10 Questions About UNTV: Sofitel Manila's GM Speaks

Friday, August 01, 2014

It's been a few days since a boycott has been sparked against Sofitel Manila. The people behind UHF TV Channel 37 or UNTV specifically the BMPI-UNTV Chairman Daniel Razon called on its viewers during the "Good Morning Kuya" program a move to trend a series of hashtags aimed to voice their sentiments on social media as they claim "media discrimination" for a claimed "removal" of their channel in Sofitel's line up. I went to Sofitel a few days ago and asked the General Manager himself Mr. Adam Laker about this; and he gladly answered the toughest questions I could ever find on the internet about this matter. We really haven't heard that much from them and this might get you what you need to know.

According to the recently received press release from UNTV: "The campaign stemmed from the report received by UNTV37 Chief Executive Office, Kuya Daniel Razon, that Hotel Sofitel Manila dropped the station from its channel listings. This, for no apparent reason. This prompted Razon to call on UNTV37 supporters to launch a boycott against the hotel for clear discrimination of the station – a free channel that should be enjoying any and all channel listings in local and cable TV providers."

Amid the controversy and the "No Apparent Reason" UNTV suggests, I asked Mr. Laker the toughest questions I could ever find on the Internet about this matter.

1.) Did Sofitel Manila remove the channel?

"No. In fairness to this, we have never even had it to start with. We have aired UNTV, we did it once that I'm aware of. I've been here a year and a half or two years now. We did air it once as a courtesy when UNTV had a conference with us when the CEO and some of their higher people attending the conference was staying in the hotel. So we were asked that time if we could air the TV channel while they were having the conference in the house. We deemed that as a fairly fair request and obviously we did. We aired it for about a month and we do that with a lot of companies. Any hotel would have, if we have an agreement with Coke for example, we'll have coke throughout the outlets or if we have Pepsi with us and if they asked to put it in on where the delegates were staying in, we would. If it would take the conference a month we'd put Pepsi in the rooms. We did the exact same thing with UNTV. So when the conference was over and the time was finished we then took the channel back off again. 

We were approached by UNTV which was back in December, and we were asked if we would consider having UNTV on a full time basis. It went through our Resident Manager and we emailed them back to ask for the demographics and their clientele, a basic list of their shows and what they produce so we can take a look at them and discuss further. They never came back to us. We saw on blogs lately that it was "demeaning them" by even asking them to dare to ask what their shows were like, but we consider that a fair request.

If you want to put a TV channel on or if you want to present your business if we don't know that much about your channel or your product, let us know like an overview of the station's demographics, who you go out to (audience) which is fairly important to us because obviously we have a lot of clients that come to the hotel both international and local so we try to make sure that the channels that we have reflect their needs, just like any other product. So we did that, and they never came back to us, so we never put the channel back ON on a full time basis. I being in charge of the hotel have never been emailed or called or text or requested to put the channel on or no one has asked me, so we never went out to find the channel to actively put it on. 

If someone wants to work with us, they normally let us know about their product and we select... straight forward. When they said that we "discriminated" them when we removed their channel, that is slightly incorrect because we never really had it on to remove it. We did put it on but it was just for a short period as a courtesy for their conference and then we took them off again. Now if UNTV aired (in their system) years in the past before me, I am not sure but I've asked the staff and none of them can remember it. I have no contract with them to say that it has aired but all I can say is that since I've been part of the property, it hasn't. It only aired for that short period. It wasn't anything against UNTV to take them off but it was simply because, we didn't have it. We do change our channels (the lineup), we'll explain how our TV system works in better detail but just to briefly tell you we have a system which is through a company called ACENTIC. It's a very good system, it's full digital and it's very exciting. We get it beamed in the hotel, we have quite a large selection of channels, more than what we can facilitate. Our system allows us as it's currently set to produce or to air 56 channels. Obviously if you go around the world you can find more than 56 channels, 80-100 without any effort. 

