The four years that Sonja Vodusek has spent in the Philippines as the general manager of The Peninsula Manila have taught her to take things in stride. She is no longer rattled by heavy traffic or typhoons.
“Filipinos are a hospitable, resilient bunch. At the height of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” we had staffers who braved the floods to come to work even if they got hurt in the process.”
She recounted how two of them fell into open manholes. When she found out about it, she asked why they still came to work and was mystified when they replied that they simply “wanted” to work. “That dedication, it’s very rare to see. I think the Peninsula culture brings that out in its people,” Vodusek said.
The staff’s dedication has endeared them to her and made her very protective. In fact, she has shown rude guests to the door on more than one occasion.
“I get mad when I hear people talking in a disrespectful way to the staff. I tell them, ‘We serve, we’re not servants.’”
So when “Yolanda” hit the country on Nov. 8, 2013, she made it a point to first help members of the staff whose families had homes washed away by the storm. Only after making sure they were taken care of did she and her team come up with a group-wide campaign participated in by all 10 Peninsula properties.
Dubbed “Hope for the Philippines,” the campaign included an afternoon tea of hope and a halo-halo of hope where 100 percent of the proceeds were earmarked for survivors.
‘Bibingka’ and ‘suman’
“For the afternoon tea, Filipino delicacies like bibingka and suman (ricecakes) were photographed and sent to the different properties. Recipes were attached so they could be replicated by the kitchen staff, but since there are Filipinos everywhere, making the treats wasn’t a problem. The same was done for the halo-halo, with photos and the recipe included.”
A third project—the one that brought in almost a million dollars—was a fund drive where five dollars was set aside for each night a guest spent at a Peninsula hotel from Nov. 22 to Dec. 31, 2013. Guests who heard about the reason for the fund drive donated on top of the funds given on their behalf.
With the money raised, the hotel partnered with Gawad Kalinga to build a Peninsula GK Village. Securing a location that was accessible (near a school, close to the main road) was a primary concern, and one that took several months before being finalized.
“We looked at places in Bacolod and Samar before deciding on a barangay in Tanauan, Leyte. Our dream is to build a hundred houses; we have funding now for 75. While a normal GK house costs P150,000 to build, we wanted to upgrade that to make sure they could withstand typhoons. It had to be Peninsula quality so we doubled the price to P300,000. It’s more finished on the inside. The sewage system is set as well as the lighting fixtures,” Vodusek said.
This attention to detail will not end once the first phase—50 houses targeted by end of September—is completed. “We will send housekeeping and kitchen staff to train the residents on how to care for their homes. We want to know what they need to maintain their homes, and whether it’s feasible to put up a bakery.”
Vodusek recalled how even Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto said that this was the first time they had partnered with a team that was this thorough.
“Corporate social responsibility is not just a line in our company’s annual report; we really see things through,” Vodusek said.
Aside from helping provide shelter and education, another advocacy of the hotel is breast cancer awareness. Two key projects are the breast cancer chemotherapy ward at the East Avenue Medical Center (EAMC) in Quezon City and the month-long campaign held at the hotel in October called Peninsula in Pink.
Until recently, the chemotherapy outpatient ward at the hospital consisted of several plastic monoblock chairs and a couple of reclining chairs shared by 50 indigent patients.
“We are expanding that to accommodate 15 more chairs. We are still in the first of three phases. We plan to upgrade the facility before building a two-story building,” Vodusek said.
The fundraising Peninsula in Pink has been staged seven times by the hotel, but for only five years with the participation of the entire Peninsula group.
“Our dream is for Peninsula in Pink to become the breast care event of the year. We want to bear the torch for breast care awareness in the country,” she said.
This year, aside from the pink ribbon pins and pink-colored cocktails, several art galleries are donating one artwork each. Proceeds raised from the sale of these pieces will go to the outpatient ward at the EAMC. “The entire project is P8.5 million but we’ve already managed to raise P5.5 million,” Vodusek said.
A first-generation Australian with parents who migrated from communist-era Slovenia, Vodusek can relate to the shared dream of wanting a better life.
“I’ve been most humbled living here than in any area in the world because no matter how tough things get, everyone’s got a smile on their faces. The resilience of Filipinos is unbelievable, unreal. Despite going through typhoons, crises, they still manage to smile.”