Airport Leader of the Future 2023: Ricia Vinelli Montejo

International Airport Review Editor Holly Miles, sat down with the winner of the Airport Leader of the Future 2023, Ricia Vinelli Montejo, Head of Terminal Operations of Mactan Airport Cebu Airport. In this exclusive interview, Ricia reveals how she leads her team, the skills she is working on and her career advice for women and next gen leaders entering the industry.

Congratulations on being named International Airport Review’s Airport Leader of the Future! How does it feel?

I can vividly remember that day when I was informed that I was chosen to be the recipient of this most coveted award, the ‘Airport Leader of the Future’ Award. To be nominated was already an achievement, but to be chosen among all the nominees who are all great leaders in their respective organisations is such an honour. I’m beyond grateful to Holly and the entire team of International Airport Review for making this possible. I am proud to have been chosen and be able to share this recognition on behalf of the airport community in the Philippines.

This will also give reassurance to airlines to continue to entrust MCIA as a gateway of choice in the Philippines and in the region by offering more destinations and flights to travellers for better connectivity. Ultimately, this further drives and inspires us to continuously improve, and offer better services to level up our total customer experience as that’s what our customers deserve.

Tell us about your career journey to Mactan Airport Cebu Airport

I graduated with a degree in Economics and further pursued a Masters Degree in Business. I have been with the company for almost eight years now. I joined MCIA as Procurement Head in 2016. My background was in economics, so my career really revolved around supply chain and international trade. During my stint in procurement, I was heavily involved during the construction of our new terminal. This is where I got to be exposed and learn more about operations, stakeholder management, and eventually, customer experience. There were a lot of changes (management, passenger, demographics) but we are where we are right now because of these changes. And we will continue to evolve.

Did you find aviation, or did aviation find you?

I love to travel but I was not aware of “professions” behind airport operations so it was not something I was eyeing for, but I am glad it found me! The excitement of not knowing what will happen is the daily hurdle we need to surpass, and the impact that we make on the people who we meet are the reasons why I have learned to love this sector. What is the one thing that surprised you about working for an airport? That it is both challenging and fulfilling. How our actions and strategies as an operator will have direct and indirect impact to our customers.

As we all know, airports are economic drivers. They attract businesses, open employment opportunities, and foster growth. So, being in this industry gives me that “pride” that we contribute to the growth of Philippine economy. It’s our way of giving back to the community, and to the country.

How would your colleagues describe you as a leader?

It’s a tough question to answer, but I would say that my colleagues would describe me as a leader who uses empathy, business intellect and stakeholder engagement to develop and lead empowered and successful teams to deliver transformational outcomes. A great colleague once said that I am “gracious in the midst of daily turmoil of operations.”

How do you create an engaging and empowering work environment for your colleagues?

There are three things:

Set expectations: align and have regular feedback and engagement. This is to do health check if everyone is still on the right track.

Trust: trust is vital, you cannot create an “engaged” team if you do not trust them.

Get them involved: give them the platform to make decisions, make mistakes and let them be accountable. You give them the control and you will see how passionate, and engaged they can become.

What is a skill you are currently working on?

On the technical side I am trying to understand the commercial side of the business. As we all know, satisfaction and experience has a direct correlation to the propensity of our customers to spend. However, sometimes it’s challenging as well to satisfy customers especially on the value for money front. Airports will always be deemed as expensive, especially as we are more often than not compared to the regular stores outside the airport. My goal is bridging that gap.

On the soft skill side, it would like to explore the neuroscience relating to customer behaviour and experience. I want to go deeper into the “science” side for better understanding of our customers, what makes them tick, what their preferences are. We want to go outside the box. As an industry, it hasn’t really been tapped, I think we are too focussed on surveys, face-to-face interviews, but it is now time for us to take a step back and understand the patterns behind the way we make decisions, the basis for our preferences and tastes and this will help us understand our customers and what they really want, better and to influence them even before they know it.

What energises you at work?

Aside from coffee? It’s the customers! Personally seeing that each one has a unique and lasting experience at the airport gives me the motivation to always do better.

I also draw inspiration from the team, and the people around me. If you see them grow, surpass a challenge, and transform because of the experiences then that fuels me to do more.

Lastly, it’s really the daily challenge and the ever‑changing environment we are in. It will not be an airport if we are not challenged.

What are some strategies that can help women achieve the success they want in their workplaces, especially in male-dominated roles or industries?

Being a woman, a minority can be both an advantage and disadvantage. But like any challenges in life, you find your way to go through the pain points and that will always make us better. I would say three things:
Create allies in the workplace: someone who will advocate for you, speak for your achievements, and what you can do.
Be visible: yes, your work can speak for itself. But just like in any other industry, we also have to sell ourselves. We cannot be given an opportunity if we will just hide in the corner of our office!
Stay confident: it all starts from within, never doubt yourself, you are who you believe. So if you believe that you can do anything, we always can.

What advice would you give to up‑and-coming airport leaders of the future?

Continue sharpening the axe and finding that knowledge and experience; collaborate with other industry leaders and learn from their experience.

Nowadays, we have plethora of references, there are a lot of forums conferences out there. Join and network!

What do you think the airport sector must do to attract the next generation of airport leaders and ensure that airports are inclusive workplaces?

Just as we give importance to our customers, we need to give time and truly listen to the needs of our employees in order for us to retain them. Rather than just ticking the box of implementing conventional initiatives, take a step back and understand what is truly needed. That’s where sincerity can truly be seen.

We must give equal opportunities regardless of gender, preference, age, etc.

There should be programmes aligned to inclusivity. If we are truly serious on being an inclusive workplace, we must provide platforms, and programmes where everyone has a fair chance to thrive.

Airports should walk the talk and show their success stories because that is how you sell it to others.

What are the skills and mindsets required for Next Gen leadership?

With the comeback of travel, career advancement is limitless.

You have to be strong mentally and emotionally as the number of challenges will be thrown at you. We must remind everyone to be open, we do not know everything, no matter how senior we are in our position. There is beauty in learning, that desire for new knowledge, and/or skill.

Resiliency is essential. This will really set us on the ground especially when things get tough.

What is your vision for your airport within the next few years?

In Mactan Cebu International Airport, we believe in “advancing business and communities”.

As part of the Aboitiz Infracapital Group aspiring to become the Philippines’ first techglomerate, our vision is to ensure that we further develop a world-class airport and in doing so, help our fellow Filipinos. Through curated customer-centric solutions, technology and a passion for innovation, it’s time we show the world who Filipinos truly are, and what we can offer to the rest of the world.

Congratulations to Ricia again on being named IAR’s Airport Leader of the Future 2023!

Ricia Vinelli Montejo is the Head for International Terminal Operations at Mactan Cebu International Airport (MCIA). She was also given the role of customer experience to lead in enhancing and ensuring a world-class experience She started her career in aviation, leading intensive procurement processes, and strategies before completion and transition of the new terminal in 2018. Today, Ricia leads a passionate team who ensures that both passenger experience, and operational excellence are continuously integrated to achieve a transformational travel experience that is true of MCIA as the world’s friendliest resort airport. Before joining GMCAC, Ricia holds a robust experience leading a team in Supply Chain Management and Procurement in various global companies. She also holds a bachelor degree in Economics from Assumption College, and an MBA degree from De La Salle University, Philippines.

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