March 01, 2007

French flair by the Bay

The Philippine Plaza unveils a $10-million renovation under the Sofitel brand name

Text and photos by Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo
Special to BusinessMirror

(OVERHEAD shot of the newly resurfaced swimming pool)

THE changes are subtle but unmistakable.

As you enter the doors of the hotel by the bay, a female bellhop greets you with a wide smile, splendid in her long-sleeved dark purple coat over black slacks. You glance over to the front office, and the female front office agents move around in white long-sleeved undershirts on a striped navy blue/white bias cut dress. On the right side of the dress is a large cabbage rose and a red, white and blue knotted scarf on the neck. Trés chic!

Then there is the stunning pool with its striking royal blue tiled floor standing out against the grey-blue waters of the Manila Bay. The pool with its kiddie slide, now looking more safe with additional railguards, is quite visible from the lobby as you make your way slowly down the grand spiral staircase to the grand buffet spreads of the Spiral restaurant.

Welcome to the new Sofitel Philippine Plaza, where everything is now cést magnifique!

Now managed by the French-owned Accor Asia Pacific, the renovations at this venerable 30-year-old institution are remarkable and in keeping with the graceful and easy style that the French are known for.

Still its interior design gives way to Filipino touches especially with the extensive use of rattan chairs from Cebu, mother of pearl or coconut shell inlays in most of the furnishings, and capiz shell lamps that hang from the ceiling of the guest rooms.

After a sumptuous lunch at Spiral, Bernd Schneider, the affable general manager of the hotel, gave BusinessMirror an exclusive preview of the refurbished sections of the establishment, which were unveiled last night, together with the formal relaunch of the hotel brand.

(Sofitel GM Bernd Schneider discusses the completed renovations at the hotel and other changes in store.)

“Sofitel Philippine Plaza has gotten a fresh start after a $10-million renovation which covered five guest floors, including two luxurious Club Sofitel floors, the swimming pool, banquet rooms, and the Harbor Garden and Sunset Pavilion tents,” he said.

The JCDC touch

As we pass by the front desk, Schneider points out the colorful uniforms of the agents, which he tells us were created by celebrated French designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac.

Although a bit subdued than his ordinary rockstar-like couture, the uniforms have the trademark JCDC touch. Castelbajac after all has distinguished himself by taking even everyday ordinary fabrics to new heights with the use of striking colors and fashioning them into clothes with lots of spunk. One of his last collections, for example, mostly in bold whites, reds and blacks, was edgy but with a touch of humor as blouses sported a picture of Snoopy in front.

The Sofitel collection is quite a departure from the usual boring blues or blacks of hotel uniforms, making the establishment an industry rebel much like JCDC is in the world of fashion.

Riding the elevators, the music is certainly not your usually dull muzak or heartrending medley of victim songs. Hip and trendy as only the French can be, the tunes are a mix of downtempo lounge music to uptempo chillout beats reminiscent of the ambient Buddha Bar and Hotel Costes selections. The mix has been specially created for Sofitel hotels and are played in key sections of the local establishment. Hmmm...maybe a Hotel Sofitel CD isn’t such a bad idea.

There is a lightness in the air as we walk the halls to check out a few rooms, possibly because of the softer lighting which gives off a muted, but not dark, ambiance. The elevator walls feature alabaster lighting fixtures that add to the warm aura throughout the floors.

Overall, the design of the guest rooms is contemporary but minimalist, with simple clean lines lending a functional elegance. It was created by the Hong Kong firm HOK International Asia Pacific Ltd. whose projects include the Lehman Brothers’ Hong Kong headquarters in the 88-story International Finance Center, the Motorola Campus currently being constructed in Beijing, to name a few.

Philippine craftsmanship is used extensively through coconut inlays on the headboard, doors and wardrobe with interiors painted in deep mahogany and white. The local artistry is also evident in the capiz shell details on lamps which give a warm and distinct look to the room. Timber planks installed at the lanai give it a cozy, homey feel. Business travelers will be delighted with the installation of high-speed Internet access in all the guest rooms.

“We adapt to the culture and environment where our hotels are located,” says Schneider, so the feel is still very resort-like as the establishment has been originally envisioned.

Restful sleep

(Schneider makes sure all newly-renovated guest rooms are ready for the grand launch of the Sofitel brand.)

The pièce de résistance of each guest room, of course, is Sofitel’s much-heralded MyBed™, which guarantees a “restful sleep” with its layers of softness. Schneider even uncovered one bed to show us a cushion of padding, a featherbed actually, over the main mattress. He says this bed construction gives the guest a feeling of “being cocooned” in a swathe of relaxation and comfortable support. Topping off each MyBed is a “lighter than a feather” down duvet and four down pillows.

Each guestroom done is in cream, white, with differing shades of brown (from a soft tan to a deep mahogany) and features abstract prints bursting with color, and in some guest rooms, daring red headboards in fabric. In the regular guest room, a 26-inch LCD flat TV rests on a long angular table, which stretches to serve as a desk near the balcony window. The suites have the 32-inch unit complemented by a DVD player.

