A performance within the Intramuros 'Walled City'
Manila seldom springs to mind when considering great Asia-Pacific cities for networking or enjoying post-conference fun. The usual suspects include Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney, all of which continue to polish their allure with fresh attractions and impeccable service. Even Seoul, once cocooned and mysterious, is today a rising star.
Manila has yet to emerge from under the radar but the Philippines recently received a pat on the back from international rating agencies for its good governance and sound fiscal policies. There is reason to hope, then, that new foreign investment will arrive and translate into a boom for the conferences and tourism industry.
Creating a unique experience has never been the problem for Filipino business event professionals, explains Sonia Lazo, managing director of Intas Destinations, one of the country’s leading DMCs. She says: “I believe creativity has no limits. We can turn a bare room into something luxurious.”
Despite these positive vibes, a perception about the country’s security situation still lingers on. Lazo remarks that this remains a significant challenge that she and her industry colleagues will have to face for some time to come. Making it easier though, is the recent influx of quality infrastructure and products that enhance the local hospitality scene. Eugene Tamesis, director of sales and marketing of Raffles Makati, says: “In Manila, luxury operators now have the potential to do much more. The city has been attracting international interest. With increased demand, we can expect to see more high-end items coming on board.” He cites a trend for using non-function room venues for meetings, such as Raffles’ Long Bar and Writers’ Lounge for so-called “pocket events”. Recently, these spaces have been used to launch Chanel’s latest cosmetic line. The event was organised by the well-known Rustan’s department store. Indeed, the presidential suites of both Raffles and the adjacent Fairmont Makati are beginning to figure in client requests.
Raffles' writers' lounge
Tamesis, who has worked for other corporate chains in Vietnam and Thailand, is well aware of the competition posed by neighbouring countries, but says: “I do hear negative comments, but it’s getting less and less as the good news takes over and becomes the focus of attention.” Filipinos are also starting to buy into the luxury concept, he observes, with local customers now ranking as Raffles’ largest business base as they book “staycations”.
Veteran hotelier Rose Libongco, who, with partners, formed the travel and hospitality think tank, GList, which promotes sustainable tourism, believes the industry excels at hosting high-profile powwows. “The Asian Development Bank annual general meeting last year, which attracted 5,000 participants, was a milestone.”
Libongco recalls that when she was sales and marketing director of Sofitel Philippines about three years ago, Meier’s Weltrelsen, one of Europe’s largest tour operators, chose to bring 500 of its staff and partners to the Philippines. “This is a big deal as every destination they visit is carefully chosen. It was a success,” she says.
While trying to win back approval from traditional markets such as Australia, the US and Europe, Manila-based DMCs have pursued other opportunities. For example, Blue Horizons Travel & Tours struck lucky with Indian corporates after joining frequent trade missions to the subcontinent, organised by the Philippines Department of Tourism. The company has also enjoyed a great deal of Middle East custom.
Meeting and incentives manager Carla Mariano explains that the company recently hosted two mid-sized groups from New Delhi and Mumbai and a tyre company from Dubai of around 200 people. She says: “Many of them have been to Singapore and Bangkok and wanted a new destination. Manila meets that requirement and is highly rated in terms of hospitality, friendly service and price. They’re also interested in our heritage, which they don’t know much about.”
It is precisely this heady mix of Spanish and indigenous Malay stock, with half a century of American rule thrown in, that has produced a distinctly hybrid culture – an Asian citizenry who can dip in and out of Western customs with seamless ease and yet revert to the comfort of tradition when the need arises. It is this contrast of psyches residing in the Filipino that continues to fascinate the world, as it did a group of 74 top French executives who quietly slipped into the capital in January for some R&R before proceeding onward to El Nido in Palawan.
The Intramuros 'Walled City'
Lazo of Intas Destinations says: “We had to look for a venue that exuded a lot of charm so that they could have an authentic Philippine experience.” For that, only the Rajah Sulayman Theatre in the Walled City of Intramuros would do. Redolent with atmosphere, the ruins, which have provided a telling backdrop for numerous stage productions in the past, required no dressing up, except for some strategically placed lighting. The evening’s menu was prepared by Chef Margarita Forés, the favourite for many state banquets at Malacañang Palace, while the short after-dinner entertainment cleverly juxtaposed French and Filipino popular songs, including Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, and offered an opportunity for the guests to let their hair down and enjoy some dancing.
