At a very young age, Brian Connelly already had firsthand experience working at a hotel. His father was general manager of the Caribbean Beach Hotel in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands so he had the run of the house—in terms of chores, that is—from raking debris off the beach, polishing silverware and as bellhop.
Growing up amid all the activity, it was no surprise that Connelly chose to tread the same path as his father. Today, he is armed with 38 years of professional experience in the hospitality industry, with Marco Polo Plaza Cebu in the Philippines’ Queen City of the South happily at the receiving end of all his acquired skills and knowledge in running a top-notch hotel.
“I’ve done the rounds from cleaning toilets, chopping onions and washing pots and pans. It’s a wonderful industry that allows you to work with different kinds of people where your biggest satisfaction is wowing your guests,” general manager Brian Connelly proudly told The Sunday Times Magazine. He also talked about what has kept him in the business for almost four decades, and how his globetrotting profession led him to these shores.
At home in Cebu
The international hotelier had been travelling to the Philippines as tourist and for business since 1997. In fact, he has stayed as a guest at Marco Polo Plaza Cebu on numerous occasions, and was very excited when the opportunity to work in the Queen City of the South came up.
“I have been a regular guest of this hotel. I even had a big event here before, with Hans Hauri, the former general manager. It was a press launch for Oakwood in Ortigas, which I was opening. So I knew the property from a business point of view and a leisure point of view. To have an opportunity to be part of this classic hotel is very exciting,” he related.
Accepting his appointment at Marco Polo Plaza Cebu (MPPC) on June 1, the Hotel and Restaurant Administration graduate from Oklahoma State University expressed, “It is exciting to be on this beautiful island of Cebu. I am honored to have the opportunity to be general manager of this wonderful hotel, Marco Polo Plaza. I look forward to continuing the success of the hotel and working with the team to grow and enhance the operation.
Marco Polo Hotels has a fantastic reputation in the Philippines and I look forward to further enhancing our brand.”
His most recent position before coming to the Philippines was as general manager of Angsana Laguna Phuket and Angsana Villa Resort in Thailand. He has also held senior management roles around the globe with Hilton Asia Pacific and Middle East, Oakwood Asia Pacific, Fairmont Hotels Middle East, and Intercontinental Hotels in Thailand and China.
Marco Polo Hotels Vice President for Operations Philippe Caretti said of Connelly’s posting in June that the organization is delighted to have him on board.
“Brian’s penchant for Asian hospitality embellished with this eagle-eye vision for driving profitable business and passionate leadership will help guide the property in its continuous improvement programs as well as strengthen its leading position in the city of Cebu,” the hotel chain’s senior executive said in a statement.
According to Connelly, what he loves about the Philippines and Cebu in particular are the people and food.
“I love the Philippines! The people are so warm and the food here is wonderful,” he exclaimed.
“The Independencia event – ‘A Culinary Journey’ at the hotel featuring the dishes of Northern Philippines – was a real eye-opener for me,” he elaborated. “To have sat down and actually eaten Filipino food that was explained to me by our heritage cuisine consultant was such an amazing experience. It’s a great cuisine. It certainly is nothing like anything else in Asia. There are influences from China, Thailand, India, but still it’s a very unique cuisine and I think that it’s something that needs to be celebrated more.”
He named crispy pata, pancit bihon, beef tapa, sinigang na hipon and bulalo among his favorites.
“It’s a long list and eating which dish depends on my mood and what I want to have at that moment,” he chuckled.
He honestly said, however, that he remains puzzled about “Filipino time.” He finds it hard to understand that when a Filipino says, “I’m almost there,” it really means, “I’m actually waiting for a taxi [and I don’t know how long this would take].”
Nevertheless, Connelly has willingly imbibed the positive Cebuano outlook when something unpredictable happens, to which they say, “Wa’y problema!” or simply, “No problem!”
“As a hotelier, when guests have special requests and needs, we will always find a way to say, ‘wa’y problema!’,” said the amiable executive.
In this age of technology and social media, the characteristics of stakeholders in the hospitality business practically remain the same, but with a little tweaking in the concept of being results-oriented.
