Hospitality, innovation and feeding the soul: Meet the Filipino Americans of travel
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Whether you travel by air, land or sea, you’re bound to run into members of the Filipino American community when you’re traveling, whether you know it or not.
Filipinos are the third-largest Asian American group in the nation, and there are more than 4 million Filipino Americans living in the U.S., many of whom work in the hospitality industry.
For Filipino American History month, TPG talked to several Filipino Americans in the travel industry, ranging from hotels to tourism to dining, to answer the question, “What makes travel Filipino?”
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Hospitality is in their DNA
Role: Westin Nanea Ocean Villas, general manager
Location: Maui, Hawaii
Chris Rabang fell in love with the hospitality industry when he visited a mega-resort in high school.
“I actually did a tour of the property and I kind of walked out of there with my jaw hanging. I was like, I’d never seen a mega-resort like that before. And it was probably at that time when I said, you know, I’m going to come back and, you know, after I get done with college, I want to go pursue a career in hospitality and hotel management,” said Rabang, who is now the general manager of the Westin Nanea Ocean Villas in Maui.
In many ways, Rabang is at the beating heart of the property, overseeing the operations of this major resort as the general manager.
“It’s what keeps the hotel going as good as the salespeople that bring the people and get them to stay,” he said. “I like that it’s never the same thing twice. You never have exactly the same day. So (it’s) your opportunity to go in and build experiences. A lot of people, they save up their money to come out this way. This is their one big trip that they’re going to do for the year.”
That desire to make sure guests have the best experience possible is second nature to the Filipino culture.
“Every time you go to uncle’s house, auntie’s house, you’re well-fed. They make sure that you have a good place to sleep. I think it’s why a high percentage of the workforce out here (in Hawaii) is Filipino. It’s very natural for them to provide all that amazing hospitality to those that come to visit.”
While the changing situation of COVID-19 continues to impact travel to Hawaii, Rabang’s advice to travelers looking to visit the Aloha State is to respect the rules around the pandemic and respect the culture and the people that live here.
If you can do that, “you can have that dream vacation that you had planned,” he said.
Role: Philippine Airlines, Account Manager
Location: New York City
Before the pandemic, Charisse Arboleda’s days were spent strategizing on how to best serve travelers on Philippine Airlines, the national carrier of the Philippines. Pre-pandemic, the airline was operating daily non-stop flights from New York City (JFK) to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL). Today, those non-stop flights have been reduced to twice a week. The airline also recently filed for bankruptcy in September.
“People really want to take the flight, but we can’t confirm them anymore because of capacity. Usually, Filipinos will travel for emergencies,” said Arboleda, an account manager for Philippine Airlines based in New York City. “It’s really heartbreaking that they can’t go home … (if) somebody’s sick or somebody passes away. We can’t do anything about it. We need to follow the rules.”
Travelers to the Philippines are subject to COVID-19 testing requirements and quarantine.
She’s hoping that things will turn around soon in the Philippines, where the current number of vaccinations administered is more than 40 million doses, which covers about 19% of the population (each person receiving two doses), according to the Philippine Department of Public Health.
Arobleda also looks forward to seeing tourists and leisure travelers able to return to the Philippines.
“Filipinos are intrinsically welcoming, intrinsically family-oriented and friendly, so just looking at how tourists are welcomed in the Philippines, it’s just naturally Filipino,” she said.
For now, she is planning on her next trip, even if it’s uncertain it will actually happen.
“Just something to look forward to already makes me happy, even if it hasn’t happened yet. I haven’t even left yet. I haven’t even booked anything yet. But just the thought (of it) makes me feel better,” she said. “You need something that makes your soul happy.”
Role: Travelwise International, CEO
Location: Washington, D.C.
For Alvin Adriano, travel is literally in the family. When his parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, they started a travel agency to help fellow Filipinos with their travel needs. But travel as a career wasn’t top of mind for Adriano, who went to school for accounting.
“I was a tax accountant before this. I didn’t really know if that was the career I wanted to pursue…” he said. “But I’m a very extroverted kind of guy. I like to be out and talking. So (being) in a cubicle 24/7 was just kind of annoying.”
Eventually travel became his calling and Adriano took over the family business, Travelwise International.
He now works to help people get the best out of their travels as well as navigate the changing country-by-country entry restrictions.
“Travel is a luxury type of commodity. You have to have money to spend. So when the middle class and other people start realizing the benefits of it, you know, it’s just basically understanding what you want to get from your travels, because if you don’t know what you’re going for and you’re spending all this money, it’s going to be easy to be upset or be frustrated,” he said.
Adriano says travel and being Filipino is so intertwined it helps him to curate the best experiences for his clients.
“We’re already travelers. We’re in, like, even the most remote places. You’ll find a Filipino just randomly there as someone helping. I mean, it’s tremendous how far and how vast the Filipino culture has had an effect on the world.” He adds, “I think it’s important that people understand that that’s who we are as people, that we are a bunch of travelers. And it’s important that we use this to our advantage to communicate our stories and our history to all parts of the world.”
Role: Casai, CEO
Location: Mexico City
Nico Barawid is out to redefine a new kind of traveler, one that’s even more prominently blurred between business and leisure during the pandemic: the digital nomad.
Prior to becoming the CEO and cofounder of Casai, a boutique apartment rental service startup based in Mexico City, Barawid was a consultant and his business travel consisted of a typical Monday through Thursday itinerary.
“You might never leave your hotel room. And if you do, it’s only to visit a client. And also that there was a clear distinction between what was business, which is travel that your company paid for and what was leisure,” he said.
