about Hotel Philippine Plaza as it goes through a rechristening and an image makeover. After a multi-million-dollar face-lift in 2007, the hotel will be relaunched as Sofitel Philippine Plaza.

Oui, Sofitel brings its world-class art de vivre a la Francaise (French art of living) to Manila. Think Sofitel Paris, Sofitel London, Sofitel Brussels, Sofitel Gold Coast and Brisbane, Sofitel Queenstown (New Zealand), Sofitel New York, Sofitel Montreal, Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa, Sofitel Rio de Janeiro, Sofitel Berlin, Sofitel Hyland Shanghai, among hundreds of Sofitel hotels in premier cities around the world. Think of the best places to stay when you’re traveling and Sofitel is certainly in the list. Fact is, four of its properties made it to the Conde Nast Traveler’s 2005 Gold List: Sofitel Old Cataract, Aswan, Egypt; Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, US; Sofitel Royal Angkor, Cambodia; Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, Vietnam. Two of its hotels were named Travel & Leisure’s Best Hotels in the World last year: Sofitel Palais Jamai, Fez, Morocco; Sofitel Melbourne, Australia. Also last year, three of its hotels were included in the list of "10 of the world’s grandest and most historic hotels" by Herald Sun, a leading Aussie daily: Sofitel St. James, London, UK; Trocadero Dokhan’s - Sofitel Demeure Hotels, Paris, France; Sofitel Metropole, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Indeed, Sofitel has earned a soft spot in people’s hearts. And now, it’s set to captivate Manila with its unmistakable French touch. Early next year, Sofitel Philippine Plaza joins the fastest-growing five-star hotel brand that boasts a string of luxury hotels in the Asia Pacific region.

The new management contract with Accor, a European leader in travel, tourism, and corporate services, was announced at a press conference at Hotel Philippine Plaza last week. Flying in from Sydney to announce the multi-million-dollar news himself was Michael Issenberg, managing director of Accor Asia Pacific.

A frequent visitor to Manila, Issenberg had stayed at the Philippine Plaza, which he describes as an excellent hotel. "I was here in 1998, it’s great to be back," he gushes. "Yes, I like this hotel very much."

Asked about the hotel’s ongoing renovation, he says, "We took over this hotel only early this month and we’re working on its refurbishment. We look forward to the completion of renovations and its re-branding as a Sofitel. It will be a significant event for Manila’s hotel industry as the Sofitel brand will become Asia Pacific’s largest de luxe hotel brand by the end of 2007."

Says Oscar Salvacion, president of Philippine Plaza Holdings Inc., "Philippine Plaza has played a pivotal role in the bay area development. Accor will inject fresh, world-class European ambience to change Manila’s lifestyle scene."

Certainly, the winds of change are blowing on the bay. This March, Philippine Plaza opens the doors of its main dining outlet Spiral after undergoing a spiraling $2.5-million renovation. Spiral will integrate both the indoor and outdoor environments for a state-of-the-art interactive dining experience. According to its Japanese designers, you need to go back to Spiral several times to determine where your favorite seat is. Bound to be Manila’s most fashionable dining destination, it will have multi-cuisine open plan cooking stations and can seat 480 guests.

"World tourism has changed dramatically in the past decade," notes Issenberg. "And we want to make sure we cater to this change."

Non, the hotel is not opening a French resto. And you’re not about to see French chocolatier extraordinaire Jacques Torres whipping up all those sinful chocolate creations at the hotel’s pastry kitchen. But oui, Philippine Plaza’s got its very own Jacques Torres in the person of award-winning Chef Mac, who’s there to indulge all your chocolate fantasies.

Sofitel Philippine Plaza will have Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern chefs. Expect a global food offering that includes Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, French, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, Lebanese, and Arabic. But of course, guests will continue to enjoy the gastronomic offerings at the hotel’s Treasure Island, Sunset Bar at the Poolside Barbecue, and the 24-hour Sports Bar.

"We’re constantly training staff to ensure a French flair in the approach to food, the amenities we use, and advertising," says Issenberg. "We have a new GM and new assistant GM. We will bring in people who specialize in training, but they will leave when they’re done. We have Filipino workers working in our hotels all over the wrold. Some of them might want to come back to this hotel. One of the keys to being a successful global company is moving people around the world."

The new GM is Bernd Schneider while the new executive assistant GM is Mo Ihsan, both of whom are seasoned hoteliers who have worked with Accor hotels in different countries. With their vast experience, they hope to bring the French and Mediterranean feel, taste, and touch to Manila.

Renovation work on the top five floors is ongoing at fever pitch. "We have another wing available to house our guests so nothing is disrupted and it’s business as usual," says Rose Libongco, director of marketing.

And if you pass by the lobby of the hotel, you’ll probably see the hotel’s new French look in the new uniforms for the concierge, front office, restaurants, and bell service personnel. The uniforms for Sofitel’s welcoming staff were designed by famous French fashion designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac, who reinterprets the traditional dark grey business suit and uses zippers instead of traditional buttons. He dresses up the receptionists in asymmetrical uniforms with scarves tied around their necks, embellishing Manila’s hotel scene with his French oomph.

But Issenberg is quick to point out, "We will not change but enhance the things that attract people to this hotel."

Indeed, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

And so, we will continue to enjoy a breathtaking view of the sunset on Manila Bay as we sip our buko juice and nibble on our petits fours. Oui!

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved