With the number of Chinese tourists travelling to Canada growing by leaps and bounds, hoteliers in major urban centres such as Vancouver and Toronto are learning it pays to cater to the cultural tastes of this increasingly important group.
Following Canada’s Approved Destination Status (ADS) in 2009 — which was granted by the Chinese government in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics — Chinese travel agents are now allowed to advertise and organize group tours to countries with the designation, making it easier for them to arrange group travel.
From customized breakfast menus to complimentary designer slippers, savvy hoteliers are creating a variety of programs and services to keep Chinese tourists coming back. An essential part of the guest experience is also about understanding the subtle nuances behind Chinese customs and preferences, such as the correct way to accept a person’s business card (with two hands) and the significance of numbers — nine is lucky, four is not.
There’s a strong business case behind the efforts to super-serve this niche. In fact, Fran Hohol, principal with PKF Consulting in Toronto, says the growth rate of the Chinese tourism market is staggering. Hohol, a specialist in the hospitality and tourism industry, believes hotels need to pay better attention to Chinese guests. To put the impact of Chinese travel in context, Hohol says Canadian travellers account for 84 per cent of the business, followed by the U.S. at 11 per cent, while the overseas market constitutes about five per cent, with the top three countries listed as the U.K., France and Germany respectively. In 2012, China is estimated to comprise approximately five per cent of that group.
But the statistical make-up is changing quickly since the growth in the number of Chinese visitors coming to Canada has been increasing 20 per cent annually. According to Hohol, “If that growth rate continues, by 2013 the Chinese market will surpass Germany, by 2014 it will surpass France, and by 2017 it will surpass the U.K.” In fact, says Hohol, “If you look to 2020 or beyond, the Chinese market will be more than these three core markets combined.”
There are many good reasons hoteliers are focusing on programs for the Chinese market, confirms Tony Pollard, president of the Ottawa-based Hotel Association of Canada (HAC). “In Canada, Approved Destination Status is expected to generate $300 million in new tourism revenues. When Australia got ADS five years ago, its numbers skyrocketed. In fact, travel more than quadrupled.”
Forward-thinking operators such as Hilton Hotels & Resorts would agree. The company started to roll out the red carpet for Chinese travellers in 2010, with an initiative called ‘Hilton Huan-ying,’ which translates into ‘Hilton Welcome’ in Chinese. Officially launched in 2011, the program is now offered at 69 participating properties, including sites in Vancouver and Toronto where, among other amenities targeted to the niche group, a Chinese-speaking front-desk clerk checks guests in and out.
“Canada’s Approved Destination Status created a flurry of activity for hotels, especially in Vancouver and Toronto,” says Andrew Flack, VP, Global Brand Marketing, in Washington, D.C. As a result, “Chinese trips into Canadian hotels have grown by 60 per cent over the 2011/’12 time frame.”
Hilton worked closely with industry experts — including travel agents in China as well as specialists within its own hotel properties in Beijing — particularly in the area of developing authentic Chinese breakfast menus. The hotel chain introduced original Chinese foods such as fried dough fritters, congee (two varieties) and dim sum. Chopsticks, Chinese spoons and soy sauce dishes were also added to Hilton tableware. “The Chinese take eating and food extremely seriously. We’re keen to offer authentic rather than westernized versions of Chinese food,” Flack explains. At Hilton’s Vancouver Metrotown property, in Burnaby, B.C., the special breakfast ($18.50) is ordered by request.
The ‘Hilton Huanying’ program encompasses three important hotel touch-points: arrival, the guestroom and breakfast. Features include a welcome letter written in Chinese dialects, a diverse Chinese breakfast menu, in-room tea kettles with assorted Chinese teas, chopsticks, dedicated Chinese television programming, and complimentary limited-edition Water Dragon slippers designed by Vivienne Tam, a Cantonese fashion innovator.
Having a long-standing hotel presence in China has been an advantage not only in terms of expertise, but also in building brand recognition with travellers, Flack says. For example, Hilton sent team members from its China properties to other locations to support the global launch. “We did our best to leverage our established presence there,” says Flack.
“Having a recognized brand plays an important role in engaging tourists,” confirms Mike Taylor, director of Public Relations for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts in Toronto. “The Asia-Pacific region is where we’ve focused our business development, particularly in markets such as Beijing, Shanghai and Kunshan in the near term. It’s important the population knows what level of product to expect.”
Taylor notes Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has a significant opportunity to provide Chinese travellers with tailored and personalized offerings.
Meanwhile, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has announced a new Chinese menu program for 2012 designed to provide greater personalization and enhanced culinary choices for Chinese guests travelling abroad. The offerings are complemented by serving styles that reflect Chinese customs such as providing a cold towel at the start of the meal and a hot wash cloth at the end.
“We’re also looking to interact with the Asian consumer online,” Taylor explains. “Our website is available in simplified Chinese to make it easier for Chinese travellers to research and book stays with us. Since many are socially active on the web, we’ve also developed a presence on regional social media sites such as weibo.com and youku.com.” Owned by SINA Corporation, weibo.com is a micro-blogging site serving China and global Chinese communities. Likewise, youku.com is China’s leading Internet television company. Both have millions of subscribers.
Beyond adjusting training practices and menus, Pollard suggests hoteliers develop strong relationships with tour guides. “Because the Chinese often travel in groups, the tour guide is critical to the check-in and service process.” Since the Chinese are relatively new to international travel, he adds, they want and expect to have a lot of what they have at home. “When in Canada, they want to do what they do in China.” Ultimately, he says, it’s the little things that count the most. “If they have a good story to take home with them, they’ll come again.”
When it comes to creating the appropriate guest experience, Hohol believes Canada has a marked advantage in terms of staffing and cultural awareness. “The multicultural fabric we have in Canada is a big benefit.” For hoteliers who think they have a leg up on the growing Chinese market, she warns there’s another equally important group on the horizon. “The other market hotels need to keep an eye on is India. It’s not far behind.”
Regardless of who might be landing on our shores, treating them with panache, by making them feel welcome and at home — when in fact they’re miles from it — is good business in any language.