So it means we have to select only 56 channels out of a lot. Now those channels change from time to time, we put on a South Korean channel as our South Korean market is growing. I was asked by tour operators and flight crew to put in some channels from the middle east region because we have lots of flights that come from there (Quatar, Emirates) and so forth. That market is also growing so we adjust the channels and put a couple of those on. The Russian market seems to be growing a little so we put that on too. People ask us to do things and it's a request, and when it makes logical sense we're happy to oblige. But again, I was never asked for UNTV to put in their channel, so I've never actively done it. That's the part about putting them on or taking them off. So that's not really the truth of what they've put forward." says the Sofitel Manila's GM.

2.) What about the "Must Carry Rules" of NTC? 

"There is a rule for that, that is true, but the rule is basically different for hotels. We've got legal clarification to make sure, and we've been told that we are in the right. Basically if we don't charge for the channels and if we're providing them for free and it's not unlike going through an apartment building where you pay a standard fee to get the channels. We get it in as one signal, put it all together and beam it into the rooms. We don't charge anything for the free services we provided, we get to choose what channels will be on. That's the ruling, that's the law. The "Must Carry" rule is slightly different for hotels.  

When we choose the channel, we choose the channels that we think OUR CUSTOMERS want, which we think our customers demographics would benefit from. But also as mentioned before, we also get asked particular channels which tour operators have. We go to our provider and we take a look at the list, if they request a South Korean channel, we'll take out one channel from the existing lineup and put it in. (not unlike digital cable boxes at home). If we see that two channels seem to be similar we take one off and put one on. 

So as we mentioned, we never had UNTV to start with, so we really never took it off, we only had it for that one month. We even had to sacrifice a kid's cartoon channel to put that one in (true story) so we sincerely apologize to the kids and hope they didn't get discriminated (he jokes!) that got affected with that. So that's the best with the channels." says Mr. Adam Laker.

My Attempt To Explain How Their Smart TV Network Works

They showed us how their TV works and basically, this is how I can put it without adding too much technical jargon on it. I hope YOU understand how it works.

A diagram I made to better explain the network.
First, imagine 80 cable boxes. That's one for every channel beamed to their hotel. All these 80 boxes won't fit the ACENTIC box which they use to beam in the rooms. They have to choose only the best 56 channels that they see best for their guests. 

This box also has the feature to be like a Smart TV. This includes select free air TV channels, Cable TV, in house HD Movies, running billing systems, restaurant menu and hotel advisories. This actually uses bandwidth in order to stream it into the rooms.

They only carry a few Philippine channels. No RJTV, No MTV Pilipinas and during this time either (or maybe they have them on other directories) no? I don't hear them saying it's discrimination though.

They have English, French, German Korean and Russian channels.

If you put in more than 56 channels on this system, unfortunately it will hang, and it will not function anymore (not respond at all). You can do it in newer ACENTIC boxes but that would cost thousands of dollars (which nobody might believe they don't have the funds for because this is a free service) and if so they would need a week or a couple of days (lead time) to also do that. Every time they put in a channel (which also takes a couple of days to decide), it basically means having EVERYONE in that entire network to have that channel too. It's not like the digibox you have at home where you can freely edit it. They have to call ACENTIC first and have them do it for the hotel.

3.) What's the issue about the Yaya's getting discriminated?

The lady said on the show I believe that she went to the Executive Lounge and her Yaya wasn't allowed in and her children had to go to bed without a meal and so on and so forth. 

