Sonja Vodusek: Hotelier with a 5-star heart
LIFE & STYLE - Millet M. Mananquil (The Philippine Star) - January 16, 2016 - 9:00am

The Peninsula Manila is said to be the most legendary hotel in Makati. I’d say it is the hotel where I’ve met the truest people. Or should I say, the truest general manager.

As a lifestyle journalist whose job includes checking on what makes hotels special, I have yet to meet a hotelier as special as Sonja Vodusek (or SV to her staff). To meet a GM so excellent at doing her job is a privilege. To gain a friend so sincerely passionate about touching other people’s lives is a bonus.

Her style was defined early on during a stormy day in Manila when her Philippine stint had just begun. “After watching a show in Manila, a flooded street awaited us outside the venue,” The Pen’s public relations director Mariano Garchitorena recalls. There was no way their car could get near them because of the choked lanes. “Then SV looked at me and, with a nod in the direction of our car, said: ‘Let’s walk’ as she removed her Chanel pumps and proceeded to wade through the flood! My GM was walking through Manila baha! This was one lady who wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty to get the work done, and it has been a hallmark of her management style ever since.”

More than the good food at Old Manila or the endless charm of The Pen Lobby, the things Sonja is proudest of are the homes built by The Peninsula chain for the Typhoon Yolanda victims; and The Pen’s breast cancer awareness campaign where the hotel was able to raise funds for a Breast Care Center Annex in QC.

This elegant lady gains more of your respect as she talks of “a time I will never forget, nor will my aching body” — during her first job in the hotel business in 1992 as a room maid or room attendant at the Sheraton Grande in Tokyo Bay. She proudly posted a photo of herself wearing her aproned uniform on her Instagram page.

Rising from the ranks after going through jobs from housekeeping to front office to food and beverage has made Sonja a seasoned hotelier. After 13 years with The Four Seasons, she joined The Peninsula New York as hotel manager in 2010, and seven months after, she was appointed as GM of The Peninsula Manila. Last December, she moved to Japan to assume the post of GM of The Peninsula Tokyo.

Sonja will surely be missed by Filipinos who have experienced her unique brand of hospitality and friendship. She is a hotelier with a brilliant mind. And a five-star heart.

Nedy Tantoco, chairman and CEO of Rustan’s, says: “It was impressive that Sonja would actually go from table to table in The Pen Lobby to greet customers. That’s how approachable she is. As a friend, she is one of a kind because no matter how busy she was, she would still have time to do little but enjoyable things like watching movies with me at Central Square and sharing a bag of sinfully delicious sour cream fries. That’s Sonja for you!”

Ben Chan, chairman and CEO of Bench, declares: “Sonja is perhaps The Peninsula Manila’s best manager ever. She is a genuine individual who maintains deep personal interaction with her staff and her circle of friends. When I got hospitalized months ago, she made sure I had my favorite Pen Lobby delectables by my bedside every day until I recovered. I am truly touched by her sincerity and thoughtfulness. In her I found friendship that I know will last the test of time. I will always look forward to catching up with her in Tokyo.”

Virgie Ramos, Swatch Philippines president, relates: “This holiday season, we were thrilled being Sonja’s first Filipino guests at The Peninsula Tokyo. I heard the Tokyo team calling her ‘Sonja-san.’ She had asked them to call her thus since ‘Ms. Vo-du-se-ku’ would be a tongue twister for most Japanese. I witnessed firsthand her unmatched people skills as, barely a month into her post, she already knew most of the Tokyo team, calling them by their names such as Watanabe-san, a lobby staffer; Takahashi-san in the front office; Fujiwara-san, guest services manager; and Iwasaki-san, driver. With The Pen Tokyo’s great location and unequaled heritage, Sonja-san’s endearing ways will certainly help make her vision for the hotel happen in time for the hotel’s 10th anniv in 2017.”

Let’s hear about more visions from this extraordinary hotelier:

PHILIPPINE STAR: You were undoubtedly one of Manila’s best-loved hotel GMs. Now that you’re off to Tokyo as Peninsula Tokyo’s GM, what memories are you bringing with you?

SONJA VODUSEK: Thank you for saying that, that’s very kind. I think I was just returning the love that I was receiving from so many people.

Memories? Where do I start? Art. Philippine artists are stupendously talented. BenCab, Elmer Borlongan, Impy Pilapil, Ang Kiukok... and the list goes on and on. Truly world-class.

Food and places to eat. I am a regular at all of Colin Mackay’s restos. Manila and the Philippines is a gourmet’s paradise and I love the fact that Philippine cuisine is finally getting the respect on the global stage that it has long deserved. Thank you, Myrna Segismundo!

