Repurposing a lemon
CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - March 26, 2014 - 12:00am

“If life gives you lemons make lemonade.” — Ron White

I would much rather meet the people I write about in person, but once in a while I come to know people better by the work they do, the decisions they make in life, the people who work for them and finally their achievements. Over the weekend, I learned a few things about a construction businessman whose pragmatic outlook and decision making ability has helped him make the most out of what life deals you. When life gave him lemons, he made lemonade.

For many years, Federico Tiotangco’s life and business revolved mainly in construction, but like a number of businessmen, Mr. Tiotangco felt the need to go beyond construction, so he decided to build a “commercial building” in Puerto Princesa City. The modest four-story building, situated in a 1.2 hectare prime property along the main highway, was intended to be somewhat like a mini mall of sorts. At the time of construction, it seemed like the perfect synergy of Tiotangco’s construction expertise and desire to transition to commercial developments and rentals. Yes it was almost perfect until he learned that the Robinson’s chain of malls had quietly acquired a huge swath of land almost next door to his project and would begin constructing a commercial complex as well as a mall.

Such a discovery could certainly make a grown man cry and curse the darkness or plod on full steam ahead simply out of pride and arrogance. Instead Tiotangco, I was told, stepped on the brakes. Knowing what the competition does and how big they were, Tiotangco decided to repurpose his building. Instead of a commercial-rental complex, he considered converting the structure and turn it into an apartelle that could service transient visitors to the city. However, someone intervened and suggested that he should go to the next level, which was to make a full service hotel of four-star standards.

Why settle for the ordinary if you could shoot for a high-end hotel considering he had 111 rooms in the offering? That was in 2010. It has been three years since the opening of Hotel Centro in Puerto Princesa and now the locals refer to it as “A resort hotel in the heart of the city.”

Centro Hotel boasts of having a good-sized swimming pool and jacuzzi, a wide selection of rooms for business travellers, conference participants as well as suites for honeymooners and families on vacation. They also have an impressive lobby by Puerto Princesa standards, plus a gazebo tent near the pool for alfresco dining complete with a mini stage for their weekend acoustic live music performers, some of whom were very good I might add.

In response to the growing attraction of Puerto Princesa as a conference and convention destination, the group is in the process of constructing a conference-events center with a seating capacity for 1,500 participants at any given time. The conference center is the first new structure to be built in their recently acquired six-hectare property adjacent to the hotel.

As a local boy, Tiotangco has certainly made good for himself as his hotel is the only locally owned (Palaweño) resort hotel, unlike other big hotels that are part or members of national or international chains. Hotel Centro also prides itself as having a serious program to develop and turn over management of the hotel to an all Puerto Princesa team of executives and staff. I had the chance to meet a number of the hotel executives and all of them were local residents who come from migrant families, but now consider themselves true Palaweños.

As head of Green Mountain Philippines Corp., Tiotangco may have wanted one of his children to follow in his footsteps in the construction industry, but since all his kids were “girls,” the pragmatic Tiotangco decided early on to build businesses that were more in tune with the gender and interests of his three girls, all of whom are currently being ushered into the business and have shown a keen aptitude for tourism. While Tiotangco’s heart may be towards leaving a legacy and somehow insuring his children’s future, he has also made sure that whatever businesses he built, much of it would be in the province of Palawan. So after completing Hotel Centro, Tiotangco and associates have invested in a development called Kamia Mountain Bay resort south of Puerto Princesa as well as one in northern Palawan called Sophia’s Resort in the town of Coron, where many years ago I also spent seven years building and managing Club Paradise Resort and Hacienda Resort.

Aside from his abilities to make lemonade, a good trait of Tiotangco’s organization particularly of his executive staff is their positive culture and openness to addressing problems, complaints as well as constructive criticism. Unlike other service industries where practitioners tend to be guarded, defensive or simply indifferent, the executives at Hotel Centro are known for their responsiveness whether it is online comments, guest requirements or constructive criticism. I personally put them to the test with over a dozen observations and was pleasantly surprised at the quiet but immediate action taken by the management team.

As a repurposed business and building, set up by non-industry investors, one can only admire how the management team has successfully made Hotel Centro as the preferred high-end destination for visitors to Puerto Princesa. Yes, there is still much to be done to officially earn their coveted four stars from the Department of Tourism, but to my mind it’s only a matter of time when Hotel Centro becomes a well-known name in the travel and tourism industry. Congratulations to the team and my thanks to Pete Dacuycuy who suggested and arranged our visit and unplanned critique in order to help further improve the standards and awareness of both owners and clients in the tourism industry.

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