One of the things I never thought I’d actually do was learn how to bake. Sure, I love to eat delicious baked goods (who doesn’t?), but after a disastrous attempt to bake my mom a birthday cake when I was 13 years old, I’d stayed as far away from an oven as possible.
Fast forward twenty years later and surprise: baking is now something I do for *gasp* fun! No, really. I bought a small electric oven last Christmas because I wanted to eat healthier and stop frying everything. Little did I know that with the baked vegetables, fish, and chicken would come cookies, cheesecakes, and muffins. Oh, the irony of it all.
Aside from the end goal of actual baked goods to eat, the process of baking lends itself to additional valuable lessons:
1. Be patient. The typical chocolate chip cookie recipe calls for you to scoop the cookie dough onto baking sheets and refrigerating the dough for at least an hour, but best for at least 24 hours. But why? Why have cookies tomorrow when you can have them today? As it turns out, refrigerating the cookies stops them from spreading out too much and also brings out more of the flavor. More patience = more delicious cookies.
2. Learn the ropes first before trying to tweak anything. Baking is that delicious blend of science and art. Unlike dishes where you can play with the recipe on the fly, baked goods need exact recipes because each ingredient reacts with everything else. Yes, substituting 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder with 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda when you change the recipe from 1 cup of milk to 1 cup of yogurt makes an absolute difference. Once you’ve mastered the basics and the ingredients, then you can change the recipe.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I figured hey, two medium eggs were the same as one large egg, right? Wrong. What were supposed to be eight cookies merged into a single huge COOKIE. The batter was too wet and thus spread too much. The cookie tasted fine, but still. Since then, the most off-recipe thing I’ve done so far is double the vanilla extract and cinnamon because I wanted a stronger flavor. I’ll get to the recipe development stage eventually. *crosses fingers*
Have you ever been to a place and fell absolutely, irrevocably in love? How about a place that changed your life forever? A place that no matter where you went to next, you’d end up coming back to over and over again? El Nido in Palawan is my forever place.
The view from the top.
El Nido and I had our first date in early 2006, when I visited to see if I truly wanted to commit to living and working there. In hindsight, it wasn’t a fair fight. How was I supposed to make an unbiased decision when confronted with limestone cliffs so high that my neck hurt when I looked up, skies bluer than Paul Walker’s eyes, and water so clear that I could see all the way to the corals at the bottom? Of course I said yes.
This is happiness right here.
Our first relationship lasted from most of 2007 to 2008, with me leaving in September 2008 to go to graduate school. El Nido and I didn’t have time to miss each other though, as I visited several times throughout 2010 to 2011 to do fieldwork for my master’s thesis. Like coming back to a boyfriend you just can’t quit, I came back to El Nido full-time from 2011 to 2013, with me leaving (for good? maybe) in September 2013 to focus on my thesis and (finally!) finish my master’s degree. I’ve only been back once since then but El Nido is never far from my thoughts.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that El Nido changed my life. El Nido’s responsible for a lot of firsts.
My first baby sea turtle! This was taken back in 2008 but it’s still one of my favorite photos ever.
My first whale shark! The photo’s lousy but I promise you that that mass of white spots is a three-meter long whale shark (a baby!) beneath the surface. The pier guard called my office and said “Miss Macy, may butanding sa pantalan! [There’s a whale shark at the pier!]”. I ran to the pier and jumped into the water without changing out of my work uniform and without prepping a proper underwater camera. I regret nothing.
My first climb up a cliff! We explored Ille Cave and Rockshelter in Dewil Valley, New Ibajay, a cave complex where the first tiger bones (Panthera tigris) in Palawan were found. I’m not good with heights and sharp rocks but I climbed to the top of the cliff anyway. The view was worth it.