To be sure, people are still considered the most important asset of an organization as Connelly expressed, “The biggest challenge for any property would be getting the right people, putting them in the right environment and knowing how to motivate them. We need to make sure that they share the same vision and DNA with the company so that we’re all on the same page. The goal is to go in the same direction with a team that is mature, focused and committed.”
In hiring an employee, he looks for “an outgoing personality—people who enjoy serving, and people who get satisfaction from making people smile.”
Through the years he has crossed continents and time zones in leading hotel operations, Connelly also believes that managing a hotel is more than just being a host now.
“The hotel general manager’s role has changed from being a ‘host’ to more of a business-focused manager. Today’s general managers are about driving sustainable results for our owners, our stakeholders and our
associates,” he said of the change required in the industry.
As to his management style and quality as a leader-manager, Connelly related how he holds three things sacred, not just as personal distinction but in order to instill discipline and command respect from his employees and associates. These are consistency, fairness and approachability.
“You have to be consistent with everybody, be fair and be approachable so that nobody will be afraid of you when they need to discuss things that are challenging. And being fair means being fair to everyone. If you discipline, you discipline consistently. If you’re nice, you’re nice to everybody. There are no favorites. That’s why one of the things that I always talk about is precedent. Whatever we do, we set a precedent for the future. This leadership style has evolved through the years,” he said.
Connelly had a brief stint outside the hotel industry brought about by the Asian financial crisis in 1997; about the same time he first visited the Philippines.
“The only time I made a change in the hotel business was when I moved to Hong Kong in 1997. It was the first Asian financial crisis and I found myself in a position when I had to find a job. So I became the managing director of Domino’s Pizza for Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. That was the only time that I stepped away from the traditional hotel model. After two years, I went back to being a hotelier but I enjoyed my time at Domino’s Pizza,” he reminisced.
He always finds satisfaction in making guests happy despite a workweek that changes depending on the needs of the hotel or VIPs who are arriving.
“I have hosted many famous dignitaries and personalities over the years and I feel very fortunate to have met them. However, at the end of the day, all our other guests are just as important. Allowing their lives to intertwine with ours at one point or another at the hotel is a great privilege. Every week is never the same and that makes it exciting,” he added.
Of his many duties and responsibilities, what he enjoys doing most, in no particular order, “would have to be creating food and beverage (F&B) promotions, meeting our guests and engaging with our associates.”
Connelly, by the way, is a wine connoisseur, which further adds to his expertise in F&B promotions. He is a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the International Food and Wine Society, and founder of a wine-lovers’ group.
“I am an eonophile. I had a wine radio show, a wine column, and I’ve judged wine contests. I find that wine is such an incredibly social beverage. It’s a product that changes over time and it is something that makes for a wonderful connection in family gatherings. I also founded a wine-lovers group called Sons of Bacchus. We have wine pairing dinners and we talk about the different bottles that each member brings,” he revealed.
Asked what has kept him in the hospitality business for most of his life, Connelly easily replied, “It is a very
satisfying career in a wonderful industry.”
Confident in recommending the career path to the young, he enthused, “It has a lot of opportunities for growth and you can progress as quickly or as slowly as you like based on your commitment and dedication. It has certainly gained a good reputation as a more viable and respectable industry. What I like about this industry is that there are so many different components to it – from MarComm (marketing communications) to being a chef, being in sales – so this industry has something to offer to everybody, regardless of one’s specialty is, there is an opportunity to work in the industry.”
Since taking the reins of operations of the landmark perched atop the hills of Cebu City, he said that his challenge is to build on the successes of the previous administration.
“I’m very lucky that the previous general managers – Hans [Hauri] and Julie [Najar] – did a fantastic job in managing the hotel. So we will be building on the successes and initiatives of the previous leadership and at the same time creating new initiatives and programs for the future.”
Championing the distinct features and characteristics of his home hotel, Connelly maintained, “Because Marco Polo is a regionally based hotel chain, we are more in touch with the needs of guests who live in the Asian area. We also have the ‘Marco Polo Way’ of service that one can experience across the board whenever they go to a Marco Polo hotel.”