Nothing in his suave manners and stylish suit would tell you Ryan Rabe, director of Hotel Operations of Winford Manila Resort and Casino, was once upon a time a professional basketball player wannabe who opted to drop out of college and find a job.
“I was 18 and was going to school not because I was interested in a diploma. I only wanted to make it to the San Sebastian College team,” shared Ryan who, by then, was a reserve player training under the renowned coach Turo Valenzona.
But when he realized that with his relatively miniscule height of 5’10” he didn’t stand a chance no matter if he received plaudits as a promising point guard, he decided getting a job was the next best thing for him.
“I didn’t think I had a chance to be in the big leagues after they began importing all those giant Filipino-American players,” said Ryan, who sat down with the Daily Tribune at the luxurious Winford, located right at the heart of Manila, in what was once the horse racing track known as the San Lazaro Hippodrome or, to the uppity crowd, the Manila Jockey Club (MJC).
Winford is owned by the MJC Investments Corporation, which took over the vast assets of the original Jockey Club, renamed it the San Lazaro Tourism and Business Park, and established this P8-billion hotel, leisure and entertainment project.
Talk about a new name, but in the same old location, familiar except it looks much better, is definitely safer, and more attuned to the progress that has been continuously taking place all over the metropolis.
Dapper in his black and white outfit, Ryan looked even taller as he talked to the staff who listened intently to his instructions. He was in command, for sure, although the smile never left his face, and he moved somewhat but not overly in synch with the cheerful mood of the staff.
As tots frolicked in the company of their parents, teenagers kept glued to their gadgets, and elder businessmen conferred in hushed tones, all separately huddled in the various seating arrangements in the spanking lobby, any observer would feel at home in this relaxed yet grand and sleek atmosphere.
Unlike other casino hotels swarming with noisy people, this had the feel of an elegant dwelling place, with clear and wide spaces intended to calm the eye and allow the mind to decide whether one should eat Chinese food at Choi Gardens, enjoy the nouvelle Filipino buffet at Copa de Manila, or breathe in the exciting bustle of real Manila from the roof garden. Or one can have a dip at the pool and then enjoy the soothing pleasures of expert massage at the SM Kenko Spa on the 11th floor, all these while dreaming of what to shop for at the SM San Lazaro mall literally a hundred steps from the lobby. Of course, there’s always the casino and right there, the musical and comedy shows for nightly entertainment.
The fixtures and décor in Winford are, undoubtedly, pricey including the sculpture of a dragon which was made by an artist who was handsomely paid for his masterpiece. This side of Manila never looked this sophisticated. Of course, the dragon’s presence provides an aura of richness while bestowing good luck on everyone one who is part of this prosperous ambience.
A few weeks earlier, I had come to enjoy an overnight stay as part of the hotel’s efforts to reintroduce itself to the press. One indeed was surprised to find out the hotel had been there all along, mostly patronized by the affluent crowd in the nearby Santa Mesa Heights — Santo Domingo — Banaue area and, of course, the old Chinese merchant families of nearby Binondo and Chinatown.
After walking me through the delightful rooms and amenities of Winford, Ryan shared with me his story, one that our young people could listen to and take hints from if they wish to succeed in the travel and tourism industry.
It’s like if Ryan made it, they, too, could. If they had his tenacity, that is. He has an Americanized word for it — “McCoolit” (makulit) which he roughly translates to “being persistent.”
Rewind back to when he was 18 years old, and realizing basketball was not to be his kingdom, Ryan told his Dad, “I no longer want to study.” “Then, why don’t you get a job?” his father asked him.
It was a question that he expected his father to ask. The elder Rabe himself was a college drop-out who had once had a flourishing business supplying bottled soft drinks and beer to the restaurants and bars of Malate where his family was living. But at the time Ryan was dropping out, drinks were being served in barrels, thus putting the family in a somewhat precarious situation.
“When my father and I agreed that I should look for a job, he suggested that I set my sights on the overseas job market,” related Ryan.
Ryan then presented himself to a nearby manpower agency where for the whole day that he was lined up and waiting to be called, no one paid attention to him. “When I went home, I told my dad my frustrating experience,” he recounted. “And my father challenged me. ‘You would easily get discouraged just because you are not getting it your way? Why don’t you go back again, keep trying and they might finally call you?’”
“The next day, I filled out the queue forms, all 25 of them, to make sure I had greater chances of being called. This naturally got me the ire of the person in charge of calling out our names. I was branded right there as ‘makulit.’”
After a few days, he was finally called, and the interviewer was irked furthermore because “I had no job experience and no papers, not even a passport, and was now looking for a job abroad.”
Ryan, holding on to his hope, volunteered to be one of the interns. He was told to wait. The interviewer announced that the first eight who arrived the earliest the next day would be taken in to serve with the utility staff to clean the bathroom, run errands, make coffee for guests and bosses and make up the rooms, among other things. He arrived early the next day, but only second in line because the first had not gone home and slept right at the door beside the guard.
