Accidental hotelier goes to Bagac, Bataan
“It was actually a matter of luck.” This is the answer of Jorge Vilanova, consultant and general manager of Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bagac, Bataan, and originally from Spain, when asked how he got into the hospitality industry.
In an interview with BusinessMirror, Vilanova said he had to return to Costa Rica to wait for his residency papers to be processed that would allow him to work in the United States after graduating from college. While waiting for the papers, he was told to look for a job.
“My dad said, listen, you finished high school and you finished college. I can’t let you stay home all day watching TV while you wait for your papers. So get your butt out and get a job,” Vilanova recalls with a smile.
At that time, they had a family friend who owned a small hotel in downtown San José, Costa Rica. There were 56 rooms and it was, he said, a “one-man operation”. He worked as a bellboy, receptionist and many other tasks at the same time.
“So when my papers came in and I was cleared to go back to the United States, I went to Miami to live with my family and the first thing I thought was, okay, I I wanted to start working at Hyatt, and then from there I started to progress, progress,” he said.
“It’s the gift. I like it and why? I don’t know why but I’m very happy and I’ll do it again. I don’t know if I could do anything other than work in the hotel industry. I was 22 at the time,” Vilanova said.
Since then, Vilanova has worked in hotels and consulting firms in Havana, Cuba; Dominican Republic; Croatia; Venezuela; Spain; Brazil; Bulgaria; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Bangkok, Thailand and Montenegro. To date, the Philippines is the 13e country in which he worked.
He specifies that during his projects as a consultant he worked for independent hotel groups, hoteliers and SMEs. This work arrangement has taken him to many countries, including Southeast 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 didn’t hesitate. I sent my CV and asked them if they were interested in expats and Ms. Jovy, who is now head of corporate marketing and sales, said yes. She said she was going to take a look at my CV and here I am,” Vilanova said.
With a plane ticket and a contract in hand, Vilanova was expected to begin work in Las Casas on September 7, 2021. At that time, however, the Philippines, specifically the National Capital Region and Bataan Province, were placed under modified enhanced community quarantine. (MECQ). This meant that no flights were allowed to and from the country.
“I was then told that the only way to enter the Philippines was to obtain a special business visa which involved more paperwork. So, I started sending papers to the Philippines, to the office in Las Casas in Manila who started preparing the letters I needed for the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they gave me another two months to work on my paperwork. I was supposed to do more than wait,” he said.
Research on the Philippines
While waiting for her paperwork to be processed, Vilanova spent time researching and learning more about the Philippines. As 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 family names, city names and even food.
“I’m a foodie guy and I love food and drink and I can see the names and recipes, chicharron, flan, lechon, arroz caldo and a long etcetera. These are things that amazed me and made me so eager to get here because I knew I would be able to connect,” he said.
“I heard about the legendary Filipino smile. There was something I read somewhere that Filipinos learn to sing before they learn to speak. And that’s true. It’s just a metaphor but it really captures the attitude and spirit of Filipinos, and your culture, and when I landed here it was no surprise. I encountered exactly what I was reading,” he added.
Vilanova finally arrived in the Philippines at the end of October 2021 and got down to business. 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 everyone needed to get to work.
“As for the Filipino people, as I said before, I think it was an instant love match. We immediately matched. We wanted the same things. What I have to say is is that I’ve never felt so much eagerness, interest, push and enthusiasm for this to happen because the staff feel like it’s their home and it’s about “a family affair. In terms of motivating people, absolutely no problem,” Vilanova said.
Gain someone’s trust
He added that just because Las Casas management announced his appointment as a consultant and general manager, he would not automatically gain the trust of the staff. He knew it was important for him to lead by example.
‘I am not a boss. I am a chef. I would like to show the way, show the way too and I believe that everything must be combined with teamwork. Yes, I am the general manager 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.
Ultimately, Vilanova said his job is to make sure they will be successful in their jobs, because if the staff is successful, “then the hotel is successful,” Vilanova said.
Asked about his favorite Filipino dishes, Vilanova said they were Pancit, Kare Kare and, on occasion, the famous Chicharron.
“I am amazed at the Filipino cuisine, the way you mix your components because in Europe you would never think of doing that. I mean you don’t mix shrimp paste with pork. By Western standards, that’s a no-no. But here I don’t know how but it blends like magic,” Vilanova said.
Enjoy the sun
Vilanova has also come to love Bataan where he can “enjoy the sun, the calm of the resort town on the beach”.
“It’s something that is priceless to me. I like it and I feel very comfortable here. If I don’t have business calls in Manila, I would prefer to stay here in Bagac. He is perfect. Even the rainy season is okay. I have no complaints about that,” he said.
As for his plans for Las Casas, Vilanova said parts of Las Casas are currently being renovated in hopes of attracting more tourists in the coming months. For now, the place is heavily reliant on Filipino tourists who, he noted, are “dramatically improving.”
“The Philippine market is reacting very well. We are in a privileged location, two or three hours from Manila and I do not even go into the uniqueness of this project called Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. It’s a resort like no other in, 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 the Historic Hotels Awards of Excellence. Las Casas is one of over 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 have obtained this award. I think this is going to be our year and hope the Chinese market will open up soon. We are talking about 150 million passports here, so this is a big problem for us. But until then, we are proving that we are going in the right direction,” he said.