When Manila Peninsula general manager David Batchelor took his executive team for teambuilding to Tagaytay – a popular highland destination about one and half hours from the city – on the morning of November 29, he felt somewhat uneasy. “It was just from a service standpoint,” the long-time Philippine resident recalls. As a manager, Batchelor was merely concerned that there was proper coverage to handle any situation concerning guest satisfaction.
That “situation” turned out to be the last thing he expected to happen – a takeover by a group of soldiers disgruntled with the regime of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It started when the men, who were being tried for rebellion, had walked out of a nearby courtroom and marched down a main thoroughfare and up the driveway of the hotel, which suited their purpose of looking for a venue to hold a press conference.
For Batchelor and the Filipinos, the events that followed evoked a bizarre sense of déjà vu since the man leading the putsch, Lt Antonio Trillanes IV had also commandeered the Oakwood serviced residences (now The Ascott) in 2003, aiming to destabilise the Arroyo administration and set up a new government.
Assured by Trillanes that he and his companions were not out to hurt anyone, Batchelor and his team began evacuation of the guests, conducting a room by room search, until they were satisfied all (occupancy was 89 percent that day) had been accounted for. By 5.10pm, the last employee had left the premises and at 5.15pm, the now unforgettable scene of a tank, ramming the entrance of the 31-year-old icon, took place.
Known for its political and economic volatility, the Philippines has seen a host of natural and man-made calamities, with the November 29 putsch adding to this unlucky track record. Batchelor is philosophical, as anyone residing in this endearing, but often baffling archipelago grows to be. “We weren’t so concerned about the damage to the property (estimated at US$144,000) but more, the safety of the guests. There is a crisis plan, but you can only follow it loosely because every situation is different. You just have to act on your feet and monitor events as they happen.”
Batchelor says one of the first steps taken was to divert the main line to the communications centre outside the hotel, which fielded enquiries from worried family members and colleagues. Guests were booked into nearby hotels with the Pen picking up the tab. “We were very generous in our hospitality, considering the incident was not of our own doing,” he says.
After closing for three days, the hotel reopened on December 3, despite sporting signs of the previous disorder that saw chairs and tables in its sprawling lobby wrecked, windows smashed and of course, the entrance crushed by military hardware. “But support from the community has been tremendous,” says Batchelor. “And our clients have all been telling us they are relieved we are back.”
Margie T Logarta