When a 24-year-old Frank Reichenbach learned that his first international posting in the hotel industry would be in the humble islands of the Philippines many moons ago, he rolled out a world map and, like a true budding traveler, placed a pin on his newest destination.
Little did he know back then that the red dot he placed on the Philippines would spread like a rash—if there is ever a good kind, of course—to the rest of the world, as his career in the international hospitality industry climbed up the ladder just as quickly.
And as if his well-travelled and successful career couldn’t offer a greater allegory, his latest posting as general manager—the topmost managerial authority in any hotel—is again in the Philippines at Ortigas Center’s Marco Polo Hotel, named after the famous Venetian merchant and wanderer.
In today’s The Sunday Times Magazine, the hardworking Reichenbach shares his passion for people, his love for exploring the world, and his philosophical views on life, having seen it from a multitude of cultures and perspectives.
From kitchen to hotel
It was just after office hours, and Marco Polo Ortigas’ general manager, despite having worked a grueling day to make sure that the hotel was working perfectly, showed up at the interview with The Sunday Times Magazine without a hint of weariness.
Recalling his beginnings in the hospitality industry, Reichenbach shared, “I started quite early as an apprentice in the kitchen when I was 16, and then I got my diploma as a chef. But I went to hotel school immediately after that so I never really worked in the kitchen, just some short time.”
Having been born into a household that knows good food—his mother is a native of Lyon, France, considered as the world’s gourmet capital—the young Reichenbach formed very fond memories of cooking, not just from his mother but his cousins as well.
That delicious environment drove him to take up formal education in culinary arts, but fate seemed to have planned another path for him.
Reichenbach continued, “I did my hotel school in Laussane and from there, I started working for a famous Swiss hotel company, Mövenpick for two years. Now funny enough, my first job overseas was in Manila in 1980.”
The young Reichenbach was determined to work abroad in the hopes of finding a better career. “I wanted to go abroad because in Switzerland, unless you own a family hotel, which we didn’t have, you have to look somewhere else [for work]as we have a very limited market.”
When The Sunday Times Magazine asked him what his first impressions of the Philippines were decades ago—his very first posting outside of his native Switzerland—he laughingly recalled, “I will be honest with you, on my first trip, I looked at the world map to see exactly where it is. I mean, I knew Philippines and Manila from my geography in school but I wanted to know exactly where it is.”
His lack of knowledge about the country, however, was quickly evened out with the good testimonials he heard from his fellow Swiss friends who had visited the faraway island.
“People told me, ‘Actually the best place in Asia to start [your career]is really in the Philippines because first of all, they speak English, they get along in English and then they are very cosmopolitan, and they are a bit westernized.’ They said it’s the best place to go, much better than Thailand, or Indonesia or China for sure,” the 60-year-old general manager shared.
Reichenbach’s first posting to the country was as Food and Beverage director for the old Ramada Hotel in Ermita, Manila, before he moved to The Peninsula in Hong Kong, and again for the same hotel chain to Beijing and eventually, back to the Philippines for The Peninsula Manila from 1983 to 1986. His early career in the F&B industry was spent throughout Asia before he received his first posting as general manager (GM) at a Swiss hotel in Tianjin in China. He was only 33 years old back then.
“For my various GM positions, I had a total of eight hotel openings as general manager,” Reichenbach counted.
For a stellar early career that spans 40 years and 14 countries including exotic locations in Egypt, Lebanon, Istanbul, and Bahrain, one might think that Reinchenbach has never had a day of rest for a very long time. Surprisingly, the very diligent GM told The Sunday Times Magazine that he actually took breaks in between his postings.
“I did a side-step kind of thing. I accepted an offer as a director at a hotel management school in Switzerland for about three and a half years, and then I went back to the industry. After some time, I had another stint back in Switzerland as a COO of a company that offers high-end hotel-like service for private clinics. I stayed there for three years until I came back to the hotel business for another 10 years. Thereafter, I beckoned the call to go back to working with those doctors [from the private clinics],” Reichenbach related.
Fatefully, it was during his last sojourn outside the hotel industry that the Reichenbach realized why he loved being a hotelier.
“I had students, parents, and government officials to deal with [at the clinics]but they were obviously not like the customers you have in a hotel. I mean it’s a different lifestyle in hotel. You have 24 hours and the people you work with, it’s just a special type of—I don’t know how to describe it—people who work in our industry,” the GM said with a smile.
