As a 21-year-old who was unhappy with the educational system in his hometown, Cebu, James Montenegro quit school and moved to the United States to live with his brother.
For two-and-a-half years, he did odd jobs, tiling floors and construction. One day, as he worked while on his knees, he realized he didn’t like what he was doing.
So, he went back home to Cebu, and saw an ad in the papers for a work-study program in Switzerland. With help from his sisters, he convinced his parents to let him study at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management.
For the past 30 years now, James—whose mom Nena Montenegro is famous for her homemade silvanas—has lived and worked for international hotel brands in Vietnam, Malaysia and Switzerland, as well as Davao and Cebu.
But he has found his sweet spot as country manager of Chroma Hospitality—Filinvest Group’s hotel management company, which owns and operates Crimson Hotels and Resorts properties in Manila, Cebu and Boracay, as well as Quest Hotels and Resorts in Cebu and Clark.
“One part of my job is to oversee the operations of all hotels,” says James.
The second part is to ensure that the business continuity processes are in place, so that the hotels are sustainable.
“The third is to help in the development of new hotels—starting with the conceptualization, and includes restaurant operations, room design, as well as business projections and marketing plans for the opening of the property. We take the hotel from zero to its grand opening,” he says.
The latest feather in his cap is Crimson Resort & Spa Boracay: “Crimson Boracay is one of the projects I am most proud of. I saw this resort from the ground up. We had designed it to be the new version of our Crimson hotels, so it is food- and beverage-focused. My team and I developed all the food concepts.”
James says his can-do attitude and aggressive nature led him where he is now: “When I went to Les Roches, it was kind of my last chance to get my act together. I had to prove myself to my family. Now I’ve come to realize that hospitality is in my blood. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
James’ childhood should’ve been an indication of his career path. “I grew up in a home with food around me,” he recalls. “My mother is a very good cook. In fact, she still bakes pandesal, cinnamon rolls and silvanas from her kitchen. She has clients who’ve been ordering from her since the 1980s.”
He adds: “When we were kids, my mom would make us work in the kitchen as punishment. If we came home three hours past our curfew, we’d have to put in three hours in the kitchen also. I learned traditional cooking methods and techniques from her.”
Traveling takes up a big part of James’ schedule when he has to visit the hotels and check the progress of new project sites. But his best trips are those to Vancouver, BC, where his family currently lives.
“I like the people there. They’re very hospitable, and I love how they have managed to preserve their environment. It’s a sustainably driven tourism destination.
“I love going to the farm-to-table restaurants, which are popular there. They serve beer from good local craft breweries, too. Hopefully we can do something like it in the Philippines.”
He adds: “I have a supportive wife, Mayan—we met when we were students at Les Roches—and three wonderful children, Marielle, Cassandra and Sebastian. I see them regularly during breaks and long holidays.
“My wife and I have always taught our kids the value of experience, and how to be free thinkers,” he says. “My daughters are very independent. In 10 years, we’ve moved five or six times, and each time, they had to adapt, and make new friends.”
For Cebu, James is thrilled to introduce Chroma Hospitality’s newest brand, Grafik, which is for the millennial market. A 332-room resort on a 2.8-hectare property in Mactan, Grafik is scheduled to open in 2020.
“Over the next few years, we have properties in the pipeline in various destinations like Puerto Princesa, Cebu, Dumaguete, Cubao, Zamboanga, among others,” he says.
After all these years in the hospitality industry, it looks like the only times James will have to be on his knees is when he’s soaking up the sun, chest-deep in the water on one of his beach resorts, with a cold drink in hand. —CONTRIBUTED