Design. From couture to jewelry to home furnishing. In all the GM’s roadshows that I would attend I would always talk about the talent for design that is limitless in Manila. The clothes of Jojie Lloren, Dennis Lustico, Ivar Aseron, Paul Cabral, Francis Libiran; the jewelry of Wynn Wynn Ong and Jul B. Dizon; the minaudieres of Bea Valdes; the home furnishings of Kenneth Cobonpue, etc. But the most cherished memories I will bring with me to Japan are the people. I can honestly say that the Philippines has some of the nicest, warmest, most real and beautiful inside and out people I have ever known in my entire life. It doesn’t take much to fall in love with the Philippines and its people. I may not live here anymore, but I most certainly will be an ambassador of the Philippines abroad to my last dying breath.

Your Manila tenure was extended to five years. What did you love most about Manila? What will you miss most?

 The beaches. The sunny smiles. Ripe mangoes. Pancit luglog. My barkadas and — of course — my fabulous and hardworking team in The Peninsula Manila. I will miss them.

What are your thoughts now that the Pen Manila is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year?

The Peninsula Manila is embarking on a year of milestone celebrations to commemorate 40 years as one of the legends of Philippine hospitality. The hotel will be celebrating its 40th anniversary with its special day on Sept. 14. The second Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels (HSH) property to bear the iconic Peninsula name after its namesake in Hong Kong, it has been witness to much of the nation’s history, from the time when Manila hosted the International Monetary Fund-World Bank Conference in 1976, the turbulent yellow confetti-strewn years leading up to the peaceful People Power Revolution of 1986 to its rise as one of the most dynamic emerging markets in the Southeast Asia region. The hotel has been inextricably linked to the fortunes of the Philippines and Manila, the country and the city with whom it has enjoyed a 40-year-long relationship.?

What events did you plan for this 40th anniv? What can Pen loyalists expect?

 From unveiling the Peninsula Jeepney, celebrating 40 years of gastronomic excellence in Old Manila, the restoration of our priceless art collection of paintings by Philippine National Artist Ang Kiukok, the introduction of new Peninsula Academy programs that aim to promote the best of the Philippines and giving back to the community with its corporate responsibility and sustainability (CRS) projects, The Peninsula Manila aims to honor its legacy during its epic 40th anniversary.??

What is the most touching thing that you experienced in Manila?

 The Filipino character is enormously resilient and generous. In the hotel, we had staff who literally braved hell and high water to come to work just because they knew they were needed. I personally know of some who fell into flooded manholes and still came to work. The breast cancer survivors I met in East Avenue Medical Center, the children of Make A Wish Foundation and the families who lost everything to typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban. Despite everything they’d been through and continue to go through, their smiles, their willingness to help others despite their condition... I don’t know where they draw their strength and optimism. It’s humbling and at the same time it reinforces your faith in the goodness of people.

The Pen obviously is a hotel with a heart. It has built and is building more homes for the Yolanda victims in Leyte. Tell us more about this and other Pen advocacies.

 Caring for the community is a core value of ours that stretches back nearly 40 years when The Peninsula Manila was founded in 1976. Back in the days when corporate social responsibility (CSR) was but a nebulous term, the hotel was already taking an interest beyond mere economic gain and looking into the greater good — the welfare of the community, education, the “happiness” of employees and the whole social world that it inhabited.

We believe that the success of our hotel is deeply rooted in the success of the communities in which we operate. Since they provide the resources, infrastructure and markets that support our business, it’s only fitting that we take an active role in making a positive and enduring contribution to our communities that we call home.

 Since 1976, The Pen has made it part of its company policy to seek affirmative action and among its very first CSR projects was to hire the differently-abled. Out of the current 626 hotel employees, two are hearing-impaired and work in the Chocolate Room, creating at least 17 types of hand-made chocolates every day for The Peninsula Boutique. Parcenet Llaet and Eleanor Ramos, or the “Chocolate Girls” as we fondly call them, make just about every chocolate confection imaginable.

The Peninsula Manila also rallied its sister hotels in Asia, the US and Europe in seeking assistance when disaster struck the country in 2013 when super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan — one of the most powerful storms on record to make landfall — barreled into the coastal provinces of the Eastern Visayas region, claiming over 6,000 lives and leaving thousands injured and homeless. All Peninsula Hotels helped the typhoon victims through the Hope for the Philippines campaign.

