How Sofitel made it through the rain | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Typhoon “Pedring” on Sept. 27 came on the same month two years after the traumatic storm “Ondoy.” Howling winds and heavy rains left the stretch of Roxas Boulevard impassable. A meter-high floodwater inside a five-star luxury hotel and waves higher than coconut trees freaked people out, even Filipinos who are used to typhoons, but not Goran Aleks, general manager of Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila.

You’d wonder how the 35-year-old German remained calm and collected while floodwater filled the ground floor of the 609-room resort hotel. He credited two things for his composure: experience and training.

Aleks has been in the hospitality industry for 15 years; he has assumed different posts in Sofitel Hotels in Europe and Asia-Pacific. He was general manager of Sofitel Magic Lagoon Resort & Spa Khao when the heartbreaking tsunami hit Thailand in 2004. He moved to the Philippines in 2009.

Sofitel’s location is both its strength and weakness. The Plaza level on the ground floor features an inviting pool with a mini bridge; the Sunset Bar that serves cocktails and barbecue by nighttime; wellness establishments Le Spa, Philippe Tordjman Le Salon and Zen Institute; Fever Luxe party club; and Spiral, the hotel’s banner restaurant popular for its magnificent buffet.

The Manila Bay can be viewed from the poolside which is dotted with coconut trees and lush foliage, and offers a spectacular view of the sunset, a come-on for guests. During “Pedring,” the same bay splashed angry waters into The Plaza, leaving nothing visible but the tip of the bridge.

Christina del Carmen, Sofitel PR manager, said the water got in around 8 a.m. on Sept. 27, a Tuesday. It was the first time in the hotel’s 35 years of operation that it got flooded. Sofitel was then 64 percent full, with over 400 guests checked in.

“It was a strange confluence of factors,” Del Carmen said. “There was high tide, low pressure area and super strong winds. The water came in from the bay, and they were not even surfing waves, but taller, stronger ones. This didn’t happen even during ‘Ondoy.’”

Aleks quickly ordered the evacuation of guests that morning. Power was shut off because water had already reached electrical sockets. There was no electricity, water, working elevator, cell-phone signal and Internet. Communication systems were down in Metro Manila; Luzon was widely affected by a blackout. It was a scene out of a scary Armageddon movie.

He assigned five staff members on all levels to help guests out. Since there were no elevators, luggage had to be carried down on foot; stuff that had to be saved were transferred upstairs. It was a blessing that the guests, a mix of Filipinos and foreigners, were very cooperative.

“It was happening really fast, and we’re glad the guests were obedient,” Del Carmen said. “We billeted them in neighboring hotels. When these were full, some were booked in Makati. Everything was done in three hours.”

Voluntary cleanup

It was still drizzly, dark and damp all over Metro Manila the next day, Sept. 28. Hotel staff members could have stayed at home, but most of them came to Sofitel as early as 7 a.m. including Aleks and Del Carmen: It was cleanup time.

There was no memo, no circular. It was just automatic for the 950 employees to show up armed with rubber boots and gloves and take care of the mess. This is a new and welcome sight for Aleks, who has worked in Thailand, Germany and Australia.

“This is not common in other countries,” he said. “They (the Filipino hotel staff) behave like it’s their house.”

“I never any saw any country like the Philippines,” he added. “Filipinos are so resilient. [Perhaps it’s because] so many things happened in this country in so many years.”

The cleanup was even fun, with the staff singing and dancing as they fixed what “Pedring” had devastated. There was still no electricity, but the energy of the employees more than made up for it.

“It was not a big deal, it happened, but once it subsides they started to clean up. People usually ask, ‘Do I still have a job? Am I getting paid next month? What would happen to me?’ Here, it’s a family.”

Aleks said he is pretty close to his Filipino staff as he spends most of his time with them in the hotel, even during weekends, Christmas, New Year. He finds it easy to connect with them since there are “no barriers in language and religion.” He threw an appreciation dinner for the staff after the cleanup was done.

“Filipinos are genuinely welcoming people. They want to know who you are, what you do. An income of an employee supports six to seven family members, so somehow I got to know their family as well,” he said. “I understand the way they care about a family member, and I see that’s also how they care about the guests.”


Sofitel was prepared when “Pedring” hit. Sandbags were set, a big net was installed to keep debris off, but as Aleks stressed, the world is changing, and there isn’t a place in the world where anyone could guarantee a hundred-percent safety.

“‘Ondoy’ hit Makati, and you cannot move Makati—same thing with Sofitel. We are trained in security and safety, and we have a seasoned crisis committee.”

Rehabilitation took place after assessing the damage, such as broken windows and kitchen equipment. The Davao and Boracay function rooms that were just opened last year were also hit and are still closed. The company is still assessing the amount of damage in pesos. Thankfully, most of the furniture were okay, like the lounge chairs by the pool, tables and chairs.

Professional cleaners disinfected the place and made sure there were no toxic chemicals. After several days, flowers, decorations and music were reinstalled. The hotel was reopened last Oct. 10 after several dry runs (once without guests, and another with invited regular patrons). Walking through the lobby, there’s hardly a sign that it was under a calamity, save for two missing glass panels by the pool area which is now temporarily covered with white plywood.

Guests still enjoy the sunset by the poolside, and it’s hard to imagine how the area had become an “instant infinity pool” with tilapia swimming around during the storm.

The beauty and wellness establishments were reopened on Nov. 15, while Spiral, the “heart of Sofitel,” as Del Carmen put it, will be relaunched mid next year.

“We took this chance to re-conceive Sofitel which has been in the works since last year. Those who have discount vouchers from ‘groupons’ (online group-buying sites) can have it refunded or extended,” she added.

People who have heard of the flooding may stay away from Sofitel, but Aleks said that it was an “isolated incident” that was handled well. Before “Pedring,” the head of audit from Sofitel Australia came in for inspection. There are also “secret customers” who visit and examine fire extinguishers, fire exits and emergency plans.

He is thankful that affected guests had stayed and chose to reschedule weddings and conferences on other days.

“Sofitel is used to these challenging situations, and Filipinos are a fantastic people,” said Aleks. “They knew this is not something to dwell on. I wouldn’t wish to have another typhoon but seeing the cooperation was a fascinating experience for me.”


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