Meet Hanky Lee, the visionary behind The Henry hotels 2
The Henry Hotel cofounder Hanky Lee. Photo by Paul del Rosario

This Yellow Cab cofounder is now running one of the PH’s most admired boutique hotel chains

Hanky Lee went from making Yellow Cab a household name to saving The Henry from being a Covid casualty
RHIA GRANA | Mar 19 2023

When ANCX first featured Henry “Hanky” Lee III, the visionary and founder of the award-winning The Henry boutique hotels, it was back in 2018 when there were only two establishments under the brand—The Henry Manila and The Henry Cebu. The serial entrepreneur admits he then had lofty plans for the business, envisioning a steady expansion all over the Philippines. “We were so gung-ho, so optimistic,” he recalls. But all the envisioning came to a halt when the Covid pandemic struck.

It was a dark time for his business as it was for many others. “From a mountain, bumagsak ang brand to its deepest valley nung 2020, 2021 and towards early part of 2022,” he tells us. Understandably, there was almost zero occupancy during the height of Covid, which was, in Hanky’s words, “a test of commitment on our end.”

The hotel’s chief operating officer August Samala, who joined the Henry team in 2019, recalls telling Lee he needed funds to pay the staff, utilities, and rent because the Manila boutique hotel was barely breaking even. Meanwhile, the hotel in Cebu just closed shop during this challenging period.

Hanky had moments of reflection and introspection. He asked himself: “Do I still want to push thru with the brand?” Surprisingly, the answer was yes. He knew there was still so much work to do, and the business still has so much potential. 

The Henry Taramindu Laiya
Lobby of The Henry Taramindu Laiya.

Before the pandemic 

The plan was to buy properties and build Henry hotels in major destinations in the country such as Bohol, Boracay, Siargao, La Union, and so on. But when the pandemic disrupted the business, Hanky and company knew they needed to pivot and change their expansion strategy.

One could say the succeeding turn of events were providential. Since Hanky didn’t want to retrench anybody from his team, August, a former GM at Manila Polo Club, told his boss: “Since you’re paying our salaries and you want to keep us, then use us. Let’s manage properties. Make use of our expertise.”

Thus, over the pandemic, the team went on overdrive building the brand’s portfolio. Aside from The Henry Manila, which is company owned, they were able to open hotel properties in Dumaguete (the former South Sea Resort), Quezon City (the building within the Benitez property in Cubao, which also includes the Mira Nila), Bacolod, and Laiya, Batangas. Next month, they will be opening another company-owned The Henry in Boracay.

“I cannot say we’re out of the woods yet, but we’re climbing out of the valley with a clear end in mind,” Hanky says, smiling. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Henry Taramindu Laiya
The viewing deck features a vibrant mural.

Taking the cab first  

Hanky Lee’s road to The Henry Hotel was by way of Yellow Cab. Not the New York taxi but the pizza business he founded with two business partners in 1999. It was during this time that Hanky, entrepreneurial even when he was young, travelled heavily across the Philippines as he was in charge of opening the pizza joint’s different branches. Through these travels, his love affair with hotels began.

“The Philippines is really a beautiful place,” Hanky told us some five years ago. “I traveled from Baguio to Davao, and so on. And for me, it got kind of frustrating because the different hotels that I stayed in were not up to standard—my standard. And during that time with Yellow Cab, I was lucky enough to travel abroad. Those travels abroad also broadened again my perspective of what a hotel should be. What I should expect from a hotel.”

If it was by chance that he discovered his fascination for hotels, a trip to Cebu would open an opportunity for Lee to translate this fascination to practice. After he sold his Yellow Cab shares in 2011, he found himself in the Queen City of the South. “I was with a friend, and then we passed by this hotel. It was for sale. I looked at it, I went inside, and I loved what I saw. I asked my friend to schedule a meeting with the owner. Then, I bought it. That was the start of The Henry.”

