Merging boutique hotel charm with world class service boosts business for Hotel Celeste

Recent years have seen the mushrooming of leisure hotspots that befit the quickly growing, cosmopolitan destinations of Manila, Boracay, and other places in the Philippines. With restaurants like Aubergine and Hossein’s offering quality cuisine, and world-class brands like Hermes, Havaianas and Louis Vuitton making themselves readily available in the country, tourists are getting the best of both worlds—the sophistication of a developed country, plus the bucolic pleasures of untainted beach- and countrysides.

Hotels, in particular, have much to gain with the growing influx of tourists in the country. “We recognize that the whole boom in tourism has been driven for the most part by food and the boom in air travel—last year, between Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines, there was a total of 14 million travelers domestically,” shares Merril Yu, the CEO of Y&S 1847, a strategic hospitality planning and development company.

What has been happening throughout the country is exactly what’s been happening in Boracay in the last decade. Independent owners are putting up their own hotels and they’re not only focusing on Boracay, but they are slowly going through the entire country. “Tagaytay, Bohol, Cagayan De Oro, Palawan, the entire country—that is the way of investment that is happening now,” relates Yu. “There is a lot of discussion now in the city—chances are that in a group of 10 friends, one of them is thinking of putting up a hotel.”

The Boutique Bandwagon

Until recent years, one kind of establishment has eluded the city: the boutique hotel. Also referred to as lifestyle or design hotels, the boutique concept veers away from the sameness that has long characterized big hotel brands in favor of properties meant for a specific location or demographic.

Hotel Celeste, owned by the Sarabia family, best epitomizes the term “boutique”. Hotel Celeste, with its five themed suites and 25 rooms, represents just a small percentage of the available rooms in Manila’s vast hospitality landscape. Yet its appeal, in terms of buzz and prestige, is tremendous.

Established in the lot that used to house the now-defunct Mars disco, Hotel Celeste features European Rinteriors reminiscent of a French boudoir. “When my mom (Cely Sarabia) traveled to Europe and around Asia, she saw the different boutique hotels there and she wanted to bring the concept here,” shares Tricia Sarabia, marketing manager. “Hotel Celeste is very Victorian when it comes to texture. Every room features hand-painted walls and the suites are donned up in different styles. They’re named after French queens. We researched on the lives of the queens and we matched their personalities with the room they represent.”

Going Boutique vs. Brand Partnership

The Sarabia Family is not new to the hotel business. They currently own two hotels, the first of which is Boracay Tropics, a triple-A resort that capitalized on the Boracay boom of 2005. “At that time, there weren’t a lot of resorts in Boracay so business was very good. We were able to reach our return on investment after only three years,” Sarabia shares. “When the financial crisis hit, it was a huge drop in business for all the resorts in Boracay. Business became challenging after 2008 because this was when a lot more resorts opened, anticipating that Boracay would boom further.”

Reacting to the onset of competition brought upon by hotels, hostels and apartments-for-rent mushrooming across the island, the family decided to partner with Best Western International, one of the world’s largest hotel chains. “We needed a more international push,” shares Sarabia. “There are 8,000 rooms available in Boracay, but only 2,000 people come in everyday because of limited flights. After 2008, the demand for accommodation already plateaued so now there are intense price wars and you do what you can to get a chunk of the market. Partnering with Best Western not only gave us more international exposure, but it has also elevated our services to meet their standards and requirements.”

The international aspect marks the biggest difference between running Boracay Tropics and Hotel Celeste, says Sarabia. “To be part of the Best Western chain of hotels, you need to meet certain international standards and requirements. After five years of running the hotel, it was refreshing to have somebody go there and assess what improvements needed to be made. Before it was just run family-style, but now, international standards were injected into the system.”

Hotel Celeste, on the other hand, allows the family to be more experimental. “We’re not limited by the classification of a five-star hotel. With Celeste, we were able to play around with the rooms and design. More importantly, we played around with the service. We have a pillow menu and a Dream Vanities menu; instead of a welcome drink, we offer welcome foot massages; and eventually, we plan on putting up a small library to offer guests reading material. Our uniqueness really lies in our personalized services. Even if we’re significantly smaller than the 5-star hotels—and we’re surrounded by them, too—we have a lot of returning guests because our services are out-of-the-box.”

This article was published in the Business Agenda section of the Manila Bulletin, September 27, 2010