Insights From Balikbayan Reunions and Traveling in the Philippines
by Chiqui Escareal-Go
 
December and January are popular months of the year for weddings and therefore, homecomings and reunions.  The cool weather this time of the year is usually best for travel as there is truly no place like the Philippines in celebrating events and  fiestas – like the Panagbenga of Baguio, the Sinulog of Cebu and the Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo.
 
Most balikbayans who do come home for reunions or events also often choose to do special trips while already here, either to visit their ancestral homes and long-lost relatives or to check out recommendations of friends in social media who have shared enviable photos of historical places visited or Philippine sunsets and beaches.
 
A good friend from high school, Cynthia came home from the US for my daughter’s wedding.  She shared her itinerary, which covered Bataan, Ilocos, Coron, and Cebu in less than 3 weeks.  Of course, she and her husband Emil were also able to fit in a wedding, several reunion lunches and dinners with former classmates and relatives in between.  While Cynch came home briefly to attend to family matters in 2001 and 2010, this was their first planned vacation after 26 years of being away!
 
I was amazed on how they were able to do practically everything they wanted to do in this well-deserved vacation of theirs.  As I followed their homecoming journey via their Facebook documentation, I was able to cull some insights on what makes it possible (or easier) for our balikbayans to maximize time, energy and resources while enjoying both the old and the new things their country of birth can offer.
 
1. If you can (and I mean, if you are willing to brave the traffic), borrow a car and drive yourselves around so you don’t have to wait for family to do this.  Emil fearlessly drove around Manila and to Bagac and nearby places while Cynch navigated using Google maps and a handy pocket wifi.  How many balikbayans can drive around Metro Manila traffic and still have a smile on their faces?  Driving themselves around also enabled them to have side trips along the way.  So… have car and pocket-wifi, can drive anywhere and surprise yourselves.
2. If you can’t drive, there are already several tour operators who can pick you up from home, travel at night so you can sleep and be ready for the tour the next day.  Emil and Cynch hired a van and a driver to bring them around in Ilocos and since this was an exclusive tour which gave them flexibility, they were able to visit Cynch’s ancestral home in La Union, which was not on the itinerary.  How cool is that?
3. Make sure reunions are held in convenient locations for those coming from the north and the south, while adjusting to the balikbayans’ home or hotel location.  But since Emil had a car and wifi, location was set to make it easier for all to meet halfway.  BGC seems to be the new acceptable half-way point for everyone.
4. Choose to celebrate the familiar, and they will come -  comfort food like Elar’s lechon, tortang talong, fried lumpia with vinegar, sisig and sinampalukang manok, was part of the attraction of coming home, not to mention the company of old-time friends who laugh at the same jokes and memories, and who all got excited with the hostess’ gift of Rufina Patis. The patis alone deserved a selfie post as we haven’t seen this brand for a long time.
 
From a marketing execution perspective, we find that there are critical enablers as in making things happen fluidly and conveniently for Filipinos who come from abroad.  Clearly, the internet has provided the infrastructure for information that makes planning and coordination easier.  Messaging is now all via viber or FB such that there is no longer need to use local SIM cards as one just needed to load a pocket wi-fi (and therefore have unlimited access to Google Maps and Facebook for last minute crowdsourcing tips.  Of course, one can also use a local SIM card on a smartphone for Uber or Grab, if you can borrow or have an extra smartphone). Even travel agencies can adjust to what people post on social media as food and places to see have been hash-tagged and geo-located and decisions where to go or what to eat are dependent on the number of likes or hearts.
 
These are all opportunities waiting to be tapped -  car rentals , exclusive tours for both heritage and food, on-the-spot tour drivers-for-hire, wifi services, even location services of where to meet up or where to buy a charger cord so the digital camera is fully charged (yes, people who travel leave these things behind sometimes).
 
Not to be taken for granted, are the personal connections that are beyond technology and here is where providing experience and memories through exceptional service of drivers, tour guides, and waiters can come through.
 
These are all good for the Philippine tourism industry, and also definitely good for the Filipino soul.
 
 
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Chiqui Escareal-Go is the CEO and Chief Service Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders, Inc., the only advocacy-based training and consultancy firm focused on marketing, sales, strategy and innovation. For feedback, write to
mentors@mansmith.netor log on to www.mansmith.net for more information.