Pivoting to Revive the Hospitality Industry

Jennifer Ong of HAPA Group is no ordinary person. A truly charismatic and magnetic leader, she exudes a radiant zest for life and uplifts others with her energy. A visionary entrepreneur proving time and again that she has the power to adapt to uncertainty, she possesses the agility of a change management master, passionately lobbying for the cause of the Malaysian hospitality and food and beverage industry while witnessing herself deeply transforming and evolving into achieving her dreams of being host of her very own talk show and producer of leading-edge digital content. To top it all off, she is also a devoted single mother who adores her three children.

BusinessToday talks to Jennifer about how she has weathered the most trying time that has shut down economies and brought about devastating loss to so many of us and how she has emerged triumphant in this pivotal journey towards digital transformation, paving the way for others to do the same.

Trade Magazine Magnate

If you are in the hospitality and F&B circle, you will know Jennifer Ong as the remarkable HAPA Group founder for the last 27 years. Since 1994, together with her late husband, Stevens Ernest, they connected industry players, namely the hoteliers and retailers, with manufacturers, distributors and suppliers, through a media publishing platform which they first named E&O Media Asia then later changed to HAPA Group, producing 10 trade magazine titles such as Hospitality Asia magazine and Retail World Asia magazine.

Things changed when Jennifer lost her husband 21 years ago and she had to helm the publication business on her own. Sadly, several magazine titles had to go while having to downsize due to financial necessity.

However, in the years to come later,  she  put all her energy into running the business by herself and focused on ways to uplift and serve the hospitality industry not only in Malaysia but also regionally. In 2002 onwards, she started various projects that led the HAPA brand to become a leader in setting industry standards by organising the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards (HAPA) on a regional scale first in Singapore , and then on to Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The HAPA awards is an event that not only hailed the superstars of the hospitality world, but also the unsung heroes in hospitality, recognising exemplary service of front office, housekeeping and concierge staff. The HAPA Awards have been described as the “Oscars of Hospitality” and set the benchmark for overall quality and service standards for  hospitality in this region.

All this was happening almost two decades ago. As the business developed in recognising talent and awarding great service and offerings in the industry, the next step was to provide training in customer service best practices, which was fuelled by the even greater need for higher standards of customer service in the region. Thus, Jennifer created the HAPA Academy, conducting Mindset and Service Excellence training aimed at raising the bar in the hospitality and service sectors. This was where her passion in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) comes in, to drive sustainable change management  through transforming attitude and mindset towards service excellence. This year, Jennifer created The MIND Academy to focus mainly on NLP certifications, training and coaching using NLP techniques and NLP education programmes for schools, colleges and universities. To date, her programmes and coaching are all about mindset change and transforming limiting beliefs, in alignment  with her own passion for learning and mastery as NLP Trainer and Coach for  fifteen certifications in  NLP- Certified Trainer of NLP, Time Line Therapy(R) , Hypnosis and NLP Coaching.

Website Development as First Step towards Digitalisation

From 2008, Jennifer recalls starting the daunting task of organizing and uploading digital copies of her physical publications online onto a website to archive HAPA’s journey thanks to her previous team back then.

“I made sure that I archived everything. I had a copy of all my magazines, whatever photos and what not that we can archive, everything was sorted and put into our storage. So when we put the website together, it was far easier, less challenging, because we had a lot of content and materials with us at that time.”

During those years, Jennifer never thought that she would fully adopt to having her publications go completely digital until the magazines went regional, and suddenly printing  and distributing magazines became too costly. She decided to stop print copies and just maintain distribution within Malaysia and Singapore until last year and that was how  the  website was born, where readers could access copies of any issue of HAPA publications online. The current www.HAPA.asia website is now a  comprehensive and interactive platform filled with so much history , industry events and future potential, covering everything in the HAPA world, including her very latest and exciting productions to come in the world of digital media.

Pivoting in the Pandemic

Fast-forward to the year 2020: Jennifer found herself along with the rest of the world fighting the new normal which was closing in at an alarming rate with rising Covid cases daily, while safety restrictions  impacted the world of hospitality , entertainment and F&B dining heavily. Her usual business of connecting  and helping the industry with her publications  and events lost their relevance not only in print but also along with the industry players who were struggling to stay afloat as the hospitality sector was devastatingly affected due to travel and movement controls and closed borders. During those initial  Covid lockdown weeks in March 2020, on behalf of the F&B industry, she found herself being a voice for the F&B owners community by sharing concerns and seeking clarity on SOPs that were imposed then.

However, after a while she came to realise that she needed to get her own business in order and help herself stay relevant during the uncertainty and losses slowly affecting so many.

“I come from a very traditional business, as you know, I do print media, I do physical awards, I do physical events, and I do physical training. And I have absolutely NO DIGITAL PRESENCE other than the website. So then reality sort of hit me about the state of my own income, and it was then that I started looking into getting myself into the digital space.”

With some tech savvy advice from her friend Jonathan Quek, co-founder of Owners Circle, she started offering online mindset courses on Zoom at first to find some sanity of purpose while guiding people in dealing with the depressing effects of the lockdown. She offered what she called  the Mind Warrior Mindset Bootcamp, where she would coach her participants for an hour every day for 30 days. 15 people showed up diligently on the Zoom platform everyday without fail and followed through with her exploring 30 different life skills each day as she coached them towards shifting their challenges into opportunities.

