‘It was actually a matter of chance.” That was the reply of Jorge Vilanova, Consultant and General Manager of Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bagac, Bataan, and a native of Spain, when asked how he got into the hospitality business.
In an interview with BusinessMirror, Vilanova related that he had to go back to Costa Rica to wait for the processing of his residence papers that would allow him to work in the United States after his college graduation. While waiting for the papers, he was told to look for a job.
“My father said, listen, you finished high school and you finished college. I cannot have you sitting at home all day just watching TV while you are waiting for your papers. So, get your butt out there and get a job,” Vilanova recalled with a smile.
At that time, they had a family friend who owned a small hotel in downtown San Jose in Costa Rica. It had 56 rooms and it was, he said, a “one man band operation.” He worked as the bellboy, reception clerk and many other tasks all at the same time.
“So when my papers came in and I was allowed to go back to the US, I went to Miami to live with my family and the first thing I thought was, okay, I would like to do this. I wanted to start working at Hyatt and then from there I started moving up, moving up,” he said.
“That’s the gift. I love it and the reason why? I don’t know why but I am very happy and I will do it again. I don’t know if I could do anything else but work in the hospitality business. I was 22 years old at that time,” Vilanova said.
Since then, Vilanova has worked in hotels and consultancy firms in Havana, Cuba; Dominican Republic; Croatia; Venezuela; Spain; Brazil; Bulgaria; Dubai, UAE; Bangkok, Thailand and Montenegro. To date, the Philippines is the 13th country that he has worked in.
He pointed out that during his projects as consultant he worked for independent hotel groups, hotel owners and SME. This working arrangement has brought him to many countries, including South East Asia.
“I don’t know why but I felt fascinated, overwhelmed by the beauty of the region, by the people, by the culture. So when I saw this ad on the Internet that Las Casas was looking for a general manager in the Philippines, I did not think twice. I sent my CV and asked if they were interested in expats and Ms. Jovy, who is now the head of Corporate Marketing and Sales, said yes. She said she would take a look at my CV and voila, here I am,” Vilanova said.
With plane ticket and contract in hand, Vilanova was supposed to start working at Las Casas on September 7, 2021. At that time, however, the Philippines, specifically the National Capital Region and the province of Bataan, was placed under Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ). This meant that no flights were allowed into and out of the country.
“I was told then that the only way I could get into the Philippines was through a special business visa which entailed more paper work. So, I started sending papers to the Philippines, to the Las Casas office in Manila which started preparing the letters that I needed for the Department of Tourism and the Department of Foreign Affairs and they gave me two months extra to work on my papers. And of course, what else was I supposed to do but wait,” he said.
Researching on the Philippines
While waiting for his papers to be processed, Vilanova spent the time researching and learning more about the Philippines. Since he is from Spain, he knows that the Philippines is a country that is close to Spain’s heart, we share history and culture, with Spanish words in the Tagalog language (did you know that Tagalog, and Spanish, are the only alphabets that have the letter “Ñ”?), similarity in the last names, the names of towns and even the food.
“I am a foodie guy and I love food and beverage and I can see the names and the recipes, the chicharron, flan, lechon, arroz caldo and a long etcetera. These are things that amazed me and made me so anxious to get here because I knew I would be able to connect,” he said.
“I heard about the legendary smile of the Filipinos. There was something that I read in some place that Filipinos learn to sing before they learn to talk. And it’s true. It is just a metaphor but it really reflects the attitude and the spirit of the Filipino, and your culture, and when I landed here, it was no surprise. I met exactly what I was reading about,” he added.
Vilanova finally arrived in the Philippines at the end of October 2021 and buckled down to work. The first order of business was to come up with a recovery plan for Las Casas “which was in the middle of a province.” He told his staff that Covid-19 would be over soon and that everyone had to get down to work.
“In terms of the Filipino people, as I said before, I think it was an instant love match. We matched immediately. We wanted the same things. What I what to say is that I have never felt so much eagerness, so much interest, push and enthusiasm in making this happen because the staff feel like it is their home and they feel like this is a family thing. In terms of motivating people, absolutely zero problems,” Vilanova said.
He added that just because the management of Las Casas announced his appointment as Consultant and General Manager does not mean that he would automatically gain the trust of the staff. He knew it was important for him to walk the talk.
‘I am not a boss. I am a leader. I would like to show the way, lead the way as well and I believe that everything has to be combined with team efforts. Yes, I am the GM and consultant of the property but I have a lot of talent around me who have been here for years. They know exactly what you know,” Vilanova said.
At the end of the day, Vilanova said his job is to make sure that they will succeed in their tasks because if the staff succeeds, “that’s when the hotel succeeds,” Vilanova said.
When asked about his favorite Filipino dishes, Vilanova said it was Pancit, Kare Kare and, in occasions the famous Chicharron.
“I am amazed with the Filipino gastronomy, of how you mix your components because in Europe, you will never think of doing this. I mean you don’t mix shrimp paste with pork. Under western standards, that’s a no-no. But here, I don’t know how but it mixes magically,” Vilanova said.
Enjoy the sun
Vilanova has also grown to like Bataan where he gets “to enjoy the sun, the quietness of the resort in the beach.”
“That’s something that is priceless for me. I enjoy this and I feel very comfortable here. If I don’t have any business calls in Manila, I would rather stay here in Bagac. It is perfect. Even the rainy season is okay. I have no complaints about this,” he said.
As for his plans for Las Casas, Vilanova said some parts of Las Casas are currently being renovated with the hope of attracting more tourists in the coming months. For now, the place is highly dependent on Filipino tourists which, he noted, has been “improving spectacularly.”
“The Filipino market is responding very well. We are in a privileged situation, two or three hours away from Manila and I am not even going into the uniqueness of this project called Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. It is a resort like no other in the, I would say, the region,” he said.
Last year, Las Casas was awarded the 2021 Historic hotels Worldwide Best Historic Hotel in Asia and the Pacific by Historic Hotels Awards of Excellence. Las Casas is one of more than 300 hotels and resorts worldwide that is recognized by Historic Hotels worldwide for preserving and maintaining its historic integrity, architecture and ambiance.
“It is a privilege that we got this award. I think that this is going to be our year and hopefully the Chinese market opens up soon. We are talking about 150 million passports here so that is a biggie for us. But until then, we are proving that we are moving in the right direction,” he said.