One might hesitate to call it seduction, but that was exactly what happened when the Ayala Group feted delegates of the World Economic Forum (WEF) for East Asia and the Asean Business Club to a welcome reception on the eve of hard-nosed talks on current regional affairs.
The lobby and fountain area of Tower One in Makati’s business district were transformed into a lanai featuring mismatched but artfully arranged local furniture. Guests marveled at how the lobby was turned into a forest of bright and white willow trees with chandeliers of cascading capiz as branches.
Living and lounge sets in neutral colors of piña, sampaguita, biscuit and mocha stood out against the dark-gray mottled marble floor of the Tower One lobby. Glass-topped coffee tables held up floral arrangements courtesy of Mabolo, the yellow stargazers, green berries and succulents adding to the resort feel.
For once, the area had none of the usual flurry of businessmen and stockbrokers. Instead, white-clad waiters danced around with trays bearing dalandan and lemongrass refreshments, chicken empanaditas, blue marlin kinilaw and taro chips.
The fountain area was open-air but still provided relief from the harsh summer heat via air ducts positioned around the 3,000-square-meter venue. Strewn about were anahaw trees with giant plastic leaves that changed colors, while nipa hut mash-ups of the Tagalog bahay-kubo on Badjao stilts stood on corners while hiding equipment.
There were three stages. The largest at the east side of the fountain was a reinvention of the Maranao house with the torogan. The traditional naga serpent at the back of the roof was replaced by an origami-inspired palikpik to make it more current.
This served as backdrop for the fashion show that featured the works of Randy Ortiz, Cary Santiago and Francis Libiran, worn by 27 of the country’s top models.
It was also here where internationally recognized singer Lani Misalucha serenaded the guests, and the young dance scholars of Centex and Steps Dance Studio did their playful number.
Facing it was a smaller stage on the west side near Ayala Avenue that served as venue for speeches that Ayala Corp. president and chief operating officer Fernando Zobel de Ayala and Vice President Jejomar Binay delivered that night.
A wide flatscreen TV installed on the wall of the south side for a brief video presentation hovered over a low stage set for a live band.
Food and drinks stations set up throughout the area served a buffet dinner of organic ensaladang Pinoy with Davao goat cheese, pili nuts and gumamela flowers; cold poached salmon; seafood and vegetable paella; roasted beef belly; halal-certified Australian rib eye roast; lechon de leche; and penne pasta with Guagua longganisa, all catered by Kai.
Desserts included fresh fruits and Filipino sweets like yema, halo-halo, kakanin and boat tarts.
The “Cecil B. DeMille production,” as one participant put it, was the handiwork of stage, production and interior design artists tapped by the Ayala Group and asked to present “the best of Philippine talent, cuisine and design.”
For starters, a beat-heavy video featuring local vignettes like shells, art crafts and beaches concluded with nanosecond shots of modern outstanding Filipinos, international artists like Arnel Pineda and apl.de.ap, members of Gilas Pilipinas, designer Kenneth Cobonpue and boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.
Overall director Rowell Santiago said the presentation was meant to show “who we are and what we are about.”
Next was a quick and colorful dance number by the Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group.
The party went on with the parade of girls and gowns that fashion show director Jackie Aquino said highlighted Filipino beauty through masterpieces created by three of the country’s top designers.
Aquino said Ortiz is known for his embroidery, Santiago for his signature fabric-wrapped metalwork, and Libiran for his laser-cutting.
“Various techniques yet all Filipino,” Aquino noted.
Miss Universe fourth runner-up Venus Raj opened the show in a shimmering white Maria Clara as the haunting intro of “Dalagang Pilipina” filled the air. But the music suddenly shifted to a contemporary beat more conducive to catwalking, courtesy of arranger and composer Louie Ocampo.
Aquino added it was only fair that the country’s best models and Binibining Pilipinas winners donned their clothes. Aquino described his phalanx of lean and leggy models as “a cross-section, from morena to tisay to kayumanggi.”
Beauty queens who lent their star power to the occasion were reigning Miss International Bea Santiago; 2013 Miss Universe third runner-up Ariella Arida; and her successor, 2014 Bb. Pilipinas Universe Mary Jean Lastimosa.
Among the most recognizable models onstage were Ria Bolivar, Valerie Weigmann, Valerie delos Santos, Angel Agustin, Grace Tagle and Gwendoline Ruais.
High on the thumping music, the plush interiors, the food and the crowd, Aquino raised his hands and said: “See? This is a big WOW! Welcome to my sala!”
Misalucha then took over, and her rendition of Neil Sedaka’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” kept delegates on their toes and swaying.
Director Santiago said the idea was to create an atmosphere where the delegates could relax and chill.
“These people are businessmen who have been through a whole day of meetings, so we just wanted them to relax. This is a party, even the lineup of songs is chill. We want potential investors to think, ‘Ah, they’re not Third World. Even their selection of music is international caliber,’” he explained.
This was why Ocampo’s selection was deliberately “not for a serious concert.” Hence, Misalucha’s repertoire included a medley of mellow lounge favorites and a rearranged and extended take on the folk song “Telebong” that the 18 Centex and Steps scholars danced to.
The singer’s ultimate crowd-pleaser, however, was her take on “Nessun Dorma” (“No One Will Sleep”), a tenor favorite, which drew the loudest applause.
Ocampo noted it was not the first time Misalucha sang a piece usually reserved for seasoned male artists.
“She’s been doing that since a decade ago. Actually, I think she is the only Filipino and pop singer who can sing it really well,” he said.