Well the truth of it is, the Executive Lounge is a place to have a drink or two either before or after dinner or before you go anywhere. Obviously, we didn't pick on the Yaya, we didn't say Yaya's weren't allowed in because they were in scrubs... it was simply because we have a hotel policy where children must be looked after in a different location (children's area). It also confuses me how it was said that her children that went to bed without a meal because we have room service 24/7, we also have bars and restaurants downstairs open 24 hours and that location (the Executive Lounge) wouldn't be able to supply meals (as it is a bar meant to only serve liquor, wine and hors d'oeuvres). I don't get the rationale of that statement. Yayas are more than welcome, we have them in there. We never discriminate or pick on them in any way. A lot of people there have yayas, it would be a bit silly of us if we did. It wouldn't make sense. It's a Club floor, not really a restaurant. It's true that we don't really allow children on the club's floor for obvious reasons because it's an elegant and refined area and we may see kids running around as we have another facility that's complimentary for that. 

(My insert: It's also weird that this got included in the issue, totally unrelated to the channels)

4.) What happened with the issue about Senior Citizens?

Obviously we did have a situation with that particular incident with Senior citizens. We've since worked that one out. What that incident was, it was basically the rule which is by the government and DTI that says you can't double discount. So if you're a Senior Citizen you get what is of greater discount, like if you're going into a restaurant or bar and they're offering 10 percent off, well as a Senior Citizen you get 20%. If there's another special that's offering 50% and you get that 50% but you can't add the 20% to it, that's the rule. The loophole was simply that if that person paid fees for a membership then they should be the combined two together. That was the argument. 

We do the same like any other international chain as a membership card, Starworld has them,  Hilton has them, we all do the same thing where we offer the bigger discount. What we had to do was to explain our situation, we explained why we do what we do, sit down and go through it and we resolved it. We're also working with DTI to make a ruling so that all hotels comply with the same rule because obviously it's all up to the interpretation of the hotel. I sit on the board of HRAP (Hotels and Restaurants Association of the Philippines) and all hotels signify they all want to do the same thing, the right thing. That law just had a little bit of a gray area. That hasn't changed and we still follow the same rule, and as mentioned we've already sorted that situation out. So I'm not quite sure how that got looped in with the "not showing UNTV" but apparently it did so I hope I explained that one.    

5.) What are your sentiments about the situation?

Mr. Adam Laker also remarks "With UNTV, I was surprised because I was never contacted before it even started. I was under the belief that we had quite a good relationship with UNTV. We had a few conferences with them, they stayed in the hotel for that period and like I said we put in their channel. We even agreed about a year ago for a photoshoot in the hotel grounds for a program for kids. They even got the tents and we provided them food and drinks compliments of the hotel. Not just the kids because they had supporters, the parents and so on plus an array of photographers free of charge. The reason we did that for free is because we thought we had a good relationship with UNTV because they do conferences once a year and as a gesture of good will. 

I thought that the relationship I thought we had would have at least got me a phone call or text to catch up, have a coffee to talk if it's possible to have our channel in your list but I didn't. Since the incident, I tried to contact them and requested quite a few times for a meeting that's been delayed or denied and the only way I'd be considered was through old school letter, mailed in full letterhead with my signature on it and then they would consider it. I don't quite know who in this day and age would say that but I 'm not quite sure why it would be signed by me but anyway that's why we haven't had the chance. 

But you know, it would be nice, I'll keep trying to set time to sit down and talk. I don't know how it'll pan out over the coming period but I hope the relationship could be nurtured because with the relationship between two companies, that's normally how you get your product be consumed by the consumer if that makes sense. Normally there's a bond, it's not like hey you want to use my product if you don't I'm gonna throw things at you. Normally it's because you have harmony, I'll keep trying, it would be nice. Let's see if we can work something out as we would. We'll see how we progress. 

6.) Have they made an effort to contact you?