While Ryan was helping around as an intern, the bosses discovered he could be an asset. “Since I knew my way around Manila, I was made to deliver documents. I was also assigned banking chores like depositing checks and that made me close to the heads. In three weeks, I had completed the paper requirements, just in time for them to tell me that in three days, I would be leaving for a job contract.
“My parents, both crying, sent me off at the airport. My destination was Greece where I joined a world cruise ship as soon as it departed. I was assigned to wash the pots.”
From pot washer to captain’s waiter
It wasn’t an easy job. The pot washer before him had resigned and no one was washing for a number of weeks, so that when Ryan arrived, he found himself cleaning up the accumulated mess.
It had been quite rough at sea. He was always getting dizzy. Once, he ended up sleeping on the floor in his work station. When the executive caught him there the next day, he thought Ryan was dead.
For about three months, he struggled both emotionally and physically, the latter because “my arms were burned already due to the hot water that they were exposed to. So I called my dad and told him I wanted to quit, and he said, ‘If you quit now, that will be your end. Your agency will put you in the blacklist and you will never be able to leave again. You will be a quitter.’”
Fortunately, he was transferred to the dishwashing area where his hands didn’t get wet. After two months, he was transferred to the employees’ canteen where he served food.”
In the last two months before he came home, he was assigned to the officers’ mess where he attended to the captain and the other officers. He also took care of the slab chest, which was the equivalent of a convenience store for the ships’ employees. “I earned additional dollars just watching the store.”
How he had successfully moved from one difficult assignment to an easier one, Ryan attributes to “my simply attacking the work at hand. I realized there was always a way to make my job easier and more efficient without sacrificing the expected results.”
When he came home to the Philippines, he bought his first car. “It was to fulfill a juvenile dream, although it was also a practical purchase. The family used it when I was away,” Ryan explained.
Butler to the VIPs
When he returned abroad, it was to another cruise ship where, this time, he was a janitor. “I was happier because I was getting closer to the frontline. I became part of the hotel utility team, and I cleaned the public area, the toilets and washrooms. I would vacuum staircases from the 25th floor to the lower bottom. Somewhere in the Bahamas, we would pick up the garbage on an island where the company maintained a resort, and there were worms all over the trash bags but we did not mind it at all. Those were happy times and we were all young and enjoying our experiences.
“After being a hotel cleaner, I was promoted to the bell service. So I was in charge of luggage and room service, which included serving guests’ meals in their rooms.”
The management of the Norwegian Cruise Lines, where he was working, next asked if he wanted to become a butler and he said yes. He would be dealing with very important passengers, he was told.
“So, after my duty in room service, I would shadow the butlers and follow what they did. They would teach you how fine dining works, which wine is served for what, the proper washing of garments especially the branded ones, and so on.”
Ryan became a favored butler. The VIP and VVIP would request that he be assigned to them.
The big break came by way of a call once they were on their way to New York. His boss had received instructions to send Ryan back to Europe because he was going to be the butler for a group consisting of Tan Sri KT Lim, the chairman of Genting, the owners of the Norwegian Cruise Lines. Tan Sri Lim was with his family and guests.
“As soon as I arrived back in Europe, I took care of them,” recalled Ryan. “I was the only butler for the family of Tan Sri KT Lim. So I was working like 20 hours per day.”
Later, Tan Sri KT Lim would tell him that he was opening a hotel in the Philippines. “You’ve been away for long from your country, would you like to join Resorts World in Manila?”
But then, his immediate boss had other plans for him. He was soon promoted as head concierge. This time, he was on top of the VIP operations of the ship where, he said, “We would take care of roughly 200 to 300 VIP every week.” These celebrity guests included Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Rosie O’Donnell and Cindy Lauper, along with a number of Filipino business magnates and socialites. “They were all very friendly,” he recalled.
Of course, it wasn’t easy dealing with the VIP. One asked that the baby grand piano be transferred from the supper club to his room so he could play it when he wanted to. “Our motto was to make it happen for our guests,” Ryan stressed.
Coming home and making good
He had spent four to five years as head concierge, seen 68 countries when he decided it was time to be home. In 2014, David Chua of Resorts World Manila joined the cruise. They had a heart-to-heart talk which led to Ryan joining the company as manager of the Genting Club of RWM. But he missed hotel operations, which was his bread, butter and passion for the longest time.
Ryan started work with Winford Manila Resort and Casino in 24 October 2016. As director of Hotel Operations, Ryan is responsible for the hotel front office, housekeeping, entertainment, laundry, food and beverage, banquet and sales, among others, all of which he had somehow worked in throughout his career.
When Daily Tribune visited him for this interview, he had just completed two years of his stint and was looking to more years of enjoying his job in this beautiful hotel located right at the heart of Manila.
For this boy who grew up in Malate, life may not have been easy at the start, but he persevered and being McCoolit has brought him to where he is today.
He lives in Tagaytay, another dream come true, although he is home with his family on weekends only, as he prefers to live right beside Winford “so I could report early and make sure the staff is ready for the day’s work. Anytime anybody needs to talk to me, I am available and ready to assist the hotel guests.”
Persistence made Ryan’s dreams come true and we see him tirelessly keeping his place at the top, and even climbing higher in the coming years.