Idealism is part and parcel of being young. The youth—no matter the decade or century—dream big, hope for the best and believe they can make all things happen. However, once a person reaches a certain level of maturity, he or she comes to realize that it is not always easy to achieve one’s goals. It then becomes up to them to continue chasing their dreams or wholeheartedly embrace changes to make the most out of reality.
Luxent Hotel’s General Manager Melanie Siy-Pagkalinawan chose to take the latter option, not knowing she would someday lead one of the fastest rising independent hotels in the country.
“I really wanted to be a painter when I graduated high school,” Pagkalinawan revealed to The Sunday Times Magazine in this one-on-one interview at the well-appointed Quezon City property.
“When I was younger, I liked to draw, sketch and use colors. I think I had the passion and the talent [for art]because I would join—with my teachers often volunteering me—school competitions and win,” she recalled laughingly.
Humble, even as she has reached the top post in Luxent, Pagkalinawan told The Sunday Times Magazine she has always felt her artistic pursuit is for “personal appreciation only.”
It is therefore likely that this very notion convinced her younger and idealistic self to take a good friend’s career suggestion, rather than what is generally perceived as an impractical goal of becoming an artist.
“When I was applying for college, a good friend of mine suggested I take Hotel and Restaurant Management (HRM) degree and thereafter—since I come from a Chinese background—open my own business,” Pagkalinawan imparted.
No love at ‘first try’
Whether it was because her passion truly lay in the visual arts or that she knew nothing about the hotel and restaurant industry, Pagkalinawan quickly realized she disliked the course she took at the University of Santo Tomas.
“I didn’t like HRM when I was studying because we had to cook and a lot of other related activities which I really wasn’t fond of,” she laughed again.
Moreover, an aversion to one particular but essential subject for her course almost drove her to drop out of HRM altogether. “I wasn’t good in Math at that time so I told myself I’d look for a course that doesn’t involve too much Math. So why not painting na lang because that’ really what I wanted to do in the first place?”
A reasonable girl nonetheless, Pagkalinawan pursued the course after she had her moment, realizing too she truly wanted to open up a business of her own.
“The course went on for years. I was already doing my practicum at Sheraton Hotel [now Century Park Hotel in Manila]and still I wasn’t passionate about it yet—more at that particular time because I was assigned in the kitchen to peel onions and potatoes!” she confessed.
“Then I was assigned to pastry but I was never fond of chocolates, not even its smell, and neither of donuts. Suffice to say, I wasn’t happy with my stint in the kitchen,” Pagkalinawan carried on almost sheepishly.
Her perception finally shifted when she was assigned to the hotel’s office and front desk.
“I spent time in the purchasing office and at the front desk, which I enjoyed because I had a lot of interaction with different people. In purchasing, there were a lot of suppliers coming in and out, while at the front office, I was able to handle guests, even foreigners, an experience which was new to me. Finally, I was starting to enjoy my work in the hotel industry,” she happily recalled.
With a newfound appreciation for hotel management, Pagkalinawan decided to hold off in opening a business and give her well-earned profession a shot after graduation. She nervously applied for a job at Holiday Inn Manila, and was immediately hired as Front Desk Agent.
“I think that was really the time I realized I liked being in this environment. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that I’d work beyond my official hours.”
With that, she permanently shelved the idea of opening her own business—and that of becoming a painter—embracing her reality as a young hotelier.
Breaking hospitality grounds
From Front Desk Agent, Pagkalinawan’s determination and passion, as she puts it, propelled her rise in the hotel industry. She next took on the post of Front Office Manager at Traders Hotel, under the Shangri-La chain, considered a mean feat for someone all of 26 years old. The general manager-in-the making was in fact the youngest executive at Traders to handle a staff of 30 in a group of season hoteliers.
Thereafter, she held varying managerial positions at Hotel Intercontinental and Mandarin Oriental Manila, before serving concurrently as Hotel Manager and Business Development Manager of Best Western Oxfords Suites, and finally joining Luxent Hotel in Quezon City.
Growing an independent hotel
Far from her initial apprehension, Pagkalinawan now confidently oversees Luxent Hotel, a four-star property at the heart of the leisure and entertainment area of Quezon City, as general manager.
Celebrating its sixth anniversary this June, Luxent Hotel prides itself as one of the first hotels to have sprung in the Tomas Morato district, and an independent hotel at that, without any affiliation to other established chains.
“We are proud to be the first of its kind in the city with new hotels opening up after us and seeing the potential of business here,” the general manager said matter-of-factly.
