Lessons learned from two Filipino business owners about dealing with the pandemic

by Ricky Rillera

Joebert Opulencia, president and chairman of Pacific-Asia Travel Association (PATA) | Photo via Facebook

NEW YORK – The pandemic disruptions did not affect all small businesses equally. Some were deemed essential and remained open, while others were required to close. Some businesses shifted to remote work, while others were ill-equipped for the transition.

According to a survey conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA (PNAS) on the impact of COVID-19 on small business outcomes and expectations, “Restaurateurs believed that they had a 74% chance of survival if the crisis lasts 1 month, but if the crisis lasts 4 months, they gave themselves a 29% chance of survival. Under a 6-month crisis, they expected to survive with only a 19% probability. Likewise, the chance of survival for firms in tourism and lodging drops to 25% by the 6-month mark. Meanwhile, banking and finance, real estate, and professional services reported they will be able to weather extended disruptions far better than those more exposed sectors.”

Although the data gathered in the survey included general sampling from the ten most populous states and included the share of small businesses in the Economic Census within each state, such as New York, the results were not specific to a particular race or race-ethnicity. Suffice it to say that, in general terms, AAPI businesses were included in that survey.

Filipino small business owners, although in a smaller segment as an ethnic group, had their experiences and challenges, too. Restaurants, grocery owners, health and beauty, personal services, and event planners, including firms in travel and tourism, seemed particularly vulnerable to an extended crisis. And as this series on Filipino business owners found, a generational gap played a role in dealing with the crisis to keep their business operational. In addition, seasoned business owners with “business instinct” compared to less experience were factors in how technology had difficulty pacing itself with the competition. But, other “seasoned business owners” that also applied their “business instinct” prevailed.

But as this story of two business owners unfolds, a businessman with extensive experience in the hotel and tourism industry and a visionary businesswoman with nearly 12 years of experience, we’ll see what lessons can be learned from the pandemic.

Joebert Opulencia of OrienTours Co. Ltd. (New York) and USA & Orientours Co. Ltd.

Joebert Opulencia | Contributed Photo

Joebert Opulencia, the owner of Orientours Co., Ltd. (New York), founded the company in 1987. It managed group travel for many US, Canadian, and Mexican organizations, including Fortune 500 companies and their subsidiaries. He founded another company in 1992, USA & Orientours Co., Ltd., that serviced clients visiting the USA, Canada, and Mexico and groups going to Latin and Central America, Europe, and the Middle East.

He gained business insight while working in the hotel industry for ten years. “I just switched tables after learning the hotel trade which helped me a lot in establishing both tour companies,” he said. “I have been in the tourism industry for more than 40 years and I love it.”

He said his two companies were affected during the pandemic since “incentive groups (companies that sponsor their employees’ trips to attend meetings, conferences and exhibitions in return for excellent professional performance from individual employees, groups or partners) , which is our primary type of business, stopped. No companies were doing incentive travel. Instead, they were giving cash incentives,” which made “money” as his main competitor.

Financially, his companies were hit, but its long-term effect was somehow mitigated with a stable financial portfolio, which he had before the pandemic. “Health was the biggest problem because it was torturing everyone mentally and physically,” he said.

Lesson learned

Joebert’s most important lesson from the pandemic is making quick but positive decisions. “I became a clever ‘risk taker,'” he said.

Joebert Opulencia in Thailand for Sports Tourism | Photo via Facebook
Celebrating Pacific Asia Travel Association’s 60th Anniversary with PATA chairman and president (New York) Joebert Opulencia and other PATA officers | Photo via Facebook

Somehow, Joebert found himself lucky. In December 2019, he moved his office to another location and rented a one-room office. Since they were handling group tours and had no walk-in clients, he allowed his staff to work remotely and found it very productive. He asked his staff to have virtual meetings with him and their clients three times a week. To keep himself “sane,” he met friends in the industry and exchanged ideas and the latest “updates.” He also started busying himself with several associations in which he was a member. As a result, he became the chairman and president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) and a director of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association (MPA).

He said he applied for the paycheck protection program through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to help his business.

