By Joseph Emmanuel L. Garcia, Senior Reporter

AFTER stagnation throughout the years of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, hotels around the country are showing optimism for the hospitality industry, with some developers about to open, or have just opened, new properties. Meanwhile, established hotels are retaining pandemic-borne safety practices, as well as utilizing online and remote capabilities that became a necessity during the worst days of the pandemic.

When the first lockdowns were announced in March 2020, several hotels evacuated guests to conform to government lockdown policies. After the initial evacuation, some hotels were used as quarantine facilities for health workers and repatriated overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). The Chroma Hospitality group, under the Filinvest Hospitality Corp., offered its facilities for this purpose. The Chroma Hospitality group includes the Crimson Hotels in Mactan, Boracay, and Alabang, as well as the Quest Hotels in Clark, Tagaytay, and Cebu. They are slated to open a new property in Baguio either late in 2024 or early in 2025.

“The pandemic has taught us to be resilient,” said Carmela Bocanegra, vice-president for Sales and Marketing for Chroma Hospitality in an interview with BusinessWorld. “Even during the pandemic, all our hotels were open, actually, because we were serving the OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration),” she said. “We had to be flexible with our rates, help each other, help the government. Iyon ang bumuhay sa amin eh (that’s what enabled us to live).”

To this day, they still apply the sanitation practices made a necessity by the pandemic, such as the frequent handwashing (they have dispensed with masks). She said that they had internally published a cleaning manual that was different from their normal cleaning operations from before the pandemic. New rules include holding rooms for a few hours after their cleaning before handing the keys to the next guest, as a health and safety precaution.

George Reynoso, director of Rooms for Diamond Hotel Philippines (a hotel which was also used as a quarantine facility, according to the website of the Bureau of Quarantine) sees a vestige of the pandemic in the continued requests for quarantine accommodations. “At the start of this year, we no longer accommodated quarantine guests even if we still had a number of requests,” he said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

Both the Diamond Hotel and Chroma Hospitality use 2019, the last year before the lockdowns, to gauge their performance. Mr. Reynoso said, “Occupancy, rates, and profits have not reached what we achieved in 2019 because international tourism is not the same as pre-pandemic times, but the hotel’s performance is still better than what we expected.” Ms. Bocanegra gave a similar answer, saying, “The international market is not yet 100% there, but slowly, it’s coming in… We compare it to the last normal year before the pandemic, 2019. We’re almost there. That’s our gauge… of course, we’re targeting bigger than that.”

She added that the properties in resort locations (as opposed to the city-based hotels) are doing better at reaching their 2019 targets. “The domestic market is really full throttle. It’s there; they’re traveling, and they’re going places.”

This can be seen in the Discovery Hospitality group’s newly opened property in Samal Island in Mindanao, Discovery Samal. Situated on six hectares of land, the resort offers luxury accommodation as well as a convention center that can seat 1,200 people. “From the point of view of sales, foreign travelers are now coming back, and also the revenge of the domestic travelers,” said Dianne Santos, director of Sales for Discovery Samal.

Ms. Santos noted that since the pandemic, they have used more video conferencing tools for practical reasons, such as touring the property virtually. “Not a lot of people can go to Samal and the property… now we can do virtual tours,” she said. “Before, it wasn’t a thing.”

Melco Resorts and Entertainment’s property in Manila, City of Dreams, consists of three hotels: the Hyatt Regency Manila, Nobu Hotel, and Nüwa Manila. Of these, Nüwa is also on the Bureau of Quarantine’s list of accredited quarantine facilities. Geoff Andres, property president of City of Dreams Manila told BusinessWorld in an e-mail, “With our operations in full swing, the occupancy of all City of Dreams Manila’s three hotels are in the high 90s, back to pre-pandemic levels. Our F&B outlets, ballroom, and entertainment venues such as DreamPlay are also performing remarkably.”

Mr. Andres detailed the recognitions they received for the safety and health measures they had undertaken during the pandemic: “We instituted stringent sanitary measures during the pandemic. These efforts enabled us to be Safety Seal-certified by the Department of Tourism, which also presented us with the Safe Travels stamp of the World Travel and Tourism Council. Our three hotels were also recognized by international hygiene experts for the initiatives we undertook.”

City of Dreams Manila also concentrated on placing many of their services and operations online. “We also focused on digitizing and streamlining processes in operations, harnessing technology in our supply chain procurement systems, and using technology to make our products, services, and reservations more accessible to our guests, such as the use of the dynamic Melco app,” said Mr. Andres.

Other improvements to their operations include sourcing sustainable ingredients for their restaurants, a reduction in the use of single-use plastics (through the installation of a glass bottling and water filtration system and replacing food and beverage containers and utensils with sustainable alternatives). “As we sustain the initiative, we are currently reaching about 30-40% waste reduction and waste diversion,” he said.

Meanwhile, The Diamond Hotel has implemented some structural changes: they have improved their heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system (“already installed so we have better ventilation and air exchange rates,” said Mr. Reynoso). He added, “We installed vents in all bathroom doors so that the increased ventilation will cover the entire room.”

The Diamond Hotel has also retained the use of online facilities, which became necessities during the pandemic when person-to-person contact had to be reduced. These include contactless web check-in and check-out, and more options for online payments. “The hotel also continues to capitalize on its existing e-commerce website — Diamond Online Shopping Site, with offers to further expand the food take-out operations and by developing creative online marketing strategies to engage existing and potential customers,” said Mr. Reynoso. He also pointed out that the website has been operating since 2015, “which made it easier to transition to online selling of Diamond Hotel’s culinary specialties since the restaurants (were) not allowed to operate on full capacity (during the lockdowns).”

These same practices extend internally, with Mr. Reynoso saying, “Options for meeting on-line/off-site instead of face to face are still valuable even if there is renewed interest in holding meetings face-to-face.”

On the subject of workers, Ms. Santos said that in her previous job (prior to joining the Discovery group), she performed the task of three people due to layoffs, resignations, and the like. “Now, what I see, it’s really hard to look for people now, because they have the option to work from home. People now are looking for that kind of arrangement. People are moving to a hybrid work arrangement, which is hard for hoteliers like us (who cannot) work from home. We really have to be onsite to be with our clients and guests.”

As for City of Dreams Manila, the property won the Work Here, Work Happy award from the Forbes Travel Guide in 2022.  Initiatives to help workers during the pandemic included giving financial assistance through paid leaves from April 2020 to December 2021 to those unable to work; giving bonuses and providing in-house accommodations, full meals, and vitamins to workers who were required to work during community quarantines; and providing assistance for colleagues’ vaccination needs, including offering two-way limo services for pregnant employees.

Mr. Andres added, “We took the pandemic as an opportunity to further train colleagues through our own learning academy called Melco Absorb, where various courses and programs are continuing and available non-stop. Qualified managers were also enrolled in ECornell courses for free. We promoted colleagues and prioritized internal over external hiring.”

“I think it’s an industry problem, until now,” said Chroma Hospitality’s Ms. Bocanegra, reporting resignations and reshuffling at work. “We’ve had some problems there, but I wouldn’t say it’s really that much.

“The way to do it is just really be more competitive. Instead of thinking of the negativities, we just have to move forward and look for more people. Encourage more fresh graduates, and training — in our properties, training and mentoring are very important. I think that’s where we should move forward.”