Eskaya Beach Resort bets big on rebound in Bohol tourism

Eskaya Beach Resort bets big on rebound in Bohol tourism
Everything is grand at the presidential villa, including its private infinity pool.

Almost two years since a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Bohol in October 2013, tourism, one of the island province's lifeblood, is still down compared to its heyday in 2012.

But this hasn't stopped the Lim family, owners of high-end Eskaya Beach Resort and Spa on Panglao Island off Bohol, from expanding the attraction by investing an additional P150 million (S$4.4 million).

With a new and bigger "eco-friendly" airport set to be built on Panglao (Panglao is connected to mainland Bohol by a small bridge), the province's tourism industry has reasons to feel optimistic.

The Lim family's decision to expand also stems from the fact that, unlike not a few small players in Bohol, Eskaya appeals to a high-end clientele.

As long as there are people who are willing to pay its rates, it doesn't need volume. The resort can survive on a handful of guests on extended stays.

After making an initial P200-million investment in 2007, Richard Lim Sr., who first made a fortune in salt and cement trading, and wife Phoebe opened Eskaya's first phase in 2009 consisting of 15 Filipino-inspired villas with semi-outdoor bathrooms designed by architect Bobby Mañosa.

Three of the couple's four sons-Ralph, Richard Jr. and Rex-have since joined the family enterprise.

Instead of families, Eskaya tries to appeal to couples, especially honeymooners. Depending on the season, the cheapest couple's villa can set you back by $500 a night (S$664).

A so-called infinity villa with its own postcard-pretty infinity pool facing the sea is priced at $800 a night, while the lone two-bedroom presidential suite with a central living room costs $3,200 a night.

Since one of Eskaya's main come-ons is its exclusivity, each thatched-roof villa has its own Jacuzzi and mini swimming pool apart from the resort's huge infinity pool near its Filipino-Asian restaurant dubbed Lantawan.

It also operates Handuraw, an exclusive world-class spa offering all sorts of massages, beauty treatments and pampering services.

Since it opened a few years ago, Eskaya has been luring in highflyers from all over the Philippines and abroad, including businessmen, politicians and celebrities.

Fifty per cent of Eskaya's market consists of wealthy Filipinos, OFWs and balikbayans. It has also been attracting a considerable number of Korean, Japanese, American and Russian guests.

"At the risk of sounding like snobs, we often had to turn away walk-in patrons to preserve the privacy of our checked-in guests," said Richard Lim Jr., Eskaya's managing director. "We're simply mindful of our guests and our promise to give them exclusivity."

Unlike most hotels, which equally draw their revenues from rooms and F&B outlets, Eskaya generates a huge chunk of its income from its villas.

"Lantawan exists solely to cater to our guests," said Lim. "It hardly caters to walk-ins. Around 85 per cent of our revenues come from our villas."

Eskaya's second phase, which will open before the year ends, consists of a cluster of nine villas, a gym, putting green, tennis courts and yoga room. Mañosa's architectural team will again be on board to design the property and work with a new interior designer.

From 90 square meters, the new villas will have a floor area of 12,090 sqm. Instead of a studio-type layout that was typical of Eskaya's old villas, the new ones have a small receiving area to allow guests, especially Filipinos, to entertain visitors and bring their kids.

"When this new development opens, we will have a total of 24 villas available to guests," said Lim. "Since we have also started positioning Eskaya as a wedding destination, that would mean access to more villas for the couple and their guests."

Both developments occupy barely four hectares of Eskaya's 16-hectare property. The family has yet to finalize plans for its idle land.

Depending on tourism developments here and abroad, the family has the option to build more villas, said Lim, or "unloading" a considerable portion of the property and investing the proceeds to buy and develop a site elsewhere in the Philippines.

Another option is to sell villas to frequent visitors, including foreigners. Eskaya will still manage these villas and market them to other guests.

As owners, investors will earn a certain percentage of the profits, plus an annual 60-day stay in their respective villas provided they book in advance.

"We've been considering the idea ever since we saw the demand," said Lim. "This arrangement is designed to appeal to Russians and other long-staying guests from Europe."

The concept is not to be confused with timesharing wherein different owners own the same villa. Timesharing runs counter to Eskaya's thrust of appealing to the upper crust.

"We plan to sell villas and manage these for them," said Lim. "It's similar to what some high-end resorts like Banyan Tree and the Aman group do."

After a stint in his parents cement business back in college, the Ateneo de Manila-educated Lim now devotes most of his waking hours at Eskaya.

Since he has learned a great deal in the hospitality business, Lim, 28, also plans to impart Eskaya's brand of service to interested establishments in need of the company's experience and management expertise.

"A number of new resorts and even those that have yet to be built have started to approach us," he said. "We're still in the drawing board. But our vision is to duplicate the image and brand of service we have right now in other places."

Before the earthquake hit, not a few hotels in Bohol have been enjoying an average occupancy rate of close to 90 per cent. Because Eskaya prefers quality to quantity, its occupancy rate even then was around 60 to 65 per cent.

In the disaster's wake, almost every hotel and resort in Bohol saw its occupancy rates plunging overnight to 35 per cent. It has since inched its way to 45 per cent, but it's still nowhere near figures generated during Bohol's happy days.

"In a way, catering exclusively to a high-end market, saved us," said Lim. "2014 was one of the worst years in Bohol tourism. In fact, a number of small, family-owned establishments have already closed."

Eskaya, which derived its name from Bohol's only indigenous people, was a product of Lim's parents' vision to put Bohol on the global tourism map. Before it became a tourist magnet, the province had very little industry to speak of, he said.

"Like typical rural folks who have done well in Manila, my parents wanted to give something back to their home province," said Lim. "Before Eskaya, our family had no experience in the hospitality business."

Since the couple loved to travel, they drew inspiration from exclusive resorts they visited in Bali and Phuket. They felt that Bohol had more to offer the world than these two world-class attractions.

"The only difference was, these places invested heavily in infrastructure and had ample government support," said Lim.

Also, Bali and Phuket each had their own airports.

"Well, Panglao, including the rest of Bohol, will soon have its own airport. And we're pretty excited by this development," he said.


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