Visible from the bed is the bathroom through a clear glass rectangular panel with mini-blinds that may be open or shut from inside. Regular rooms no longer have bathtubs as the trend among business travelers apparently is the preference for wider shower stalls, now done with clear glass doors.

A new Club Sofitel Lounge, an exclusive enclave for the discerning executive and upscale travelers boasts of bigger buffet counters and a 12-seat board room.

(THE new Club Sofitel Lounge, an exclusive enclave for the discerning executive and upscale travelers, boasts of bigger buffet counters and a 12-seat boardroom.)

Designed to be a hotel within a hotel, Club Sofitel provides private check-in and check-out, daily complimentary breakfast, unlimited coffee, tea, softdrinks and appetizers and cocktails from 5 pm to 7:30 pm at the stylish lounge. The lounge with an overall deep wooden brown shade theme as well, also has a library corner where guests may borrow international and local newspapers and a variety of books. It also serves also as an office away from home as it is equipped with working tables, ergonomic chairs, desk lamp complete with several sockets for laptops.

For large outdoor affairs, the hotel’s clients can choose between the Grand Sunset Pavilion which accommodate up to 600 persons, or the Harbor Garden for 2,000 persons. Both tented, these are located adjacent to the pool area, and overlooking Manila Bay.

The tennis court has also been relocated near the tents and an area to play pétanque, a popular summer game using metal and wooden balls, which originated from Provence, has also been constructed nearby. Schneider says the game will be immensely enjoyed by families who have become regulars of the hotel’s iconic swimming pool. An island deck in the middle of the pool sports a tropical wooden flooring with fashionable all-weather furniture to make lounging and dining al fresco even more relaxing. Plants line the edge of the deck for a refreshing look. A backgammon table gives guests the added pleasure of playing a few rounds while dining.

Jazz, chocolates, and the sunset

Last night, Sofitel also opened a new outlet called Le Bar, which we predict will become the “to go” place among discerning music fans and chocoholics. Located to the right of the lobby and above the sprawling Spiral, Le Bar incorporates a “three-in-one concept,” explains Schneider: a French bistro offering delectable cuisine, a lounge area for live jazz music, and a new daily outlet to be called Galette (French for wafer) offering a luxurious selection of chocolates and pastries even Jacques de Torres may envy. Knowing full-well that “galette” sounds like our Filipino word for anger, Schneider joked “if you’re angry, you should visit Galette and eat our good French pastries!”

(Sofitel uniforms designed by celebrated French designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac. Photo courtesy Sofitel)

Le Bar features a sunken lounging area where guests can listen to their favorite jazz artists, promising to be the haven of jazz afficionados in Manila. (The hotel has already taken the first brave steps toward being a jazz haven by having featured the first lady of jazz herself Diane Schuur, and 20-year-old pianist Eldar Djangirov, current toast of the jazz world, last Saturday at the Harbor Garden. It will also be hosting a jazz festival in June as part of the annual French Spring celebration of the French Embassy, says Schneider. Now how ultra cool is that?)

To the right facing the stage is a long bar overlooking Manila Bay, where we surmise, watching the sunset with a glass of ripe Shiraz would feel absolutely fantastic. Opposite it is the patisserie station painted in a rich brown with exquisite mother of pearl inlay. To the back will be an extensive wall of wines from all over the world. Designed by Spin Design Studio of Japan, the same firm responsible for Spiral, the fashionable outlet is expected to the raise the bar for cocktail lounges.

Still, there are still a few more things to be done, according to Schneider. The Siete Pecados, once the breeding ground of many up and coming singers and bands who eventually made their mark in the Philippine music industry, has taken a bow and will reopen in due time, new and even more improved. Schneider is tight-lipped on renovations that will take place for this outlet, but promising a classier outlet that only the fabulously French Accor touch will be able to provide.

Because of Sofitel Philippine Plaza’s makeover, the profile of its guests has expectedly shifted. Schneider says there is a marked increase in business travelers at the hotel in comparison to its previously dominant leisure group market.

“The rates are reflective of the renovations of the rooms and other areas. So far, it is accepted in the market as it promises good value for money,” he explains. As of February, the hotel occupancy rate was at 70 percent, but reached 98 percent during the Chinese New Year weekend.

“Our No. 1 guests are still Filipinos, followed by Koreans, Japanese, Americans, Chinese,” he says. With the Accor Sofitel branding, however, “we should see strong growth among the European guests, which have more than doubled [since last year].”

Schneider expressed confidence that with the major renovations at the hotel now completed, Sofitel will be seeing a “30-percent increase in activities this year.”

So you see, you don’t even have to go to France to see, hear, eat, and feel good things French. Sofitel Philippine Plaza will make you believe that even in Manila, joie de vivre is possible.

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