Marga Montemayor-Nograles: Steering the wheel in tourism promotions

When the Philippines lures potential travelers with underwater photos of marine life and gleaming beaches, there would likely be more interest than it had hoped for.

At the Arabian Travel Mart Dubai last May, the country’s Tourism Promotions Board prudently spent P8 million for the booth at one of the world’s major travel trade shows. In return, the country’s marketing arm gained P1 billion worth of sales leads.

The strengths of its message — international awards such as the world’s leading destination for diving and beaches — and the enthusiastic sales team helped the Philippine booth to stand out in the trade show despite the modest budget and the competition for visitors.

Seeing the heightened interest in the Middle East, TPB chief operating officer Maria Margarita “Marga” Montemayor Nograles has been using her knowledge as a fashion retailer in developing marketing strategies to bring in more tourists. After 18 months in her post, Marga has made a list of improvements in the TPB and increased its productivity.

“We are realigning, organizing and setting the purpose of what we are doing and why we are doing.  The team is working closely more than ever.  Because of that, our numbers are better. We are more inspired and excited to work,” says the TBP COO.

Davao exposure

Born and raised in Davao, Marga was exposed to the travel industry from her mother, Mary Ann “Baby” Maceda Montemayor who set up a hotel and was president of the Davao Tourism Association and a member of Skål International.

“She and her Davao group broke their backs to promote Davao when nobody cared, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” recalls Marga. 

Montemayor had since become Mindanao representative of the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises of the Department of Trade and Industry and is in charge of the MICE (meetings, incentive, conventions, exhibitions) of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines.

Ahead of her time, Montemayor grabbed attention when she sported jackets made from woven fabrics of the Mandaya and T’boli peoples. The modern usage of traditional fabrics drew interest in our weaving traditions.  In 2017, Kaayo clothing line was set to help a mother-and-daughter weaving team from Lake Sebu.

In fashion retail, Marga started out as a women’s buyer for Paul Smith in Greenbelt 5 and frequently went to Paris for buying trips. After four years with the brand, she became an entrepreneur and exclusive distributor of Havaianas in southeast Mindanao. She has been running it for 20 years. Her region posted the highest sales per square meter. Using her business savvy, she professionalized the operations and the merchandising of Kaayo.

“Mom and I wanted to Filipinos to love our products. They are not too expensive. Mom would talk to the tribes and showed how we should respect them. Mom worked with them all her life. There was trust. Most important was that we are working towards a sustainable livelihood for them,” says Marga. 

Joining government

Between fashion and family, Marga was the proverbial power spouse behind the man’s success. When her husband, Karlo Nograles was congressman, she headed the Congressional Spouses Foundation, Inc. for Mindanao.

She has continued to be the supportive wife from when he was Cabinet member in President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration and now chairman of the Civil Service Commission.

In 2022, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco invited Marga to join government. During her term as mayor of Liloan in Cebu, Frasco frequently wore Kaayo. If she liked a style, she bought it in different colors.  The politician was impressed that Kaayo had evolved not only as an aspirational brand but as a social enterprise that supported indigenous weavers. Kaayo had developed a strong following that bought its clothes and accessories knowing that their purchase would help underserved communities.

“I had never worked in government before, but Sec (Frasco) said, ‘You are more prepared than anyone I know.’ She believed in me. I said I will give my best to you, the President and the country,” says Marga. “She was right. I realized that my work has been what I had been doing all my life.”

Upon her government appointment, Marga turned over Kaayo to her team. Elvira “Tootsie” Angara has been helping in the marketing and the design particularly from the indigenous groups of Cordilleras.

 “She wanted to celebrate their weaves by incorporating them into our collection,” says Marga.

Kaayo’s sales at Greenbelt 5 and the showroom in Robinsons Magnolia have been healthy.  Angara’s collection of indigenous handwoven hearts sewn onto shirts are very salable.

Marga Nograles promotes community-based tourism.

Initial vision

Marga has been concentrating on TPB, which, she says, is blessed with a committed team. Her initial vision was to grease the wheels. As a result, TPB was recently acknowledged as one of the most improved agencies according to the Governance Commission for Government-Owned or Controlled Corporations. TPB got a thumbs up for its transparency in the budget and how it was used wisely, the liquidation status of its foreign offices, advertising and promotions budget and its returns and contribution to tourism arrivals. 

Tourism is an important economic driver in the country which contributes 6.2 percent to the GDP. The Department of Tourism set a target of 4.8 million arrivals in 2023. By yearend, the arrivals are expected to reach over 5 million. 

Marga attributes the statistics to the relationship building and reaching to the world and around the Philippines.

Another advancement is the enhanced Travel Philippines app, which addresses frequently asked questions about the Philippines and how to get there.

“Europeans feel it’s far away. With this app, you can see snippets from 17 regions, done in partnership with the regional directors. They tell us the most unique experience in their regions. What you are selling is in the app. You go to the app and it will lead you to your tour guide who will craft your itinerary. Focus is important,” says Marga.

As the world emerged from the pandemic, TPB strengthened its presence in major travel trade shows such as the World Travel Mart in London and ITB Berlin. 

Like the rest of the travel industry, TPB aims to strengthen the promotion of the Philippines as a MICE destination. “We are strong in creativity and are experienced in taking care of big groups. The MICE tourist spends as much as four times than the average tourist,” she says. 

Then again, Marga will continue with her first passion project, community-based tourism. This was inspired by Kaayo, which uses fashion and culture as tourism motivators.

“TPB has strong support for indigenous programs. I set up B2B (business to business) meetings in some communities. Brand builders and designers went to create collections or act as mentors while they promoted destinations,” she says.

Designer Puey Quiñones met weavers around Lake Sebu. Students of SoFA Design Institute crafted project plans to promote destinations and visited Iloilo. Designers Avel Bacudio and Mark Bumgarner went to the Cordilleras where the latter drew inspiration for his gown for Miss Universe Philippines Michelle Dee.

“We can’t jump into another project until we see the post-event report. In any project, you have to see it through and finish before you start something else,” she says. “We are more aligned this way.”

Marga credits Sec. Frasco for keeping the TPB on its toes. “She taught us to strive for excellence in everything that we do.  She is very thorough. She asks what is the purpose of what we are doing. At end of the day, we want to give livelihood to Filipinos.”