At only 26, Chris Gothong, owner and general manager, Best Western Sand Bar Resort, Cebu, Philippines is blazing a path in hotels for a family that has been synonymous with shipping
How did your family branch out into the hospitality industry?
For all our lives my family has been involved in shipping, logistics, forwarding and pier operations (Chris is a fourth-generation Gothong; originally from China, the Gothongs are a big clan in the Philippines). Rather than put all our eggs in one basket, my dad, Ben, wanted to do something different.
We had a small beach house in Danao, Cebu that was converted into a seven-room resort. Market response was so good, so the rooms were increased to 28 (this is now run by Chris’ cousin).
An avid motorcycle rider, my dad has been all over the country. He really loves the Philippines. He noticed that there are many beautiful areas but not enough hotels. Domestic and inbound travel are growing, but there’s a lack of good, functional rooms, and hotels are not standardised.
How involved are your family members in Best Western Sand Bar Resort, which opened in March?
We had an architect who designed the building, but I did the rest on my own. For the interior design, my mum helped in things like choosing colours and furniture.
My aunt wanted to adhere to feng shui principles but I was vocal against it. I don’t want a restroom in the centre of the room. Who will want to stay in a place where the restroom is in the centre? In the end, they gave me leeway since I said I’m also accountable for the resort.
Why did your father pick you to lead the hotel business?
Trust. He saw my potential, and my eagerness showed. I wanted to learn. Modesty aside, I was a Dean’s Lister. I have a degree in management information systems, with a minor in business administration.
How did you prepare for the job?
My first taste of hospitality was a three-month on-the-job training at Cebu City Marriott Hotel. I trained in every department including housekeeping and laundry. I also read a lot. When I started, I had to buy five books from Amazon.com.
Did you know that you’ll end up running a hotel?
No. After graduation, I was thinking of going abroad to study. I went to China to study Mandarin and South Korea to study Korean because I noticed no one was studying it. Little did I know that learning the language will come in handy in building rapport with Korean guests. The Koreans are the Philippines’ largest market and Cebu has a Koreatown.
Is your age a handicap?
Initially. The contractors I had to deal with in building the resort were older. The first manager and supervisor I hired were also more experienced and older. It was a bit intimidating. I wanted to prove myself yet not to be too cocky. I had to take a balanced approach. When I started pitching the idea of doing things in a new way, they’d tell me: “You’re still young, it’s not going to be easy as 1-2-3.”
At first, I was asking lots of questions. Best Western’s Glenn de Souza (vice president of international operations for Asia and the Middle East) has a good line: Hospitality is a very simple industry. It’s all about service. At the end of the day as a general manager, you have to go beyond your emails. Talk to people, meet the people, invite them to your resort. It’s about common sense. Why make things complicated?
I admit I still have a lot to learn, but being 26, I can afford to take the risk. I make a lot of mistakes and I also learn a lot from them so that the next mistakes I make are smaller ones.
I also want to walk the talk. How fast I can clean the room would also be how fast I can ask people to do it.
Why did you choose Best Western for your first project?
It was purely coincidental. We were travelling in Europe at that time, and my uncle was afraid that if we moved from one hotel to another, we might not know what to expect. So we booked with Best Western throughout because it has a standard in place.
When it came to choosing the brand for our hotel, we contacted several hotel management companies. In some, you cannot have your own management. In others, you have to buy their products like pillows, which doesn’t make sense.
When I went to Best Western and I saw the phrase ‘independently owned and operated’, it stuck. That’s what we wanted from the start: the flexibility of managing the hotel on our own and also having the franchise that can bring people in.
How is your resort different from others?
I wanted something different from other Cebu hotels, which have the tropical and native look. I wanted a hotel that gives people an instant notion of unfinished yet finished, i.e. an industrial look. I’ve always admired The Waterhouse at South Bund in Shanghai. When you enter the lobby, it’s like a warehouse but the rooms are magnificent.
There are comments that the resort’s semicircle shape makes it look like a coliseum or university. I sacrificed some efficiency in the use of space so that all rooms have ocean views. It’s what all guests want. It has a modern look, and is clean, spacious and uncluttered.
I have to admit that the older generation’s concept of doing business is tried and tested, but I wanted to do something different such as hiring staff based on attitude and values, not past performance and experience.
The Gothongs are big on corporate social responsibility. How is this reflected in your hotel?
Before the resort came in, this was a sleepy community. We need to have the strong support of the community and we also need to support the community, so most of our employees are from this area. We focus on value-oriented people as some of them are not used to the hotel industry. They’re not used to dealing with foreigners, so we really have to encourage them otherwise it will affect our service.
What are the challenges of being both owner and manager?
The hard part is always the development side. The hospitality business is a big investment and there are no guaranteed returns. Basically it’s calculated risk. Like all shareholders, we want lots of people to come and have a good ROI.
Sixty per cent of hotel costs is actually structural. Some owners try to save on cost so that a hotel looks nice but uses window-type air conditioners. I didn’t want to pinch on structural areas. You’ll save a lot if you design the hotel well. I go for quality. All the products should last for seven years because you have to renovate after seven years. If you don’t, the hotel gets dated.
What’s your management style?
I’m hands on. We’re trying to build a culture of not blaming. It’s part of the risk to make mistakes. When you encourage the staff to make limited, calculated failure, they learn from it. Every failure is a learning experience otherwise they’ll get scared.
Are you in for the longhaul?
I want to build a good business model. If we’re putting a lot of energy in building this resort, we cannot say we’re going to have only 58 rooms and one hotel. Best Western Sand Bar is performing beyond expectations, so we’re advancing our expansion plans. We’re building 160 to 200 more rooms in 18 months instead of the original plan to expand after two years.
We want to have hotels that offer good value for money in Cebu (the Gothongs’ second Best Western is slated to open in 2015 in Cebu City with 200 rooms) and outside of Cebu.
This article was first published in TTG Asia, November 29 - December 12, 2013 issue, on page 8. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.