From nothing to something: Thriving family business

in Photo: The family’s eight-room villa, your happy residence in Puerto Princesa and Ellei's Place’s homey living and dining room

She started as a tourism inspector in local government. Her job: Make sure accommodation facilities are up to standards. When political winds changed direction, she had nowhere to go. Her last recourse was to go on her own.

Her husband, whose business was also faltering, decided it was time to venture independently. Left with a seemingly unsure future, he sold a property in Cubao. Now faced with a new challenge, the two joined forces and built a modest house on a property far from the business hub of the city.

Meriden Pagayona-Wakefield and family on the yard of Ellei’s Place, a tourist inn built on pure hardship.

Not earning an income, the two held on tight to the only liquid asset they had. Starting from ground zero, the long hard climb to build a family business began. It meant tightening their belts and doing away with the unnecessary.

The year was 2011. On a 900-square-meter lot in Libis, San Pedro, Puerto Princesa City, Meriden Pagayona-Wakefield and her husband built their future. Inch by inch, slowly but surely, they started a new life, looked the other way around and moved forward. “Para makalipat lang, nagri-rent lang kasi kami [so we can start anew, we were just renting].”

She plunged into the tourist hospitality business even if she wasn’t sure how she’d compete with established pension houses and small hotels in Puerto Princesa.

“When we moved in and developed the place along almost-deserted Lanzanas Road, we only had one room. But we persevered and took a leap of faith and began accepting guests.

“My first guest was a friend,” she relates. Two years after, her baby would grow to three rooms by renovating parts of her house on the ground floor. By year end, it would grow further. An annex of eight rooms sprouted on the eastern wing of her garden, ready for occupancy the following year.

It was tough at first, but she was beginning to see the fruits of her labor. Encouraged by what was happening, she officially rejoined the city’s tourism industry, this time as an entrepreneur.

How did she start marketing her new venture? “I didn’t overtly announce it. For one, we are in a secluded place of the city, the road leading to it was abominable. I refused to join booking websites because I hated our road. Nakakahiya [embarassing].”

Den, as friends call her, started inviting her relatives and circle of friends. She, too, relied on referrals and word-of-mouth helped her get talk-value. When the road in front of Ellei’s Place (her tourist inn’s name) was finally paved, she joined Booking.com, the only site she is associated with today.

She began to get accommodation bookings from all over the country. Her happy guests were her best endorsers. As the awareness level for her tourist inn increased, her brand of hospitality was gaining talk-value, fanned by people who had a pleasant stay at Ellei’s Place. “I guarantee you, when people’s experiences are pleasant, they will return. If not, you can be sure as the sunset, hindi na sila babalik [they won’t come back].”

Den operated Ellei’s Place with her charming personal touch. During her struggling years, it was solely a family business with no employees. Everyone helped—children, relatives and her community of friends. A daughter, including two boys, used to be her all-around “employees.” Now that she’s pretty stable, they are building their own careers. One works with the office of the president of Palawan State University, one boy is with her sister in Naga.

Sila ’yung mga katulong ko dito. Lahat kami gumagawa, naglilinis, nagluluto, nag-aayos [they all helped in putting up this business; they cleaned, acted as chefs, in operating my business]. When there are too many guests, I bring my other relatives and sister in,” she says.

Through the years she was able to acquire vans for airport transfers and city-tour rentals. When her husband is not available, she herself drives and fetches her guests to and from the airport, a job that she enjoys doing.

She recalls that 2016 was her best year, a time when the city was bursting at the seams and having conventions left and right. At its peak, she had a good share of the tourist arrival market pie. “There was no off-season dito, dire-derecho ang visitor bookings,” she recalls.

She hopes to see the city maintain its record as a preferrred convention city to spur the local economy. “Ang laki ng binabalik nito sa tao, ultimo tricycle kumikita [the return on investment to the community is immeasureable, even tricycle drivers earn from it]. The more visitors come, the more tourist inns will be built and more people will benefit,” she says.

Ellei’s Place is among a thousand family-owned tourist accommodation businesses in Puerto Princesa. Located in once a no-man’s land, it is now part of a burgeoning growth area in Barangay San Jose.

Den makes extra effort in making her guests feel like they’ve never left home. She’s the last person to sleep at night and the first to wake up in the morning to make sure her guests are well taken care of. The layout of her tourist inn lobby resembles a wide living room, bright and colorful, airy and refreshing. A happy place, Ellei’s Place is your residence in Puerto Princesa, as she fondly calls it.

How does she check out competition? “I visit them myself. I see the good and the bad. I benchmark with the good, improve on what is new and enhance what I think I can do better,” she says. Today, her place looks like an Italian villa with an invigorating garden that makes you feel like you are in a mind-soothing forest.

Occasionally, guests would see birds of different kinds on her yard, by the fountain or hopping from one tree to another around the compound. Pied Fantails, Coucals, Hummingbirds, Parrots, Robins, among others, playfully visit her backyard and delight guests. You can spot squirrels, too.

How is her brand of hospitality? How does she make her guests feel at home? “After a long business day or an exhausting tour, nobody wants to spend the night in an unwelcoming room. I make it a point to stamp my mark in what I do—with a personalized service. “Kami mismo ang nag-aasikaso sa bisita. Kami mismo ang sumusundo sa kanila at hindi namin pinapaba­yaan na mag-tricycle ang bisita namin [we take care of our visitors ourselves, we don’t leave them out in the cold by letting them take tricycles on their own to go to our place],” she says.

She wants her guests to feel that they’re part of the family. “I establish a connection with them in a way others, especially busy big hotel chains, are not able to do. I make sure that we have something unique to sell. When there are too many competitors in your area, you need a differentiator,” Wakefield says.

Lodging occupancy rates began to recover in 2016 and 2017 in Puerto Princesa after the decline that was witnessed in previous years. Hotels are predicted to record a value constant at 2017 prices over the forecast period, driven by the luxury and mid-market segment.

Room rates will continue to be competitive. Domestic travel is expected to sustain tourism, resulting in marginally faster growth of midmarket hotels than luxury. Local developers will reap the benefits of this growing industry and will likely continue being a price-sensitive market. How is she preparing for the fierce and sometimes roller-coaster state of tourism in Palawan?

Wakefield knows for the fact that the majority of travelers are not loyal to any one hotel, and many hotels focus on creating personalized experiences from customer data to get traveler loyalty.

“It’s a tough business, but whether you are small or large, the issue is really about how to connect with your market in a meaningful way. I still do the old-fashioned route—caring for my guests in our trademark Ellei’s Place’s personalized service way,” she says.

“Competition is exploding on several different fronts, and only recently is the industry taking onboard the very real threat of Airbnb and the sharing economy. Iba-iba na ang standards ngayon. Dormitories for backpackers, bed-and-breakfast inns, pension houses, tourist inns, hotels, resorts. But in the end, a personalized, caring way always comes out the winner,” Waefield says.

According to Wakefield, there’s one area where the best succeeds: it’s in innovating the experience they offer to their most loyal guests. “Every guest is important and should be treated to an exceptional experience. That’s the reason why most hotels, knowing that repeat customers provide an inexpensive and reliable source of revenue, go all out when it comes to courting their continued loyalty,” she says.

 

Roger Pe

Over 25 years of experience as advertising Executive Creative Director in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia, and20 years as Journalist for three of the country's major broadsheets. Former President, Creative Guild of the Philippines.