El Nido was also where I found my purpose. I was a BS Biology graduate who didn’t know what to do with herself. I knew I wanted to stay in the sciences but I also knew that I didn’t want to go into academia nor into medicine. El Nido came at the right time and offered me the chance to stay in the sciences but in a more casual setting. I shared El Nido’s wonders with tourists, tour guides and other resorts staff, and members of the local community. I may have ruined quite a few childhoods when I told them that Nemo’s dad Marlin should have changed sex and become his mom Marlene after his mom Crystal was eaten by the barracuda. I also got to combine science with the “fun” aspects of my life, like writing and acting. A clutch of hawksbill sea turtle eggs hatching became the first episode of “Enchanting El Nido”, an environmental education webseries I started. El Nido also inspired me to take photography more seriously, which resulted in one of the biggest non-academic achievements of my career:
I was invited to attend the awarding ceremony in London during World Travel Mart but alas, they wouldn’t shoulder my expenses and I couldn’t afford to go on my own.
El Nido wasn’t always fun and sunshine. For one thing, it can get quite lonely on a tiny island full of people. I was away from my family and friends for extended periods of time, often running myself ragged during my days off in Manila just so I could spend more time with more people. But despite the hardships, everything that happened in El Nido and the people that I met along the way helped shaped me into the person I am today. I wouldn’t trade my time in El Nido for anything.
Oh hai there friend! Screencap from a video by Bobbit Suntay.
Geekerie, the little store that Adrian and I started way back in 2008, is now five years old. Five years, countless arguments, blood, sweat, tears, and money later, we’re still growing! As a first-time business owner, the past five years have been a heck of a learning experience. The five most important lessons I’ve learned so far:
1. Do what you love, or at the very least, what interests you.
My mom used to own a very successful corporate giveaways business. It was so successful that it paid for our house, schooling, and family vacations. When she got tired of commuting to Makati every day, which coincided with me about to graduate from college, she offered me the company. I’d be her apprentice for a year before she formally turned the reins over to me. Call me crazy, but I said no. I had no interest in corporate giveaways and dealing with marketing officers day in, day out. I would have had to force myself to work, something I did not relish doing. Seven years later, I’m the co-owner of a shop that I started from scratch. It’s definitely not at the same level income-wise (yet!) as my mother’s former business but Geekerie is mine and is something that I actually want to work on.
2. Timing is everything.
Successful products are the product of two things: an excellent product and timing. Geekerie started selling Doctor Who fan shirts back in 2011. We debuted the “The Doctor Is In” shirt during the June Toy Convention but received a lackluster response. We only printed 30 shirts and couldn’t even sell them all! Things started picking up in 2012, with our new Police Box shirt, more people looking for Doctor Who shirts, and customers remarking “You’re the only ones selling Who merch!”. By the time 2013 rolled around, we had five Doctor Who shirt designs with print runs of 100 shirts each.
Moral lesson? Give it time before deciding that something isn’t working. Our usual waiting period is a year. If it hasn’t sold by then, then you’re never going to sell it.
3. Partner with someone who has complementary skills.
Adrian and I work well together because we bring different skills to the table. Adrian is in charge of designing, printing (talking to the printer), and marketing the shirts, plus designing the website. He’s also better at customer relations. I do the bookkeeping, order-taking and preparation, inventory, and other essential “boring”, behind-the-scenes stuff. Adrian can’t run Geekerie without me and I can’t run it without him.
4. Online stores are good, but you still need a physical presence.
We don’t own a physical store because of the high overhead involved, but we can’t operate solely online either. The compromise? Bazaars and fairs! We joined three events this year: the ToyCon (June), Cosplay Mania (September), and Christmas Toyfair (December). These physical appearances are crucial because:
It establishes Geekerie as a legit seller. Filipinos are still wary about shopping online, especially with newer outfits. Actually meeting the owners at bazaars instills customer confidence that we’re not out to scam them.
Customers get to see the products in person. Filipinos are a very tactile people – we need to see and touch things for ourselves. Plus since we sell shirts, some people are nervous about the sizing.
It introduces us to new customers. A lot of our bazaar customers have never heard of us before the event. They see us in person and check out the inventory. Even if they don’t buy during the event, they still get a business card and look us up online afterwards.