Another highlight of the whirlwind visit was the presence of former first lady Imelda Marcos at one of the dinners, which the group requested. Say what you will about Madame Marcos but she utterly charmed the Europeans, says Lazo. Another group, this time consisting of Italians, also asked to meet Mrs Marcos when they visited the country a few weeks after the French delegation. It looks like the “Iron Butterfly” still has formidable drawing power – at least in some quarters.
Other areas of Manila – or to be more exact Metro Manila, which is made up of Manila as well as the surrounding 16 cities and one municipality – are likewise keen for a slice of the business events pie.
Still the premier financial precinct, Makati is being reimagined by developer Ayala Land and the Makati Tourism Foundation as an arts, culture and leisure magnet, offering event spaces for group bookings. Circuit, which opened earlier this year on the site of the old Santa Ana racetrack – features in its first phase open-air grounds for 20,000 attending a festival, plus a tent to shelter 1,500 delegates. A sports park debuts in October with more facilities to open in the future until 2016.
Over at Bonifacio Global City in nearby Taguig City, a shiny new central business district is emerging without pause from the welter of cranes and construction dust. Nightlife is quickly shifting from the old haunts of Makati and Malate to “The Fort” as the locals have dubbed it, especially in the area of the Serendra condominiums and Bonifacio High Street.
Manila and its environs are buzzing – and how. Hopefully, event planners will hear the sounds of progress and buy into it. n
ACCESS Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) is around 7km south of the city centre between Pasay and Parañaque districts. Most international flights arrive at Terminal 1, although these will be moved to the newer Terminal 3 in the near future. Philippine Airlines operates in and out of Terminal 2. Almost 40 airlines are served by NAIA. An official taxi from Terminal 1 into downtown Makati takes about 90-120 minutes and
costs approximately Php500 (US$12). Visit: manila-airport.net
CLIMATE The Philippines has a tropical monsoon climate. Manila’s dry season is from November to April, with temperatures averaging 26?C – the rest of the year is wet and humid, with temperatures frequently over 30?C. Typhoons can hit Manila any time from July through to October.
VISA Citizens of Asean member states do not require a visa. In addition, most nationals are eligible for the country’s visa-waiver programme, which allows for stays of up
to 21 days. For more information, visit: immigration.gov.ph
LANGUAGE Tagalog is the main language spoken in Manila and northern Philippines, but English is widely spoken to a high level.
CONTACT Philippines Department of Tourism at: tourism.gov.ph
Manila (and Boracay)
Sample city itinerary prepared by Blue Horizons Travel and Tours
Number of participants: 170 delegates
• Afternoon arrival in Manila, transfer to Makati Shangri-La by colourful jeepney, the famous, unique Filipino form of public transport.
• 8-11pm – Welcome dinner at the hotel’s Quezon Ballroom.
• Breakfast at hotel, departing at 9.15am for morning tour.
• 9.15am-12pm – Tour of Intramuros, the “Walled City” established by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century along the Pasig River. Colourful personality and popular tour guide Carlos Celdran annotates the walk, which he spices up with his own brand of historical commentary. Rides on horse-drawn carriages also form part of the experience.
• 12-1.30pm – Lunch at Casa Roces, near Malacanang Place, official home of
Philippine presidents. Enjoy dishes based on heirloom recipes of the celebrated Roces clan, which counts writers, artists and nationalists among its members.
• Afternoon at leisure.
• 7.30-10.30pm – Dinner at White Space art gallery, prepared by Philippine celebrity chef Margarita Forés, known for highly innovative dishes that meld Italian and Filipino ingredients.
• Breakfast at the hotel.
• Full day at leisure with suggested shopping activities at the Mall of Asia – undeniably Asia’s largest – along Manila Bay or Bonifacio High Street in the developing CBD of Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City.
