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Global hotels going local to woo nation's travelers

Updated: 2013-12-25 09:20
By Lyu Chang ( China Daily)

There was a time when five-star foreign hotels made a point of having their lobby staff sport English names on their work badges, to make foreign visitors more comfortable.

Now, the hotel giants that came to China decades ago to serve mainly international travelers have pulled out all the stops to please Chinese tourists.

They offer free head and shoulder massages and a 24-hour congee menu to better suit the tastes of Chinese consumers.

"We have seen this trend in the past few years, that Chinese tourists have become a powerhouse in the hotel industry," said Paul Richardson, chief operating officer for France-based Accor SA's Greater China operations.

"I believe more hotels will adapt their services and businesses, because no one can succeed without fully understanding the local market."

The country's burgeoning middle class craves a better and more rewarding travel experience. The National Tourism Administration said that Chinese tourists made more than 2.6 billion domestic trips last year, and that figure is expected to reach 3.3 billion by 2015.

China's tourism industry revenue is expected to reach 2.5 trillion yuan ($397 billion) in 2015, accounting for 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, according to the 12th Five-Year plan (2011-2015).

Last year, Accor, Europe's largest hotelier, revamped its upscale brand - Grand Mercure - to win the loyalty of millions of Chinese who travel domestically and abroad.

Accor operates 135 hotels under seven brands in 48 cities across China.

"As the corporate and leisure markets expand, we felt that it was important to have locally inspired hotels. That includes a new identity and a local name," Richardson said.

He said that the new strategy is expected to help Accor expand its brand portfolio, as the company is well aware of the great opportunity presented by "an increasing number of sophisticated Chinese tourists" interested in business-class and medium-priced hotels.

The brand, known as meijue (beautiful and noble) in China and as Grand Mercure internationally, has rolled out Chinese elements such as daily tai chi sessions, tea ceremonies in hotel lobbies and 24-hour congee.

"We offer a blend of Chinese tradition with a touch of French culture, which has been very positively received by both our international and domestic guests," said Dennis Oldfield, general manager of the Grand Mercure hotel in Beijing's Xidan neighborhood.

"There has been a rise of appreciation toward a deep Chinese heritage that crosses cultural barriers and is enjoyed by all."

In excess of 100 hotel building projects are in the pipeline, with a further 15 Grand Mercure hotels planned in second- and third-tier cities. More than 20,000 staff are to be recruited within the next three years, according to Accor.

InterContinental Hotels Group Plc last year made a splash with its Hualuxe Hotels and Resorts brand for China, which is set to spread across the country's cities and resort destinations.

Global hotels going local to woo nation's travelers

The new brand has many meanings. Hualuxe literally translates as "China luxury", while the Chinese name is Hua Yi (Chinese city). Yi can also be associated with cognac - a symbol of luxury in China.

"It is our first upscale brand specifically designed for Chinese travelers who demand an international hotel brand that demonstrates pride in Chinese customs and reflects local traditions," said Nick Barton, chief commercial officer, in an e-mail.

He said that the brand Hualuxe will focus on China's first-, second- and third-tier cities, catering to a growing middle class and stressed-out business travelers.

Barton confirmed that the first Hualuxe hotel will open in early 2014. The brand will then expand to more than 100 cities in China and throughout the world.

The London-based hotel group plans to open nearly 200 hotels throughout China.

It seems that the surge in Chinese travelers represents a gold mine for international hospitality players, but experts warned that the market may overheat and skilled staff may be in short supply.

When an international hotel chain moves into a small city, finding the right people can pose a challenge.

Dai Bin, president of the China Tourism Academy, said that another challenge for hotels is catering to the ever-changing needs of local customers.