West greets east: hotel groups say ‘huanying’ to Chinese travellers27 September 2012
With China’s outbound tourism market anticipated to hit an unprecedented 100 million travellers by 2015, several major hotel operators have introduced welcome programmes to cater to the cultural needs of Chinese guests. Ross Davies talks to Hilton’s Andrew Flack and Marriott International’s Greg Durrer to learn more about the latest initiatives, which are taking into consideration everything from culinary delicacies and language to national superstitions.
As one of myriad superstitions observed across China, tetraphobia relates to the avoidance of the number four. Because of its resemblance to the Mandarin word for 'death', it is a national symbol of inauspiciousness that can determine everything from table bookings in restaurants to the apartment floors where people live. It is also an example of the many ethnographical factors to be taken into consideration by international hotel operators as they look to cater to increasing numbers of Chinese guests staying at their properties.
As a consequence of a burgeoning middle class, Beijing's more relaxed attitude to international travel and simplified visa processes, more than 78 million Chinese travellers are predicted to venture overseas this year, generating in the region of $80 million.
A Chinese welcome
Through its Huanying programme, which means 'welcome' in Chinese, Hilton was one of the first operators to tap into this lucrative market. In the two years since the initiative was launched, it has experienced a 129% growth in Chinese guests. In July this year, Hilton Dubai Jumeirah became the latest brand to carry the Huanying standard - notably, it is also the first in the Middle East.
According to Andrew Flack, vice-president of global brand marketing at Hilton, the scheme was something of a no-brainer and a natural progression given the group's pre-existing foundations in China, where it currently has 15 properties and another 50 in development.
"Around two years ago, we noticed two things happening simultaneously in our business," he says. "The first was ongoing growth in China; the second was this rapid escalation in outbound travel. So, we looked at how we could leverage our presence in China, where we have many Chinese team members, and transfer it into looking after Chinese travellers around the world."
Local travel agents
While Hilton may have had a head start in understanding the needs of Chinese guests, it is also one of several operators to seek the counsel of local travel consultants and agents in order to gain a greater understanding of how to meet diverse cultural differences.
"The majority of outbound travel from China is still handled by travel agents," he says. "Our sales teams spent a lot of time with them talking about what is really important to individuals as well as groups when they travel.
"We have also become very active on Chinese social media channels such as Sina Weibo [a Twitter-like micro-blogging site]. In the early days of the programme, we took five Chinese travel bloggers - who have in the region of a million followers each - and invited them to our Huanying hotels to review the services on offer."
The upshot of this approach has been the creation of an extensive set of amenities. Hotels operating under the Huanying banner - there are 70 in total across 23 countries - have Mandarin-speaking staff at the reception desk, Chinese television channels and traditional tea kettles in rooms, while menus include local dishes such as congee, fried noodles and dim sum.
Hotels with home comforts
Hilton has tried to make the experience as authentic as possible.
"For example, the importance of food and beverage to the Chinese guest cannot be underestimated," says Flack. "Its place in local culture is incredibly high, so offering a genuine and authentic Chinese menu has been greatly appreciated. The menus were written in our Beijing hotels, which we then used to guide team members around the world.
"Also, we are appreciative that for many, arriving in a new country can be quite disorientating. So, as well as having Chinese speakers on reception, rooms also include Chinese-language materials providing information on the respective location."
Hilton isn't the only player to have devised a welcome scheme. Starwood has its own personalised travel programme for Chinese guests, including in-hotel Chinese specialists to assist guests, while earlier this year, Marriott International unveiled plans for its new Li Yu initiative. Meaning 'serve with courtesy', it, too, will use a strong presence in China as a springboard to target the outbound market.
"Having been present in China for over 25 years, with over 60 properties there, we are very much in tune with what Chinese travellers are looking for," says Greg Durrer, Marriott's director of global operations, design and development. "With that backdrop, we tried to look at developing a programme that would speak specifically to outbound travellers and make them feel at home."
Language lessons for staff
The Li Yu programme, which is still under development, is pencilled in to come into play in early 2013. According to Durrer, as well as cuisine, language will represent an indispensable feature with employees already being encouraged to attend courses.
"Language is absolutely critical in a programme like this," he says. "Our human resources department has been very active in providing support in the learning of Chinese language skills for staff across the board. We also encourage our employees to engage in cross-training schemes with the properties in China."
When the Chinese Government officially sanctioned foreign travel in 1997 - hitherto it had been restricted almost exclusively to business junkets - travellers tended to stay closer to home, with Japan and South Korea proving to be the most popular destinations; however, with a growing sense of wanderlust - as well as greater disposable incomes - the US and Europe have emerged as fashionable retreats. France alone attracted 1.2 million visitors in 2011, while the US Department of Commerce reported that Chinese tourists contributed more than $5.7 billion to the nation's economy last year.
Popular destinations for Chinese travellers
Subsequently, operators have found themselves following a jet stream as Chinese travellers continue to journey further afield. According to Durrer, this will see Marriott predominantly target popular gateway cities, particularly in Europe and the US.
"Our intention is to initially expand into gateway cities that we know are popular with Chinese travellers," he says. "Looking at Europe, this will be the likes of London, Paris and Amsterdam, while in the US, New York, San Francisco and LA will also be important.
"But with the trend developing on such a large scale, we also expect secondary cities and emerging markets to come into play sooner or later."
With potential market saturation in the coming years - the Chinese National Tourism Administration has forecasted that the outbound tourism market will reach 100 million travellers by 2015 - hotels will inevitably need to do even more to differentiate themselves. According to Flack, this will require operators to deploy greater imagination in their service offerings.
"The way to reinforce guest loyalty is by remaining relevant and doing new things," he says. "For example, for Chinese New Year, we gave gifts to all Chinese guests staying at our Huanying hotels, as is custom back home. Also, to celebrate the first anniversary of the programme, we launched a limited-edition slipper, designed by Vivienne Tam."
Given recent figures, such efforts have not gone unappreciated.