His clientele is limited to pharmaceutical companies that sponsor their clients’ trips to the USA and Canada, attending medical meetings, conventions, and conferences. His American clients travel to Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and Colombia for outbound tours. On the inbound side of the trade, he considers Turkey one of his sources for group tours from pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and financial companies.

At present, he said, multi-generation family travelers and millennial travelers are popular. “We have concentrated on attracting these types of clients while we wait for incentive groups to be popular again.”

When asked if he had any plans for expanding the business, he was happy with what he has now. “I don’t intend to pick up a stone to hit my head. Expansion is great, but it takes much time, effort, and money to succeed.”

Because of the nature of his business due to different time zones, he works extended hours. “I make sure that I am awake when clients call or need immediate reply to a request. My being available even during unholy hours has helped us a lot in having clients use our services for years. We offer them things that are not offered by big travel corporations.”

Joebert had a 9 to 5 job for two years when he came to the US. He said he was never happy with it but had to have it to save money. “The money I saved, I used to open my companies. I love challenges and a 9 to 5 job will not be enough to face these challenges.”

Ivie Joy of Ivie Joy Floral Arts + Events

Ivie Joy | Photo via Facebook

In contrast, Ivie Joy, a young entrepreneur, founded her company, Ivie Joy Floral Arts + Events, in 2012, as a retail florist providing artistic arrangements and wedding decor. She founded the company intending to use her passion to create art through floral and design. She left the Philippines when she was 16 and had always dreamt of having her mark in New York.

Her company flourished, and her clients include Vogue, Charlotte Tilbury, celebrities, Wall Street Hotel, and several others. During the pandemic, the event industry was heavily impacted. She said for three months, there was a lot of uncertainty.

“I was lucky that I didn’t have any loans for my business, and I had cash flow saved up, but it was still emotionally stressful,” Ivie said. “My son was two-and-a-half years old then, and spending time with him was the silver lining of the pandemic. It taught me that anything could happen and that patience and resilience with a lot of flexibility to adjust to any circumstance is a must as an entrepreneur.”

“I have always been willing to work hard and have the discipline to look forward. I have learned that as a business owner, the humility to keep learning from others is a must,” said Ivie. “Time management to balance work and family is necessary for mental and emotional health.”

Ivie Joy creates floral designs for weddings and receptions held outdoors or indoors | Photo via Facebook
Ivie Joy saw a garden opportunity to pivot instead of relying on her floral design and event planning skills that temporarily stopped during the pandemic. It allowed her to expand her product line | Photo via Facebook

She adds that the business is growing faster than expected, and they have expanded to create branding looks and activation experiences for different projects.

Pivot from a floral studio to become a plant shop.

She used the government assistance she received to pivot from a floral studio to become a plant shop. “I bought a cart of plants to test it out, and people went crazy,” she said. “After two weeks, it became six carts, then a month-and-a-half later, it allowed me to open a more extensive shop.” She started specializing in shipping out rare plants all over the US and became a top seller on Facebook Groups in the US.

The shift to having a plant shop happened while businesses started to open in New York, but the event world was still closed. She saw a garden opportunity to pivot instead.

To succeed in business, she considers building a relationship with others as the key that became her strength. Besides creating a network, she surrounded herself with a solution-oriented team to deliver the highest standard of products and services that worked wonders for her business.

Dream big, invest in yourself, do not give up, and be humble

Regarding technology, she said she loves it. “My associates are tech geniuses in setting our designs and logistics to success,” said Ivie. “I have a team of 60 more people, who are producers, fabricators, floral designers, production assistants, and drivers, depending on the size of projects we take to produce.”

She admits she is a natural workaholic, but the pandemic taught her the most crucial role. “I am, above all, a mom. It can be daunting, but the joy I get from spending time with my son and family inspires me as an artist and a businesswoman.”

As a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman, she was asked what advice she could give young people thinking of putting up their businesses. She said: “Dream big and follow through. Invest in yourself to build the life you envision. Do not give up, be humble and ask for help when needed. The most magical experiences come from learning from the mistakes you will encounter along the way. Surround yourself with happy people who love what they do; they are the best and most productive that will bring your business to new heights.”

This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

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