By BERNIE CAHILES-MAGKILAT
Davao has really come of age. Multinational firms can no longer ignore this southern city as they themselves set up offices to expand their businesses in this bustling economy.
Dusit, a Thai hospitality brand, has joined the bandwagon to become the first global hotel and tourism brand that has decided to expand big time in Davao in partnership with the Torre Lorenzo Development Corp. (TLDC), which has roots in Davao and Bukidnon.
The TLDC’s foray in the hospitality business is ably spearheaded by seasoned hotelier Christopher Wichlan, who currently heads three new Dusit properties in Davao as Cluster General Manager.
DUSIT DAVAO CLUSTER
Prior to his current role, Wichlan has 23 solid years of hotel operations experience in the US and Asia handling luxury hospitality brands including various general manager roles at the InterContinental Hotels Group, including InterContinental Hotel in Makati.
“I was the last person to leave the Intercon hotel in Makati before it was closed for renovation in January 2016,” says Wichlan, who received his Business Administration degree at the California State University.
Now on his second wave in the Philippines, Wichlan is attacking his new post with more vigor and enthusiasm as cluster general manager of the Dusit hotels in Davao.
Dusit International currently operates five properties in the Philippines including Dusit Thani Manila; dusitD2 Davao; Dusit Thani Residence Davao; Dusit Thani Lubi Plantation Resort; and Dusit Thani Mactan Cebu. The company also recently opened the pioneering Dusit Hospitality Management College in Bonifacio Global City.
In the long term, Dusit will have 10 properties in the pipeline in the Philippines representing four brand models – Dusit Thani, dusitD2, Dusit Princess, and ASAI Hotels. Majority of these properties are set to open within the next three years, positioning Dusit as one of the largest international hotel operators in the Philippines.
When Dusit International forayed in Davao, it entered the city with a bang.
In partnership with property developer TLDC, Dusit offers three premium destinations to discerning travelers that are sure to kindle the joy of discovery.
Wichlan called Davao a “perfect destination and location” for Dusit in Mindanao. At that time, TLDC was also looking for something that will fit their model, homegrown and family run and where workers are treated like a family.
They found the match in Dusit International, which has been operating for more than 65 years. Both Dusit and TLDC share the same values, self-started and gracious.
The three Dusit International premium accommodations provide guests with the flexibility to choose from two upscale city hotels, and a private island resort that is perfect for day trips and weekend escapes.
dusitD2 Davao is a contemporary city hotel located at the heart of Davao City’s emerging business district, Lanang, and is only 15 minutes away from the airport. It features 120 fully-appointed D’Luxe and Suite rooms. It has restaurants, spa, lounges and courtyard-style swimming pools that offer the signature Dusit taste and senses.
The Dusit Thani Residence Davao offers 174 well-appointed studios and suites that come with complete amenities including a fully-furnished dining room and kitchenette with built-oven, induction stove and dishwasher for utmost convenience. It also features Dusit Thani Ballroom, the largest pillarless ballroom in a full-service hotel in the region; and Benjarong, the only authentic Thai restaurant in Davao.
The Dusit Thani Lubi Plantation Resort is an exclusive island resort located just off the coast of the Davao Gulf. Inspired by the ultra-exclusive Dusit property in the Maldives, it has 18 luxury two-bedroom seafront villas with private terraces and open-air garden bathrooms. Other amenities include an all-day restaurant, beachfront infinity pool, fitness center, spa, water sports facilities, events hall, and a church.
To reach the nice 87-hectare island, guests have a choice of a 30-minute Catamaran boat ride from the Port Jetty at the back of the dusitD2 Davao and Dusit Residence Davao, passing through the beautiful scenery of Samal Island or travel for 1.5 hours by land and take a 5-minute boat ride via Pindasan Port passing through coconut plantations.
Under his leadership, dusitD2 Davao was awarded the Best Hotel Interior Design at the 2019 Asia Property Guru.
The Dusit destinations in Davao integrate the authentic Thai graciousness from the Dusit International brand and the warm Filipino hospitality of the Mindanao region. The rise of these three premium developments comes with the commitment and promise to deliver an unmatched level of service– and an invitation to experience the joy of discovery every single day.
“The Filipino hospitality and Thai graciousness are world renowned and the way they treat customers make a perfect combination,” says Wichlan. Filipinos are about service and the Thais with their signature spa and wellness offering across the Dusit brands.
“Filipinos are more authentic, more natural in the hospitality industry which could only come from their upbringing where they offer and share to their guests at home with whatever little they have. In other countries, it is so mechanical, not genuine, but here it comes from the heart so it is more meaningful.”
This authenticity is a primary reason that Dusit is not only investing in hotel infrastructure in the Philippines but also in education with its hospitality management school to produce world class leaders to lead in other markets not just for Dusit needs.
“It is a natural fit to grow the hospitality manpower here,” he adds.
This also speaks well of the Dusit’s dedication to uplift the entire industry, its people, not just the business.
“There is a story there, always something in the guest experience that is very Dusit, a brand that stands in service and adapt local culture without losing the Dusit identity,” adds Wichlan.
“Even the food and beverage at Dusit are very Asian in style, the service staff are not pretentious, but friendly and familiar, not stiff or intrusive so perfect fit with TLDC. I’ve been with the hospitality business for 20 years, but the Dusit brand is although western in style but more of experience and the senses.”