According the lady boss, who joined the hotel as its second general manager before Luxent officially turned a year old in 2013, she has committed to the following goals ever since: To ensure high quality standards of rooms as well as the food and beverage division, while contributing to the personal development of their staff, and securing a reasonable return of investments for the owners.
Asked if the hotel has been able to achieve these objectives over the last five years, Pagkalinawan replied with sense of pride, “Oh yes. We were able to train loyal employees to start with. Year after year we have been increasing our average occupancy level, and concurrently, increasing repeat guest business. Finally, we have been able to create a good online reputation. These, among other factors, go to show that we have achieved our goals, and continue to do so.”
Indeed, a quick check on the American travel and restaurant website TripAdvisor shows positive reviews for Luxent from previous hotel guests.
The spacious rooms in a refreshing and relaxing neutral color palette; the genuine hospitality from the entire staff; and the upscale and bespoke amenities such as pool, gym and spa all housed in the 16-storey hotel scored some of the highest points on the website.
Today, Luxent Hotel is also swiftly earning a reputation for its food and beverage offerings what with its two thriving in-house outlets: the Garden Café, featuring a wide array of sumptuous breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets; and the Lush Bar and Lounge, which offers ala carte menus and drinks at the hotel’s lobby. The Bread Indulgence Corner, meanwhile, where guests can choose their favorite baked goodies, prepared fresh every day, is becoming a favorite among guests, too.
“For more concrete proof, Luxent Hotel has been recognized by TripAdvisor with ‘Certificate of Excellence’ and by no less than the Department of Tourism with a four-star rating,” Pagkalinawan added.
No wonder executives and businessmen—from across the pharmaceutical, business process outsourcing and media industries, as well as government and non-governmental organizations—as well as families continue to frequent the hotel day in and day out.
And if the posh interiors of Luxent or the well appointed lobby look familiar to some, it is because the hotel has also been location for TV and movie events.
Open door policy
At the heart of the hotel’s achievements, Pagkalinawan credits her loyal staff for Luxent’s success. The very individuals who have been praised on- and off-line for their remarkable service, and how according to them, their general manager has devotedly nurtured them to deliver their best.
“When it comes to managerial style, I’d say I have an open door policy—you can approach me anytime. I am also brutally frank so much so that when somebody commits mistake, I will tell it straight to his or her face, but I’ll make sure that I correct that mistake right then and there by doing some coaching—that’s my style,” Pagkalinawan noted.
According to the general manager, this compassion stems from the fact that she has been through the day-to-day challenges of a hotel setup.
“I know from experience that there are different types of guests—the meticulous—the ones who complain a lot—and then there are those who are too enthusiastic about their great experience. As such, it requires a different approach to deal with these types and I want to coach everyone on the team how to handle them.”
In the grand scheme of things, Pagkalinawan said mentoring is a win-win situation for the employees and the company. “Because eventually, when you mentor them the right way, they will feel empowered and they can soon make the right decisions on their own. Consequently, they can make the lives of the company heads easier.”
“At this rate, I’d like to believe that in the next six years, Luxent Hotel will be known globally. We will be known for our stress-free accommodation, great food and great ability to extend excellent service,” Pagkalinawan enthused.
That is not to say however that they will rest on their laurels given that the hotel is already enjoying success.
Pagkalinawan said she always finds new facets to improve on, one of which is to utilize digital technology all the more to reach out to customers who are always online.
Female GMs on the rise
Another amiable feat for this reluctant hotelier is joining the league of women who now comprise top posts in an industry long dominated by men.
“I am happy to see female general managers becoming more common nowadays. Admittedly, it’s very different compared to the time when I started my career,” Pagkalinawan noted.
While it was no walk in the park to get where she is right now, Pagkalinawan said she was able to do it with the following mantra. “Raise your hand to have a seat at the table.”
“What this means to me is that women should be aggressive, speak out and express themselves to be heard. They should not be dissuaded into thinking that this or that field is dominated by men, because they will not stand out.
“But women should make sure that they know what they are saying—they just can’t raise their hand and be senseless. To do so, they have to be educated, knowledgeable and updated on what’s happening around them to be on top of their game.”
One only needs to look at her rise in the hotel industry to have faith—especially given the fact that Pagkalinawan only came to love what she reluctantly chose to do much later in her HRM course.
Inspiringly, she is also proof that even if one’s dreams do not work out, success—and happiness—is still possible with what fate brings one’s way.