“So now a digital nomad is you and me. A digital nomad is an ambassador or a diplomat or a technology executive. And when they’re traveling, they’re not traveling because their company requires them to be there, but they’re traveling because, like, why not spend a month in Mexico City? And when they’re traveling, they still have the same requirements,” he said. “They still need to be super professional and efficient and have fast Wi-Fi. But now they’re traveling for personal reasons.”
Casai comes from the combination of two Spanish words — casa (house) and inteligente (smart), or “smart house.”
“Technology is core to what we do. And we’re creating an emerging markets tech enabled hospitality brand that offers beautiful and intelligent living spaces with a very high standard of excellence, which we can double click on,” he said. “We’re so excited to create that future where people don’t have to choose between business and leisure. They can have both.”
Casai is available in Mexico City and recently expanded to Brazil.
Check out TPG’s Mexico hub for everything you need to know about traveling to the beaches, ancient ruins and inland destinations.
“I’m excited for more Americans, Filipino Americans or non Filipino Americans to come and experience Latin America. I think especially when my parents came to visit me in Mexico, they were like, wow, this is just like the Philippines,” he said. “And so I think that there’s so much cultural diversity to be experienced in Latin America. Most people travel east or west, very few people travel south.”
While Casai is focused on Latin America for now, Barawid said after the next few years, other geographies that share similar characteristics to Latin America are very much on the radar, including Southeast Asia.
Whether that plan includes the Philippines remains to be seen, but for Barawid, what makes travel Filipino is how hospitality and travel are core to the DNA of the Philippine people.
“The (Philippines) slogan, “Everything’s more fun in the Philippines.” I think it captures Filipinos, both wanting to accept people from all over the world, but also wanting to experience people from all over the world.”
Role: Kimpton Shorebreak Resort, director of sales and marketing
Location: Huntington Beach, California
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, all industries took a hit, especially hotels and airlines. Thanks to her connections through her consulting company, Janice Tugaoen, who’s been in the hotel management industry for more than two decades, she was able to keep a steady flow of guests checking in at the Kimpton Shorebreak Resort in Huntington Beach, California.
Early in the pandemic, she checked in with her airline clients and found out several groups from the middle east had a lot of distressed passengers that were actually stuck in Los Angeles.
“So I told them instead of having them stare at the highway, ‘why don’t we put them in a resort now and let them stay and kind of stare at the beach instead?’ Tugaoen, who is Kimpton Shorebreak Resort’s director of sales and marketing.
Tugaoen connected with the embassies of the stranded passengers and moved them to the hotel where they stayed for several months.
“They were not, like, upset about being stuck. At one point, a plane came to pick up passengers (and) they could only pick up half and some were volunteering to stay,” she said.
Making sure everyone is taken care of comes second nature to Filipinos, Tugaoen said.
“When I speak at hospitality management schools, that’s what I always tell them, is that the advantage of being Filipino is that taking care of people is in our culture. I tell them how when you visit a family, they’ll give up the best room in the house, the master bedroom,” she said. “We have to make sure that they have the best experience … I always give them advice that you can’t fake caring for people.”
Feeding the Soul
Role: Jeepney, CEO
Location: New York City and Miami
Travel and food has been a key part of Nicole Ponseca’s journey for as long as she can remember.
“Have you eaten yet? That’s the first greeting you get when you meet a Filipino typically. Did you eat? And so that speaks to our hospitality. I’ve been fortunate to be in this position serving different people from all over the world,” said Ponseca, who is the CEO of Jeepney, a pioneering Filipino restaurant in New York that recently closed, with a location in Miami as well. Since last October, Ponseca has been traveling back and forth to Miami on a weekly basis to expand the reach of Filipino food.
“It was both Filipinos, non-Filipinos and the press that graced Filipino food on its own merit. And we’re not trying to be anything else except just a focus and a love letter to the Philippines and Miami,” said Ponseca, who opened the Jeepney Miami location inside 1-800-Lucky food hall.
Ponseca said while New York had so much going for it, Miami has so much for her restaurant.
“I’m enjoying this place because if I had opened in Miami the way I did in New York, I don’t know if I would have gotten this far because I’m taking my time figuring out the Miami palate while being myself. And that means being 100 percent Filipino.”
She credits her road trips with her family growing up as influencing many of the approaches she takes with food by offering unique and authentic dining experiences.
“I remember my dad packing Tupperware of rice and he was so happy,” she said.
Role: Wanderlust Creamery, co-founder
Location: Los Angeles
Travel wouldn’t be complete without a meal. Food has the power to transport you to faraway places and enhance your travel experience.
For Adrienne Borlongan, travel literally influenced her ice cream business. And during the pandemic, it allowed customers across the nation to experience the Philippines through classic and innovative flavors.
“It’s kind of like a cheaper alternative to a little getaway. It’s like a mini getaway,” she said.
Borlongan, who is the co-founder of Wanderlust Creamery, an artisanal ice shop in Los Angeles inspired by travel, said a lot of times her flavors are inspired by not just places that she’s actually traveled to, but other people’s cultures.
“Being in L.A. we were exposed to so many different cultures and backgrounds. And all the time customers come in with suggestions,” she said.
Every October for Filipino American History month, Wanderlust Creamery does a full Filipino seasonal menu which contains a lot of classic Filipino flavors such as ube and and pandan.
Offering these unique flavors to a mainstream audience embodies the adventurous Filipino spirit. Her grandfather was a flavor chemist for Magnolia Ice Cream, a major ice cream company in the Philippines.
“It’s kind of like a happy accident because a lot of people don’t know we’re Filipino owned,” Borlongan said. “We’re bringing in people from all different cultures and backgrounds and exposing these flavors to an audience that would have never sought it out in the first place.”
Featured photo of The Westin Nanea Ocean Villas, Ka’anapali courtesy of the resort.
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