Hanky, who prefers to be called an innkeeper than a hotelier, says his vision for The Henry is to redefine and elevate Filipino hospitality. His goal is to open 30 The Henry Hotels by 2030. One of the ways he’s planning to achieve this is by working with like-minded individuals and helping them manage their properties. “So we bring in the brand [which is The Henry], we bring in our expertise and our employees, and we manage [the property] for them,” he says.

The Hotel Taramindu Laiya
Owners of The Henry Taramindu Laiya, Dr. Ronald Yutangco and wife Dra. Mita 

The Laiya property 

ANCX was recently invited to check out The Henry Taramindu Laiya, which is the brand’s first beachfront property. It is owned by the Yutangcos—Dr. Ronald, who’s an ophthalmologist, and his wife Dra. Mita, a dentist.

The Laiya resort is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Manila. There are 16 rooms, a pool, and a view deck that looks out to the beaches. It’s a relaxing, homey escape. “Para kang nasa bahay ni Henry. Ikaw ang guest ni Henry. Inaalagaan ka niya,” says Hanky. One of the resort’s unique attractions is the 100-year-old tamarind tree that provides a canopy to the poolside area. And just like in The Henry Manila, Apartment 1B is the in-house restaurant. 

Apartment 1B
Apartment 1B, the resort's in-house restaurant. 

Guests may also enjoy a variety of water sports and activities such as boating, banana boat rides, jet-skiing, kayaking, snorkeling, and fishfeeding. Mr. Yutangco says their area is becoming famous for butanding sightings. “Dito sila dumadaan papunta ng Donsol,” he offers. A guided trek to Mount Daguldol may also be arranged.

Samala says The Henry Taramindu Laiya is the Henry with the highest occupancy rate. “I guess it’s because of the location,” he says. Its target market are mostly digital nomads, young families and couples, which explains the resort’s young and vibrant design.

The Hotel Taramindu Laiya
The resort was previously called Taramindu, inspired by the century-old tamarid tree which is one of the resort’s unique attractions.

The Yutangcos acquired the property in 2007. “It was a jungle when we found it,” Mr. Yutangco tells us. “It was all tamarind trees.” At first, they intended to make the beachfront property their family’s private rest house, since they are beach lovers. But when they noticed there were resorts being built around the property in 2008, the couple thought of venturing into the resort business as well.

They decided to call it Taramindu, inspired by the century-old tamarind tree. “We liked it because it’s Oriental sounding and it tickles people’s interest,” he says. The husband and wife ran the 2000-sqm property for 14 years.

The Hotel Taramindu Laiya
Studio twin room at The Hotel Taramindu Laiya

But the couple later on realized the challenges of running a resort alongside maintaining their medical practice in Manila. So they took it as a happy circumstance when Hanky and company offered to manage the resort for them. “We thought this may be the answer to our prayers,” recalls the ophthalmologist and father of four.  

Everything was upgraded, says Mr. Yutangco—from the service and management system, staff training, improvement of rooms and amenities. Hanky has a pretty straightforward vision for the place: for it to stand out in the resort landscape of Laiya. But he knows he needs to up his promotions game. “Marami kasing tao na hindi pa alam na may ganito sa Batangas.”

There’s still room for improvement as far as the resort is concerned, says August. Part of the plan is constructing additional rooms to accommodate more guests, and adding more amenities.

The Hotel Taramindu Laiya
The Henry Taramindu Laiya is a great place for workation as the resort has a strong Wi-Fi connection. 

Meanwhile, Hanky shares some of the lessons he learned since he started The Henry. “[To have] Clarity of vision. Our vision is to elevate and redefine Filipino hospitality. That remains our battle cry,” he says. The second is certainty of intent. “Everything we do now is also purposeful and clear, and moves toward that vision.”

The third lesson involves sticking to one’s values. The pandemic has really put this to the test. “Masasabi namin na our values are still intact,” says Hanky, proud and relieved. “There were situations where our values were tested yet we still stuck to them.”

[With additional words by Bam Abellon.]