 Nearly US$1 million was raised. In cooperation with Gawad Kalinga (GK) Community Development Fund, Inc., construction of the future “Hope for the Philippines” The Peninsula – GK Village in Maribi, Tanauan, Leyte Province started in September 2014 and will see completion this year on Jan. 27. The village will have 75 brand-new housing units and a community playground in an area covering nearly 10,000 square meters of land that will serve as the future home of some residents from San Roque, Tanauan who need to be relocated from their current coastal home which has been declared a “No Build Zone” by the National Housing Authority due to its proximity to the shoreline.??

 Your hotel is also known for its “Peninsula in Pink” campaign focusing on breast cancer.

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines has the highest incidence of breast cancer — one in every 13 Filipinos falls victim to it. This is the impetus behind The Peninsula Manila’s long-standing partnership with the Philippine Foundation for Breast Care, Inc. We support Breast Cancer Awareness Month every October with the Peninsula in Pink campaign. Since 2013, the hotel has been raising funds for the rehabilitation of the facilities of the Breast Care Center in East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City that is managed by the foundation. As a woman, a sister, a daughter and the general manager of an institution that has worked for nearly four decades help make a difference in the lives of people, I believe very strongly in the fight against this terrible disease that has claimed so many Filipino lives.

 Last year we raised P7.4 million at the Art of Pink/Peninsula in Pink auction. This, along with the money raised from the past two years, will be used to finally fulfill our dream of building a Breast Care Center Annex in East Avenue Medical Center.

 You proudly say that you started as a room attendant. What lessons have you learned as a hotelier who rose from the ranks?

 My first industry placement, while at school in BMIHMS, was at the Sheraton Grande in Tokyo, Japan where I was a room attendant for six months. I learned the value of hard work, to be kind and generous in all your undertakings, taking opportunities when they arise, no matter where. The hospitality industry is dynamic in that it allows you to work and live in different countries, which makes you grow and understand different ways of doing things — and it’s fun. Sure, I had to make sacrifices and the biggest one is not being with my family and friends back home in Australia — missing family and friends’ gatherings and key milestones is never easy, particularly when you have aging parents. Thank goodness for Skype!

What was your dream during your younger years? How did you end up in the hotel industry?

My dream was to be a fashion designer and an entertainer. I ended up in the hotel business because of my mother and father. I was working for the family company for around six years where I was in charge of human resources and finance. Yes, I was a back-of-the-house person. My family was involved in many community programs so from a very early age I was giving back and helping others. I used to enjoy event planning and the money raised would go to local charities. In 1988 I initiated a two-day New Year’s Eve party that country folk from all over rural Australia would flock to. At its peak, over 1,500 people would attend with all funds going to the local hospital. I ran it for three years until I was contemplating what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I realized I wanted more and, fortunately, my parents respected that and supported me in my next endeavor to start a new career. Then one day, I saw an article about a Swiss hospitality course in the Blue Mountains. I knew then and there that that’s what I was going to do and the rest is, as they say, history. Funny thing is nobody thought I was going to last — when they learned that I was making beds and chopping vegetables in the kitchens, there were bets that I would last 12 months, tops. I proved everyone wrong.

Any memorable experiences as a hotelier?

In January 2000 I became opening director of housekeeping at the Four Seasons in Dublin, Ireland — a truly memorable experience. Unfortunately I broke my ankle after just six weeks there, so I was running around the construction site with crutches and a hard hat. It was really tough! 

 In 2007, at the Four Seasons in Prague, Czech Republic, as hotel manager, I undertook a volunteer mission at the Sala Bai hospitality school, which runs a program for underprivileged youth in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I trained the teachers and the students in all of the disciplines: housekeeping, front office, reception, kitchen, food and beverage. I taught them basic hotel keeping, and how to be sensitive to different characteristics and nationalities. That experience was a real eye-opener. My time as a volunteer at Sala Bai made me more grateful and humble. 

What advice would you give aspiring hoteliers?

Well, I always say “Behave for the job you want, not for the job you have.” Never give up, work hard and don’t take no for answer. If you believe in something you go for it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If I listened to the naysayers over the years, I would not be where I am today. Don’t wait, ask. You won’t get if you don’t ask. That takes courage. Too many young folk adopt the “There’s light at the end of the tunnel” or “I will wait when it’s my turn” approach. I have a different approach. I say get in that tunnel and light it yourself! I always adopt my “6 Fs” approach — Be Fair, Firm and Friendly, Factual (and okay, sometimes emotional), give Feedback and most importantly, have Fun. We are in the hospitality business so it’s important not to take yourself too seriously. Lastly, find yourself a mentor that you trust and that will tell you the truth. Photos by GEREMY PINTOLO



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