Changing careers: hard work and passion pays off
MANILA, Philippines – We look up to successful people and admire them for their achievements. Interestingly, their accomplishments are made more meaningful by the challenges and struggles they faced. Although these powerful executives usually stand firm and strong, ready to face their days head on with confidence and wisdom, not all of them had a smooth start.
Vanessa Ledesma Suatengco has become a prominent figure in the local hospitality industry. She will forever hold the title of being the first ever Filipina general manager of a 5-star hotel in the Philippines. Surprisingly, her current post and industry was completely unplanned, having graduated Psychology from Assumption College and working in the HR department for a good chunk of her early career.
A lot of people might be surprised to find out that Suatengco once worked for a retail company. After getting an opportunity to work in the hospitality industry, she worked her way through three different hotels, rising from a personal manager, human resources director, transitioning to a resident manager, and now general manager.
At Diamond Hotel, she oversaw major upgrades, placing the hotel once more in the map. It is now known as one of the top hotels in the bay area, as well as a preferred residence for heads of state, diplomats, and international performers. The dining outlets have become favorite destinations for the exquisite food selection.
Recently, Vanessa was appointed by the Office of the President as a member of the Board of Directors of the Tourism Promotions Board, the marketing arm of the Department of Tourism. I was able to sit down with Vanessa and ask her what it took to take a leap and land feet-first in another field.
Tedrick Yau: What were you doing before you entered the hospitality industry?
Vanessa Suatengco: I started my career as someone who administers psychological tests – they call this person a psychometrician. Then, I took masteral courses in Ateneo on physchology. Instead of clinical psychology I worked in industrial psychology.
My first job was in Rustan’s and I administered tests everyday, interpreted the tests, and interviewed hundreds of applicants. Along the way, I started to move up and I eventually became a human resources manager.
TY: So how did you end up working at a hotel?
VS: I didn’t have any clue about hotels. However, I landed a job as a personnel manager and that was my first exposure to hotel operations. My office was in the basement and we were so far away from the glitz and glamour of the hotel. It was way, way off my career expectations.
Eventually, I ended up in EDSA Shangri-La Hotel, but I was still in HR and our office was still in the basement. As HR manager of the hotel, I started becoming active in the different departments of a hotel organization. I found it interesting; I found it exciting. Dynamic!
Even if I was in Human Resources I had encounters with guests and other departments in the operations side – food and beverage, rooms division, public relations. I did not confine myself to just the Human Resources office. I guess it was me who started breaking out of my shell and looking around at what’s happening. I found the job in the hotel industry simply very exciting and challenging at the same time. That was how the seed was planted – I wanted more and something different.
TY: Running a hotel is always a 24/7 job. How is your daily schedule like?
VS: The moment I come to the office, I start reading the important reports for the day. At a particular time, I meet all operations managers. Everything is discussed – what transpired the day before, if there are issues, things we need to decide on, what was the revenue the day before.
The rest of the day is [filled with] meeting clients and meetings outside the hotel. In the evening I attend cocktails and events.
TY: So with all these things constantly needing your attention, how can you unwind?
VS: My way of de-stressing is to go to the gym. Once I am there, it’s a totally different world for me. I forget all that was bothering me in the decision-making and all the events that transpired for that day. Afterwards, I go home and I feel fine. Then, I prepare for the following day.
I do love to travel. I have retail therapy also (laughs), which I think happens to all of us. I like watching movies on TV or the theater. I also see friends and family.
Sometimes as well, you just want to be alone. If you’re [always] talking to a lot of people, sometimes you just want to be by yourself and just have “me” time.
TY: People see you as a successful woman both in your field and in the professional landscape. How can women empower themselves in the workforce?
VS: Before I landed this position, even before I became a manager, I used to be a shy person; I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to socialize. I just wanted to be by myself. I just had a few friends and would stay home. When I started working in different organizations and met different people, I started to develop my personality, gain more confidence. When you get to know more people, you start to see yourself. You can tell yourself, “Hey, I can do this and that!”
After a while, I broke out of my shell. I realized that [women can do a lot more than I thought.] I always had the impression that men were more superior in terms of physique, intellect, and activities. I always thought women had a lot of hindrances such as women should stay home once they have family and children. No… Not really.
I also realized that there are certain choices in life that you have to make. If you want your life to be balanced, if you want a family, that’s a choice. If you want to dedicate yourself to your family and husband and stay home and take care of your children and raise them, it’s also a choice.
For the hotel industry, you really have to be very specific and you have to make a choice. What is it that you want? Is it a career or a family? It cannot be in between.
You can balance but it is very, very difficult. In my case, I have no children. I only have my husband and he’s who I dedicate my time to.
A hotel job requires so much of your time. I used to tell my staff, if you really want to be successful in hotel operations, you have to report Christmas and New Year – there is no such thing as maybe wanting to have your Christmas at home. That’s how I learned my job; I didn’t really have my Sunday rest days – I could not choose my rest days.
Before, if my bosses tell me to stay in the hotel and work on things, I couldn’t do anything. I told myself yes, “This is what I want, I had to do it.” That was the choice that I made.
TY: You seem very determined with your career. How do you keep yourself motivated?
VS: It’s your perseverance and tenacity [that helps you achieve] what you want to [do]. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have made it. I always tell my staff [that] it wasn’t easy. It was really blood, sweat, and tears: blood in the sense that I had to make sacrifices; sweat since I had to do a lot of hard work; and, tears because I went through a lot of situations where my bosses would tell me, “I don’t trust you anymore and want to terminate you.”
I had to face all that and still tell myself I can still do it. If I fall down, I had to stand up again and prove to myself that I will be able to do it. Your failures will help you succeed.
TY: So failures sparked your determination?
VS: Yes. When I told my former bosses I wanted to transfer to operations, they said, “But you’re in HRD.” But, I thought I could do it. They said, “No, you cannot do the job. First of all you are a Filipino, second you are female.” Only [male] caucasians made it at that time, it was dominated by men and expats.
It’s only now that there are general managers who are female. I guess I was one of the first – [I feel like] I was the guinea pig.
TY: How do you keep Diamond Hotel on par with international standards?
VS: I constantly travel. Every chance that I have, even at my own expense, I travel and look around. I try to experience as much as possible: what are new things out there, look at restaurants, and what are latest trends to keep [myself] updated.
If there are certain things that we need in the hotel, I have to work for it and present it to the owners. We are an independent hotel; we don’t have a chain to back us up or a head office to say what programs for the year are, or a template. If [the hotel owners] see the logic of what I am presenting, then sometimes I get it. Sometimes, I don’t. It’s not a guarantee that everything that I present gets a go-signal. It’s really something that I have to work for.
TY: What qualifications do you look in your team? Since you’re background is HR, I’m sure that your criteria is much more stringent.
VS: I want people that work hard. I don’t have to push them to do something. I expect them to motivate themselves and to [have the] determination to achieve something. They have to have perseverance. [Just as] I had to persevere, they should also have that tenacity. Of course, the passion has to be there.
TY: What does your recent appointment with the Board of Directors of the Tourism Promotions Board entail?
VS: The one who appointed me was the Office of the President. I was nominated because I used to be the director in the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines. I used to be the treasurer of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines and I was very active in the scene. Nominations come from different organizations and they are asked to recommend who can be appointed as a member of the board. My name was submitted.
I represent the private sector's accommodations side, so whatever is going on in our sector, I will be able to have a voice in that group so that our position can be taken into consideration when the Department of Tourism makes their plans for the year. – Rappler.com