“I really missed the constant guests you look after, the network and the feedback. You might be a manager in the service industry and deliver the service but you are not essentially hosting—that’s what I still enjoy today,” Reichenbach continued.
He also shared another secret that helped him get by in the cutthroat hospitality industry. “I tell you, when I need a little kick, a little motivation, I just walk around the hotel, and I go meet some guests and the staff. It keeps me going.”
When, out-of-the-blue The Sunday Times Magazine asked Reichenbach who have been the most memorable guests he has hosted in his career, he excitedly named “The King of Pop” Michael Jackson and the legendary Sir Elton John, among other world famous artists. He also mentioned world leaders led by Philippines’ former President Fidel Ramos who, after his visit to Reichenbach’s hotel sent the general manager Malacañang-sealed golf ball because they enjoyed chatting about their common choice of sport.
Reichenbach noted that this very privilege is another factor why he loves being hotelier.
“In our business you meet these people—they come to you and you play host to them—but if you are in other businesses, [these people]will not even get to see you. I think this is a nice thing and this is what’s missing in all the other jobs. But of course you have to nurture it, you have to be around when they are at your property. The opportunities are there but you have to make something out of it.”
Travelling ala Marco Polo
Because of his posting in different parts of the world, another privilege Reichenbach knows he is fortunate to enjoy are the travels. As his many years in the industry went by, however, he discovered he is not merely a traveler by virtue of work. Wanderlust is innate for the man.
“For a while I had a map—actually my mom had it at home—and wherever I went, she’d put some pins I it. I’ve been to Brazil, South Africa, Venezuela, Aruba, Peru and most of Europe, like Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden,” Reichenbach enumerated.
Beyond the countries he lived in for work, the robust hotelier said he had visited some 60 places, spread throughout every continent on the globe.
“I think in life there are so many nice things to see in nature and in the world. I like to see mountaintops. I went to the highest mountain in Turkey some 5,600 meters high; and then I went to Palawan as well though I didn’t dive that deep. These things are not works of humans,” the GM philosophized.
More than the rush and the excitement, Reichenbach —with his inherent passion for the hotel industry—sees traveling for work as an opportunity to learn a lot of things. “In our business, traveling gives you ideas. For example, you see how they do barbecues somewhere on a safari; you pick the idea and, upon return, use it.”
He went on, “Traveling also allows you to make plenty of contacts. I did a lot of food promotions with people I met around the world.”
Besides his escapades, Reichenbach also sees to it that he travels back to Switzerland twice a year to visit his home and his mother.
“My family and my hometown relax me. I think you need to get out sometimes; it is one way of relaxing, changing, recharging the batteries a bit,” he acknowledged.
Life and career philosophy
Now comfortably enjoying family life with his Filipina wife—whom he married in 1985 after their fateful meeting in Manila—and his two children, Reichenbach admitted that his life philosophy is much changed, compared when he was in his 20s.
“When you get older, your views also change. I’m now at the point of my life where you want to be with people who you enjoy being with, and people who enjoy being with you, people you can share good moments with,” Reichenbach shared.
His 40-year career has neither passed without giving him important career lessons, which he still lives by today as he sets the tone and vision for the modern Marco Polo Hotel Ortigas. “Management by fear doesn’t work—this one I know. It works for a while but then it backfires. And then you definitely have to get people on board to share your vision, to share some of your ideas.”
Reichenbach cautioned, “But then you can never get everybody on board. You always have some black sheep. I think you need to get 70 percent on your side and let be the 30 percent who don’t follow.”
Explaining this formula further Reichenbach said, “It is a game, in our business, we say it is your own stage. As soon as you get here, you have to dress properly, you are on stage, you play—it is a show. But then the show has to be real, you cannot be artificial.”
When all is said and done, Reichenbach acknowledges there will surely be people who may have unwarranted impressions of him. “You know there’s not much I can do. They will probably remember me for what they think I did. But if I have my way, I think I will want to be remembered as somebody who has passion for the industry and who also has respect and passion for the staff.”
Ultimately, Reichenbach wants to be remembered as in four simple words.
“Nobody’s perfect but I think I want to be remembered as fair, honest, dedicated, and professional,” the well-travelled and well-learned man ended.