She comes into the Philippine hospitality industry with years of experience garnered from working abroad. Leilani Merilo left the country to pursue her dreams, first in a hotel in Thailand, and more recently at the Hotel Borobudur Jakarta.
At Merilo’s last posting as Director of Sales and Marketing in Hotel Borobudur, the five-star property achieved record-breaking revenue and occupancy. It was also under her leadership that the hotel received the Indonesia Travel & Tourism Awards from 2012-2015 and the World Luxury Hotel Award from 2014-2015. Now, as Dusit Thani’s Director of Sales and Marketing, she plans to keep the hotel as a top-of-mind accommodation for business and leisure travelers to Manila.
If it is something that sets her apart, it is that she literally knows hotels inside and out. She talks about a childhood spent with a hotel as her playground.
“My mother worked as a chef at the Manila Peninsula, and during summer breaks when we would have no household help, she would sneak me into the hotel where I would explore to my heart’s content. She would even hide me in the big oven, when the executive chef would make his rounds,” she chuckles.
This led her to take up studies in Hotel and Restaurant Management, even representing her school for culinary contests. Despite her talent in the kitchen, her exposure led her to choose a career that was at the front of the house.
“I never wanted to work at back end. I saw management people in their suits and heels, and thought that this was what I wanted. It was only later on that I realized that it was more than just image, but also largely about numbers,” she grins.
She took on management training at the Westin and was offered a position with guest services. Even at the time, she already had a solid career track in mind, one that led her to rise above the ranks quite quickly. “I positioned myself in that I would be a manager in the next two years. In a five-star hotel, it would take me longer as I would have to go through the frontline and operations side. So, in order to achieve that, I chose to work in a four-star property, under the Century International Hotels group. That was about 21 or 22 years ago.”
To facilitate even faster career growth, she decided to work overseas. “It was also due to my intention of learning more about other cultures. So, when there was an opening at the Fraser brand in Bangkok as Director of Sales, I packed my bags and moved to Thailand.”
The OFW life
When Merilo decided to pursue her career abroad on a single expat contract, she was starting her family at the time. Her two daughters were at the toddler stage and it was her biggest challenge to ensure that they bonded accordingly. “What I did was to go home every one and a half months, taking red-eye flights, and staying over for a weekend each time. It broke my heart when they cried every time I had to leave again…”
She recounts how her daughters would be on alert every time she took a bath and change clothes, thinking that she would leave again. “Over time, they became used to it, and they grew up to be very independent, topping their classes even without the help of a tutor. It helps that I had strong family support from my mother and from our househelp who have been with us for a very long time.”
Living abroad means many adjustments, especially if you are on your own. “The first battle you have is with loneliness. It is easier if you have relatives or friends where you are going. Otherwise, you really have to go out there and make friends.”
She likewise had to learn about the nuances in culture. In the Philippines, she cites, one can be more direct because we are very westernized in thinking. In Thailand, there are different ways of doing things, and one must be careful not to slight someone’s feelings. “Even the movements and hand gestures when you speak to them and approach the staff matters. You have to be very conscious and careful about the way you speak and move. I’ve had to tone down my character. The good thing about them is that when you apologize, it is very easy for them to forgive.”
She says that she is very proud of Filipino workers, especially on a global scale. “We are highly skilled, we have the education, and we can communicate in English. Moreover, the Filipino always finds a way to get the job done. We make things happen, we always have ways and means. Maparaan tayo. We are hardworking and resourceful, our dedication, our passion, it is there.”
She says that there are many women leaders in the hospitality industry, and it is very well suited to a woman’s nature to nurture. “I look at my colleagues, especially the millennials as my sisters or daughters. As a woman we are more caring, it is in our genes. When we make decisions, we are very conscious about how it will impact our staff. We can be tough, of course, but we have our soft side too.”
A growing industry
She has seen phenomenal growth in the tourism and hospitality industry in the Philippines. When she came back to the country, she realized how much has changed—with more hotel concepts setting up not only in Makati, but also in The Fort and in the bay area. There is also a rise in boutique hotels. She looks at this as a challenge that she is able to rise to. “At the Dusit Thani, we have a 44 percent return rate, which I would say is very high. We differentiate ourselves by our quality of service, which combines Thai hospitality and the Filipino’s genuine warmth. We are also refurbishing our facilities and rooms in order to offer our guests that relaxing experience that we are known for.”
Of course, she is not surprised that the Philippines is becoming a popular destination. She herself marvels at the beauty of the country and cites Palawan and Bohol as her two favorite spots, particularly for diving. Most importantly, it is the people. She explains, “Our hospitality is genuine; our service is passionate and very personal. It is in our Filipino tradition and culture that go all out for our visitors. We have a lot of beautiful beaches, and nature’s beauty abounds, but it is the people who make the difference.”