Life Lessons From Manila Conference Rooms

Sometimes you have to make the best out of a bad situation. 

The eruption of the Taal volcano coincided perfectly with our arrival in the Philippines. The ash and toxins in the air forced us to cancel our planned outdoor activities. But that didn’t stop the GIP group from touring Manila’s finest corporate conference rooms. There was plenty of time during the PowerPoint presentations to find inspiration from the four walls around us.  

Live Your Principles:  Jollibee is the ubiquitous fast-food chain in the Philippines and perhaps the only Filipino brand well-known outside the country. Their conference room had all the utility and charm of a middle-school cafeteria. Their executives told us that their corporate culture valued frugality and efficiency and they demonstrated that with a distinct lack of pretension. In fact, the only way they showed off was with their food; everyone received a box of spaghetti and fried chicken. Much better than school lunch. 

The Journey Is More Important Than The Destination:  The headquarters of the Ayala Corporation stares down on the Makati district from a skyscraper with their name on it. It’s only appropriate; Ayala built Makati and the streets are named after the company’s founders. As a real estate developer, Ayala is selling aspiration and the long route to their conference room projects that. In order to get there, you have to cross the marble lobby, take an elevator to another, more intimate lobby, find another glass-enclosed elevator to the top, then go down a dark, plush hallway to a sleek, modern room with a killer view.  

Rebel Against Authority: Ayala Corporation has a venture capital arm and is investing in a fin-tech startup called Mynt which makes an app called GCash. Even though the company comes from the same corporate line as Ayala, the conference room has the opposite aesthetic.  A temporary room with pop-up banners behind a Gold’s Gym. It says: we’re so busy innovating that we gave no thought to anything as mundane as windows and decorations. 

Let Your Passion Guide You: The Moment Group is a restaurant innovator in Manila and they hosted us in their test kitchen. Yes, there was a PowerPoint and speeches, but it was hard to concentrate. All through the presentation, chefs in the same room were cooking our lunch and putting out plates of sisig and bowls of sinigang with watermelon, skewers of chicken inasal and grilled prawns. The message was food always comes first.  

Take A Moment To Look Around: The Phinma group hosted us in their skyscraper in the Rockwell district. We heard from the former secretary of tourism, Mon Jinemz, talking about his viral advertising campaign “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” The room was all windows and views. Looking out over metropolitan Manila, we could imagine all the fun sights and adventures we were missing while we did an MBA tour of conference rooms. Exactly the point of his talk. Even daydreaming is more fun in the Philippines. And, as if on cue, we left for the beaches of Boracay right afterward.  

The greatest conference room of all. The view from our hotel in Boracay.

Robert Smith is a 2020 MBA candidate at Columbia Business School

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