FOR A Filipina who didn’t speak even one whit of Mandarin or any Chinese dialect, to move and work in China in the mid-1980s back when no one really spoke English could only have required massive amounts of spunk.
While Rafaela “Apples” Chen found the language barrier formidable, she was able to smartly conquer it. This can-do attitude mixed with some gumption has served her well. For the past 26 years, she has successfully trained Chinese hotel workers, thus helping raise the country’s standards in hospitality and guest services.
Today, she is the general manager of a major international hotel management consulting firm—the International Hotelier & Associates Shanghai Ltd.—and currently consults for the Jinjiang Hotels Group for its Shanghai property, the luxurious Hua Ting Hotel & Towers.
Due to her significant contributions in her field, in 2009 she was recognized by the Chinese government as the “Top 100 People Influencing the Chinese Hotel Industry.” There were only three foreigners on that list, and Chen was the only Filipina.
And to think that Chen actually graduated from dentistry and not hotel administration.
Her father, Marcial Villacorte, worked in the Diosdado Macapagal administration as a finance man—“he was always being sent by President Macapagal to borrow money.” Her mother Rafaela, and Chen’s namesake, was a homemaker who tried to manage the household with 11 kids (Chen is eighth in the family). “Whenever she gives birth, she leaves the baby in the hospital for one year. She had help from nannies [to raise my siblings and I].”
After graduating from Centro Escolar University in 1976, Chen went to work in the local hotel industry instead, her first stint as an attendant at the Lobby Bar of what was then the Silahis Hotel. “I was one of the pioneers there...they even offered me to become a Playboy Bunny [when Playboy Club opened], “ Chen narrates, all giggly at the memory. “Ang sexy-sexy ko pa nun!” But she decided to to leave for Dubai instead in 1980, to join the Sheraton Hotel as supervisor of its coffee shop.
Chen’s unfortunate experience with fellow Filipinos who were in higher management posts was probably what cemented her resolve to be the best hotel trainor that she could be.
She had observed that most Filipino managers seemed to shout a lot at their staff who were also fellow Filipinos. “My first boss when I was with the Silahis Hotel, he was always shouting at me. When I was in Dubai in 1980, this boss was also shouting at me. I asked myself, ‘How can they be managers? How can they shout at their subordinates? How can the subordinates learn if there is no proper training?’ Every time, they just shout at people. So I said when I train people, I will never, ever do this. Why should I shout at them? Put them inside the training room, guide them, tell them what’s the correct way to do.... I don’t know, maybe because he [the manager] doesn’t want the job. Maybe he doesn’t know the job. Of course it can be said that I was very young at the time; I was only 22.”
When the opportunity arose to move to China, Chen grabbed it, seeing it as another chance to spread her wings. “I arrived in China in 1985, and I opened up the first international hotel [Nan Hai Hotel, owned by the Miramar Group of Hong Kong] in Shekou in Shenzhen, near the border with Hong Kong.... It was really a challenge for me because I didn’t know how to speak Chinese. I didn’t even know how to say hello or whatever.” She managed to learn Mandarin by watching Chinese films and by closely watching the actors’ gestures and facial expressions.
Chen adds that while working at various hotels, she also enrolled in short-term hotel management courses at the Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in New York, one of the premier establishments in the world for hospitality management. “When I was working in a hotel, if I have time, I go and get these courses done…. It’s the reason why I was also successful in training the locals here [in China] because whatever I learned, I never kept it for myself but shared it with them. I think that is one of the reasons why I was more successful in handling the locals because I really teach them and not just tell them what to do, which would only make them resentful. I have seen a lot of managers; they don’t treat the locals well. For me, I take their hands and I show them; I tell them what to do and I always do constant checks.”
Chen has opened several well-known Chinese and international hotel chains such as Novotel (of the Accor Group), Radisson SAS and Howard Johnson, to name a few. “I was one of the ‘founding members,’ so to speak, of Howard Johnson when it first opened its hotel in Beijing. I stayed there until SARS struck in 2003; I had to stay away, relocating back to the Philippines for two months.” With the worst of SARS over, she was then called back by the hotel management firm and transferred to Shanghai, and became general manager of its Chongqing property.
Her thorough training of hotel staff all over China has earned her a place at the well-known Les Roches International School of Hotel Management of Switzerland, which opened a branch in Jin Jiang in 2005. Not only has she trained students, but she has also trained the trainors themselves—the directors of sales, the room reservations managers, etc.
(Succesful China-based Filipina hotelier and trainor Apples Villacorte-Chen, and her husband, Peter.)
One might say, hotel owners in China call on Chen as their first line of defense in terms of maintaining quality standards. “Whenever there is a problem, they [hotel owners] always tell me, and then I call them to analyze the problem and how to avoid it. It’s always like this. Every day you have different kinds of problems—even when you build hotels it’s an entirely different problem. In building hotels, it’s the construction problem, you have to make it a point that the construction is good, that the hardware is good for 20, 30 years.”
Chen was so dedicated to developing the hotel industry in China that it was only in 1997, when she was 40, that she tied the knot with Peter Chen, who is 10 years her junior. He also worked in the hotel industry, and met Chen in 1993 while both worked at Novotel. “Now he works in a trading company…. They [the Chinese] have their own culture. It’s really very different. When we got married, we had to stay in their home. I was with them for 10 years. Now it’s been only three years since we moved out that I can cook. But I miss their cooking. What I didn’t like was that they had a lot of restrictions.”
While the couple doesn’t have children, Chen says that in a way she considers the staff she trains like her own kids. “Somebody asked me, ‘How many children do you have?’ Wait, how many bellboys do I have? How many front desk? They’re like my children because they’re very young—18, 19, 20 [years old].”
She feels a genuine sense of accomplishment whenever she sees her “kids” managing or handling their respective properties. “I have seen the people I have trained, they were promoted to directors, deputy general managers, or managers—that’s my accomplishment. So when I visit one city, they see me in the hotel, they treat me to lunch, have a car bring me to wherever I need to go...they are now all grown-up! And hanggang ngayon tumatawag pa sila.”
Only 56, Chen is still far from retiring. But she does see herself eventually spending some of her senior years back in the Philippines—she and her husband already bought a beachfront property in Olongapo, Zambales. She thinks of investing in the local tourism industry as well, but for now that will have to wait. Her “kids” still need her.
(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on July 20, 2012. Photos courtesy Apples Chen.)