Major hotel brands are bending over backward to cater to the needs of the world’s most sought-after traveler: the Chinese tourist.
Now arriving on American shores in unprecedented numbers thanks to a streamlined visa process and a rising Chinese middle class, Chinese tourists are being treated to the comforts of home when they check in at the front desk. That means tea in rooms, congee for breakfast and Mandarin-speaking hotel employees.
Chinese “welcome programs” at chains like the Marriott and Hilton even address delicate cultural differences: No Chinese tour group should be placed on a floor containing the number four, which sounds like the word for death in Mandarin.
“They’re very relieved, like finally somebody’s doing these things that make sense,” said Robert Armstrong, a sales manager who handles bookings for Chinese travelers at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
More than a million Chinese visited the US in 2011, contributing more than US$5.7 billion ($7.2 billion) to the economy. That’s up 36 per cent from 2010, according to the Department of Commerce. By 2016, that figure is expected to reach 2.6 million Chinese.
In a striking departure from the traditional Chinese business traveler, a growing number of them are coming to America for fun – with lots of cash. (The average Chinese visitor spends more than US$6000 per trip.)
“Chinese Social Media networks are very important to help Chinese travelers to choose their hotel in the U.S.” said Pierre Gervois, Chief Executive Officer of China Elite Focus, a digital marketing agency based in Shanghai and Hong Kong. “New social media networks focused about travel in the United States have emerged last year, and are now very popular, such as Luxury Hotels of America (美国奢侈酒店), or Niuyue Mag (纽约志), and VIP Golf USA (美国VIP贵宾高尔夫). These social media networks allow Chinese travelers to ask for advice to other Chinese tourists coming back from the U.S., and also to rate hotels, golf courses, and retail stores. They are much more influent than travel agencies.”
And so hotels are competing to win the hearts of the Chinese. That may take the form of slippers and a tea kettle in the room or a Mandarin-speaking employee at the front desk.
“They drink tea. Eastern style, everything cold,” explained Charlie Shao, president of Galaxy Tours, a New York City-based Chinese tour agency. “They don’t walk inside the room with bare feet.”
It’s rare that Shao has to ask hotels for anything anymore. Marriott International, for example, now offers several Chinese breakfasts, depending upon which region of China the traveler hails from: there are salted duck eggs and pickled vegetables for eastern Chinese, for example, and dim sum and sliced pig’s liver for the southerners.
Major chains are also training employees to avoid cultural missteps that would offend a Chinese visitor. Superstition is a big one: Red is considered a lucky colour, along with the number eight, which signifies wealth. The colour white, meanwhile, is frowned upon.
Failing to respect the pecking order in a Chinese group is another common blunder.
“We try to make sure nobody’s on a higher floor than their boss,” Armstrong said. “Even if the boss is on a beautiful suite on the eighth floor, if the assistant is in a standard room on the 38th floor, it doesn’t translate.”
The race is also on to build loyalty within China’s borders. Last year, Starwood Hotels, which has a Chinese “specialist” at each American hotel, relocated its senior leadership team to China for a month. The Ritz-Carlton rotates general managers and other hotel staff into its Chinese hotels for three-year stints at a time. And both chains are banking on the success of their customer rewards programs, which have been a big hit in China.
“It’s important for our leaders to understand what’s going on there at a more personal level than just the statistics,” said Clayton Ruebensaal, vice president of marketing for the Ritz. “Everybody’s going after this market because of the sheer volume of luxury customers. At the same time, it’s a very crowded landscape.”
In response to the surge in Chinese visitors, the State Department decided earlier this year to spend US$22 million on new facilities in several Chinese cities and add about 50 officers to process visa applications. And in February, the US government said Chinese visitors who had obtained an American visa within the last four years did not have to reapply in person but could apply via courier.
As a result, visa interview wait times in China are just under a week.
But some experts say the US still lags far behind other countries, especially in Europe, when it comes to attracting Chinese tourists. America is woefully ill-prepared to welcome China at an industry-wide level, especially at restaurants and major attractions, said Rich Harrill, director of the Sloan Foundation Travel & Tourism Industry Centre at the University of South Carolina.
“We’re not as ready as we should be,” Harrill said.
“We don’t have the language skills. We have an opportunity to be on the ground floor of something that could be very, very big.”