Getting European hotels ready to welcome Chinese guests is not just about realizing and educating on cultural differences but also concentrating on similarities and the various reasons Chinese visitors have to travel.
LONDON—Chinese hotel guests in Europe seek hotels where staff are able to make their stays memorable and can negotiate and appreciate cultural differences and travel wish lists, according to sources.
Hotel chains such as Hilton with its Hilton Welcome (in Chinese, Hilton Huanying) program and InterContinental Hotels Group with its Zhou Dao initiative are among those rolling out carpets to Chinese visitors.
United Kingdom tourism organization Visit Britain said only 30% of Chinese visitors to the U.K. in 2015 were returning to the U.K. within a 10-year period, underlining the importance of initial impressions. Of the approximately 260,500 Chinese guests visiting the U.K. in 2016, most were arriving and staying in the country for the first time.
Hoteliers in other parts of the world equally are up to speed in the race to attract and retain Chinese guests.
On the other side of the equation, Chinese guests and hotel firms themselves are asking for and putting into place demands and offerings at Western hotels.
Speaking earlier this year at the InterContinental Hotels Group Expo in London, Nelum Gunewardane, director of global operations and project lead, at InterContinental Hotels Group, said for the year 2015, 10 million trips out of China came to Europe, while in 2025 that number is expected to rise 125% to 22.5 million. She said she expects those numbers to continue to climb.
In 2015, only 4% of Chinese nationals had passports. That number is expected to grow by 2025 to 150 million, which would be 125% more than the population of the United Kingdom.
Do’s and don’ts
When they arrive, hotel staff should be primed, educated and flexible, Gunewardane said, noting it’s very easy to make a faux pas.
“Two mistakes right off the top of my head are … never white flowers, which in China are related to funerals and death, and never put a pear in a fruit basket of a honeymoon couple. The Chinese word for pear is very close to the word for ‘splitting up’,” Gunewardane said.
Hotels without the resources of the large chains do have help at hand, according to Christopher Ledsham, training officer and chief communications officer at the Hamburg office of the independent China Outbound Tourism Research Institute.
Ledsham said COTRI concentrates on working with staff at hotels and other hospitality offerings to provide genuine welcomes to Chinese guests.
“We deal with best practice, having staff come to recognize where there are points to be learned,” Ledsham said. He added that COTRI staged an award ceremony at last month’s Shanghai World Travel Fair to recognize best practices in regards to the Chinese welcome.
Visit Britain’s Great China Welcome program is another wellspring of information, sources said.
Ledsham said one insight is recognizing Chinese visitors do not expect that they should always adapt to a British or European lifestyle.
Some will not want to; others will really want to, Ledsham said.
“It helps the relationship if those from the non-Chinese culture can adapt towards Chinese sensibilities and thinking. This can be done in a positive way to show you understand and respect them,” Ledsham said.
It is also a matter of social standing, or perceived social standing—a trait Brits are well accustomed to, Ledsham said. “(Today’s Chinese travelers) are the top people in their society,” he added.
The Chinese middle class also is on the rise in terms of international travel.
Cho Wong, managing director of marketing firm Compass Edge Europe, which specializes in Western hotel companies targeting independent Chinese travelers, said hotel companies need to start learning about and adopting WeChat, a Chinese social media and mobile payments app.
“It is a big prediction, but WeChat will be (in the West) in the next four years. It will not take over, but it will be here, and it is linked to payments,” he said.
Wong said that the speed the Chinese are adapting to new forms of travel—apart from just taking package trips to A-list countries and sites—is staggering.
“The Chinese have started self-drive holidays and booking independent and boutique hotels. Some would not have seen that a few years ago,” he added.
Not so different
Gunewardane and Ledsham said it is important to realize Chinese guests’ wants are not that different from anyone else’s. But Ledsham said numerous mistakes can be made, by both visitors and staff, in regards to cultural misrepresentations.
Gunewardane said the most important things for Chinese guests checking into hotels are WiFi (59%), the ability to pay with UnionPay (also 59%) and there being Mandarin speakers on staff (50%).
“Bottled water also is absolutely critical. In China, tap water often cannot be consumed,” Gunewardane said. “As are slippers. In China, it is usual to remove shoes on entering a house.”
Chinese-language TV and constant, potable hot water are two other offerings improving the Chinese experience, Ledsham said.
Those are the physical guest desires, Gunewardane said, but Chinese visitors also arrive with a different set of cultural and mental ones.
“In a very fine restaurant, for example, (it doesn’t accommodate) the Chinese culture of sharing food. The Chinese might be aware of the etiquette but believe the rule is stupid. They say, ‘well, I am here to enjoy my trip,’” Ledsham said.
Another scenario Ledsham said needs to be handled well is the Chinese desire to continue socializing with their fellow travelers outside of public areas.
“Chinese people often seem to Westerners to be loud in hotel corridors. Often Chinese guests staying in adjacent or nearby rooms will leave doors open and continue conversations instead of hiding away from one another,” he said.
“Forward-thinking hotels have developed spaces for Chinese guests to enjoy themselves away from restaurants, which mostly is the only place they would drink in,” Ledsham added.
Gunewardane said 150 IHG hotels now have fully adopted the Zhou Dao program, including 60 in Europe, with a further 75 hotels expected to be Zhou Dao-ready by the end of 2018.