Anya in the new normal

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2021 - 12:00am

It was like a blast from the past.

The moment I saw Mikel Arriet Aruiz, general manager of Anya Resort in Tagaytay, I remembered the many happy moments my family and I had in Club Punta Fuego, where Mikel used to be the executive chef and then the GM.

Fast forward to 2021, here was Mikel in front of me who seemed not to have aged a bit. I recall those funny conversations we had back in Punta Fuego when he would tell me stories about San Sebastian in the Basque Region in Spain where he came from.

I had to ask him this time: Is the Basque burnt cheesecake really famous in your hometown? He replied that it was just how the cake would react to the way it was prepared in the oven. On the map on his phone, he shows me where Bilbao in Spain is and again I ask if that is where chorizo de Bilbao originated. He smiled and said, “there’s no such thing.”

About 17 years ago, Mikel told Alfredo Roca, who Mikel worked with in Ibiza, that he wanted a change from working for so many years in the island. Alfredo, who unknown to Mikel was already working in the Philippines, said he was looking for a chef to work on a project of the Spanish Embassy here which was going to be for three months. Mikel immediately grabbed the opportunity and came here. The three months turned to years.

A hospitality management graduate of Cornell University in the US, Mikel joined Club Punta Fuego in 2004 at a time when Alfredo was the GM. His last stint in Punta Fuego was as GM and that was until 2016, before moving to Anya, which is also a project of Roxaco Land Corp., but this time in Buenavista, Tagaytay.

Anya is already making a name for itself. In fact, it is one of only three (now only two) members of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH), which is a group of around 500 luxury boutique hotels accepted into the exclusive organization. Business was very good. In fact, the resort had been growing its revenues about 20 percent each year, thanks to its unique offering of personalizing or customizing even the smallest aspects of their guests’ needs.

From the time Anya opened in 2017, guests were already being sent, via email prior to their arrival, what is called the Anya Experience Menu. This allows the guests to choose, for instance, what kind of pillows they prefer, what scent for the room, any food preferences, bookings for their massage, surprises they want if a family member for instance is celebrating his or her birthday or an anniversary, etc.

But even without their unique service that makes their guests feel very much at home with their own Anya Experience Assistant, who is like a butler taking care of all the assigned guest’s needs. Anya, which is located on a seven-hectare patch of hilly greenery, is isolated enough to give the visitors peace and quiet, but at the same time has easy accessibility to the main highways, located around five minutes away. It has 80 suites, two restaurants, heated pool, gym, and probably everything that the guests would want.

Anya was unstoppable. When 2020 began, Mikel and his group were already preparing for a number of projects, including the adoption of a new technology (QR code side by side with the Anya Experience Menu), increasing the number of suites to 88, building a new condotel project, among others.

Then came the eruption of Taal Volcano on Jan. 12, 2020. It took more than a month before Anya reopened, but even after so much cleaning and repair work, the gardens still weren’t back to their usual state. When they opened on Feb. 17, 2020 Mikel told me that demand was probably for only two rooms. But visitors were already starting to come.

And then on March 15, 2020 or a little more than two months after the eruption, the Philippine government ordered a lockdown. All their expansion projects and new offerings had to be placed on hold.

Fast forward to September last year when the province of Cavite, including Tagaytay, was placed on a modified GCQ status. Hotels and resorts in Tagaytay were finally allowed to resume their hospitality business, but only up to 50 percent capacity.

Mikel recalls that it was easier for Anya because even prior to the pandemic, about 95 percent of their guests were either locals or balikbayans. This means that Anya, as well as others in Tagaytay, were not too affected by the drastic decline in the number of foreign visitors.

Now, hotels and resorts in Tagaytay are allowed to have up to 100 percent capacity, but Anya chooses to maintain it at 75 percent so that it would be easier to maintain safety protocols such as social distancing.

But the adoption of the QR code for all guests services by Anya made it much easier for the resort to adopt safety protocols and  at the same time maintain its signature brand of hospitality. The technology chosen by the Roxaco Group allows guests to choose from the restaurant menu, fill up the health declaration form, among others. Also, by scanning the QR code, one gets to access an automated Anya Experience Assistant, order a bottle of water, teach one how to use the coffee machine, attend an online mass, among others.

Mikel said that thanks to this technology, they are able to engage faster with their guests via the chatbot. Foreign speaking guests can even choose what language they prefer to communicate with. He tells me that the QR code was supposed to be implemented January last year, but had to be postponed because of the two unfortunate events. But the eight months or so, he said, allowed them to refine the technology and provide better experience for the guests.

While Mikel says that this year and next year will continue to be a question of survival for many in the hospitality industry, he knows that life has to go on, albeit more cautiously. Next week, Anya will launch,as part of its Niyama Wellness Centre, the Vital Dome – a French infrared sauna offering  which I tried for its detox benefits. The center will also have its own spa and will launch on March 15 a partnership with LifeScience Center. By April, Anya’s Samina restaurant will change its menu and will be renamed Samina by Chele, in a joint venture with Gallery by Chele.

Mikel, who is still Chef Mikel to me and others who know him from his engagement in the past, still goes to the Anya kitchen and checks the food, being a chef at heart. But now, he is busy making sure that guests feel safe, but at home under this new normal... and successfully at that.

For comments, e-mail at mareyes@philstarmedia.com

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