“I transformed myself in those  30 days, digitally, first time ever. That’s helped me to remove my fear-I’ve always had fear in talking to a camera and looking into the laptop camera. It felt awkward to not know who I’m talking to in front of an inanimate camera.

“The online journalling and meditation we did was a huge breakthrough for me. To do something online was one thing but to conduct journaling and meditation online for 30 days for someone who has never had digital presence is something else!” she exclaims with fervour.

From her first eye-opening foray into the world of virtual trainings, she recalls how Jonathan challenged her to do something unique with her online offerings instead of add on to the already burgeoning world of virtual trainings as a result of the pandemic.

“I left the awards aside because the industry was collapsing already. I left the events aside because we couldn’t have physical events. But my next focus was the media. So at that time, how was I going to keep my brand? I started watching how everybody’s doing live shows on Facebook and Instagram, so I decided to try that out and subscribe to Streamyard.” Streamyard is an online streaming platform where she hosted live interviews with F&B personalities locally and regionally.

While she was getting busy tinkering with Streamyard, one of her digital mentors and old friend, MDEC vice-president for tech ecosystems and globalisation, Gopi Ganesalingam, also began urging her to go digital and to do it fast.

Determined to improve on her digital skills by learning about live video streaming , increasing her social media skills, and acknowledging that a digital platform is the way to keep the HAPA brand relevant and sustainable, HAPA TV and JENN TV were created in June 2020 on social media. Jennifer collaborated with  CP Saw from Cloud Events, a digital media company, to provide the tools and digital expertise for her to produce  her shows.

“After I created HAPA TV (via Streamyard), and after agreeing to start JENN TV with Cloud Events, then the conversation about transforming the magazine into the online channel came along. Then I decided to run the Hospitality Asia Channel on HAPA TV since I’ve already started HAPA TV on FaceBook”

HAPA TV is an online TV Channel that provides digital content on hospitality, F&B, retail and tourism. After 26 years of publishing Hospitality Asia, the regional trade magazine, Jennifer  maintained but shifted  the publication’s purpose by providing content via a dedicated online TV channel showcasing inspiring stories and reviews on hotels, restaurants, bars, retail and tourism establishments, as well as interviews with entrepreneurs, leaders and passionate chefs who are constantly reinventing themselves to thrive in their various industries.

In talking about JENN TV, she says “It’s more than an online channel. It’s a digital platform for passionate content creators with a purpose. It’s an educational space for young individuals to be groomed in broadcasting.” JENN TV is a Digital TV Channel that produces talk shows to educate, empower and inspire. Producers create content with passionate presenters to produce and host their own shows by sharing life experiences that will impact lives and for voicing out honest and unbiased views about the realities of living. It is also a platform for teens who are passionate and determined to pursue their entrepreneurial and broadcasting journey, and to share knowledge and experiences for peer to peer empowerment. Jennifer’s very own talk show, called “Hold  That Thought” features inspiring women and empowerment stories currently campaigning ‘The Future is Female’ theme.

On September 8, 2020, “TASTED!”, a food tasting series on HAPA TV was launched to showcase a new take on food critiquing of KL restaurants and reviewing the quality of home delivery food, a fast growing industry, necessitated by the Covid lockdown. Jennifer invited those from the entertainment industry such as Papi Zak and Joanne Kam to join her in reviewing food delivered to their homes for an entertaining twist.

In addition to keeping up with food reviews , HAPA organised a successful virtual hospitality and tourism summit in April 2021 on the website and HAPA TV Facebook page via the Hospitality Asia Channel. Jennifer decided to start this initiative in organising a 3-Day Virtual Tourism Summit to gather industry and thought leaders for dialogue sessions to uncover new strategies to revive the country’s tourism industry. The key objectives were to discuss and share new ideas and strategies as well as possible solutions to revive Malaysia’s tourism industry  that will help restore people’s confidence in visiting local tourism online sites and to brand Malaysia as one of the ‘Top of the Mind Eco Tourism Destinations of the World’. Tony Fernandes, Yasmin Yusuf and Freda Liu were among the 36 speakers consisting of industry leaders, association presidents and entrepreneurs on their panel, to inspire and align leaders in crafting solutions to problems, introduce new strategies and add value to the industry during the crisis.

Motivation and Drive to Transform

In retrospect, Jennifer says she has undergone significant inner transformation alongside the digital transformation taking place in her business. Within these last two years she feels so much gratitude despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

“I refuse to let Covid rob me of the business I worked so hard to build up. I was determined to continue being creative and to find a silver lining, which the digital world has given me the opportunity to do.”

Moving forward ever so fast, she has plans to write a book next year, inspired by her daughter Zara, in sharing her exciting adventures as she navigates the ups and downs of her professional and personal life.

Jennifer is indeed a self-made woman in business who truly inspires and leads with heart. At the end of the day, all that she does is for her family, her beloved children who are her source of inspiration and motivation to adapt and she hopes that they will one day embrace her legacy and  become powerful influencers of change.

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