As told to Joy Rojas
Like most people, I found out about the Makati Shangri-La’s plan to close its doors temporarily beginning February 1 on the day it was announced.
We have a chat group of Shangri-La employees, both current and former staffs, and one of my colleagues who has been with the Shangri-La for a long time announced it. Of course, we were sad and emotional because we all had good memories of Makati Shangri-La. Even in this pandemic, we didn’t expect the hotel to close, albeit temporarily; obviously, they were very much affected by it.
I joined Makati Shangri-La, Manila in August 1997 after having been away from the hotel industry for years. I used to be a public relations assistant at The Manila Hotel and I left after I got married. When one of my friends, who was working for Makati Shangri-La, asked me to join the hotel, I just had my second child and was running my own business, Singkit, a Chinese food delivery service that was doing very well. I was hesitant at first to take the offer because as I said, I had been away from the hotel industry for quite some time, and the demands of PR could be quite taxing, especially when you’re bringing up kids. But they said, just give it a try and see how it pans out.
I did, and I ended up staying 13 years and five months. I started as director of communications and I left as director of communications.
If I stayed for a long time it was because I learned so much, well beyond my PR work. Of course, I entertained for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—that was most of my hotel life—but I was putting events together too. As you know, the Shangri-La hosted a lot of balls and launches for luxury brands: from the elegantly set up Philippine Tatler Ball (which Makati Shang-La hosted for 15 years) and the Red Cross Charity Gala to launches for Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, I participated in developing their concepts and ideas. Opportunities like these definitely broaden your horizons much more than writing press releases about the food that your serve.
We were also the venue of big events of high-profile families and long-time business partners. For the wedding of a business partner’s daughter, flowers from Holland were flown in, and the entire hotel—from the entrance to the pre-cocktail area, which was the lobby lounge, to the ballroom—was filled with tulips, hydrangeas, and other flowers not native to the Philippines. I’ve never seen so many flowers in my life! They were all fresh and their scent wafted through the hotel. It was a beautiful and amazing setup.
For one debut, the ballroom was transformed into the Titanic, complete with a contraption that made part of the ship move, and a moon that was measured to be aligned perfectly with the ship. Looking back, I thought it was almost as if you were filming a movie. Working with suppliers (lighting, mechanical, stage) made me realize that anything was possible.
The hotel also hosted a lot of local and international celebrities. Among the artists, one of the first groups I welcomed—and I’m afraid my age will show—was the Spice Girls. They were happy young girls who got along well and they had their individual suites on one floor. Michael Buble was very simple, not really particular about what he wanted to eat. Josh Groban was very shy, walking around the hotel in his baseball cap.
You’ll be surprised about a lot of these artists, they’re not actually divas. Of course, as hotel staff, I couldn’t hover over them, but I got to know what they liked to order and what their accommodation requirements were, and these were nothing that a deluxe hotel couldn’t handle. I think we did pretty well.
There were some divas, and for them you had to reconfigure literally the suite or change the tint of the windows. But I won’t talk about them anymore.
We’ve also dealt with heads of states and royalty, and in their case, it was more the protocol and security that was challenging—from sealing off entire floors to designating a press room. One of the heads of state who was our guest was His Royal Highness Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei. Prince Andrew, Duke of York, visited the country in 2001 to strengthen defense and trade relations between the Philippines and the United Kingdom. Princess Caroline of Monaco was here in 2004 to visit Amade Modiale, the charity organization founded by her mother, Princess Grace of Monaco, and attend a fundraising event at Makati Shangri-La.
Many presidents of the Philippines have also been hosted by the hotel. I’ve had a lot of encounters with the low-key President Noynoy Aquino, usually at Shang Palace. His mother, the late President Cory Aquino, attended business functions in the ballroom. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came once to support one of her designers in a fashion show at the lobby lounge. That was a rare moment when she had afternoon tea with us.
If the Makati Shangri-La lasted this long, it was because the staff was good at what they were doing and knew how to handle situations.
Editors were calling me till two in the morning to confirm if the rumor was true and if we were hiding the celebrity couple
Every now and then we’d have a crisis, and there was one that I managed to turn from a negative to a positive situation. In 2009, I was working with the staff in the pre-opening of Shangri-La Boracay Resort and Spa, when news broke that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had been spotted in Makati on their way to Shangri-La Boracay. Of course, the press had a stake-out at Makati Shangri-La; editors were calling me till two in the morning to confirm if the rumor was true and if we were hiding the celebrity couple. I even got a call from an international magazine asking if they were indeed here, and I said, “You guys are the ones following these stars, you should know.” There was even news that the “alias” of Angelina Jolie was Joy Wassmer! I’m like, wow, I’ve never been this famous.
Of course, I said there was no truth to the rumor—and even if the couple were indeed our guests, I would have never revealed it. But instead of making it our headache (and to end speculation), I used it as opportunity to invite the media to come visit Shangri-La Boracay and see the beautiful property—and maybe have a Brangelina sighting. A few media did come, so it turned out to be a positive experience. By the way, Angelina and Brad were never in the Philippines. But they must have been somewhere in Asia, because they were in the process of adopting an Asian child.
Another crisis we helped turn around was the time our Circles Event Café was new. I said, “You know, about 2,500 people walk in and out of this property every day. Why? Because we have good and newly opened restaurants.” A reporter then said, ‘Yeah, we heard Circles is new.” I said, “Yes, come to Circles and take a look!” We had open, interactive kitchens at the time, which was not the usual buffet setup then. But after we opened Circles, coffee shops and restaurants followed suit with more interactive stations.
That was the interesting part of my job: going beyond PR to learn so many things about restaurants. I was a big part of them, from conceptualization and naming them (Cheval Blanc was reborn as Red, in reference to its interiors and furniture, as well as the mostly red-colored dishes on its menu) to punch listing (a list of things to check out in the completion of a project). I learned so much about food and beverage to the point that I thought I wanted to move to the F&B department, to restaurant operations.
At some point in my life, there were times I’d say, “Okay, that’s enough.” But waking up each morning, I so looked forward to going to work. There were just so many activities and so much excitement that my adrenaline was pumping.
One of the first things that came to mind upon learning that the hotel was closing was, “Who’s going to take care of my archives?”
There were things I didn’t want to give up. Like the annual updating of the photo library. I enjoyed staying up all night staging the shoots of our outlets, from the food styling to fixing the venue for the photographer. These shoots ate up most of my time, but back then I could still work 24/7 and show up promptly for our meeting the following morning. I had so much fun with these shoots; one of the first things that came to mind upon learning that the hotel was closing was, “Who’s going to take care of my archives?” My archives. I hope the photos have been scanned and saved on a hard drive because these are so many memories of what the hotel has become.
One day, my GM said, “Joy, you have to let go. It’s not your task anymore, you have to learn how to develop your team, delegate, and let go.” Erica Sotto, who was director of communications for Shangri-La Boracay Resort and Spa, succeeded me as director of communications. In time, she left the property to get married.
One of the best memories I had was the great camaraderie among all the employees. We were together day in and day out. We worked together closely and helped each other in whatever way we could. It was such a great feeling to have worked with them. They were my second family.
I’m happy and fulfilled, and I think, as the saying goes, at least one pillar at Makati Shangri-La belonged to me—I earned that. Even if I left in 2010, people, to this day, come to me to ask if I can help them with their reservations and such. The hotel is such a big part of me.
I was not a hotelier; I graduated with a degree in mass communications, major in PR, from the former St. Paul College Manila. Working at Makati Shangri-La, I literally lived and breathed hotellerie.