5. Growth is a must but do it at your own pace.
Every business needs to expand eventually, right? But do it at a pace you’re comfortable with. We started selling shirts in 2008 and a couple of toys in 2011, but it was only last year that we really started selling official merchandise and collectibles. Even then, we started out with a single shipment of items. When that shipment sold out in June, that’s when we started ordering more. The profits we earned over the years were what we plowed back into the business. It’s possible that the slow pace of growth hurt Geekerie in the short-term, but I wasn’t ready to go into debt just in case the business failed. Of course, we all have different appetites for risk so if you’re dead-set on investing your last peso into the business, then go ahead.
Edit: I can’t believe I didn’t include this in the original list! Anyway, here’s bonus lesson #6:
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Geekerie wouldn’t be where it is today without the help of a lot of people along the way.
My mom, the perennial entrepreneur. She lends us her delivery van and personnel whenever we have a selling event (I’m in charge of paying them, of course). It’s difficult to find people to work just for the events so I’m very glad that I don’t have to.
My aunts and uncles who helped me get all the fun and geeky stuff that we sell. My heroes: Tita Marian, Tito Tony, Tito Elfrid, and Tita Ofie!
Az, who gave us our first booth space in exchange for free shirts 😛
And last but not least, the wonderful friends + customers we’ve had over the years 😀 It’s been an amazing ride and we’d love to have you with us for the years to come.
But what does this have to do with traveling? I decided to write this after a short chat with a high school acquaintance. He PMed me to ask about the situation in El Nido after Yolanda (I’m the only person he knows who is/was based in Palawan). He and his friends are scheduled to go to Coron (an island in the Calamian Island Group, located about 8 hours by boat north of El Nido ) in the first quarter of 2014 but they were thinking of canceling and going to El Nido instead. My first thought was “PLEASE DON’T CANCEL”.
The map shows the path Yolanda took in and out of the Philippines. The main industries in these places are agriculture, fishing, and tourism. Yes, tourism. A resort owner in northern Cebu was interviewed recently. His establishment was thankfully spared, with only repairs needed for the roofs and dining area. Unfortunately, “Philippines” and “disaster” are now synonymous worldwide and he’s received cancellations for Christmas left and right. The peak tourist dates in the Philippines are Christmas, New Year, and Easter, and the industry relies on these times of the year to see them through the leaner months (June to August). No tourists, no money. Without money, how can he, his employees, the tour operators, the boatmen, the fishermen, the tricycle drivers, the jeepney drivers, and the host of other people involved in your holiday rebuild? He anticipates that business will pick up again by Easter next year. But Easter is four months away. What will be their source of income before then?
Of course there are considerations to be made before canceling your holiday. By all means, check with your hotel/inn if they’ll be ready to accept guests by that time. If they say yes or even offer a “maybe”, please don’t cancel your booking. Do not feel guilty about taking a holiday. The relief operations are just the start of the recovery process. The survivors will need a source of income to get back on their feet and they need your tourist pesos to do that.
I may not mention it outright or link to the company’s official website, but I think most people here know that I work for a high-end resort in El Nido, Palawan. My official job title is “Environmental Officer” but because of my fondness for blogging and social media, I tend to keep track and update the company’s official social media accounts even though it isn’t technically part of my job. I post photos, tweet, edit videos, and answer questions from potential guests. Now, I don’t mind answering basic questions like “How do I get there?” (even though you totally could have Googled the question yourself and gotten an answer faster than waiting for me to reply) or “What activities do you offer?”. What annoys me to no end are people commenting “You’re too expensive! Your rates are un-Filipino!”, “Do you have promos for Christmas?”, “It’s cheaper to go to Hong Kong than to Palawan!”, or some variant thereof. As a fellow traveler on a limited budget, I absolutely understand why you want to get the lowest possible rate at the best time to visit and experience the best holiday you’ve had to date. But as someone who works in the tourism industry, have you ever considered what goes into your experience?
Exclusivity. Each property only has 50 rooms, so the maximum capacity is 100-120 people. This means that if you stay with us, you’ll have approximately 1.5 staff (or more!) taking care of your needs and wants throughout your stay. This also means that we’re quieter compared to other places. A guest from New York once said that he paid top dollar for silence.