I'm not a hard to find person. It doesn't take much to find out who I am or Google to find my name or phone the hotel to get to me and speak with the GM but I have not received one request. I have repeatedly asked back if  we can meet and try to make contact on day 1 but no. It's now day 14/12. I've never met him nor do I have him on speed dial, I've never met the man but we've got their contacts through the people who we deal with during conferences. They set those conditions mentioned earlier, then said they'll consider it. The gentleman that's speaking on TV, I've never met the man.. I tried to open the doors, I'd be more happy to meet. I don't see the benefit from it so I'd be happy to discuss and work something out so it doesn't happen to others in the future. Not to name others but it's not just us who doesn't have UNTV. There's nothing against UNTV but we've got other channels to offer to the customers. If the customers say what they want. If I'm in the wrong or am such a bad person, there's a lot more in the Philippines that would be in the same category. It wouldn't be helpful for the tourism industry, it's not the image that I would have thought we're being nailed at, but what do I know. 

7.) I read something funny, some people are connecting you to the INC, are you? 

Well, it's a bit of a strange. We had discussions with INC for business purposes and it's nothing secret or hidden. With INC they were opening the arena as a massive property, we were asked if we could be one of the hotels to bid for their VIP's to do the catering and we did. Just like anyone that would ask "Would you want to do some catering for X amount of people for this event? Can you give us a quote?" we gave a quotation and that's what we did for them and we ended up not doing it maybe our quote was too much or they got a different supplier. That's business. That's basically it. We have a lot of business connections with A LOT of companies like that, with a lot of people because we are service providers. That is our apparent connection that happened 2 months before the arena was launched and nothing else. You might as well say we're connected with Pepsi, with Coke, with Reebok, we work with a lot of people but we're not connected or a part of a pact. It was just a quote for an outside function. 

8.) Do you think this whole thing is crazy?

Ahm.. Look, my concern is I think it should be dealt with in a different way. I think if he wants the consumer to consume what you provide like this channel, it is done in a different way. I don't see why you would attack somebody some way because they don't use your product. My concern is that it affects my ambassadors, it affects my team, they go home and their friends and stuff ask them about it and why they are doing this... and it's hurtful, it is. I do, I think it's a little bit crazy but it's painful.

9.) Have you thought about pressing charges against them?

I've been told I should, I've got many people say they'll do it for free but at this point I don't see the benefit. I just wanna do my job, I just wanna run a hotel, I just want my team to be left alone. I would rather try and do what I've been doing before. There's two sides that it may happen to somebody else. We should be concentrating on a lot of other things like trying to raise money for typhoon victims that we support through Virlanie Foundation. Like this marathon we're running. We're part of the community, it takes away our name and what we're trying to do with the community with them asking about this. 

10.) Are you killing them with kindness?

I hope. I don't think if someone's being mean to you, you should be mean back. I just hope normal rational sense comes back.

My Opinion:

I hope both sides would take time to sit and talk about it over coffee. 

Generally, trying to mar a private businesses name because they don't have your channel on their system looks quite wrong for me. I know they have people who know how things work in smart TV networks like these, I hope they are the ones who get to explain things to those who wouldn't be able to understand so they wouldn't easily assume discrimination was done. 

The system is limited as you can see, but let's be honest... it's not everyday either that we get to watch programs on UNTV. I like Bread and Butter and the Inter Agency Basketball games I covered in the past but that's just about it. The hotel simply needed to choose based on the needs of their clientele, would you do otherwise if you were in their position? Have you seen other cable channels or free to air channels complain because they're not in the list too? So do we start a nationwide manhunt of other hotels who don't carry those channels too and accuse them of the same discrimination we've heard of? Does it even make sense? I don't think so.

Please think of the countless people affected while this is going on. We should be concentrating on how to work and resolve conflicts and not resort to cyber bullying (as one would probably feel that way), more so if you have influence over a medium so huge like television. Let's start helping each other. It only takes a couple of minutes to talk and clear things up. I hope my readers would at least get to understand both sides now that they've seen this. I only wish the best for both of these companies to find the goodness in their heart as Sofitel's pretty open about it. I hope the public scrutinizes what they read too on silly numbered posts (hence I did one of my own) because honestly, I can find more people and more reasons to love the hotel than to boycott it. Do a charity thing, perhaps you can get together!


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