AUSSIE native Richard Simmons is a veteran hand at running hotels in the Philippines and other Asian destinations. As the new general manager of Marco Polo Ortigas, this is his third posting in the country, having led teams at Shangri-La Mactan in Cebu and Hyatt Hotels in Manila.
“I mentally prepared myself for six months before I arrived,” Richard jokes, referencing the traffic situation in Metro Manila. But he likens the country to another favorite place to live, Thailand, where he managed hotels in Bangkok and Koh Samui. “As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of similarities in the lifestyle, the weather is very similar, I like to do things like play golf. I like to go and eat, and I like easy access to travel. I think all of those tick the boxes [for the Philippines]. I think Bangkok does it a bit better on the efficiency level, but in terms of the vibe, I would rather live here than in a lot of places in Asia.”
It’s his particular familiarity with Filipino tastes and the environment in Metro Manila that makes Richard the perfect choice to further enhance Marco Polo Ortigas’s growth amid the challenges of a workforce shortage in the industry, the rise of AI, increasing inflationary pressures, and the stiff competition in the Ortigas CBD. “Part of my assignment is to accelerate the growth, and that comes in with building a new team,” he says, beefing up the sales and marketing team, the food and beverage staff, and other key departments.
Since his appointment, Richard has managed to add about 30 new staff “which is a direct relationship to business growth. And so we have been able to find people. I guess it goes back to hiring people for certain roles, certain positions for attitude and enthusiasm, and train for skills. And then we also need to find experienced and skilled people in different positions. It’s not an easy challenge.”
The key, he believes, is to create an environment that the employees will enjoy, apart from providing them the appropriate renumeration. To do this, he underscores the need to listen to the employees with empathy about their concerns.
“I wish I could change the traffic, but I can do things like make sure that people are not overworked. And that people have to try and find that work-life balance. I think the hotel industry needs to continue to evolve, to be more a bit more up to date on those kinds of inputs from the millennials…. They are our future leaders.”
Because as far as Richard is concerned, the hotel industry isn’t going to yield to robots to run operations any time soon. “I think there’s always going to be a balance about where does AI (artificial intelligence) provide a benefit to your organization, and where does it become too impersonal or robotic? I think [guests] still want to speak to people. I’m confident our customer service level, when it comes down to responding to people, is a pretty good standard…. And if you look at the highest-rated hotels anywhere in the world, that’s all people.”
He also feels, “When it comes to creativity, when it comes to anticipating trends…I think AI requires it to be fed that information. That creativity part, that spontaneity part, also the quick reaction, I think are a lot easier for any human center rather than AI.”
Richard acknowledges the impact of quickening inflation not just on the hotel business, but on the entire economy as well. The continued war between Ukraine and Russia has created supply chain problems all over the globe, while the recent cut in crude supply by Opec members is sure to kick local fuel prices higher.
Part of the solution for Marco Polo Ortigas for its F&B operations, for instance, is to shift some of its ingredients purchases to local suppliers, even as the property refreshes the offerings of its outlets, which continue to attract a loyal clientele. “We’re seeking quality local options, supporting the local economy, local producers—that’s a great big focus on for us, as part of this transition. We need to expand into quality artisan products. We like that a lot. It provides stories, it demonstrates our contribution to the economy, and I think people look for that as well…. The Philippines is a very proud nation and every time that Filipinos do well, they are the biggest bandwagon supporters in the world.”
As part of a thriving business district, the other hotels in Ortigas are similarly coming out of the pandemic strongly. But Richard sees his property being able to “punch above its weight,” and benefitting from the strengths of its neighbors. “We’re competing against some big brands, right? Because Edsa Shangri-La is an institution, they’re 32 years old, and they have some things that we’re not gonna go compete against—they can hold a million people in there, which I benefit from [e.g. room bookings]. They have all of their medical and pharmaceutical companies coming to town…and the Westin is also bringing some more people to this area. It’s good business.”
Prior to working in several hotels in the Asia-Pacific, Richard also learned the business from his father, who was posted to Hong Kong for a number of years in the hospitality and travel sectors. On his off-hours, he likes to indulge in his “absolute passion,” which is golf. “Though with a handicap of 20, it’s never too serious. The camaraderie and social element are just as important. Outside of golf, I enjoy going to live sports events, concerts, and traveling.”
But his real passion? “My two daughters, who live in Berlin, Germany. They both lived in Manila for nearly four years and look forward to returning for a visit very soon.”
In his visits across the country, what has struck Richard the most “is the tranquility and serenity of so many places outside of the major urban centers of Metro Manila and Cebu City.” But he does want to counter misconceptions about Metro Manila being bereft of sights and attractions. “Intramuros is a must-see experience, so take a walking or bicycle tour and learn one of the most interesting and historically important parts of the Philippines. It is an absolute eye-opener in understanding the Philippines.” He also suggests going to his favorite restaurant in Manila, Harbor View, in the late afternoon “to catch the famous Manila Bay sunset, while enjoying a stunning seafood dining experience.”
Meanwhile, here are Richard’s travel tips:
In choosing hotels: I am particular about checking the hotel location and accessibility to places I wish to visit. Also, take a look at online platforms for reviews and travelers’ photos of the hotel and their stay experience to get a feel of how others have experienced the property. My preference is also to book via the hotel’s official site whenever possible—establishing a direct relationship is always a benefit.
For destinations: Always choose a restaurant where locals dine. Always choose the road less traveled. Discovery will be the reward!
Marco Polo Ortigas is located along Meralco Avenue and Sapphire Street in Ortigas Center, Pasig City. For inquiries and bookings, call 7720-7777 or go to shorturl.at/cyMRY.
Image credits: Images courtesy Marco Polo Ortigas