The luxury of being taken cared of. We have fewer guests and more staff compared to other hotels, which helps us give you a level of service that will make you cry in happiness. Seriously. Guests have cried during the goodbye song. Some of them also didn’t want to leave. We had a couple over Christmas who willingly paid to stay in the Manager’s Quarters because they wanted to extend their stay but all the guest rooms were taken. We greet you by name (unless you don’t want us to, of course) and strive to make your stay as enjoyable as possible. Please note that there’s nothing we can do about the weather, the jellyfish, or the birds that sing really loudly in the early morning.
Increased costs. We operate island resorts in northern Palawan. We prioritize local suppliers but there are still some things that we need to bring over from Manila. That means moving them via cargo ship or plane, which cost money. We also operate our own diesel generators, desalination plants, sewage treatment plants, and a materials recovery facility. These also cost money.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I am NOT saying that it’s not possible to have an equally good time while on a limited budget. Our barkada trip to Antique-Guimaras-Iloilo only set us back around P5,000 each and we had a blast, but it was a very different experience compared to a luxury resort. We relied on the hospitality of local friends and their relatives (thank you Mike and Kuya Nonoy!), bought groceries and cooked our own food, slept on mattresses in one big room, and arranged everything ourselves. Though equally fun, it was worlds away from sleeping with down pillows, having someone else arrange our activities for the day, and eating food prepared by someone who used to be the personal chef to one of the richest families in the Philippines.
The heart of every travel decision should be getting the most bang for your buck, whether that’s AUD 31.50 per night in a hostel (did this in Australia) or the presidential suite of a five-star hotel (got to take a peek inside – not stay! – in the Hilton Hotel in Sanya, China). The bottom line is that the property I work for is worth it. Yes, staying with us might mean saving up for several months but we make it worth your while.
I’ve been involved in the business of sustainable tourism for the past five years. Some of the tasks and projects I’ve done include staff training in environmental practices and nature interpretation, direct guest interaction via nature tours and nightly talks at the beach bar, organizing the publication of a book, getting our department website up and running, and writing, editing, producing, and directing an online nature show. As a person, I love what I’m doing. I get to share El Nido’s unique flora and fauna with people from around the world (people always laugh when I tell them that our white sand beaches are actually piles of parrotfish poop), meet scientific giants (hi Dr. Gerry Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann!), and become famous on the Internet (watch our show!). But from a business perspective, is it worth it? Does our reputation as a sustainable tourism company help us keep our current customers and attract new ones?
My realizations after more than seven months of maintaining and monitoring our social media presence (yes, it’s another thing I’m doing on top of everything else):
Most guests and potential guests don’t care that we’re an eco resort. I say most because there are definitely some that do (I love them so!), but they’re in the minority. This is because…
The top considerations in booking a holiday will (almost) always be the cost and the hotel’s facilities. Us being an eco resort is the icing on top of the cake – it’s not the cake itself.
What’s my basis for these realizations?
I’ve represented our company at several conferences, including ones on green business, green urbanism, and corporate social responsibility. I came prepared to enthusiastically share the things we’re doing and to learn from other participants. Instead, the Top 2 questions I got were “How much does it cost to stay in your resort?” and “Can I get a discount?”
On our Facebook and Twitter pages, the posts that always get the most “likes” and “shares” are the ones about the scenic views and the luxurious hotel facilities. A sunset photo? Fifty “likes”. A hammock on the beach with a writeup on swaying with the breeze? Seventy “likes”. A feature on our Earth Day cleanup events? I’m lucky to get past 25.
In the questionnaire that our guests fill out before they leave, they hardly ever praise our environmental initiatives. It’s always the service.
Lesson learned:it will never be enough to just be a responsible tourism company. You need to have the better product, better people, and better environmental profile than the other guy if you want to get ahead. Let’s face it: concern for the environment will always be secondary to whether the product works. We’re an eco resort because we believe in it, but our guests aren’t likely to care about that if our waiter messes up their drinks order.