• 7.30-10.30pm – Dinner at Ilustrado Restaurant in Intramuros, a restored 19th century house that evokes Old World elegance. The speciality is fine dining in a Spanish-Filipino setting, followed by a lively song and dance presentation.
• Breakfast at the hotel.
• 11am – Depart for Boracay in Aklan province and rest of the itinerary.
New players have now entered what was for many years an accommodation vacuum. They have brought with them new design trends and a level of hardware that business travellers enjoy in other regional hubs.
The Bayleaf Intramuros
A boutique hotel within the historic Intramuros, the Bayleaf has only 57 guestrooms but its ample meeting facilities include a ballroom that can take a group of 400. The Sky Deck on the rooftop has a commanding
view of Old Manila and can host cocktails and tapas for up to 80 persons.
Holiday Inn and Suites Makati
Well located within the popular Ayala Center and linked to Glorietta Mall, this 348-room property features nine meeting rooms with a capacity of up to 95 people, and the Oz Rooftop Bar that also serves dinner.
Fairmont Makati and Raffles Makati
The twin luxury hotels may share an 859 sqm ballroom and various function venues, but each has its own exclusive spaces for intimate events. Raffles boasts its iconic Writers’ Bar and Long Bar, and the Fairmont has the Fairmont Lounge. The presidential suites are also finding favour with clients who want to entertain a select guest list in matching surroundings.
The 179-room property at Boni High Street, The Fort is the flagship for more hotels under the Seda (Spanish for “silk”) brand around the country. A second, Seda Centrio, recently opened in Cagayan de Oro City, while Seda Abreeza in Davao City and Seda Nuvali will launch this year. Two function rooms, Satin and Velvet, can be arranged for between 60 and 250 guests for cocktails, and 40 to 100 for banquets. Straight Up Bar on the roof deck offers a private room for 30 guests who want to network after meetings.
Circuit Outdoor Event Grounds, Makati City
First in a series of new entertainment venues, this massive attraction has room for 20,000 people during an open-air activity and also features a tent with a 2,000 sqm canopy to shelter 1,500 guests. Opening by year-end are a FIFA-sized football pitch to host international matches, with bleachers for 2,000 spectators and a skate park, followed in 2014 by Central Walk, a multi-featured lane anchored by fountains and the Black Box, ideal for staging intimate events, exhibits and parties.
Bonifacio Global City (The Fort), Taguig City
Offering a fresh take on the usual mall experience, “Boni” High Street allows visitors to include their shopping, dining and business pursuits in one leisurely open stretch. Helping to create the breezy atmosphere is a network of landscaped parks and open spaces filled with art installations – ideal for concerts, product launches and team-building activities.
SM Aura Premier
The latest leisure project of SM Prime Holdings, located
in Bonifacio Global City, features the second SMX Convention Center in Manila, with 3,800 sqm of leasable space that has three function areas for crowds of up to 2,250, as well as the 1,950 sqm Samsung Hall that comes with 992 retractable seats.
Solaire resort & casino
The first of four mega entertainment complexes that comprise the “Entertainment City” integrated resort along Manila Bay, Solaire is just flexing its wings in the meeting and incentive market as facilities begin to be rolled out, such as the ballroom with banquet seating for 1,200 guests.
There are still a number of ancestral homes in the city, lovingly preserved by their present-day owners. Some have found new life as restaurants and event spaces. Among these are Casa Roces, which blends cuisine and art with a small gallery on the premises, and La Cucina de Tita Moning (www.lacocinadetitamoning.com) in the elegant San Miguel vicinity. In the still leafy suburb of San Juan is Il Piccino Trattoria or the “Moran House” (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Company buyouts are possible in all these gracious establishments.
Marriott Convention Center
The five-storey facility, opening in January of next year next to the existing Manila Marriott Hotel at the Newport City Complex, adds to the brand’s ability to service business events. It will comprise 6,700 sqm of usable space including a grand ballroom seating 2,600 guests banquet-style. There’s also a plenary hall that seats 3,500, an exhibition hall, two bridal halls and 18 breakout rooms. Another 228 guestrooms will join the current inventory of 342 guestrooms, ensuring there is lodging for sizeable groups.
Margie T Logarta