Proud of their heritage, both parties combined their best elements. “Who can beat that,” says Wichlan. Besides, Philippines and Thailand celebrated last year 70 years of good diplomatic relations.
Wichlan himself seeks not only to make Dusit the top hospitality brand in Davao but also to boost the city’s tourism, employment and investments in order to showcase what makes the region truly unique and beautiful.
Apart from the leisure attractions from the many activities from the mountains, island adventures, food and fruits, and home to various indigenous tribes, the tourism department is also promoting Davao as destination for corporate meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions.
Davao has been attracting long term tourists. Foreign nationals are discovering Davao and staying longer because Davao is value for money.
“Tourists now consider Davao as alternative to Boracay and Palawan because there are lots of leisure activities in Davao,” he adds.
The Dusit hotels in Davao are adding spice to the flavor and elevate the image of Davao. They are upscale but they offer packages that suit everyone’s budget.
There are other local brands in the south but they are the only one that provides full-service resort on a private island. Guest satisfaction can be gleaned from its higher than industry occupancy rates of more than 70 percent as more international flights pour although majority of tourists are still local.
Foreign guests are mostly mainland Chinese in Davao because of the direct flights to Davao. Filipino travel agents are targeting the US market. Besides, there is a growing number of consular offices in Davao. At present, China, Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia have consular offices in Davao.
There are lots of Japanese and Korean living in Davao and own personal business such as language schools and hospitality ventures.
“More north Americans and north Asians are coming down because of the reputation of Davao as an orderly city and we are growing in popularity,” says Wichlan.
Overall, he noted of a better public relations campaign not just for Davao but for the other regions in the country.
“Even before Duterte became president, Davao was already known to be a safe and friendly. The local government of Davao City supports foreign business by making it very easy and transparent, no roadblocks.”
“We’ve opened three brands there but the business processes we’re working like permits or licenses, it is smooth, transparent, and simple, best I’ve ever experienced,” says Wichlan, who has been living in Davao for two years now.
Wichlan believes that with more investments and the ease of doing business in Mindanao, more hotel facilities will follow. Davao and other big cities outside Manila offer unique kind of developments that cannot be found in Manila, which is already hosting different kinds of hotels, resorts and gaming.
That is why Dusit does not limit its presence in Manila, but is already in Davao, Cebu, Batangas, and San Fernando, La Union.
“In three years, we will be the largest international brand in the Philippines if everything happens based on our timelines. Other than Thailand, the Philippines has the most concentration of our brand,” says Wichlan.
Wichlan has moved around east Asia a bit drawn by the unique culture, nice people, and lots of opportunities for growth. In fact, he has been so accustomed to Asia that he goes back to his original home in the Bay Area in California, where his siblings and parents are, feeling like a tourist.
“I go home as tourist and after a couple of weeks, I would miss Asia. For me living in Asia is not so different as living in San Francisco, which has a very much an Asian centric city so I feel at home in both,” adds Wichlan, who started his hospitality career while in college working as chauffeur and bell attendant in hotels. Perseverance guided him to move up to the managerial position.
In 2010, when on vacation in Asia and staying at Intercon Makati, he applied to join the hotel, which at that time was looking for an assistant general manager. He was hired the following week and spent a couple of years here before moving on to Malaysia and Thailand.
“That really opened my eyes where I can have an interesting career, live anywhere in the world and get as far as you want. Of course, there are trade offs. Some people stay in one career and continue learning in that same space everyday which is okay, but in hospitality it is exciting to be able to live as a resident and experience the local life and having a career at the same time. Some people do that as tourists, but they do that once a year and for a few days. But hoteliers live in the community for long, so they are drawn to that, they work hard, play hard, but the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages,” he adds.
That is why after his work with InterContinental Hotel, Wichlan had the urge to come back to the Philippines that he literally pursued the position with the TLDC group.
“A colleague referred me and I actually pursued it and I kept following it up with them,” recalls Wichlan as he found a new progressive home in Davao a decade after his first visit.
In Davao, he manages around 400 people, many of them with international experiences in hotels and cruise ships.
The young hotelier has learned the art of coaching from his previous mentors. Coaching helps people realize their career potential.
“Coaching is not just managing but leading. Coaching is a reflection of what happened and what you and your people realize,” he adds. He also empowers his staff to take care of guests.
His attitude towards work could be traced to his Boy Scout training when he was 8 to 18 years young where he earned the Eagle Leadership rank, the highest rank for a Boy Scout. As such, he had an exposure of the outdoor life as a young man. He even worked before as snow skier technician where he helped fitting people out.
Thus, he could be an outdoor man, a naturalist engaged in outdoor job teaching people to be responsible citizen because that is what Boy Scouts are. It is a fraternity of sort where young people are taught to be responsible and sensible so they become good leaders in business and life. Many people with strong Boy Scout’s training have become successful leaders. The Boy Scout training boils down to sustainability that he tied up Dusit’s sustainability efforts.
“Dusit is big in sustainability, no more single use plastic bag, proper sewerage plant so as not to contaminate the environment, being self-sufficient in energy and water, and sourcing supplies from the host communities. TLDC is also in that path adopting low impact operations on the environment and giving back to community,” adds the 48-year old manager.
Indeed, Davao has come a long way. It is not only attracting businesses, but sustainable ones like Dusit.