The gathering ended with the Brat Pack, a group of students united by a common love for blues and jazz, performing under the giant flatscreen.
Days before the event, in a quiet office at Tower One’s 32nd floor, plans for the dinner reception were carefully laid out and monitored.
Less than a week before the event, the air ducts for ventilation were installed. Next came the garden lights, the stages, the capiz chandeliers and the furniture. A dry run for waiters and the reception and registration teams was held the day before the event.
The Mabolo flower arrangements and the generator sets also came one after the other, while hours before the gig, the sampaguita leis that would be given the guests were the last to arrive.
Since talent is not limited to music and movement, the Ayala Group was also very particular about the selection of furniture. They may be stationary, but the delegates would experience them in a very direct way.
“It wasn’t your usual round table for 10,” said architect and interior designer J. Anton Mendoza.
He told Inquirer Lifestyle about the instruction to make the venue look like “an extension of the lanai.”
One can sense Mendoza’s pride as he rattled off the names of furniture exporters from Manila, Cebu and Pampanga who quickly agreed to showcase their craft.
“It’s phenomenal how everybody was just so supportive. One phone call from me and the answer was not even ‘We will think about it,’ but ‘Get whatever you want,’” he recalled.
Shipped from Cebu were creations by Pacific Traders, Mehitabel, Vito Selma, Coast Pacific, Obra Cebuana and Detalia Aurora.
Pampanga’s Triboa Bay also sent works along with Designs Ligna, Azcor Lighting and Outdoor + Solutions from Manila.
Mangyan baskets that perked up dull spots were flown in from Mindoro.
Mendoza realized he had a good thing going when, after he and production designer Gino Gonzales were done with the furniture setup, passersby, tenants and other Tower One regulars ogled at the borrowed stuff and took selfies.
“It’s such a hit! It’s all over Facebook and Instagram,” he said excitedly.
Gonzales was glad about how the pieces blended.
“Walang sapawan. It all worked as one entire unit,” he noted.
It was Gonzales who reworked the Maranao theme for the two main stages.
“I had to think of a way to make them current. Like the palikpik is really like origami instead of being very baroque. I made it look like folded paper to simplify the lines,” he explained.
The nipa hut hybrid was meant “for concealment,” to hide the unsightly hardware for the colored electric lights.
Even the workstations of Kai’s food servers were cleverly hidden away from guests.
Gonzales said it took several meetings with Mendoza and Mabolo’s Antonio Garcia to produce the unified look of neutral colors.
“Even the anahaw trees were all done in plastic to give them a contemporary flavor. All the Philippine flowers were in neutral colors so none of them took attention from the others,” he said.
So, how exactly did the Ayala Group get involved in the WEF?
A self-effacing Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, or Jaza as he is fondly referred to, chair and chief executive officer of Ayala Corp., said he and brother Fernando have been WEF members “for many, many years.”
“We’ve always believed in being a company that’s linked to the global environment, and the WEF has been a nice forum for that,” he said before the party began.
The Zobel brothers were pleased to learn that the WEF was eyeing the Philippines as a venue for its East Asia gathering.
Proof of the Philippines’ continuing visibility was how Fernando noted during his speech that night that the economy “continues to outperform” those of its neighbors despite ongoing global volatility.
He noted the succession of credit rating upgrades and the record highs in the stock market.
He mentioned the WEF’s own reports on overall global competitiveness, where the country’s performance in travel and tourism, information technology and gender equality “has risen in the last three years.”
Given that the WEF was already considering the Philippines, the Ayala Group believed “we had a window and we said, ‘Well, maybe we can play a small part in celebrating that occasion’,” recalled Jaza, one of the Philippine co-chairs of the Asean Business Club.
“I guess that led us to hosting this opening night,” he added.
Ayala insiders noted that the hosting was made doubly significant by the fact that the corporation is marking its 180th founding anniversary. A sparsely designed but chic coffee-table book has been released to mark the occasion.
In the first few pages is a reproduction of a handwritten note from Ayala Group chairman emeritus Jaime Zobel de Ayala that traces the conglomerate’s journey from 1834 (from a company involved in distilling and farming, led by founding partners Domingo Roxas and Antonio de Ayala) as well as his personal participation in making it flourish through seven generations.
Vice President Binay was guest of honor and could not resist including his weather observations that time.
He offered a “most tropical welcome” after noting the “balmy interiors of our meeting rooms and convention halls” before delegates.
Binay said the WEF East Asian meeting was important, given the “heating up” of economic trade and activity, especially in Southeast Asia.
Spotted in the crowd were John Riady, executive director of the Lippo Group and co-chair of the WEF on East Asia Summit; Yolanda Kakabadse of the World Wide Fund for Nature; Atsutoshi Nishida, chair of Toshiba Corp., and Takeshi Niinami, chair of Lawson Incorporated.
The country’s government and private sector leaders were also there in full force.
Seen were Senate President Franklin Drilon, Senators Loren Legarda and Cynthia Villar and husband Manny (a former senator); Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade Secretary Gregorio Domingo, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson and Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares.
Business moguls who attended included Washington SyCip, siblings Lance and Robina Gokongwei, Anton Huang of Stores Specialists, Inc., industrialist Ricky Razon and the Inquirer’s mother-and-daughter team of Marixi Rufino-Prieto and Sandy Prieto-Romualdez.
Also present were Wick Veloso of HSBC Philippines, Guillermo “Bill” Luz of the National Competitiveness Council, Ayala Group executives, and various cabinet and legislative members of previous administrations.